The Quest for Authenticity

by criticalhit009

I’ve noticed a certain strain of thought permeate the art scene surrounding Calvin College, my alma mater: privileging realism and ‘sincerity’ as the only vehicles for grasping authenticity in art. Narratives soaked in down to earth stories and real world type scenarios trump all as the forms for authentic emotional expression. Much poetry in Calvin’s own art publication Dialogue is rife with this kind of realism. However, I’d like to draw attention to a different publication arising from a few Calvin grads and others, Wisdumb Tooth*.

A arts site dedicated to the authentic, their manifesto is the very stuff I am talking about:

IV.We have named this generation of wisdom hunters the ‘Sore Jaw Generation.’ This generation embraces the constant ache of humanness, and rejects the fact that just when we grow a little bit of wisdom in our teeth, some doctor in a white lab coat is trying to yank it out.  Why?  So we have a more comfortable set of gums?

VI.  Fuck that, doc.  We choose to ache with our own ingrown wisdom- ache in clarity instead of floating off like disillusioned ghosts of Novocain numbness.

I roll my eyes at this, and not just because the V numeral missing.

Is truth only found in harsh reality? Is realism all that matters to art for it to be effective and moving? If authenticity is such a valuable commodity in art, and authenticity means it feels real to us, does that mean only the “real” shall be valued?

My answer to these questions is an emphatic “no.” And any assertion for this just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

This trend not only crops up in the collective art scene(s) of Grand Rapids, but in indie and folk music as well. The acoustic revival heralded by Mumford & Sons, The Head and the Heart, and many others illustrates the realism evoked by an some unplugged guitar and lyrics “as if from real life.” One could turn towards local band CARE as an example as well. The DIY indie feel surrounding their work is excruciating authentic, and well reflects the Calvin art scene as well (many of the band’s members are Calvin grads.)

I am not saying realism has not place in art. Far from it (though I could get all postmodern and discuss why nothing is ‘real.’) But the inundation of this kind of quest for sincerity I particularly see in the art scene surround Calvin and Grand Rapids is frustrating, as it narrows down the style of art being made.

Namely, WHERE IS THE CAMP?! Where is the wondrous theatricality? Where are the bizarre stories, the fantastical settings, the grand narratives that push beyond the mundane of everyday existence? Realism has its place, but so does theatricality, as well as other forms and styles in art.


One of my favorite albums, by British pop band ABC. Playfully poking at the veil between art and audience, this is theatricality at some of its best.

I’ve increasingly studied and loved works with heightened theatricality over the past few years. Some works I’ve talked about extensively here: the Afro-futurism of Janelle Monáe, high concept symbolism of Revolutionary Girl Utena. I’m attracted to these works, not just because they are excellent, but because they are interesting. Real life has limitations that no one can avoid, and that can be dull at times, especially when inundated with the same tropes and stories. Theatricality creates veils to expand those limitations to an endless horizon. And that expanse for creativity is grand enough for all kinds of art to flourish. Let’s not waste the space.