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Frederick Naerebout

“Nice dance! But is it authentic?” What actually is this ‘authenticity’ that everybody is going on about?

Naerebout, Frederick: "Nice dance! But is it authentic?. What actually is this ‘authenticity’ that everybody is going on about?", 16th International Congress on Dance Research, Corfu, Greece, 30/10-3/11, 2002.

An authentic dance: words that one is bound to hear whenever there is talk about our dance heritage. An authentic dance is a dance that is endorsed by the speaker as O.K. Of course, ‘unauthentic’ is not O.K., in fact, pronouncing something ‘unauthentic’ is one of the most damning statements one can think of. Present-day western society has become obsessed with ‘authenticity’ in every department of culture. Objects are scrutinized to establish whether they are ‘authentic,’ which apparently can mean several different things, but usually involves some notion of the ‘original.’ But also intangibles, such as rituals or performances, are scrutinized as to their ‘authenticity.’ Where one might expect every performance to be to considered ‘an original,’ because performances are by their very nature unique occurrences, things are now usually complicated by an insistence on finding out how this rite, play, piece of music or dance was performed when it was first made, when it was first performed, when it was still unchanged, or whatever. Opinions vary.

At another international dance conference, several years ago, I have dedicated a few pages to the concept of authenticity (Naerebout 1994) - but I feel constrained to come back to this theme and jot down a few ideas, especially now that the present conference has as its theme ‘the dilemma: fidelity to historical truth or novelty?’ The concept of ‘authenticity’ has become so ingrained in our thinking, that by analyzing it we will gain an understanding of the issues at stake in dealing with that slippery something here called ‘fidelity to historical truth.’ When a rather fatuous, but popular Belgian-Dutch journal on interior decoration can speak of “a piece of antique furniture with an authentic, but at the same time fashionable look,” because it has been restored to its original colour scheme, and about “a house that had to be converted into a stylish and authentic whole,” by pulling down a later extension and building a brand new one (Special Woon Engelse Stijl, Spring 2002, pp. 64, 131), then obviously ‘authentic’ has become a magic word that is used to evoke positive sentiments and has something to do with nostalgia, but does not bear close scrutiny of what is actually meant by it. All the more reason to take a closer look.

Everybody uses the word ‘authenticity’ at every turn, but it is often far from clear what entitles something to be called ‘authentic.’ What do people actually mean when they say that a painting, a building, their food (NRC Handelsblad 28 September 2002: “most so-called Italian restaurants do not serve authentic Italian food”), an experience, a performance is ‘authentic’? In order to understand what is meant by such statements, we have to tackle things systematically. First we have to establish what ‘authenticity’ is about, what its dictionary sense is, and what connotations it drags along with it. Secondly, we have to ask why we are so taken up with this concept of ‘authenticity.’ Thirdly, we should take a look at some relevant theorizing. And fourthly, we have to ask if distinguishing between ‘authentic’ and ‘unauthentic’ can be useful at all, more specifically when speaking about dance.

1. What do the words ‘authentic’ and ‘authenticity’ mean?

As there is no thorough study of the ‘vocabulary of authenticity’ in any of the many languages that use some form of the Greek authentikos, we will improvise a bit, sticking mainly to English, which happens to be the language of this paper. We start, a very traditional thing to do, with the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED defines authenticity as ‘the quality of being authentic,’ and authentic as: 1) authoritative (properly as possessing original or inherent authority, but also as duly authorized); 2) legally valid or qualified; 3) entitled to acceptance or belief, as being in accordance with fact, or as stating fact, reliable, trustworthy; 4) original, first-hand, prototypical (as opposed to copied); 5) real, actual (as opposed to imagined, pretended); 6) really preceding from its reputed source or author, of undisputed origin, genuine (as opposed to forged, apocryphal); 7) proper, own; 8) acting of itself, self-originating. Most of these meanings have by now a centuries-long history behind them, and unravelling their development is a complicated affair that we cannot go into at length. English (and many other languages) got the word ‘authentic’ from medieval French, or direct from medieval Latin. When we look at medieval Latin, we find authenticus explained as (Niermeyer, Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus): 1) issued by the author of the deed himself (of a document); 2) legally valid; 3) worthy of credit (of a person, a witness). An authenticum is a legally valid document, authenticare is to validate a record, to pronounce something to be canonical, or to canonize someone. Moving back to classical Latin, authenticus, borrowed from the Greek, is used to indicate that something 1) comes from its author; 2) is original; 3) is genuine (Lewis & Short, Latin Dictionary). The authenticum is the original of a document, the minute. Tellingly, in Christian texts the apostles are called the authentici, those in whom the tradition resides (Gaffiot, Dictionnaire illustré Latin-Français). When we move on to the ultimate source, the Greek authentikos, we find (Liddell & Scott, Greek-English Lexicon): 1) principal; 2) authoritative (cf. authentikōteros: with higher authority); 3) original, warranted. Authenteō is ‘to have full power or authority over,’ authentēs is ‘master’ (generally: a doer, and more specifically: a murderer or suicide), and authentria ‘mistress.’

When we try to capture current English usage by tracing ‘authentic’ in works such as Roget’s International Thesaurus and the Bloomsbury Thesaurus, London 1997, we find a lot of the above, though not everything. Certain aspects are highlighted in current usage, and probably have been highlighted in that way since the late eighteenth century (we will return to that below). According to the thesauri ‘authentic’ is: 1) true, certain, evidential, literal, accurate; 2) original, genuine, unadulterated; 3) real, existent (Burke 2001, 21: “photographs as evidence of authenticity”); 4) honest, true to oneself (Larousse Dictionnaire de la langue française, Paris 1992, puts it as follows: ‘qui correspond à la vérité profonde, au caractère essentiel: naturel, sincère,’ as opposed to ‘conventionnel,’ and usually applied to somebody’s emotions or behaviour). The definitions 3-6 of the OED as paraphrased above more or less cover everything here. The first three items above tend to shade into each other, and the Larousse dictionary just mentioned captures this fact in a single phrase: ‘dont la réalité, la vérité ou l’origine indiquée ne peut être contestée, original, exact.’

‘True’ is used here in the sense of being based on fact or accepted evidence, not in the sense of being endorsed by authority – or it should be the authority of scholarship or of the legal profession which provide us with ‘the facts.’ All in all, after a period in which Christian concepts of authority (the authority of God and of scripture, ecclesiastical authority, papal authority) held sway, we are now back with the classical Latin authenticus as quoted above. There also is a harking back to the original Greek, but no longer is there an appeal to authority as such which can establish what one should consider to be authentic (= that which has been authorized), but an appeal to ‘facts’ or ‘evidence’. Of course that implies an authority as well, namely whoever establishes ‘the facts’ – but those who do so tend to hide behind those ‘facts’ that are supposed ‘to speak for themselves.’ Present ideology would rather stress that it is the authentic itself which embodies authority.

We can summarize that when nowadays people speak of something as authentic, they usually suppose that something to be real, true, original: ‘the real thing.’ ‘Authentic’ and ‘authenticity’ are always used in a positive sense (comparable to ‘natural,’ ‘biological’ and ‘organic’ used to indicate environmentally friendly products when no historical perspective is involved; as soon as a disappearing or lost species, craft, technique or recipe is stressed, ‘authentic’ tends to crop up). Sometimes the word is used in the vaguest of positive senses: “Once tomato sauce carries the label ‘authentic’ the designation loses its special significance” (Bendix 1997, 7). But not its significance, of course. It says “feel good” – and at the same time discredits something else, that which is ‘unauthentic,’ fake, false, counterfeit, spurious. People might also elaborate, by saying that something has remained ‘true to tradition,’ still is in, or has been restored or reconstructed to its ‘original state,’ is ‘historically correct,’ or an example of ‘fidelity to historical truth.’ But what do they actually mean? They seem to include quite diverse items within the scope of authenticity. When does something qualify as ‘the real thing’? There is but little discussion of the criteria. If the journal mentioned above is anything to go by, we might be in for some surprises – in the lines quoted, ‘authentic’ seems to stand for ‘verisimilar,’ which is related to the ‘honesty’ or ‘sincerity’ sub 4 above, but which in fact seems more like the opposite of ‘authentic.’ Or is it? What is the real thing? Is not something that has been restored or even reconstructed merely verisimilar, if not a fake? Or is ‘the real thing’ not only something which is in its original state, but also something which looks as if it is in its original state? We should push on, and look at some of the relevant theorizing. But first we ask why we care so passionately about ‘authenticity.’

2. Where does our obsession with authenticity come from?

Authenticity is a modern ideal (Taruskin 1989). The western world has become obsessed with preserving ‘the real thing.’ Of course this obsession is exploited by the commodification of ‘the authentic:’ ‘authenticity’ is a great thing to market. The reason for our obsessive interest in ‘authenticity’ seems to be the quickening of change with a resulting sense of loss and alienation, the feeling that there is no turning back, possibly even the feeling that it might all end in disaster. More and more people come to live in a society in which things change beyond recognition within the lifespan of a single individual, and in which we at the same time try to keep things from changing by preserving them in their ‘authentic’ state. A large part of our heritage will change or cease to exist because it loses its function; we perceive a threat to our identity and turn that heritage into ‘relics’ (for a more sophisticated analysis, see Bendix 1997, 8). This even holds true in a pre-modern world, where change will usually have been slow. It is completely inescapable in a modern world, where the conditions of life of our own grandparents, if not our parents, are a thing of the past. It is not so much modernity replacing tradition, but relatively slow moving communities, mainly agricultural, being eroded away in favour of relatively fast moving communities, mainly urban. And the speed increases; and thus ‘relics’ too are produced at ever higher speed. We see it in the increasing number of museums dealing with evermore aspects of society, and the increasing number of visitors at those museums. We see it in the way several museums attempt to provide a ‘real experience’ down to the sounds or even the smells of the past. We already had period rooms and open air museums, but now we see complete scenery and even actors playing the part of Iron Age farmer, Roman slave, medieval monk or seventeenth-century merchant (e.g., Schmidt 2000). Usually the ‘real experience’ is toned down: if ‘authenticity’ was truly attempted, the smells might be too offensive, and it might be hard to find an adequate supply of gladiators. The cinema and its special effects allow for more ‘realism,’ and there films which pretend to show an ‘authentic’ image of the past are highly popular. Lübbe speaks of a ‘musealisation’ of our culture (1983, 93: “Die Musealisierung unserer kulturellen Umwelt hat ein historisches beispielloses Ausmass erreicht;” cf. Van der Dussen 2001, 28ff, Vaessen 1986): everything is preserved, restored and reconstructed, down to complete villages, town centres, landscapes and nature reserves. We will travel in order to visit the sites where ‘the authentic’ is enshrined. Even better, we can go and observe ‘the authentic’ in its original habitat: one of the many reasons for tourism is the supposition that somewhere else something ‘authentic’ is still to be seen in the wild.

Of course, ‘authenticity’, although now grown into an obsession, has its roots. Who follows up on the little foray into vocabulary and etymology above, will find in Western religion, law and economy many indications of things to come, especially where the authentication of documents and the reliability of sources are concerned. The history of the concept has not yet been satisfactorily studied (Trilling 1974 is a brave attempt – with some doubtful etymology – , but we need to go deeper). It seems fairly certain, however, that eighteenth-century scholarship (not accidentally coinciding with the Industrial Revolution) gave the interest in ‘the authentic’ a big boost. De Grazia gives a highly interesting account of Malone’s 1790 edition of Shakespeare. Malone, a lawyer by training, had an “overwhelming preoccupation with objectivity” and “with authenticity” (1991, 5, 71). For him ‘authentick’ was not acceptable or accepted as true, but proven to issue from professed origins, factually verifiable. This was no longer abstract, but concrete: it was about texts, signatures, documents, portraits and so on (a counterfeiter no longer could turn his attention to the contents only, but had to consider paper and ink!). Malone pretended (and managed to convince many) that now all problems had been solved; in fact he introduced new ones, if only because such a concept of the authentic text as was his did not exist at Shakespeare’s time. But what is important is the new, exclusive stress on ‘authenticity.’ We not only find this in textual criticism, but also in emerging folklore studies, where ‘authenticity’ played a major part (see Bendix 1997).

Ever since, ‘authenticity’ has grown upon us. It is paradoxical that in a period when ‘truth’ has become increasingly doubtful, and is even presented as a pure construct (“the Enlightenment metanarrative, an epistemology that assumes an essential reality outside discourse,” as postmodernists put it), ‘authenticity’ in the sense of ‘original’ and ‘true’ has become something that is valued so highly. In fact the postmodern attack on essential reality can readily be seen as part and parcel of the (post)modernisation of society, and thus it actually stimulates the patterns of thought that it seeks to combat.

3. Some theorizing about authenticity

In 1994, I complained about a lack of literature on authenticity (Naerebout 1994). Partly, that was because I had missed a lot of relevant literature. But also, as Bendix (1997) notes, ‘authenticity’ was at heart of much of the modern academic enterprise, and scholarship did find it difficult to question its own rationale. Now there is plenty of that, but there still is no sustained and thorough philosophical discussion of the concept of authenticity in general, as it is used in everyday language and in non-specialist scholarly discourse (not, for instance, ‘authenticity’ as used in the context of existentialist philosophy; Taylor 1991 remained unavailable to me). A lot of useful information and thought, however, is scattered throughout an enormous literature that cannot possibly be tackled here. I want to single out Kivy 1995, which is an excellent analysis of the ideologies underlying the early music movement (but ranging much wider), to which we will return below. I will first speak of the ‘knowability of the past,’ especially entering into the question of the ways in which works of art, buildings, pieces of music, and dances can be said to be ‘authentic.’

We cannot know the human past: amongst most historians this now counts as a truism. It has been repeated for generations now, that all we can do is strive for an objective assessment of such sources as we have got, and on the basis of these sources and of controlled hypothesizing produce a convincing interpretation, which will stand as an intersubjective account of history (or one of a number of competing accounts) until replaced by something judged to do better at describing and explaining our past. But even if we deny previous positivist approaches, the sources are still there, and still essential to the whole enterprise of studying history. How about those sources? This is not the right place to enter into a detailed examination of sources and source criticism, but some remarks about a number of non-textual sources (visual arts and architecture, music and dance) might be in order. Do they provide ‘direct access’ to the past?

In the visual arts ‘authentic’ has become an important characteristic of an individual work of art; this is considered to be authenticated when it is established beyond reasonable doubt to be really made at the time and in the place when and where it is supposed to have been made, or when it really is by the hand of the artist to whom the work is ascribed. Preferably such an ‘original’ should be in its original state, and certainly the larger part of what we see should be original – not the work of a later artist or craftsman adapting, restoring or otherwise tampering with the original (but of course, not seldom much of what we see is in nothing like its original state; it certainly is not when this so-called original state has been, hypothetically, recreated). This seems like a straightforward procedure, but it runs easily into difficulties. First of all, a work of art may be difficult to date, locate or ascribe to an individual artist. Its authenticity is hard to establish. Mistakes have been, and undoubtedly are, frequent, when provenance is inadequate and so on. Misattribution can also be intentional: a dealer or an art historian can misattribute a work of art for reasons of economy, prestige or politics. Whether intentional or not, the result is a work of art that carries a wrong authentication (its ‘real authenticity’ is in abeyance). Secondly, ‘originality’ in art has increasingly been questioned as a Romantic concept. In the past, copies, composites, works ‘in the manner of,’ pastiches, variants, variations, adaptations, imitations, and what have you got, were not necessarily looked upon as less authentic. Of course, we may do so, but at our peril, as when we insist on a work of art being an autograph, while studio practice favoured collective efforts (e.g., Bruyn 1991). Nowadays there are artists who never as much as touch the object they design, and instruct others to follow their sketches or even to ‘distribute randomly’ the ingredients of the work of art in question. And how about an artist who claims a copy or adaptation of a work of art by another artist as an ‘original’? (Homburg 1994). Authenticity itself tends to become a less rigid category: one might say that there is place for multiple ‘authenticities.’ Thirdly, “ascertaining the authenticity of a painting does not guarantee that the object possesses the pictorial properties it had originally” (Goodman 1983, 105 n.11) – or to put it more generally: any work of art that is authentic in the above sense, need not look as it did when it was first made. Indeed, a work of art is more likely than not to have changed its appearance (archaeologists speak of ‘transformation,’ a very useful concept – but one which says: even if you manage to establish ‘authenticity’ in the sense of genuineness, what have you got? Not the ‘original’ but what the original has become). Fourthly, many ‘authentic’ works of art have been removed from their original context: is an altar piece intended for a small sixteenth-century church in the south of Germany and presented by a patron in order to save his own soul and to instil devotion into the parishioners, still ‘authentic’ when it is displayed in a museum thousands of miles away, amongst many unrelated works of art and to an utterly different audience? An affirmative answer would need quite some qualification.

Restoration of a work of art is a case in point. Consolidation to prevent a dead loss would by most of us be considered a good thing. Restoration is a different matter, and although many people would think it desirable (to a certain extent: there is also something like “the pleasure of ruins”), it might in fact not be desirable at all, because the process is often far from transparent. There are many examples of ‘restorations’ that are half way to forgeries. A large number of these are from the past. I will only mention the 18th-century relaxed attitude about adding missing limbs to antique statues, or even completely reworking or imitating such statues, about rewriting a source being ‘translated,’ about filling gaps, and adapting to ‘modern taste.’ But it did not stop with the eighteenth century. The ethics of restoration are constantly being debated, moving between the extremes of ‘pure’ restoration (cleaning, reattaching original elements that have fallen off) or ‘integral’ restoration (reconstituting the original design). Both are defended as safeguarding ‘authenticity’ (this is in addition to the debate on materials to be used, reversibility, and so on). With furniture and interior decoration in general integral restoration is generally accepted; with sculpture it is not and past additions to incomplete statues are being chopped off again; with architecture opinion is swaying back and forth. Some still think it possible to go back to the ‘original state,’ others seem to find that impossible. Even the so-called restoration of music recordings leads to heated debate: the one calls the digital removal of sounds extraneous to the music a return to the original, at least the intended original (the singers and instruments did not crackle, and the sound engineers would have liked to do better), others see a falsification of what in fact is the original (one can remove the noise of a scratch, which is accidental, but inadequate recording techniques are a historical fact not to be disguised). This brings us to music.

Already in 1885 Arnold Dolmetsch was reviving old instruments and studying they way these should be played. His efforts became part of a wide-ranging ancient music movement (Haskell 1988, Kenyon 1989). In the 1950s we started to hear ‘authentic’ recordings and these became more prevalent in the 1960s. In the past thirty years ever more musicians became interested in questions of performance and have put their attempts in front of ever-larger audiences. Now even the largest chain of Dutch chemists is selling recordings of classical music that is ‘authentically performed.’ The idea that it is the performer’s duty to perform ‘in an authentic way,’ is becoming very widespread. As Le Huray put it: “it is as much a question of ethics as aesthetics” (1990, 3). Kivy (1995) has presented us with a beautiful analysis of what ‘authenticity’ in music is about. This musical authenticity appears to have several different meanings: 1) authoritative: faithful to the composer’s performance intentions; 2) original: faithful to the performance practice of the composer’s lifetime, or 3) faithful to the sound of performance during the composer’s lifetime. The ‘ancient music movement’ usually stresses one or more of these ‘authenticities,’ usually in an imperative manner, with excludes a fourth way of looking at authenticity, defended by a dwindling band of non-believers: 4) faithful to the performer’s own self, to the artistry of the performing artist. Kivy comments that a composer’s intentions are usually interpreted as commands, while intentions in fact are wishes, of varying strength. As far as the performance practice is concerned, stringing one’s instrument with gut or replacing the piano with a harpsichord is just one aspect; how about the original setting? One can recreate this as an end in itself, but “achieving ‘authenticity’ is always a trade-off: you get one, you lose one” (Kivy 1995, 42). It is almost, if not completely, impossible to recreate all aspects of performance practice, and certainly impracticable. As to the sound, we should distinguish the sonic (vibrating air), from the sensible (‘historical hearing,’ i.e., the sound experience of the past musical listener). Recreating the physical sound is a reasonable and interesting enterprise, but how to recreate the reception? A performer being true to his own self is incompatible with recreating performance practice, sound or sound experience, because these restrict the performer by prescribing what he should do. It need not conflict with the composer’s intentions, because personal authenticity in performance may very well have been part of the composer’s expectations or wishes. If this indeed were the case, performing ‘authentically’ (in accord with the composer’s intentions, which the ancient music purists will applaud) would mean performing ‘unauthentically’ (in the opinion of those same ancient music purists).

At last we come to the dance. I retrace some of my own steps, and paraphrase some of the things I wrote in 1994 (cf. Naerebout 1997, 258ff). When one states that a dance as performed is ‘authentic,’ it appears that the speaker intends to say that it was performed ‘as it should be.’ But how is that? A dance that is still being danced in its own habitat, that is still part of a living tradition, has no truly fixed form. As society changes, performers change, and the dances change. When a dance is no longer part of living tradition (when it leaves its first and enters into its second existence, in the terms of Hoerburger 1968; Nahachewsky 2001 adds some nuances, but does not undermine the basis of Hoerburger’s account), it is consciously preserved and becomes relatively fixed (though never unchanging). So which version of the dance is ‘authentic’? Presumably the one that was still part of living tradition. But that was not a single unchanging version: it was in fact many different versions evolving over time. There are many examples of dances which are sup­posed to have been faithfully preserved, by its performers and/or by researchers, but can actually be shown to have been changing all the time. More generally speaking, continuity without change, or survival, are ideological constructs without a counterpart in reality (Herzfeld 1982, Hodgen 1936; for an interesting angle, see Buckland 2001). And even if a dance could have been faithfully preserved, we come up against problems which have already been outlined when speaking of the visual arts and music: if the performers, the audience and the context in which they perform a dance or watch it being performed have all changed, what is ‘authenticity’ other than a purely formal, outside similarity (or identity, if you like).

So we can conclude that sources which have been ‘certified’ are ‘authentic’ in the sense of being of their supposed date, place of origin and/or authorship, but that they are not ‘authentic’ in the sense of being ‘in the state they once were in.’ Not only have the sources undergone various transformations, but also have context and audience changed. Even textual sources, where the presence of an authoritative, ‘authentic’ copy of the text might be thought to ensure the authenticity of all subsequent faithful copies of that text, cannot escape from the fact that we can never completely grasp ‘the real thing’ because we lack context, perception and understanding. All we can do is our best. At the other extreme seen from texts, every performance of a dance seems to be equally ‘authentic,’ but this time because the ‘original’ version of most dances appears to be all but unknowable.

At this stage of our argument we should look at one of the most important contributions to thinking about authenticity in art: Nelson Goodman’s Languages of art of 1968 (Goodman 1976; a good summary in Goodman 1983, part of a very helpful collection of essays), where Goodman introduced the still highly influential division between autographic and allographic arts. An autographic work is a work that can be physically identified as the actual object made by whomever is supposed to have made it (the maker may be anonymous, or a collective – necessarily so if the original artists and the engraver and so on are not one and the same person): it is authenticated, and it is unique. Please note that Goodman refuses uniqueness, because there are both singular and multiple autographic arts (the prints made of an engraved or etched block or plate are examples of multiple art); but then, as Goodman points out, the plate or the mould is unique. Also, one could argue that no two prints from a plate or from a negative are ever exactly the same, if manually produced. Which squares with Goodman’s idea that a true duplicate, even the most exact duplication, of an autographic work cannot be genuine. There is only one authentic copy, the original work of art.

An allographic work of art is an art that makes use of a notation, which prescribes how the work can be (re)created again and again. What the original artist creates (the notation, or something that is put into a notation) is no fully achieved work of art in itself. That only comes into being at a second stage, when the piece of music is played, the choreography danced, the play acted, the text multiplied, distributed and read. A composition can be falsely purporting to be by Haydn, or a violinist can consciously try to imitate every move of Haifetz, thus forging his creative art. But still every performance, if done at all accurately, is as genuine as the premiere.

Goodman has been much criticized by Joseph Margolis (1983), who especially attacks the notion of the allographic, by arguing that something may be recreated accurately, but still is not genuine, because the recreation was unauthorized (a frequently encountered example is that of the pirated fashion design); and that something can be accurate in some, but not all respects, such as playing a composition in a room with the wrong acoustics, or on ‘unauthentic’ instruments (cf. below). Also Margolis has defended that dance is not allographic at all, but autographic (1981). He does this by pointing out that dance is not like music or drama at all, but is sui generis, because dancers use their own bodies and this brings with it an expressiveness that cannot be notationally represented.

However correct some of the criticism of Goodman’s distinction of autographic and allographic – and it will be fairly easy to come up with all kinds of exceptions, because most art will be both autographic and allographic in differing combinations – still the basic idea that there are arts where ‘an authentic copy’ can be distinguished, and arts where there are many instances of the work which are all equally authentic, can be retained. Goodman would have said ‘many instances which are all equally genuine recreations (tokens) of the authentic original (type); Margolis says the same but stresses, rightly, that a recreation need not be very exact in order to be recognized as a token of a type. I go further and say all instances are equally authentic. Goodman seems to allow of this only if a notation is lacking, and no work-identity can be established at all (Goodman 1983, 111). I cannot see why this would be so: I will be perfectly able to recognize two performances as two tokens of the same type, even if those performances are based on oral tradition and not on any notation. But also in a different sense I do not share Goodman’s faith in notation: even the highly formalized musical notation does not allow performers to create copies of previous performances that are more or less exact recreations of those previous performances, including the ‘original’ one (whichever performance counts as ‘the original one’ or premiere, as Goodman calls it).

From this rapid overview we cannot but conclude that 1) ‘authentic’ does not mean the same thing to all people (“the authentic is an entirely intentional distinction and is bound to reflect our shifting interests and the shifting history of our artistic, technological, economic, political and moral experience,” Margolis 1983, 167; cf. Bendix 1997, 3). Indeed, while the word ‘authentic’ seeks to exclude (“this is the authentic performance, all others are wrong”), there appear to be so many different ‘authenticities’ that in the end everything gets included; 2) ‘authentic’ as usually understood nowadays refers to ‘the original state’ of objects or behaviour, in which state those objects and behaviour are not and cannot be; 3) attempts to retrieve ‘the original state’ are bound to fail; but the possibility of verification (“is this (like) what it was like at that particular moment in time?”) is graded; and 4) dance is least amenable to ‘authentication’ of all phenomena discussed.

4. Is ‘authenticity’ at all a useful concept?

As we just saw, our obsession with authenticity is quite understandable. We have quite some trouble in coping with the self-imposed speed at which our culture evolves. We grasp at the last straws of so-called authentic objects and authentic traditions. People will not stop being obsessed by authenticity if this obsession serves some purpose. At the moment it does. Whether the concept of ‘authenticity’ can fulfil some role in scholarship is quite another matter. We have also seen that ‘authenticity’ is shifting its shape, that it is a container concept that everybody can fill at will – which everybody does to fit some particular purpose. And last but not least we have had to conclude that whatever way one is going to define ‘authenticity,’ if this definition includes the aspect of ‘fidelity to historical truth,’ we will be looking for something which will always remain beyond our grasp. The truth is unknown, and we cannot be true to it. We can and should strive for the truth, and we can establish certain facts on the way (I am no postmodern diehard, and still believe in ‘reality outside discourse,’ at least some of it) – but we will never arrive.

Things being as they are, ‘fidelity to historical truth’ will be in nearly everybody’s mind whenever the words ‘authentic’ and ‘authenticity’ are met with. Also, the exclusivist nature of the concept (what is not ‘authentic’ is spurious, false, impure and so on) makes it into a permanent weapon in the armory of anti-modernists and nationalists (cf. Bendix 1997). So we had better not try to redefine the concept. We should jettison it. Out with ‘authenticity,’ everything is authentic, so the word serves no purpose – it only obfuscates the real issues. Speaking of ‘authenticity’ suggests that we have access to the original, or that we can resuscitate it. We put in museums, we put on record, we videotape, we restore and conserve. Calling these myriads of objects and intangibles ‘authentic,’ implies that we have been able to rescue ‘the real thing.’ But we have not, and cannot. One might say that the very fact of ‘rescue’ and of labelling as ‘authentic’ at most creates a new ‘real thing.’ If something ‘authentic’ in the museum, on stage, or on record can at all be called ‘authentic’ it is as an authentic museum object, an authentic performance, or an authentic recording. But that of course is not what is meant. ‘Authenticity’ is a concept that easily causes complacency: aren’t we good at saving our heritage?

So ‘authenticity’ obfuscates the real issues. But what are those ‘real issues’? If the ‘original’ remains out of reach, if supposed rescue merely implies the creation of something new, maybe we [AMJJ1]should not bother about preservation at all. But this does not follow from what has been said before. If we are unable to preserve ‘the authentic,’ that does not mean that the act of preservation itself would be useless. Of course there is the function that ‘preserving the authentic’ fulfils in our society at large; but also from a scholarly point of view preservation and documentation are worth the effort. The new objects created in preserving surely contain traces of the objects that went before, and can serve some purpose.

What is at issue is loss of cultural diversity – a process that I feel cannot be stopped. But of which we should be constantly aware. We should cultivate a sense of loss – which might make us more careful and more caring. ‘Authentic’ makes us feel we have succeeded in preserving things in their real shape; but the realization that we cannot, should stimulate us into putting all our effort in sustaining living traditions, first existence. A living tradition is not ‘authentic’ in the usual sense: it is a palimpsest in which many different phases may or may not be represented – but at least it is a functioning part of the present and the recent past. One sustains a living tradition by assisting the circumstances under which that tradition can flourish. But of course many battles are lost before they have even been engaged: we cannot forbid people to watch television and order them to do their village dances instead. If they go and watch television, all we can do is try to preserve the orphaned dances: we can record, film, notate, we can teach and stimulate. One could compare the natural world: we cannot save our natural environment, but we should be aware of its destruction, so that we will at least make an effort (and maybe something somewhere can be saved after all), and after all efforts have been made we should try to preserve some of our environment in libraries, archives, museums, gardens and zoos. In this example, it is fairly obvious that we have to make do with second best: a monkey in the zoo is not ‘the real thing.’ Odd that we should maintain that a ‘folk dancer’ on stage is nevertheless ‘authentic,’ as if the habitat was of no consequence. We should never claim the contents of our various repositories of relics as ‘authentic’ or in any sense privileged. It is so easily said that, for instance, going to a folk dance club means engaging in an ‘authentic’ activity (good!) and that going to the disco to dance to house music is ‘unauthentic’ (at least for you it is, silly villager who betrays his own tradition; bad!). But the one and the other are equally ‘authentic.’

What makes it worthwhile to attempt to preserve a dance, and to do it in as thorough a manner as possible, is the fact that if ever we want to know – and there will be always somebody who wants to know – how rich the cultural diversity of our planet has once been, we need proper sources about that history. To attempt to ascertain how X did look (sound etcetera) to Y at occasion Z, is a legitimate enterprise, as long as we resist the temptation to reify the results of our enquiry as ‘authentic’ and turn them into a yardstick with which everything else is to be measured.

So the dilemma ‘fidelity to historical truth or novelty?’ is no dilemma after all. Historical truth is out of reach. Novelty is not. I do not object to revivals, reinterpretations, innovations and what have you got: I do not intend to keep people from enjoying their so-called ‘heritage’ (though it would be better to explain to them the real status of that material). But ‘novelty’ – however useful (Naerebout 1994) – is neither a substitute for a living tradition, nor for preservation as careful as we can manage. The living tradition we have to support as long as it lasts, preservation comes next. We know how the writing of history works, so we have a responsibility to preserve for future historians a range of potential sources in as honest a way as possible. We should never fake anything (certainly not in the name of ‘authenticity’). If one pronounces something ‘faithful to historical truth’ while it is not, one is a forger. Francis Sparshott (1983) gives an overview of what is wrong with a forgery: 1) a good work of art has always more to reveal: our interpretation grows with us: but a forgery is one-dimensional; 2) our heritage charts the history of the mind: a forgery distorts the sense of cultural reality: history itself is manipulated by manipulating its sources; 3) a forgery falsifies our notions of creative activity: it presents an achievement, a performance that could not be; 4) we have a rooted objection to being deceived, being lied to, to subversion of our relations with our ancestors; 5) a work of art is part of the symbolic capital of our society: the self-image of our civilisation is at stake; 6) art is communication; forgery is false communication, betrayal. Serious charges! We have to be the honest preservers of a cultural diversity that is fast disappearing. Honest preservers avoid words like ‘authentic’ and all those words carry in their wake: they are not judges, but students of tradition.

5. References

Bendix 1997 = Regina Bendix, In search of authenticity. The formation of folklore studies, Madison

Bruyn 1991 = Josua Bruyn, ‘Rembrandts werkplaats: functie en produktie,’ in C. Brown, Jan Kelch & Pieter van Thiel (edd), Rembrandt: de meester en zijn werkplaats, vol. 1 (Amsterdam/Zwolle) 68-89

Buckland 2001 = Theresa Jill Buckland, ‘Dance, authenticity and cultural memory: the politics of embodiment,’ Yearbook for traditional music 33, 1-16

Burke 2001 = Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing. The uses of images as historical evidence, Ithaca, New York

De Grazia 1991 = Margreta De Grazia, Shakespeare verbatim. The reproduction of authenticity and the 1790 apparatus, Oxford

Dutton 1983 = Denis Dutton (ed), The forger’s art. Forgery and the philosophy of art, Berkeley

Goodman 1976 = Nelson Goodman, Languages of art, Indianapolis (2nd ed)

Goodman 1983 = Nelson Goodman, ‘Art and authenticity,’ in Dutton 1983, 93-114

Haskell 1988 = Harry Haskell, The early music revival. A history, London

Herzfeld 1982 = Michael Herzfeld, Ours once more: folklore, ideology, and the making of modern Greece, Austin

Hodgen 1936 = M.T. Hodgen, The doctrine of survivals, London

Hoerburger 1968 = F. Hoerburger, ‘Once again: on the concept of “folk dance,”’ Journal of the International Folk Music Council 20, 30‑32

Homburg 1994 = Cornelia Homburg, The copy turns original. Vincent van Gogh and a new approach to traditional art practice, Amsterdam

Kenyon 1989 = Nicholas Kenyon (ed), Authenticity and early music. A symposium, Oxford

Kivy 1995 = Peter Kivy, Authenticities. Philosophical reflections on musical performance, Ithaca

Le Huray 1990 = Peter Le Huray, Authenticity in performance. Eighteenth-century case studies, Cambridge

Lübbe 1983 = H. Lübbe, ‘Der Fortschritt und das Museum,’ Dilthey-Jahrbuch 1, 39-56

Margolis 1981 = Joseph Margolis, ‘The autographic nature of dance,’ Journal of aesthetics and art criticism 39, 419-427

Margolis 1983 = Joseph Margolis, ‘Art, forgery, and authenticity,’ in Dutton 1983, 153-171

Naerebout 1994 = Frederick G. Naerebout, ‘Whose dance? Questions of authenticity and ethnicity, of preservation and renewal,’ in: Alkis Raftis (ed), Dance beyond frontiers. Proceedings of the 8th international conference on dance research, Drama 1994 (Athens) 77-86

Naerebout 1997 = Frederick G. Naerebout, Attractive performances. Ancient Greek dance: three preliminary studies, Amsterdam

Nahachewsky 2001 = Andriy Nahachewsky, ‘Once again: on the concept of “second existence folk dance,”’ Yearbook for traditional music 33, 17-28

Schmidt 2000 = Hartwig Schmidt, Archäologische Denkmäler in Deutschland – rekonstruiert und wieder aufgebaut, Darmstadt

Sparshott 1983 = Francis Sparshott, ‘The disappointed art lover,’ in Dutton 1983, 246-263

Taruskin 1989 = Richard Taruskin, ‘The pastness of the present and the presence of the past,’ in Kenyon 1989, 137-207

Taylor 1991 = Charles Taylor, The ethics of authenticity, Cambridge, Mass.

Trilling 1980 = Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and authenticity, London (1st ed 1971)

Vaessen 1986 = J.A.F.M. Vaessen, Musea in een museale cultuur. De problematische legitimering van het kunstmuseum, Zeist

Van der Dussen 2001 = W.J. van der Dussen, ‘De tijd in perspectief. Zoeken naar een oriëntatie in de geschiedenis,’ in: Maria Grever & Harry Jansen (edd), De ongrijpbare tijd. Temporaliteit en de constructie van het verleden (Hilversum) 17-33

Dr Frederick G. Naerebout



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