Born a Coalminer's Daughter

Born a Coalminer’s Daughter.

My interest in the concept of Authenticity in Art came about during a discussion about the work of the photographer, Nan Goldin. Goldin’s photographs are presented as documents of her own everyday, visual diary of her friends, relationships and locations. Nan ascertains that these images are candid shots and that both she and her subjects see the camera as an extension of Goldin herself. The photographs are not orchestrated images, but records of moments:

People in the pictures say my camera is as much a part of being with me as any other aspect of knowing me. It’s as if my hand were a camera. If it were possible, I’d want no mechanism between me and the moment of photographing. The camera is as much a part of my everyday life as talking or eating or sex. The instant of photographing, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me. [1]

Yet, in the debate that ensued amongst a group of my friends and peers, the reoccurring theme was that these images could not be genuine, candid, off the cuff shots. They were just too “Art”. Too “Staged”. Too “Much” and somehow they were just not “Authentic” enough. This idea of the Authentic reoccurs in the discourse surrounding various artists in a variety of ways and some interesting parallels emerge when comparing visual art to country music.
Nan Goldin’s “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” features pictures that almost illustrate Loretta Lyn’s back catalogue. Both feature narratives of the minutiae, populated by brooding, smoking men and bruised, yet still tough women. Both are warts and all accounts of human existence and both are obviously autobiographical.

fig 1.
They also share a taste for causing controversy – Goldin has been accused of being a pornographer - most recently at the Baltic centre in Gateshead,[2] and Lyn has had more songs banned than any other artist in the history of country music. Lyn has lyrically addressed themes such as the loss of teenage virginity and becoming liberated via the birth control pill, almost taboo subjects for middle America

So considering all these parallels, why is it so much easier to believe in the Authenticity of Lynn’s music (despite the contrary existence of a faction-style biopic) than it is to believe in Goldin’s photographs?
The photograph is an indexical record of its subject, traditionally the result of a chemical reaction to light, so in theory it should always be authentic. Yet, the absence of materiality in the photographic process creates a feeling of the inauthentic… The photographer records, rather than participates in, the experience. The authentic moment is lived by the subjects, rather than the artist. Even the inclusion of the artist herself in the image does not dispel this disquieting moment of voyeurism. We simply do not associate the photograph with the photographer – so, in despite of a proven autobiographical narrative, we are left with what feels like an inauthentic experience. We seem more willing to suspend our disbelief when a narrative is presented in song – perhaps because the human voice and our reception of it can be considered unmediated in a way that the photographic image cannot. It has the ability to appear to be authentic, regardless of the content.

Historically, Authenticity in Art has been discussed in relation to forgeries. That which is not authentic, then, is a falsery, or a fakery. So, a painting is authentic if its history, its origin, has not been misrepresented. Does this imply that the use of photography somehow misrepresents Goldin’s history, giving it the appearance of inauthenticity? Does that mediation create a theoretical distance, thus giving a space in which disbelief may occur and even flourish? Authenticity is a term that is difficult to define, as it can only really be clear in regard to what it is not; therefore the Authentic is not the Inauthentic, it is not the fake, the false or the forgery. Thus, Authenticity could be described as being "at the limits" of language: as it is the negative space around inauthenticity, rather than the object itself. In the twentieth century, many writers considered the predominant cultural norms to be inauthentic. The dominant ideology is presumed to pressure individuals into particular ways of behaving and responding, or behaving in a manner that is inauthentic in relation to their true desires or needs. Advertising is an everyday example of how Western culture has distorted the individual for external reasons, selling us products and services that we have no real use for, yet convincing even the canniest consumer of their necessity,

Authenticity is a term that occurs in Existentialist philosophy. It is described as a desirable state of independent being. This is in opposition to the inauthentic body or person (someone who feels the pressure to appear to be a certain kind of person, the pressure to adopt a particular mode of living, the pressure to ignore one's own moral and aesthetic objections in order to have a more comfortable existence). So Authenticity is performative, it is located within action and doing. Therefore, if Authenticity is what the Inauthentic is not, it could perhaps be considered as living with faithfulness to your own self, not allowing this commitment to personal expression to be augmented by external pressures or influenced by the dominant ideology. The cultural fate of Existentialist philosophy, an endless parody of European intellectuals in berets, is often portrayed merely as a bygone oddity. Yet the concept of authenticity continues to be discussed. Only now the Authentic body is one that is described as “Keeping it real”, “Not selling out” or in country terms, “ Not forgettin’ your raisin’”.

A band that appear to “not forget their raising” are the Drive-by Truckers, who create an apparent authentic experience with every song they write. As is the tradition in country music, they draw heavily on cultural references regarding identity and place. The Drive-by Truckers’ identity and place are informed by the economically poor communities of the Southern United states, mostly Alabama. However, rather than approach their typical country themed first person narratives of drifters and missed chances in small towns with traditional country melodies and instruments, they employ three lead guitars, fusing metal and rock sounds with the pedal steel guitar and banjo more immediately associated with the folk music of the area. This hybrid of two strong traditions reshaped for their own use references the idea of the authentic body for allowing neither rule set to define your activity whilst acknowledging your roots is to observe the conventions set out by the existentialists themselves. All three of the Drive-by Truckers lead guitarists are credited songwriters and they each perform vocal on their own songs, which are almost exclusively written as first person narratives. Their topics are often historically factual stories based on the legends and stories of Alabama and Tennessee, and feature emblems such as poverty, farming, lawlessness, the church and gambling. They often reference music itself - including a whole double album based around the legendary band Lynnard Skynnard, using their story of childhood poverty followed by huge success and subsequent tragic deaths in an air accident as a metaphor for the political and economic failures of the southern USA.
The Drive-by Truckers constantly reinforce notions of Authenticity – both in their choice of themes and instruments, but also at the level of utterance. This is firstly evident in the personal performance of their own authored songs and secondly in the lyrics themselves. They implore their listeners not to “Sing with a fake British accent” and “Don’t tell them you're bigger than Jesus, don’t give it away...”[3]. In another song, they actually state “Every God Damn Word Is True”[4] and they make explicit their hunger for sincerity “Tell me how to tell the difference between what they tell me is the truth or a lie”.[5]
In the song “Boys from Alabama” they are directly taking an oppositional view point to a Hollywood film based on the same story[6] – the inference is clear: Hollywood is lies – we are truth. Patterson Hood says of his Song:

[The Boys From Alabama] was the first of a series of songs we worked on based (loosely) on some of the folklore surrounding The Redneck Mafia whose exploits have inspired countless books and a few (really bad) movies.
As kids, we all saw some of those movies (the most famous being the original "Walking Tall" from 1973) telling of the good Sheriff Buford Pusser and his battle against the bootleggers.
I never cared for those movies, but there was no denying the cultural phenomenon they became.
It always seemed to me that a far better story lay in "bad guys" point of view.
This year, Hollywood blew its chance to get it right, yet again.
This song could be the opening sequence for the movie I'd like to make about it.[7]

Their attention to detail, meticulously researched facts and performative authenticity, creates a persuasive argument - the Drive-by Truckers would not “Blow a chance to get it right”. Their narratives (usually performed in such a way that every word is immediately identifiable) are their focus and the fact that they are lyrically asserted as truth matters. This allows the Drive-by Truckers to create an authentic experience at the moment of utterance – their factual provenance is less important, they perform truth and in turn, we accept it as such.
A similar process is apparent in the work of Sophie Calle, who, like the Drive-by Truckers, uses her sense of identity and place (imagined or otherwise) to assert authenticity. However, Calle’s work appears to call upon the tradition of French literature, rather than country and western music. Working with photographs and performances, Sophie Calle places herself in situations as if she and the people she encounters were fictional. She imposes elements of her own life onto public places creating a personal narrative where she is both author and character. Calle has been called a detective and a voyeur; her pieces involve both serious investigations and natural curiosity. The works are immersive, long term projects, presented as texts, images and objects that illustrate narratives which may be factual or fictional, real or imagined – like the Drive-by truckers the provenance of these stories is immaterial, they are presented as if true. This is evident in the devices employed, such as observation and surveillance – Authorative, governmental devices of truth, and she also uses diaries and snapshots, personal devices of truth. In this way, Calle carefully provides us with the trace evidence required to seemingly prove the authenticity of the inauthentic. Thus, Sophie Calle's work inhabits a space between fact and fiction. She crosses private boundaries to explore the meanings that are potentially hidden there and exploits public spaces, investing them with a sense of intimacy. This intimacy is very much tied up with her process, allowing art to unfold as she goes through each stage of preparation and execution. The form of the final product - the thing that the gallery viewer actually sees - is the least significant part:

For 'The Hotel' I spent one year to find the hotel, I spent three months going through the text and writing it, I spent three months going through the photographs and I spent one day deciding it would be this size and this's the last thought in the process.[8]

So again, Calle’s work relates to performative authenticity. We do not mind if her narratives are real, false, imagined or somewhere between the two, because she authentically participates in the process that creates them.

fig 2.
Her provision of trace evidence can be likened to the Drive-by Truckers utilisation of folk instruments, such as the pedal steel guitar and banjo, that also operate seemingly as substantiation of an authentic position.

In novels, we are happy to simply digest the narrative without needing to apply authentic/inauthentic labels, yet in art we are more likely to attempt to ascribe one of these definitions. Tracey Emin is an artist who is very aware of this tendency. Her work and its associated stories have been subjected to intense scrutiny and fact checking. Yet, it no longer really matters whether Tracey’s “Facts” are true or not, she tells the stories as though they are and we accept them – no matter how unsettling there are for the viewer, no matter vulnerable they make the artist. Indeed it is the rawness of these stories that repels challenges as to their genuineness. Instead, we tiptoe around, realising that like the fantasist, the habitual cheat, and the compulsive liar, this is Tracey’s truth. She seems no more capable of distinguishing fact from fiction than we are. Emin’s art, like her authenticity, again lies at the point of utterance, a packet of cigarettes, a Polaroid photograph, a beach hut, a bed – all become art because she declares them art.

fig 3.

Her art is the same as her truths; they are truths because she says they are. Jeanette Winterson says of Emin’s work:

Do we insist on reality and confession because we have lost the capacity to imagine and invent? Emin is able to imagine and invent within the context of her own life. By refusing all her own separations, she questions ours, by refusing to disentangle art and life, by fusing her autobiography with her artistry, Emin creates a world where personal truth telling moves beyond the me-culture and into collective catharsis.[9]

Thus by talking of a seemingly truth-based specific, wider general connections and relationships can occur, a similar process to that which occurs in the metaphoric story telling previously mentioned, where the Drive-By truckers use the story of Lynnard Skynnard to speak of the Southern USA as a whole. Nonetheless, despite Winterson's initial denial of the need to divide fact and fiction, later in the very same introductory essay she still returns to the idea of truth, of keeping it real “I like that Emin’s work is uneven – that’s one of the things that tells me she is the real thing” [10]. So, despite accepting the inauthenticity of Emin’s stories, we still seek a genuine experience somewhere in our relationships with her art and her as an artist. We still require a connection with the authentic. Even Winterson, a novelist, utiliser of first person narratives, weaver of fictions, still seeks reassurance that Emin is indeed “the real thing”.
Here, the authenticity seems to rely on the artist’s material connection with the work and the sense of a lack of distance between emotion and output. Thus the rawness of the drawing, the unpolished finishes and the direct transposition of selecting a found object, moving it to the gallery space and declaring it art (with an apparent lack of mediation), are all key to the idea of Emin as authentic. Tracey Emin declares herself an authentic body and continually reasserts this through her practise, much like Dolly Parton’s position in country music.

Parton is an artist who has been successful for a very long period - widely considered to be the first lady of country music - her career so far spanning 4 decades, achieving 41 top 10 country albums. Like Emin, Dolly continuously mines her childhood for ‘authentic experiences’ employing the vernacular of her Tennessee upbringing, pictured to be as unusual and as exotic as Emin’s presentation of her own working class Margate childhood. Despite Parton’s huge personal wealth and designer wardrobe, Parton positions herself as a Down-home country-girl. Although she [A1] left her childhood log cabin home in the Smoky Mountains over 40 years ago, she still carries the folklore of her east Tennessee home with her. One of 14 siblings, Parton “keeps it real” by employing many of her family members, although this seems somewhat less authentic when you consider that many of them are employed at her theme park “Dollywood”. Yet Dollywood’s status as a large employer in a previously depressed region again demonstrates that Dolly has not “Forgotten her raisin’”. The theme park financially sustains the “Dollywood Foundation and the Dolly Parton Imagination Library”, charitable organisations primarily concerned with literacy in children. A clearly suitable concern for a girl raised in a log cabin.

So, Parton's authenticity as the queen of country pervades. Just like Emin’s authenticity, it no longer matters if the stories of her past are true or false, just that they are. Dolly’s authenticity again lies in the performative action of speaking as if she were still a shack-dwelling teenage girl who only wore shoes on a Sunday, rather than a multi millionaire in a Bob Mackie dress. Indeed, she makes much of the tale that Whitney Houston’s Hollywood-film instigated cover of her 1974 song “I will always love you” earned her over $6 million in songwriters royalties, a case of the authentic benefiting from its association with the inauthentic. The story reinforces Parton’s reputation as “the real thing” by showing what it is not, not Hollywood and therefore positioning it outside the dominant ideology, despite her seemingly oppositional resounding commercial success. Parton’s well-recognised talents as an original songwriter are reinforced by her spectacular talent with instruments; at a recent London performance, she played nine different instruments, including a harmonica and a zither. Dolly’s performative and uttered reinforcement of her authenticity happens over and over again through her physical connection with these instruments, so much so that she is no longer bound by other aspects of authentic behaviour, leaving her free to record a bluegrass cover version of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven.
This fetishisation of the authentic, supplementing the part for the whole, is theoretically problematic, yet, in practise is of little negative consequence. In his later years, country legend Johnny Cash recorded almost nothing but cover versions of well-known songs from disparate genres[11]. These cover versions feel more authentic than the original versions, even when performed by their authors. This could be attributed to the strength of the connection between perceived authenticity and country music. The most well known of Cash’s cover versions from this period is his reworking of Trent Reznor’s song “Hurt”, recorded in 2002. Originally performed by Reznor's band, Nine-Inch-Nails, Cash’s cover won a Grammy award and even Reznor found himself forced to reconsider his own song:

I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn't mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.[12]

Thus, despite this being a cover version, the romanticised idea of the undeniably authentic country music star lives on. Of course, covers are a well-accepted part of all musical genres, after all, music originated as a score to be performed, not a single object to be observed. Music is not limited by the notion of the immediate experience in the way that much of art is. We are used to it being performed and re-performed, reworked, recorded. We are so familiar with its many representations and cover versions are so frequent that they rarely capture our attention, in art the copy functions differently:

Sherri Levine’s well-known work “After Walker Evans” functions similarly – These photographs of photographs (already reproduced in an exhibition catalogued and subsequently photographed by Levine from this published material) are in essence, cover versions. Dolly keeps her cover version appearing authentic with the employment of banjo’s and gospel choirs, but Levine eschews this kind of intervention. Her photographs are simultaneously authentic and inauthentic – these are fake Walker Evans photographs and genuine Sherri Levine photographs at the same time. Levine’s work questions the notion of originality in art, but it moves a step beyond the reappropriation of the cover version or the collage. This kind of appropriation is sometimes talked about as problematic in art, indeed, some people find this apparent lack of visual innovation insulting – where is the authentic experience? But again perhaps this is in someway due to the medium of photography, rather than the performative action of reuttering another persons words, after all, plays are restaged and songs are resung, perhaps Levine’s rephotographing is in someway illustrative of the Sartre notion of authenticity:

To be Authentic is to realise fully ones being-in-situation, whatever this situation may happen to be, with a profound awareness that through the authentic realisation of the being-in-situation, one brings to plenary existence on the one hand and the situation on the other.[13]

So, an individual can only be authentic while transcending her attachment to ingrained social roles and by embracing the freedom to choose who she becomes. Living authentically means rejecting conformity to worldly institutions and instead following a true path. Conformity in art has been to search for the new, the unseen. Perhaps it takes someone truly authentic to reject that and instead directly flout those unwritten rules. Perhaps it is in the copy and the cover version that real authenticity may be found. Levine certainly appears to have a “profound awareness of…. being in-situation” as arguably the post-modern artist should, certainly all four artists discussed here, Goldin, Calle, Emin and Levine seem to be well aware of how the notion of authenticity is played out in their work.

[1] Goldin, N. (1986) The Ballad of Sexual Dependency New York, N.Y. Aperture Foundation. P6.

[2] Seized 'art porn' owned by Sir Elton John (The Telegraph 02/10/08) Sophie Borland and Nigel Reynolds -

[3] Outfit, Jason Isbell.

[4] Alabama Ass Whuppin’ version of 18 Wheels of Love, Patterson Hood.

[5] Where the Devil Don’t Stay, Mike Cooley.

[6] This counter position is further explored on pages 18-20 of my learning record.

[7] From The Drive-by Truckers official website (Patterson Hood) Accessed March 2008

[8] Calle, Sophie: Talking Art 1, ed Adrian Searle, ICA publication, London 1999. P32.

[9] Jeanette Winterson in Fuchs, T. (2006) Tracey Emin : Works 1963-2006. New York, Rizzoli. P6.

[10] Ibid. P7.

[11] Johnny Cash American Recordings (released between 1994- 2006) produced by Rick Rubin.

[12] Trent Reznor, Alternative Press, Issue 194. September 2004.

[13] Sartre, J-P. (1984) War Diaries: Notebooks from a Phoney War: November 1939-March 1940. Trans. Quintin Hoare. London: Verso. P54.

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