Thursday, September 4, 2008

The paradox of authenticity

Although we are told that in the postmodern age no one believes in authenticity any more, evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. Intellectuals have shown (and most academics now believe) that authenticity is constructed by the observer, rather than inherent or intrinsic to the person or practice or object. But the general public is deaf to these discoveries; the majority still believe in authenticity, or its possibility; and many seek it. Entire musical industries are premised on it: early (classical) music, with its notion of historical accuracy; "alternative" musics of all sorts (alternative music is authentic because the musicians haven't sold out); and music that represents cultural heritage.

I wrote earlier that one of the three sustainability practices was the creation of heritage spaces, places where cultural heritage is represented, often to tourists. In this way it, or rather a representation of "it," is both preserved and given new life. Museums, festivals, historic buildings, even historic towns (Colonial Williamsburg, Old Sturbridge Village, Plimoth Plantation) are careful to represent "authentic" music, true to the period, repertoire and performance practice as close to the original as informed research makes possible. When the period is recent, older tradition-bearers who grew up learning this music in their families and communities are called on to perform this music in a heritage space, where it is always presented as authentic (true to its time and place, embodied in people who lived it, and may live it still). The implicit, and sometimes explicit, contrast is, again, between authentic music made for the community (i.e., folk arts) versus inauthentic music made for profit, or by people who do not belong to the community represented.

The paradox of authenticity is that for it to be "real" it cannot be represented. That is, as soon as something is represented to be authentic, it is staged and no longer authentic. It may (or may not) be a representation of something authentic; but that is not the same thing as music in its original form, unmediated to outsiders. The singer and guitarist B. B. King is represented, let us say, at a major folk festival, where he is introduced as someone who sang and played for years for black Americans on the "chit'lin'" circuit, and as someone whose standing in the blues community as an innovator, as a practitioner, and as an influence on those who came after him make him a master artist; these things authenticate him and his performance. But the onlooker does not see and hear an authentic performance in this heritage space. To see and hear an authentic B. B. King performance, one would have to go somewhere else, when the performance was not mediated, not self-conscious, not identified as heritage, but part of the ongoing dailiness of life in a black American culture that understood and appreciated B. B. King's music.

It so happens I saw and heard such a performance, in Atlanta, around 1960, when B.B. played at the 617 Club, at the corner of Ashby and Simpson. This was a club on the chit'lin' circuit. There was no mention of heritage, no attempt to authenticate anything. Any attempt to do so would have, paradoxically, inauthenticated it. But no one thought about it then, in that time, in that place, in that way. It did not need authentication: it was authentic. B.B.'s performance in that club was unmediated except for the announcer's introduction of "the king of the blues." At that time, with his music, the line between blues and jazz was not clearly drawn; the 617 Club presented B.B. one weekend and Ray Charles the next and the Modern Jazz Quartet after that. B.B. sang and played blues, leading a jazz combo with his guitar.

I have not been back to Atlanta in many years, except a couple of times when I was trapped in hotels downtown at conferences; I sometimes wonder what ever happened to the 617 Club. I imagine it must have folded in the late 1960s. I don't imagine it recreated as a heritage space, but if it were, and if B.B. King sang and played there, it wouldn't--couldn't--be the same. And that is the paradox of authenticity in a heritage space: what is presented as if it were authentic cannot possibly be so.


  1. Why would the 617 Club not be a "Heritage space"? I am confused about the label of "heritage space" as something other than what it denotes. When first reading this post I was under the impression that a heritage space was a place where folks were able to observe culturally specific music. These spaces, to me, would logically be in their natural setting. A Southern Baptist church service in Jasper, Alabama or pagode in the backyard of Tia Doca's place in Madureira, each hold a similar experience of authenticity and also allow for observers. Wouldn't these all be "heritage" spaces where authentic music is created, played and enjoyed by practitioners and tourists alike but do not create a paradox of authenticity as mentioned above? Why not support and maintain the continuance of these spaces? Why the need to create other spaces therefore perpetuating this paradox?

    The representation of a musical tradition by musicians within that culture, outside of the community or place where they were informed is an issue of socio-economics. To downplay this crisis with semantical dialogue on an artist being introduced as authentic in a venue outside of his cultural community as creating a paradox of representation is ludicrous against the more immediate issue of sustainability within the community.

    Firstly, the implied contradiction of B.B King at a more recent festival vs. him in a club in 1960 says nothing of the artist’s ability to transport the audience into an authentic experience, let alone the evolution of his craft. Is it not still authentic? Is his music not authentic because it was created outside of its originally informed setting? (of course that’s another issue entirely)

    Secondly, could it not be argued that his performance in this club was not an authentic experience either, you say: "To see and hear an authentic B. B. King performance, one would have to go somewhere else, when the performance was not mediated, not self-conscious, not identified as heritage, but part of the ongoing dailiness of life in a black American culture that understood and appreciated B. B. King's music." For this to be true one would have to assume this performance was not self-conscious (on the part of the artist), nor mediated in any form (by an announcer or MC) and that going to clubs on the Chit'lin curcuit was an expense that the average Black American could afford, on a daily or weekly basis. Seeing as economically this would not be the case one could surmise that these shows were indeed still performed in a manner other than when hanging out in the "hood" playing with their families and friends which would be a better example of authentic representation. Besides he was still being paid for this performance.

    The need to support artists within their own communities thereby maintaining and allowing for traditions to continue and evolve in an organic manner are the real issues that I see here. The problem of authenticity in created heritage spaces could be alleviated by supporting heritage spaces that are already in existence. If the importance of cultural sustainability is a serious enough issue we would find ways to sustain these practices in their natural setting. It seems to me that to re-create something that already exists or to define another thing that which is already apparently present would be a disservice to the communities we strive to preserve.

    There is no true paradox...but a created one that can be remedied.

    These are just my thoughts and emotional response to the post above. I did not read the post about the three sustainability practices yet though I’m sure it is thoroughly informed as are other posts on this site. I do not assume that the author has not considered these and many other issues in his musings.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I want to maintain the distinction, though, between the 617 Club and a folk festival such as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. In 1959 BB King was performing for a Black audience in venues such as the 617 Club; the emcee did not mediate (as one would introduce and educate for cultural tourists in a folk festival sponsored by a museum) but instead he merely introduced "the King of the blues." By the way, the "average Black person" bought records and went to clubs; otherwise the musicians wouldn't have been able to make a living at it. There were almost no white people buying BB King's records or attending his live performances in 1959, nor were the (almost exclusively white-audienced) folk festivals interested in any blues other than the old-fashioned, acoustic kind performed by singers like Lightnin' Hopkins, who were asked to unplug before recording for Folkways or appearing at festivals and in coffee houses then. A museum is the quintessential heritage space: when you think of one, think of a museum.