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Up From Authenticity

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Bruno Paciulli

I was in a conversation several weeks ago in which one person went on a rant against reproductions of antiques, retro car designs, and other "fake," "phony," and "inauthentic" things. I made a mental note never to invite him to our house, where he would find a Mission- style sofa, a Prairie-style lamp, two prints that are modern restrikes from old plates, Tiffany-like art glass vases made in Northern California, and an American-made "Oriental" rug. That's just the living room. There's more faux Tiffany in the dining room along with "lacquer" chairs that were actually painted by an auto body shop. In the kitchen we have an old-style tin ceiling that a graduate student and I put up several months ago. Upstairs, soon there will be an Arts and Crafts-style bed, newly made by a bunch of guys in Oregon. In the basement is one of my toys, a piece of equipment enabling incompetents like me to make joints in wood that look as if a true craftsman cut them by hand, rather than a guy with a power tool habit. Among the few "authentic" pieces of furniture in our home is a hand-carved settle from Indonesia that my dad bought in the 1960s. It is gloriously, wonderfully, authentically ugly. And we did all this without a decorator.

Maybe we're just faux and proud of it, but we like our house and don't feel bad about being surrounded by the "fake," "phony," and "inauthentic" things that triggered the tirade. In fact, we even treasure some of them.

I know, however, that the ranter is not alone in his hatred of inauthenticity. I heard similar arguments twice in my first year at Johns Hopkins. The opening blast was from a visiting friend who wondered how I could stand a campus with "all that fake Georgian brick." The words were crushing because I loved the campus at first sight. Some of the sting disappeared later when I visited his home institution. Its architects probably also worked for Stalin. The second time was when the wife of a colleague took me to task for liking (and probably exemplifying) that "fake, superficial West Coast friendliness." She was right. I still prefer it to genuine surliness.

In American culture today, it seems we frequently want the genuine article--which usually means old, handmade, and inefficient. Although I can appreciate the real thing when I see it, I've never understood what is so great about authenticity. Take old houses, for which there was once a lot of enthusiasm. Until people started trying to live in them. I remember hearing comments in the 1970s like, "These are real houses, made by real carpenters, not like that new mass-produced stuff." The real carpenters who built the real ones I lived in must have had real drinking problems and only an approximate grasp of concepts like "horizontal" and "vertical." I've had "real" sports cars and loved them; yet if we had the money, there would be two shiny new inauthentic cars in front of our house. Each would do things those "real" sports cars never did, like go from point A to point B without breaking down, keep rain off passengers, and hold oil where it belongs, rather than dribble it on the pavement or squirt it on the driver's leg like the automotive equivalent of a very bad dog. When it comes to certain things, do we truly want the genuine experience? I'd stay away from authenticity in dentistry. I'll take synthetic comfort over real pain, and artificial teeth sure beat the alternative.

For those like the guy whose rant set me off on my rant, I also think there is a double standard. When an Italian guy pretending to be an American sings to an American woman pretending to be Japanese, it's art. It's the genuine article, the real Madam Butterfly. Our things, however, are fake by his standards, because they aren't old or "natural," even though the tin ceiling was pressed from molds that have been pressing them for a century. It should be possible to treasure things for how they look and make us feel, not for their origins or antiquity.

As for his house, I wish him happy authenticity. I saw the perfect place for him a couple of years ago, sold inexpensively after the death of an elderly woman who hadn't changed a thing since she bought it in the 1950s. The Formica table, red linoleum, and turquoise refrigerator were the real thing.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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