Basking in authenticity


My friend Christian asked me for a little help writing an “Artist’s Statement” in English for inclusion in a ceramics exhibition in Korea in which he is a participant. Christian and I have the same feeling about the utter ridiculousness of artists’ statements. The idea that one needs a guide to formal work like ceramics or sculpture, as if there is some code to decipher, is a little silly. But then again, it is often how the art world operates. If the narrative is compelling, so goes the art. Oftentimes without this compelling narrative, no notice will be taken of the work on its own. The intersection of these things is fascinating.

Christian and I started playing a little game, assigning all kinds of meaning to the work that was never part of his intent. And then we hit on an extraordinary idea. What would the art world denizens be expecting of a Peruvian ceramics artist? What would the committee putting together the expo want or need for their interest to be piqued? It was pretty obvious (and unfortunate), but we both agreed that they would want something “authentic”, “Peruvian”, and above all “native”. This is sadly the way much of the art world needs to interact with objects from other cultures. It is pretty insulting, actually. The idea being that authenticity must flow from some quasi colonial/imperial idea of original culture. If Christian were to say that his influences were Bauhaus architects of the 1920s, it would probably be met with much less interest than saying he was trying to recover pre-Spanish (and pre-Inca) images of earth mother and earth father. As a Peruvian artist, it is much more “authentic” to repair the destruction of colonialism than it would be to express yourself as a citizen of the world where influences come from everywhere. This is an insulting trap for artists the world over.

In today’s world, this search for the “authentic” and “native” is more than a little silly. With modern communications and media being what they are, everything is a jumble of everything. While it might soothe some remote aesthete to believe they can find unadulterated purity, it is a fantasy. And this fantasy is not limited to art consumers. In my own travels I have been confronted time and again with the platonic ideal of the authentic smashing up against the real and messy mix of cultures that is the modern world. I think back to one of my favorite stories, told to me by my friend Marites. When she and her husband were traveling for the first time in India, they were invited by relatives of an Indian family they knew in Berkeley to come for a visit. The village was a bit off the beaten track, and my friends were quite tired when they finally arrived, happy to be welcomed into a home in the midst of all the chaos of Indian culture. As they settled in, the mother of the household offered them chai. My friend took it with great pleasure and care, and noticing the aroma and flavor and surroundings, said,

“This is all so wonderful, thank you for welcoming us into your home. This chai is delicious. Where do you get your spices? Where does the tea come from?”

Visions of the misty tea plantations of Darjeeling surely dancing in my friend’s head, the woman responded,

“Oh! It is Lipton tea. I always buy a huge box when I visit my son in Berkeley. From Costco, it is such a good price!”

My friend was crestfallen, but laughing as well. I love this story because it so well illustrates how our romantic notions of things so often take the place of what is actually in front of us. That we find it so difficult to see what is real and potentially beautiful without a special narrative. The best part of traveling (for me anyway) is not in having one’s romantic notions fulfilled (which does happen sometimes), but in discovering things one never knew about, mundane or awful or wonderful, that teach something about a culture. I am not bothered at all by the complex contradictions of a culture, I revel in them. Or more accurately, I revel in the lessons they impart, because oftentimes these experiences are not terribly pleasant.

It is the same with the expectations that the world places upon us for reasons having nothing to do with our personalities. It is of course true that we are made up of the many threads of our environment, including the place of our birth and circumstances of our cultures. But this is not all we are, and in an increasingly interconnected world, for both good and ill, we are a jumble, all of us. Instead of needing to put people into boxes for the ease of categorization and identification, perhaps we could try standing back a bit and just looking, without referring to the artist’s statement. We might be surprised and delighted by what we find.


  1. Juan Carlos says:

    We have to talk about thissss…..
    in spanglish!

  2. Dhananjay Kulkarni says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more!

  3. Will Swaim says:

    Very smart, Stephen. Reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s “The Painted Word.” And you’re right: the whole idea of the fine arts is (or ought to be) that they’re about the non-linguistic, right? I remember an artist in OC who used to scrawl whole stories on canvas; he wasn’t being ironic. And he sold the stuff for thousands.