Authenticity is a Groove

Years ago, I worked at a national historic site on Boston’s Freedom Trail. A frequent question of visitors was “How much of the building is original?” I knew what they meant by the question but sometimes I felt waggish (or was a smarmy asshole, depending upon your point of view) and would answer that it was all original—just not of the same era. As with many historic buildings, it was a patchwork, a collage, having undergone many changes before being “saved.” Then it underwent more adaptations, with well-meaning but naive or poorly-researched alterations over time in attempts to return it to its “original” state. At some point, they called it quits and either glossed over or foregrounded the hodgepodge state.

Questions of “originality” are close to but not quite the same as “authenticity,” though they sometimes are used interchangeably. They at least go hand-in-hand: the former denoting the latter. Why I relate the example of the historic site is for this connection but also because I see the notion of authenticity to be like the building. The concept of authenticity is a patchwork that is—and is about being—simultaneously consistent and an artifice.

Put into a graphic design context, authenticity is also a lot like notions of “neutrality.” Robin Kinross gave that concept a thorough and deserved thrashing almost 30 years ago in “The Rhetoric of Neutrality.” Authenticity isn’t as prevalent and active a design concept as neutrality was—and continues to be—but it shares aspects. The primary one is that both concepts have been imported from another realm. Metaphorically, the adaptation is intriguing. Functionally, we have to question the “rightness.”

Kinross outlined how the ideas of communication theory (such as the Shannon-Weaver model), which speculated about the efficient sending of radio signals, were grafted onto design theory. This gave rise to the idea of that the designer should be an objective “transmitter” of “information.” Kinross showed how this transplant was a product of an era with a rising, optimistic belief in technology and science. We know the critiques of the Shannon-Weaver model as applied to design: audiences aren’t homogeneous passive receivers; designers aren’t objective transmitters; and messages are abstract, active, and multiform.

Authenticity similarly was first concerned with another kind of determination—the status of an object: “not false or copied; genuine.” Objects can be put through an evidentiary analysis to establish veracity and value. In a music context, for instance: do I have an original pressing of this LP? Once again, we must make a conceptual leap to apply the authenticity concept not to the physical product per se but to the abstraction of the process that created it. Taken literally, every design or song is authentic on its actual face. But not, possibly, to your process requirements.

Authenticity—as abstract process evaluation—becomes another observer-oriented, relative experience. Like Einstein’s relativity, the authenticity experience runs on separate, internally-consistent, parallel measures. Instead of clocks, you have scales of sorts. Reconciling the separate spheres isn’t possible—there’s no overarching reality but the existence of the artifacts in question. But perceptions of them differ and they’re all true.

We can dip into the discrete authenticities. And it seems possible to cross between them—to become sensitized to another authenticity and embrace it. Exploring the different authenticities is worthy as it will tell us things about the permutations of culture. Crafting a unified field theory, though, is something else.

The popular conception of authenticity is a construct, a role. By necessity it is a well-defined, recognizable one. As in rap-related authenticity, the features are clearly delineated: jail-time for a drug or violence related offense, or an injury due to the discharge of a firearm with you as target must feature in your CV. But it’s an act (though in a bio-pic sense—”based on a true story”) that only gestures toward the real. Authenticity is superimposed, not arisen from the actor/performer’s life. Instead of an absence of artifice, popular authenticity is the ultimate artifice. Popular authenticity then provides an imprimatur to any product of the actor. The actual “music” is irrelevant. Popular authenticity doesn’t free music, it kills it.

This isn’t the only paradoxical inversion of chasing popular authenticity. What do we make of an artifact like 1974’s Having Fun with Elvis on Stage? This LP consists entirely of samples of surreally-edited, between-songs patter by the King. Is it the most authentic Elvis—dispense with the music altogether, it doesn’t matter—or the least as it evidently was a commercial “ploy” by Colonel Tom Parker to evade Presley’s contract with his label, RCA (they eventually released it). Lester Bangs referred to this LP in his famous eulogy “Where Were You When Elvis Died?”, citing it as a solipsistic expression of Elvis’ contempt for his audience.

What has driven authenticity from product to process—and created a popular authenticity? Perhaps it is the result of a technologically enhanced estrangement from the musician. Recording technologies provide greater access to the product but, as popularity increases, less access to the artist. Contact is through the machinations of PR. Image-making, in the sense of a creative persona, is of the most importance. The search for “authenticity” is an attempt to negotiate the Spectacle‘s funhouse hall of mirrors.

Authenticity is popularly regarded as a centerpoint, a statement of tradition and stability. Authenticity can and should be returned to. However, as culture can’t remain static, neither can authenticity. It must always be a state of the new—simultaneously a transformational agent and response. Authenticity is not comforting and secure, it is a challenge and extreme. It shocks the system, reboots it, and runs a fresh program. Authenticity is a breakthrough, an advance beyond the encumbering popular authenticity—the static role—to a reconfiguration.

Authenticity isn’t a point, it is a wave front. A kind of carrier wave, transforming not transmitting the leading edge of meaning. Imagine the grooves of an LP, endlessly propagating, spiraling outward forever.

Authenticity is not the result, it is the cause.

Authenticity changes its nature depending upon the expression—formless in itself; the generator of form. Authenticity isn’t embodied within either the artifact or artist. Authenticity makes them, then moves on.

The Chronographical Survey #3: Four Minutes to Midnight, Issue 10

Projects like the visual/literary journal Four Minutes to Midnight (23:56 from now on) evoke Steve Baker’s “A Poetics of Graphic Design?” The 1994 article—which appeared in the Andrew Blauvelt-edited New Perspectives: Critical Histories of Graphic Design—is one of the most intriguing essays written about graphic design criticism. It proposed a unique method of representing design activity.

Baker drew upon the writings of French feminist writer Hélène Cixous to propose a “more imaginative form of critical writing.” It would “…take(s) its lead from Cixous’s demonstration that the visual and verbal need not always be kept strictly apart, but can escape to each other’s territories and beyond.” This “graphic design poetics” would be a critical method that (no surprise here) evaded the “’masculine’ linearity” prevalent in criticism and multiplied meaning. Before that, graphic design’s nature as a hybrid form of text and image interplay simply calls for a distinctive form to discuss it. Continue reading “The Chronographical Survey #3: Four Minutes to Midnight, Issue 10”

The Chronographical Survey #2: The Atlantic

My longest-running magazine subscription is for the Atlantic (Monthly), going back some 20+ years. I can’t recall exactly where I first encountered it, likely someone I was staying with or visiting frequently had a subscription. Though I was just out of art school, I ponied up for my own subscription when my borrowed access ended. However tight my finances got, I kept the magazine coming. I felt a little extra connection as it was prominently and resolutely headquartered in Boston, where it was founded and I lived.

As I listened only to music on the radio, and watched little TV, The Atlantic provided me a regular connection to the serious, adult world of ideas, politics, and culture. I appreciated the depth and breadth of its topics, and the length at which its feature stories investigated subjects. Whatever sophistication I have about politics and an intellectual life derives in large part from reading The Atlantic.

Continue reading “The Chronographical Survey #2: The Atlantic”

Do Not Read Me I Am Boring


On Stefan Sagmeister’s Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far
The arguments these artists mount to the detraction of beauty come down to a single gripe: Beauty sells, and although their complaints usually are couched in the language of academic radicalism, they do not differ greatly from my grandmother’s haut bourgeois prejudices against people “in trade” who get their names “in the newspaper.” Beautiful art sells. If it sells itself, it is an idolatrous commodity; if it sells anything else, it is a seductive advertisement. Art is not idolatry, they say, nor is it advertising, and I would agree—with the caveat that idolatry and advertising are, indeed, art, and that the greatest works of art are always and inevitability a bit of both.
—Dave Hickey, “Enter the Dragon”

Gonna make you, make you, make you notice
Gonna use my arms
Gonna use my legs
Gonna use my style
Gonna use my sidestep
Gonna use my fingers
Gonna use my, my, my imagination
‘Cause I gonna make you see
There’s nobody else here
No one like me
I’m special, so special
I gotta have some of your attention—give it to me
— Chrissie Hynde, James Honeyman-Scott, “Brass in Pocket”

I like Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far. As a showcase for previously released Sagmeister material, it’s an improvement over Made You Look. However, the compilation aspect is a minor similarity between the books. The focus exhibited by Things can be partially attributed to presenting a themed series of works. But Sagmeister also continues to come into his own as an artist. So much so, in fact, that he deserves his own category: hyperdesigner.

What’s significant about Sagmeister’s work, and makes him a “hyperdesigner,” is that he’s not very original, as that term is classically used. He lifts freely from a wide range of designers and artists (in this book, he channels his post-Hipgnosis sensibility through Ed Ruscha). Sagmeister recognizes that the history of art is a history of appropriation and adaptation. And, more importantly, that graphic design is now a distinct language operating in culture, with its own idioms, tropes, and representations. Hyperdesign is graphic design taken to a higher level, self-aware and self-referencing.

This is one way that Sagmeister represents another crisis for the Modern movement in design. He’s jettisoned or contradicted nearly all of Modernism’s directives, not out of a contending doctrine but simply because it’s dull and confining. Never mind your literacy-warrior typography and “ugly” graphics; it’s Sagmeister who’s killed off the Modern design movement—with kindness. Continue reading “Do Not Read Me I Am Boring”