People often return from their travels with objects they’ve purchased to represent the culture and traditions of the place they’ve visited — Alsatian pottery from
, masks from Kenya, or Navajo pots from Arizona. And sometimes they purchase such artifacts at home in Cleveland or Sacramento to gain a little resonance from a distant culture — Tibetan temple bells, Chinese funeral figures, Mayan woven goods. And there is generally a desire that these goods should be “authentic” — that is, they should have been produced by artisans situated in a continuous tradition with the culture the artifact represents. Imagine the traveler’s disappointment to find that his beautiful artisanal Alsatian vase was mass-produced in a factory in Guangdong.
Here I’d like to dwell a bit on this idea of authenticity. The idea seems to have two somewhat distinct components: expression and artisanship. The first involves the idea that the artifact is to be valued because it somehow expresses and reveals some of the meaning, symbols, and practices of the other culture. This relates the idea of authenticity to one of Clifford Geertz’s most famous statements about culture: that a culture is a web of significance (The Interpretation Of Cultures). The “authentic” cultural object is valued because it reveals some of those meanings and relationships; it fits into this web of signification.
The second dimension here involves the idea that the artifact is the material product of social practices
embedded within or deriving from that culture. Here the idea is that the actual human, practical history of the object makes all the difference between authentic and inauthentic — the way it was made, the human communities and practices within which the artisan performed his or her work in creating the object. We might imagine a fishing net created by a team of anthropologists who have painstakingly reproduced the techniques of knot-tying, braiding, and decorating that were characteristic of a certain human community at a certain point in time. The product may be highly “accurate” from the first point of view, in that it accurately depicts the results and signification of the product within its historical setting. But it is nonetheless not “authentic” because it is an a posteriori
simulation of the culture’s fishing net — not a direct product of the culture.
Take a few examples at the extremes. At one extreme are the African dolls one might buy in the Disney store in conjunction with the latest cartoon adventure about Africa. No one would imagine that these dolls are authentic in their correspondence to any real African culture or artisanal tradition, past or present. (Though perhaps they are authentic expressions of Disney culture!) At the other extreme, consider the objects on display from Benin at the Chicago Art Institute recently, representing local society and Portuguese colonialism (Benin–Kings and Rituals; Court Arts of Nigeria
). No one would doubt the authenticity of these beautiful and engaging artifacts — even though they embody a deep and complex collision and mingling of western and African modalities. Or consider the sculpture that Kwame Anthony Appiah used as the cover illustration of his important book, In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture
. It looks highly traditional and “African” — until we look closely and discover the old bicycle parts incorporated into the design. Is this sculpture an authentic expression of African culture? Or is it “contaminated” by the intrusion of western technologies and products? Appiah’s view is a nuanced one: it is an authentic expression of something, but not of a hypostasized essential “African cultural identity.”
And the story only gets more complicated. What could be more authentic to the native American cultures of North America than Inuit carvings and Navajo blankets? Surely each emerged from the material cultures and aesthetic sensibilities of Inuit and Navajo people. But there are two complications here. First, there certainly are workshops in China and elsewhere industriously turning out soapstone bears and woolen Navajo rugs. And their products may be very persuasive imitations indeed. But they aren’t “authentic” — they are simply well executed fakes. They lack the second characteristic mentioned above; they don’t have the right lineage of production.
But here is the deeper problem. The genres themselves are deeply intertwined with external market forces and consumer tastes. The Navajo blankets of the 1850s existed; but they were utilitarian, drab productions, intended for use rather than display. It was the tastes of eastern consumers, conveyed through brokers, traders, and trading posts, that shifted the design and coloration of the rug to its current “traditional” form. (Here is a rough and ready summary of the history of Navajo rugs.)
And the tradition of Inuit carving is even more market-driven.
While Canada’s Inuit do have a rich visual history that dates back more than a millennium, Inuit carvings, prints and jewelry are actually the product of a relatively recent transformation in the Arctic, beginning with the emergence of an “outside” market during the whaling years, which gave rise to the birth of the contemporary Inuit art movement starting in 1949. (link)
So the practice of animal carving in soft stone perhaps did not even exist in Inuit culture prior to the arrival of traders. So we might say that blankets and soapstone polar bears are inauthentic in the first sense above: they don’t correspond to deep and abiding features of the other culture, but are rather informed by the tastes and preferences of the consumer market. (This fits the history of Chinese export porcelain as well; I’m sure there are endless additional examples that could be provided.) Are either of these artifact traditions “authentic”? Do they express Navajo or Inuit culture and tradition? Or does the fact that an indigenous artisanal tradition has been self-consciously directed towards creating products that “fit” with the tastes of a distant public undermine the authenticity of the work?
The issue is more difficult than it might appear, because there is one interpretation of “authentic” that will not stand up, cultural essentialism. This interpretation depends on the idea of a cultural essence underlying a given people at a certain time — a pure form of Hopi, Navajo, Alsatian, Tokugawan, or Armenian culture in terms of which we might define the authenticity of cultural products. Here the misguided idea would be that a product is authentic if it corresponds accurately to the cultural essence to which it refers — a strict interpretation of the first characteristic mentioned above. This won’t do, however, because cultures are not fixed, uniform realities, but rather ongoing, dynamic processes of creation and change. So the story told by the Benin exhibition above is very illustrative; the cultural content and depictions of the two communities — Benin and Portugal — interpenetrate each other in the next moment in time, and neither is unchanged as a result. So we cannot understand authenticity as “correspondence to a cultural essence”; there are no such essences.
There is, however, a weaker form of correspondence that remains a valid characteristic of “authenticity” — the idea that an artifact is itself a meaningful object, and its meaning needs to be fitted into the meanings and practices of the broader culture from which it emanated. The Chinese neolithic pot depicted above is dated from about 1500 BC. The distinctive crosshatching pattern can be found on many of the pots of this period, and it is striking. Why does the culture incorporate this decorative feature into many of its small pots? It is hypothesized that clay pots replaced an older container technology of tightly woven baskets; and the artisan was offering a representation of quality and continuity by decorating the pot to resemble a woven basket. This may or may not be a valid explanation; but plainly the decorations of the pot are meaningful, and — if historically authentic — the pot can provide content for an interpretation of various elements of the contemporary culture and its artisanal practices. (See the Minneapolis Institute of Arts page
on Chinese neolithic ceramics.)
Perhaps the reason that market influences on artisanal traditions are unsettling and “inauthentic” goes back to a tension between the first and the second criterion mentioned above (expression and artisanship). A market-shaped artisanal tradition satisfies the second criterion; it results in products that are created by an artisanal tradition linked to the other culture (blankets, carvings, export porcelain). But there is the nagging fear that the influence of external consumer demand has deformed the artifact with respect to the first criterion — fit with the culture’s own values and meanings. The influence of consumer tastes may have driven the product and the tradition far away from more genuine expressions of local culture. Here, we might say, authenticity requires that the product be created according to the values and meanings of the indigenous culture — not the profit-seeking adaptive behavior of skilled artisans aiming to create the “traditional” product that will sell best with the tourists.
If forced to answer my own question here, I think I would focus on the second criterion — the concrete historical relationship between the product, the artisan, and the tradition. And I would then look at it as an open question for hermeneutic investigation to attempt to determine the complex and fluid ways in which the product corresponds to, expresses, contradicts, or invades the meanings of its background culture.