Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Authenticity and category mistakes

Authenticity is a legitimate value in some places. Can it be applied to art? Well, again, in some ways yes: Is that an authentic Rembrandt? Is that authentic Limoges? You can even apply it to human beings. Is this person an authentic representative of the group he claims to represent?

A few years ago there was an ad for a major corporation, I think it was IBM, that started with a shot of a very good looking man in a suit and a voice-over that said, "This man works for a large corporation." A friend of mine was in the room when the ad came on TV and said, "Yeah, he works for them as an actor." I don't know if that was true—IBM no doubt had some employees with male-model good looks—but it raises a tricky issue.

If the federal government hires a porn star as a spokesperson in a campaign about STDs, then she is employed by the federal government in some sense. Is she a public servant? How would you resolve that? You might be tempted to say that she is a contract worker and not full time and that would get you somewhere but not very far for the federal government has lots of contract employees.

And what about folk art? s it still folk music if it's sung by Ben Heppner? If it's sung by Ke$ha? Suppose it's sung by a poor person from the rural south but the only reason they are singing this folk song is because they think it might make them more money than the pop music they love the most? That last is not, as we shall soon see, a hypothetical question.

The following is from a review of Inside Llewyn Davis by someone named Todd Alcott. It's interesting in that he opens by saying that the question of authenticity is essential to our understanding of the movie and then proceeds to prove that authenticity is meaningless in this context.
To put yesterday’s question differently, “authenticity” is a key concept in Llewyn Davis. Who is authentic, who is not, who “means it” when they perform music, and who is faking it, who is willing to prostitute his or her talents for the sake of commerce, and who is not. Authenticity wasn’t an issue in O Brother Where Art Thou, the songs performed belonged to everybody. “Old-Timey Music” was a pop-culture fad of the day, and it was used as both a commercial and political tool, but it also rose up out of the very soil under the characters’ feet. The songs of O Brother were being sung whether anyone was listening or not. No such freedom is put forth in Llewyn Davis — all the songs (but for one crucial exception) exist on the commercial stage.

(The subject of American musical authenticity is a tricky one. A while back I read an article in the New York Timesabout how there is evidence to suggest that Robert Johnson, the King of Delta Blues Guitarists, enjoyed playing pop songs and show tunes in his live sets, but recorded his protean blues numbers “because there was a market for ‘race’ records” at the time. If Robert Johnson was motivated by commerce to sing the blues, then there is no authentic blues voice — it’s all show business. Which is also the subject of Llewyn.)
 To which the obvious response is: Then why bring up authenticity in the first place? It does not, and cannot, do any real work in this discussion. (What is true of Robert Johnson is also true of dozens of supposedly authentic artists by the way; not least of whom is Dave Van Ronk who took up folk music when it became obvious there was no market for the traditional jazz that was his first love; being bad at commerce doesn't make him any less commercial than Lady Gaga.)

Another thing that makes Alcott's argument fascinating is that he keeps making harsh criticisms of Llewyn Davis that should necessarily also apply to Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan but trying to deflect the argument to protect these two icons.
So we meet Llewyn onstage at the Gaslight, singing a song onstage. The song is “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” by Dave Van Ronk. Now, the reader should be aware, that when a song like this is “by” someone, in this venue, what that generally means is that the singer-songwriter has built on a much older song, sometimes a song that has been through a dozen previous permutations. In the case of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” it’s based on a much older song called “I’ve Been All Around This World.” The point I want to make here is that “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, at first glance, as sung by the bearded hipster Llewyn Davis with no introduction, seems a little bit pretentious. Is this guy, the viewer wonders, really equating himself with a condemned man?
Let's just pretend that argument is legitimate for a moment (it isn't even close to legitimate but let's pretend). If it is, then the criticism should apply even more to Dave Van Ronk. Alcott doesn't think so. Why?
It’s been bandied about that the character of Llewyn is based on Dave Van Ronk, “The Mayor of Macdougal Street,” a mainstay and centerpiece of the Greenwich Village folk scene. This is nonsense. Llewyn shares one or two biographical details with Van Ronk, but has none of his personality. More importantly, he has none of Van Ronk’s expansiveness, his desire to reach out, to promote, to connect. Llewyn is a very inward singer, up in his own head. He demands that the audience comes to him. That demand, in fact, is, I think what the protagonist wants. Llewyn Davis wants success, craves it, but insists that it be on his own terms. Like Bob Dylan (and the movie will continue to draw comparisons to Dylan), Llewyn refuses, absolutely refuses, do do what is expected of him.
The answer is that Alcott approves of Van Ronk and does not approve of Llewyn Davis. Of course, in defending Van Ronk, he seems to be setting up Dylan but he also lets Dylan off the hook. I know you are dying to know how he pulls that one off. The answer is that Dylan is a "genius".

All art, including folk art, is artifice. It has to be. You don't have to be a rape victim to play one in a movie. You don't have to be folk to play folk music and you can play folk music with the intention of becoming a billionaire thereby and it doesn't change the status of the art. What makes something folk is its being adopted as part of folk culture. If the Oscar Meyer Weiner song and Frosty the Snowman aren't folk songs, then nothing is.

But here is a question: Why is Alcott working so hard to prop up these bogus distinctions? That, I think, is the real point of Inside Llewyn Davis. The movie is making a point about the narcissism of the fan as much as that of the artist. It's not interesting that musicians should be narcissists. Who else but a narcissist would subject themselves to the horrors that even a failed musician needs to go through? What is more interesting is that we, the fans, so willingly invest ourselves in other people's narcissistic fantasies.

Without meaning to, I think Todd Alcott answers the question. For one of the things about authenticity is that the ability to recognize it in others implies a claim to have it ourselves. How would know how to distinguish between the real folk singer and the hipster poseur unless there was something "authentic" about my way of understanding the world? For that is what authenticity really boils down to: I am the real thing and everyone else is just a supporting player in my story. What Alcott doesn't see is that he blows his own credibility to pieces in trying to maintain these distinctions. But he shouldn't feel bad: art is either bad or good, authenticity is irrelevant.

No comments:

Post a Comment