DUNLEAVY: Authenticy drives culture, must not be needlessly discarded


Column: Tempus Fugit

Authenticity: Few would disagree it is a good thing. 

People will drop loads of cash for the “authentic” experience on a vacation. It does not take a purist to extol the superiority of authentic food from an authentic restaurant. It is not surprising — even if a knock-off runs just as well, anybody would rather have a real Rolex watch.  

The composition of the idea of authenticity in a cultural context is very much dependent upon perception and the way an idea is conceived.  The traditional, honest-to-goodness “realness” of an experience is often subjective, but this should not be taken to mean that this ideal, the pursuit of authenticity is delusional or foolish.

Through knowledge and critical discernment, critiques can be offered. That which endures these critiques thus survive as authentic, whatever that means, and therefore bear whatever glory this title may merit.

It is difficult to narrow down exactly what makes a culture, or an aspect of manifestation of a particular culture authentic. Is food prepared by an expatriate using local — as opposed to traditional — ingredients in all the usual ways inauthentic? 

I am hesitant to say, but at a certain point, little cultural pieces here and there add up and temper an experience. Defunct industrial vestiges dotting a countryside certainly detract from a perhaps romanticized, perhaps idealistic agrarian charm, even if monolithic factories may have been, at one point, a very real thing.

A culture shines through the beauty it produces. Utilitarian cuisine, architecture, design and clothing certainly are not wasteful, but that is about it. While there are certainly cases in which convenience and tradition are not at ends with each other, the two are often, particularly in the developed world, in conflict.  

What is practical, and most of all, cheap and effective, is often neither particularly beautiful and elegant, nor humble and charming. Industrial mass production leaves little room for an artistic touch — certainly, even if the design itself is not guilty of ugliness, when produced in mass, there is no touch of unique craftsmanship and no individual "je ne sais quoi" to give any reason to stand out from every other example.  

A lived culture is art in and of itself. Entire museums are dedicated to early American furniture and even simple day-to-day tools, because the depth and detail of even austere designs are worthy of collection and appreciation. I fear the same cannot possibly true of modern mass-produced counterparts.  

It is for this reason that I offer the following explanation. Yearning for a “real” experience, this pursuit of an authentic experience ought to be understood as a search for a human aspect to the things in our lives, a connection. There is a love, a story to culture and the way things look — the aestheticism of the matter, and the people behind it. 

Look at the tragedy that was the burning of the Notre-Dame de Paris, and the dispute over the philosophy in rebuilding it. The cathedral would lack the same meaning if rebuilt in its place was a building reminiscent of just about every skyscraper in the world.

The greatest cities of the world are full of buildings through which the presence of generations and generations who have come and gone are felt, embraced and appreciated. Culture and history are so often intertwined — the way things have customarily been done, and those who forged the present according to these ways. 

History is the compilation and concentration of human stories and the human experience, and it should come as no surprise that there is some sort of disconnect here, particularly in America, which has by-and-large been defined since the end of World War II by sprawling suburbs enveloping everything in their way, and cities where things are torn down and replaced, rather than preserved.  

In France, it took Victor Hugo’s "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," written in protest of the destruction of Gothic architecture, for the public to care much about preserving their common heritage. It took the destruction of the original New York Penn Station, by all regards an architectural masterpiece, for the American public to spout even a seedling of the same mindset, only a cool 130 years or so later. 

There is a beauty in a heritage. A living culture is art, and one must not disregard how vital expression and art are to the human experience.

Priorities and concerns change, and this is not a bad thing. It is necessary to be aware of and react to the world at large. It is impractical and delusional to live in the past, but it is folly to discard what is worth maintaining.

It is important to move on, but it is also important, as they say, to prevent the old ways from being abused.  Stop some time to take a breath, to smell the flowers and reflect on the past and the future, and be sure to live in the world instead of around the world — and watch concerns of authenticity and realness fade away.

Ash C. Dunlevy is a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior majoring in plant science as well as agriculture and food systems. His column, "Tempus Fugit," runs on alternate Mondays.

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