Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Authenticity and Value

In class on Monday we discussed Regina Bendix's book on authenticity, its relation to the commodification of culture, and its legitimizing powers, both for culture and for folklore as a discipline. I ran across an item on an arts e-marketing blog that touches on authenticity from a different angle. The blogger, Gene Carr, reported on a Poynter Institute study that said the following:
Live, documentary news photos -- photos of real people doing things in real time -- got more attention than staged photos. Studio or staged photos received little attention. [emphasis in original]
Carr encouraged marketers to use action, candid, or backstage images instead of publicity stills, adding that online,
"Authenticity is more important than almost anything else."

Why is that? Authenticity, or at least the perception of authenticity, clearly adds value. I think that for one thing, people want to feel knowledgeable, to feel like insiders. That includes getting a peek behind the slick, packaged images that we see everywhere. We like being able to know the difference between reality and virtuality. It's that eternal quest to be (or seem!) smart enough to get at the truth. More than that, however, maybe it's another way that we look for connection. We've talked in class about how folklore has been seen as an antidote to the alienation of the modern world, and that latching on to tradition - any tradition - simulates community and a sense of being grounded in time or place with other people.
Seeing a candid photo of an artist gives the illusion of really knowing him or her as a person, of being a part of that community (though this feeling is as artificial as the staged publicity photos). And it seems that this feeling of connection, of being one of the savvy few, adds value to a cultural experience.

What do you think?


Deb said...

I think that folklorists are hardly the only people who have (or have had) a vested interest in the idea of the authentic. As you rightly point out, authenticity sells products (why else would so many people pay ridiculous prices for the Longaberger Baskets?) and it is a strategic marketing maneuver.

If we assume that authenticity does indeed add value, where does that put the work of folklorists who interrogate and critique those aspects of folk culture that appear to be, or marketed as, authentic?

We know that the "folk worlds" imagined in places like Appalachia and the Amazon are fictions, and that authenticity is perhaps more likely to be produced as it is to being an inherent aspect of a tradition, custom, or object. But what do we give up when we take authenticity as our subject rather than our standard for judging the folk materials before us?

Jeanne said...

Thank you for this interesting post. The topic is important to me because it relates to what I am trying to discuss in my paper. The post tells about a viewer who wants a sense of belonging and who accepts the images given in the “real life” photos as a way of fulfilling that want, of drawing closer to “real” people. The articles I have been reviewing tell me that company employees may also want a similar sense of security or involvement in a community. They may feel distant from their bosses and desire to understand them as human beings like themselves. They achieve this to some extent when they hear a story told by a manager who recounts a time when he was like them. The staged and practiced story, even if it is about a true and verifiable event in the manager’s life, like the staged “candid” shot, only seems to give a glimpse of a person they can relate to. But even in this seeming I would maintain that the feeling it arouses is a genuine feeling (not artificial) even if what it stems from is artifice.

The “person” in the story and the photo is actually an actor, another persona, but there is a sense of belonging that comes from viewing the ad or hearing the story. It may come from identifying with the actions recounted or depicted but it may also come from the way both story and picture validate the fact that indirectness and distance are elemental to the human condition. It may be that the audience isn’t identifying with the person in the picture or story so much as they are identifying with the storyteller or the photographer who presents it to them. So listeners may fall for the story as it is given (in the hook, line and sinker sense) but they may also experience a strong sense of community when they don’t fall for it. Once they realize that they are glimpsing Oz behind the curtain, glimpsing someone who is not innocent, who may even be trying to dupe them, they may feel slightly disappointed, slightly guilty, even a little angry, but also less afraid and more secure (like Dorothy eventually did). James and Minnis (two of my authors) point out that: “We are amazingly adept at spotting contradictions between word and deed.” And there is always contradiction between word and deed. If that is true then an audience preferring staged “behind the scenes” shots of “real life” may be reaching for fellowship through alienation as well as through identification.

I'm not sure how I'd relate this to the questions Deb raised. Still thinking..