Why are we so obsessed with the pursuit of authenticity?

Take your pick: indie café or Beyoncé’s lip-syncing? We’ve become obsessed with authenticity and differences between echt and ersatz — but why bother doing anything for real if no one believes that you did?

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
It’s a movie! Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty has been the subject of much discussion about its authenticity. Photograph: Rex Features

Picture the tragic scenes in Crouch End, north London, early this year. The patrons of Harris + Hoole, a local coffee shop, had just learned to their horror that the supermarket chain Tesco owns a 49 per cent stake in the company. Shaken caffeine-guzzlers told the Guardian that they felt “duped” and “upset” because they’d thought it was an “independent” coffee shop. A rival coffee hawker sneered that Tesco was “trying to make money” out of “artisan values” – although, presumably, so was he.  Most charmingly, the manager of the café confided that head office had instructed her to make the store feel as independent as possible. "We try to be independent," she said. "We want to be independent. We want to have that feel."

She is right: we all want to have that feel. But the appropriation by Tesco and Harris + Hoole of the consumer allure of “independence” and “artisan values” is a symptom of our present predicament: there is no way out of simulation. What we get in an “authentic” cultural product is still a simulacrum, but one that insists even more loudly that its laminated, wood-effect veneer is the real thing. Authenticity is now yet another brand value to be baked into the commodity, and customers are happy to take this spectral performance of a presumed virtue as the truth.

But what was so authentic about the authenticity being simulated? Today’s heroically “independent” baristas are profiting from a market that, in the UK, wouldn’t exist without the trail blazed in the 1990s by the now-despised big chains, such as Starbucks. Thanks to them, you can now open an independent coffee shop and charge considerably more than a chain while decrying the rapacity of the giants that prepared the ground for you. Be careful, though, not to do too well and expand too far, because then you will lose all independence, becoming a despicable corporation in turn. The middle-class admiration for authenticity is predicated on the patronising condition that the little man shouldn’t get too big for his boots.

One way out of this hall of mirrors is to insist ever more loudly that one’s own offering is really, truly authentic. Innumerable industrial products now advertise themselves as “real”, following the lead of Coke’s slogan “the Real Thing”. In 2011, even Starbucks began selling salad-based lunchboxes labelled “Real Food”. A box of Rombouts’s disposable one-cup coffee filters describes its flavour as “Original Blend . . . Medium 3 AUTHENTIC”. Even Marks & Spencer’s men’s underwear is branded “authentic”, posing the nice question of what an inauthentic pair of boxer shorts or trunks would look like. Yet authenticity can be signalled in more subtle ways. Second-hand clothes have been redescribed as “vintage”, as though they were fine wines, which flatteringly projects an air of discriminating scholarship on to the prospective buyer. Some new clothes call themselves pre-worn, faded, or distressed, soaking the product in an ersatz history and off-the-peg personality. More recently, such pre-ageing has become available even for far more expensive products, such as electric guitars. Fender’s “Road Worn” range of Stratocasters and Telecasters features “authentic” dents and scratches and areas where the paint or varnish has been painstakingly sandpapered off; the white plastic trimmings have been yellowed, as though through years of exposure to nicotine in smoky clubs.

What we value in culture can reveal much about our attitudes to hierarchy and power. Photograph: Getty Images

Modern mass-media gluttony, or foodism, has its own cluster of presumed “authentic” virtues. The idea of “real” food is sometimes parsed, adorably, as food with no chemicals, though all food is made of chemicals. It is widely assumed that food sold as organic is purer and closer to an assumedly benign Nature, although no food is made from inorganic matter and organic farming standards sanction the use of neurotoxic fertilisers. What the unwashed, non-foodist masses eat, on the other hand, is routinely derided as “junk” or “processed” food, the poor souls doomed for ever to inauthentic scoffing. Yet the invention of processed foods such as Hovis bread in the 19th century was itself an authenticity drive, a way of addressing the widespread adulteration of so many foods.

Meanwhile, foodists vie to identify the authentic versions of exotic dishes. In the American TV cook Julia Child’s memoir of her life in France, she derides a proud Frenchwoman who insists that no true Marseillaise would add tomatoes to her bouillabaisse. Child, you see, has looked the recipe up in a French cookbook, and there it includes tomatoes. She therefore concludes, with hysterical snobbery, that the Frenchwoman is an ignoramus, instead of accepting that such traditional recipes come in many variations and that the idea that there is one version is a crude mistake. Here, Child exhibits, too, the craving for authenticity of the internationally roaming glutton or gastrotourist, specimens of which genre to this day compose purple paeans for the glossy magazines about the latest far-flung country in which the locals miraculously manage to cobble together authentic plates of the national victuals in their charmingly primitive kitchens.

Authenticity in art is a question that goes back at least to Plato’s complaint that theatre and poetry could not convey truth. One meaning of the authenticity of a painting or text is merely that the creator has been correctly identified. But as far back as the early English novel, literature was already toying with manufactured authenticity as an advertising gimmick: Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1721) claims on its title page to be “Written from her own Memorandums”; while Robinson Crusoe (1719) is not credited to its real author at all but was supposedly “Written by Himself” (that is, Crusoe).

Later, an explicit authenticity craze occur - red in the Weimar Republic between 1924 and 1929. In reaction to the perceived excesses of expressionism, a movement called the New Objectivity sprang up. Novels were marketed as “authentic” because they were supposedly based on real-world research; the story circulated that the Austrian writer Vicki Baum had worked as a maid in a large Berlin hotel in order to collect material for Menschen im Hotel, later filmed as Grand Hotel.

This idea that fiction derives its authenticity from reportage has persisted – up to and including novelists such as Tom Wolfe and the brain-surgeon-shadowing Ian McEwan – but heaven help you if you try to sell factbased fiction as fact. When it turned out that James Frey’s “memoir” A Million Little Pieces was fictionalised, the author was pilloried for having exploited so deftly the way we venerate real emotion and experience. It seems we can no longer tolerate the playful ambiguity of the 18th century. As George W Bush memorably put it, in a different context: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me . . . er . . . you can’t get fooled again.”

If you type the words “authenticity” and “authentic” into Google’s Ngram Viewer, which plots graphs of the use of words in books over a given period, you will find that there has been a strong uptick in usage since the early 1990s. It might be no coincidence that this parallels the rise to ubiquity of digital creative technologies. Perhaps people become more worried about art’s authenticity once they understand that modern technology makes everything liquid and endlessly revisable. Much has been made of how, in Tom Hooper’s film of Les Misérables, the actors are “really” singing on set, though few have asked why these people can’t just talk to one another instead of dragging out what should be a 20-second dramatic interlude into an interminable ensemble singalong.

In an interview, Hooper boasted that his film was swimming against the tide of our “postmodern age”, because it was “made without irony”. This, too, is an appeal to a kind of authenticity, a sincerity of purpose – though it depends on a lamentably etiolated idea of irony as mere glibness.

Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty, meanwhile, describes itself on a title card as being “based on first-hand accounts of actual events”, and thus lays claim to the authenticity of reportage. (James Boswell claimed a similar documentary fidelity for his Life of Johnson: “What I have preserved . . . has the value of the most perfect authenticity.”) However, Zero Dark Thirty’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, was quick to defend the film against the (silly) charge that it is pro-torture by quickly disclaiming that same documentary authority. Oh come on, he told the Times exasperatedly, “It’s a movie! It’s a movie! It’s a movie!”

More disturbingly, the unexamined hunger for authentic culture can rapidly turn into a witch-hunt. After Beyoncé sang “The Star- Spangled Banner” at Barack Obama’s inauguration, the story got started that she had been lip-syncing. But in several videos available you can clearly hear two Beyoncés: there is a pre-recorded vocal, plus a Beyoncé who is, perfectly obviously, singing live. One would like here to diagnose a mob-like rage for authenticity which fastened on a sacrificial victim with no regard for the justice of its accusations. Tellingly, that Beyoncé removed an earpiece monitor during her performance was taken by the authenticity police as evidence in its own right of the inauthenticity of her act; commentators supposed that taking out the earpiece was too suspiciously ostentatious a demonstration that she had one at all. (Though she probably did it the better to hear her own voice, as singers often do.) This narrative proved impervious to Beyoncé’s subsequent explanation. Because she hadn’t had a proper soundcheck or rehearsal, she said, she decided to leave the pre-recorded vocal in the mix, as a kind of safety net, while she sang live as well. “I decided to sing along with my pre-recorded performance,” is what Beyoncé said – which was immediately taken as a “confession” to the very crime she thereby denied. The story was wrongly headlined on BBC News and elsewhere as “Beyoncé admits to inauguration lip-syncing”.

So, too persuasive a performance of authenticity will be taken as a sign of inauthenticity. The authenticity-obsessed want something to be real, but they’re on a hair trigger to cry foul if it seems too real to be true. The counterproductive upshot is that gifted artists are unfairly accused of relying on technological fixes. (It’s common these days to complain about excessive use of Auto-Tune to correct singers’ pitch, but some singers have naturally terrific intonation.) So the authentophiles can no longer reliably perceive what they claim to value; indeed, they risk destroying it. (Why bother doing something for real if no one will believe you did?) The cult of authenticity, in other words, begins from an assumption that most things are fake, and in doing so ensures that they will be.

It also reifies a simplistic notion of what is fake to begin with. A blanket privileging of the concrete and the in-person, an indie disdain for post-production or Photoshopping, implicitly downgrades artworks that from their inception are computer-mediated and could not exist otherwise, even though there is nothing inauthentic about an uplifting Eurotrance track or a Hockney iPad painting. The fetish for authenticity, here as in the realms of food and vintage clothing, shows itself to be inherently anti-modern, always looking back to an imagined, prelapsarian idyll.

Authenticity is a useful pose in the poli - tical arena, too. Claiming to be “realist” in international relations (as Obama’s new foreign policy team has been described) handily implies that your opponents purvey nothing but utopian pipe dreams. The notion of authenticity is all the more prized the more that politics appears to be nothing but spin and posture. On the New York Review of Books blog, Elizabeth Drew paid the highest pos sible modern compliment to Joe Biden when she described him as “one of the most authentic politicians in Washington – he really is who he appears to be: warm and decent and never forgetting his workingclass roots . . . his core is consistent”. But the implication that more politicians should be who they appear to be is a weird and onerous demand that the distinction between public and private identities be collapsed for the public’s benefit – in other words, that politics become more like I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!. To reserve “authentic” as the ultimate praise for a politician is right in tune with the Facebook mogul Mark Zuck - erberg’s pathological opinion that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”.

To define a person’s authenticity as the perfect conjunction of outward seeming and inward being is not a new idea. (Hamlet is nearly as outraged by the inauthenticity of Claudius’s acting – “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain!” – as he is by Claudius having murdered his father.) But what matters most now is that such personal authenticity be performed plausibly: on reality TV, paradoxically, contestants routinely accuse their rivals of being “fake” or “insincere”, and attempt to present as “genuine” or “real” a front as possible.

In some quarters, marketing claims to authenticity are almost perfectly devoid of semantic content. Consider the words of Bret Robins, creative director of the exhilaratingly cartoonish megadeath-simulator video game Modern Warfare 3. In an interview, he described how his team designed this World War III face-shooting fantasy, in which your one-man army more or less single-handedly defeats the invading Russians: “You try to do it in a very believable and authentic way, so it feels like this could actually happen.” The only things that could be described as authentic in such video games, however, are the lovingly modelled guns. Nothing else about Modern Warfare 3 is authentic in any way, though it is believable enough when you’re there playing the game, as is navigating any well-crafted made-up world.

This is as it should be. When we’re at play, we don’t want things to be too oppressively real. (As T S Eliot nearly wrote, humankind cannot bear too much authenticity.) But what about when we are at work? The problem of authenticity in labour was one that exercised Jean-Paul Sartre, in his best-known example of its opposite. Sartre developed the existentialist sense of “authenticity” that is opposed to “bad faith”, and illustrated the second idea with a vignette of a waiter in a café. In Sartre’s eyes, the waiter resembles a parodic automaton: he walks up to the customers too quickly; he bows too eagerly; he is oversolicitous; he carries his tray as though performing a highwire circus act.

The waiter’s performance, like Beyoncé’s, is too real to be true. He is lip-syncing his job, playing at being a waiter, impersonating an idea. And this, Sartre concludes, is bad faith, because the waiter ought to know that he cannot ever really be a waiter, any more than he can be anything else. In playacting his job, he is trying to evade his own nothingness, his own absolute freedom. (Like the head office of Harris + Hoole, Sartre wants to order you to be independent.)

It is possible, however, to turn this analysis around, as some critical Sartreans have done, and to defend the poor waiter. Gary Cox, in his excellent The Existentialist’s Guide to Death, the Universe and Nothingness, argues that the waiter, far from being deluded that he really is a waiter, is consciously acting “with ironical intent”. In this sense, he is a paragon of Sartrean authenticity, because “he strives to take full responsibility for the reality of his situation, choosing himself positively in his situation by throwing himself wholeheartedly into his chosen role”.

Might one essay a similar rescue tactic for Sartre’s other example of bad faith? The philosopher describes a young woman on a first date who chooses to ignore the flirtatious undercurrents of her suitor’s conver - sation. Eventually the man takes her hand, but she just lets it lie there, listlessly. The moment has come to rebuff or accept his advances, but she does neither. This, Sartre sternly concludes, is bad faith. The woman knows she is free but she is refusing to exercise her freedom. Yet you might prefer to say that she is authentically exercising her freedom to delay her decision, rather than allowing herself to be forced into action at a moment not of her own choosing by the man’s less-than-subtle version of seduction.

Such revisionist interpretations could have the happy effect of saving Sartre from himself – because the Frenchman’s insistence that the waiter, in particular, is acting in bad faith looks rather unfortunately condescending. (Did Sartre not playact the role of the philosopher-intellectual very well?) Despite the astringent delights of his philosophy, he seems to suffer a deficit of empathy at this moment – one which may remind us that, in our day, too, the quest for “authenticity” often involves a crushing snobbery.

The anti-corporate No Logo wisdom about consumer brands is that they, like many instances of the very word “authentic”, are floating signifiers, vacant cash generators that hoodwink the public. But a brand does have some use, in its role as the modern equivalent of the maker’s mark: if you like something bearing it, you can more safely assume that something else is of similar quality and reliability. It is only when the sign of the brand comes to be understood in its own right as valuable that we sink into decadence, as when a fashion writer for the Independent burbled recently: “Each garment is carefully embossed with the prestigious Ralph Lauren logo.”

Yet it is precisely in the marketing of highend brands that we can perceive the key aspect of the modern authenticity mania. Such commodities are sometimes called “aspirational”, because that is now how society has silently agreed to redefine aspiration: as the desire to control more wealth and to own more expensive objects. So what is the implicit bargain when we buy an “authentic” Hermès bag? Or a Hublot watch, a clockwork marvel costing tens of thousands of pounds, which prides itself, like all “luxury” analogue watches, precisely on the amusing superfluity of its engineering? We are being sold the assurance that nimble-fingered workers in a French leather-working atelier or a Swiss horlogerie laboratory have sunk hundreds or thousands of man-hours into its making.

The authenticity of such an aspirational brand’s product boils down to the promise that numberless faceless artisans have lab - oured personally on your behalf. A similar fantasy underlies the ferocious insistence that a coffee shop be “artisanal” and “independent”, the indolent demand for a pre-aged Stratocaster, or the hysterical suspicion that a singer might not have been working hard enough to entertain us. The self-appointed guardians of authenticity, it seems, want desperately to believe that they are at the top of the labour pyramid. In cultural markets that are all too disappointingly accessible to the masses, the authenticity fetish disguises and renders socially acceptable a raw hunger for hierarchy and power.