Always “The Real Thing”

21 Aug

Is it just me or has the term “authenticity” become the defining buzzword of our time? From Masterchef to mail-order catalogues, from the low-flying clichés of Britain’s Got Talent to the “artisans” of Broadway Market, British popular culture has become fixated with keeping it real.

There has, as far as I’m aware, always been a certain desire for “the real deal”- even if the deal itself may be more bogus than an e-mail from Nigeria promising a fortune in return for one’s bank details. Think of Mock Tudor houses, gas fires with plastic lumps of coal in them and clip-on bow ties; all have (quite deservedly) become jokes, quintessentially naff historical curios. This nascent collective obsession, though, is a different creature entirely.

In many ways, it’s little wonder that we’ve been seduced by this ostensibly artifice-free philosophy; for at least the last twenty years, Post-Modern Irony has ruled pop culture with a kitschly-embellished rod of iron, turning even the most basic consumer products into webs of intellectual significance. Going shopping is no longer a simple activity- it requires a degree in cultural studies.

The trouble is that authenticity is a completely improbable proposition. While I’ve nothing against simplicity- I’m currently slathered in bank-breakingly understated Margaret Howell clobber, for Christ’s sake- I believe that culture and transparency are completely incompatible. After all, isn’t “Art” just a contraction of “artifice”? To put it bluntly, all this “authentic” food, music and design that we’re being told to swallow is even more hollow and cynical than the gleefully open culture of superficiality that has dominated British life since the 1980s.

The problem as I see it is far more profound than mere buzzword annoyance. It’s the equivalent of the old vanity paradox; that is, where some self-consciously dowdy individual claims proudly to take no interest in their image- and thus makes as vain a statement as is humanly possible. The authenticity-fetishists are precisely the same; by declaring their cultural luddism, they become not just killjoys but hypocrites. An avowed refusal to investigate novelties, pretensions- or, more simply, new ideas- subscribes them to the most contrived cultural fad of them all. What higher purpose does their obstinacy propose? An adherence to vintage vinyl or a boring dress code isn’t, after all, helping to alleviate famine in Somalia- is it? Foodie luddism is the worst culprit: I’m sure it’s been said before, but how on Earth can a pie or a chop be described as “honest”? Ginster’s, the original purveyors of shrink-wrapped, processed motorway fare even have the phrase emblazoned on their logo in toe-curling false handwriting. The sarnies may be a long way off delicious, but the irony… mmmm.

Why shouldn’t I put more tomatoes into my ragù than is strictly Bolognese? Why shouldn’t I wear a tonic suit with a stripy t-shirt? Why can’t I reserve my right to hate folk music? I will not be plunged into unimaginative hipstamatic sepia by this tide of killjoy faux-sincerity. I refuse, point blank.

Surely, to paraphrase design critic Stephen Bayley, progress should be about making the most of contemporary possibilities- in other words, being as interesting as possible. It may sound spurious, but here’s the acid test: the next time you hear Mumford & Sons, listen as closely as you can bear, and ask yourself- is this really the best Western Civilisation can do? Drop the farmer costumes and buy a synthesizer, boys!

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