In his new volume Authenticity Is a Con, Peter York writes that it is time to add a new word to Amis’s “rendered unusable” list. He argues that, far from a state of guileless integrity, authenticity is now a marketing stance. Anything and everything, from foods to places, can be given the authenticity treatment, like a sepia tint.
If York has a single target in mind, a sweet spot in his Venn diagram of overlapping aspects of “authenticity”, it would be this: an extravagantly bearded young man (“Edwardian Explorer Poet”, only with access to lots of moisturiser), wearing selvedge denim (everything so lustrously matte and unflashy that it becomes more ruinously expensive than the bling it mocks), wandering through Shoreditch in east London en route to a paleo-diet brunch with some other creative types, set to a backdrop of exposed brick walls.
The parody sits atop an undeniably broad tolerance for all things “authentic”. The foodie movement has indulged the label to the full. The trend extends to a fetish for “wild” ingredients, celebrating all forms of freshly foraged damp sliminess. The word “artisanal” is now so ubiquitous that it is impossible to define. “Expensive; no tablecloth” is the best I can do.
Authenticity in fashion has been honing its act for decades. When I lived in Lower Manhattan in the late 1990s, I observed leading brands in SoHo and Tribeca charging Savile Row prices for generic T-shirts and jeans. Who was authentic, who the hypocrite: the SoHo fashionista or the conventionally suited businessman on Madison Avenue?
Big business – with the chatty, dressed-down vibe of the Facebook age – has learned to drape itself in authentic garb. Yet these deliciously informal companies, as York points out, have “the most elaborate formal mechanisms, produced by very tie-wearing and precisely spoken accountants and lawyers, to pay very little tax in the UK – or anywhere else”. Authenticity is the veneer; beneath the “realness” lurk the same old tricks.
A certain type of professional sportsman turns authenticity into his house style. In the documentary Keane and Vieira, Roy Keane never missed an opportunity to describe the burgeoning hatred and violence that simmered inside him every week. Football, he said, even when winning, gave him little or no pleasure, let alone joy. There wasn’t time: he was too busy filling his mind with hatred to be ready for the next week’s warfare.
It is impossible to prove otherwise, to know what Keane really thinks. Let’s not make windows into midfielders’ souls, as Elizabeth I almost said. There was, however, a note of self-mythology in Keane’s narrative. An authentic hard man, too full of hatred to enjoy a second of glory? Perhaps. Or a man who knows how to cultivate a sense of difference from the flashy superficiality of his more conspicuous peers? Arguably, it is Ronaldo, with his wet-look hair gel and second career as an underwear model, who has a better claim to be the authentic modern footballer.
Politics has proved vulnerable to the authenticity wash. As Labour’s king in waiting, Gordon Brown managed to persuade a surprising number of people that his rudeness and grudge-bearing sulkiness betokened some virtuous, un-spun authenticity – indeed, that it was all tied up, mysteriously, with his intellectual depth and “moral compass”. Where he lacked a capacity, he posited a principle.
Journalists, we must concede, have indulged the trend, as participants as well as observers. The personality columnist often tries harder to convince readers of his sincerity and emotional rawness than of his logic or insights.
What, then, explains this outpouring of staged authenticity? Partly, it is the collapse of trust, the sense that the game is rigged, the system isn’t working, that the old establishment has let everyone down. “The idea of authenticity, of people levelling with you,” York argues, “appeals precisely because people feel they’ve been lied to.”
I cannot follow York all the way to his conclusion. He thinks the idea is actively counterproductive: “The idea of the authentic self . . . doesn’t allow for people developing, feeling and believing radically different things in the course of their lives, being open to change and debate.”
It is a little surprising that York makes no mention of Sincerity and Authenticity, a set of lectures given by the literary critic Lionel Trilling at Harvard in 1970, then collected in a slim volume. Trilling quotes Matthew Arnold’s verse:
Below the surface stream, shallow
Of what we say we feel – below
As light, of what we think we feel –
With noiseless current, strong,
obscure and deep,
The central stream of what we feel
That strikes me as absolutely true. I believe in authenticity: both that it exists and that it matters. Anyone genuinely interested in authenticity must feel like a lifelong yoga devotee now observing the ghastly fad for trite books about “mindfulness”. Sometimes you have to go quiet for while and let the flame of fashion blow itself out. Eventually, authenticity – authentic once again – will be rendered usable again.
Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)