Authenticity: is it the genuine article?

Mood lights. High, sheer curtains. A huge, fluted burgundy vase. Walls of melancholy sepia post-war photographs. This was not the Taipei of functional grey modernism or 7/11 stores with eggs boiled in tea. But the restaurant's website assured me: I was consuming "authentic" Taiwanese food, presumably not to be confused with phony lunches.

At the time I just ate, and happily so: a local dish of cured mullet roe, daikon radish and garlic sprout. Just the right balance of bitterness and saltiness, crunch and chew, translucent orange and fleshy white. Memorable. Yet the question lingered: what was I eating when I ate authentically?

Authenticity has now been used so often, in so many slick magazines, hyped television shows, and wannabe menus, it has itself become a symbol of falsehood: the counterfeit real. Others still chase it, mocking anything that seems generic, mass or artificial.

It helps to be reminded of the commonsense meaning of this notion: something is authentic when it is true or genuine.

There are moments when a concern for verity makes sense. When I was nine and on my first big holiday, our tour group was taken to a Chinese village, which had been especially chosen by government officials. I was in no position to judge its merits, but the selection itself was telling: only certain encounters with the country were allowed.

In their attempts to represent Communist ideals and policy in a positive light, they were trying to give a bogus picture of the nation. In this sense, the tour was inauthentic. Authenticity makes sense as a response to deceit or falsity. Something is false in relation to a tacit or explicit truth claim.


Authenticity is also important in art and antiquities. A Matisse on display is authentic, not because it makes factual predictions, but because it is the original from which copies are made. This is claim, not to truthfulness, but to being first and usually rare. In other words, this kind of authenticity makes particular sense in a context of reproduction: the progenitor, from which came the tea towels, coffee cups and baseball caps.

But with food, clothing, art and music, there needn't be any appeal to authenticity. My Taipei meal might have been local cuisine, but what mattered to me was the taste, texture or colour; the experience itself, and its various pleasures. Locals do develop their own distinctive cultures – yet they also refine and revise these, often in response to exotic influences.

Stasis is a poor recompense for supposed genuineness. I drank an excellent espresso in Taipei's Xinyi district, at a cafe with the surprising name of Woolloomooloo. This was neither Italy nor Sydney, but it combined culinary and architectural traditions from each. In this, it was neither authentic nor inauthentic – these categories were irrelevant.

Authenticity can also be a poor guide to aesthetics. A world-class replica of a Matisse is no longer the unique first thing, but it offers the same pleasures of colour and line. This might be little comfort to a bamboozled collector, but it is fine for an art lover.

In short, sometimes truthfulness or originality are not relevant: the experience is what counts.

In this light, authenticity can also be a spur for reflection: what is it about truth or genuineness that demands attention, sometimes misguidedly? For tourists, this can be the illusion of certainty.

Having spent thousands on airfare and accommodation, and after losing a day of sleep and comfort, we find the consolation of the real. Forget the commonalities of banal ordinary life, seize upon the consecrated difference – the definite otherness, which justifies the trip or cost. This is misleading for the tourist, and can be insulting to the host culture: you can only be this, forever.

This doesn't mean ignoring locals who recommend popular dishes, architecture or fashion. It means being wary of the urge for easy conviction, particularly when more ambiguous truths – the logic of commodification, the power relations involved in tourism – are left conveniently alone.

So at its best, authenticity is less an earnest quest for enlightenment or pretentious buzzword, and more an ordinary concept. It makes sense in some circumstances, and not in others. It can illuminate some situations, and leave others muddled. It need not be deputised or vilified as part of a squabble between the earnest and the cynical.

Damon Young is a Melbourne philosopher and author.