“You’re a sellout.”
Think back a decade, even half a decade, and you’ll quickly remember just how severe such an accusation was considered. To sell out was to abandon authenticity in the name of commercialism, to betray the allegiances that define individualism. In many sub-cultures, there was no greater sin.
Today, even though authenticity has become a much more mainstream concept, the idea of selling out has all but faded into obscurity. That creators of all kinds would leverage their personal brands for personal gain is accepted, even celebrated.
In his essay entitled After Authenticity, designer and writer Toby Shorin suggests that selling out isn’t as common a complaint now despite popular culture embracing authenticity, but because of it. By placing so much emphasis on the importance of personalisation and craftsmanship, the hipster culture injected the concept into the zeitgeist with such force that it quickly spread beyond their control.
As a result, even monolithic companies like McDonald’s and Facebook are positioning themselves as champions of authenticity. And so it’s come to the point where, as the 2017 Protein Youth Report claims, “the concept of authenticity is increasingly deemed inauthentic”.
The point where we enter the post-authenticity age.
The writing was on the wall. There was always going to come a time when all the Che Guevera shirt-wearing, hand-pressed chai latte-sipping, ‘you haven’t heard of this band’-listening hipsters were going to become the largest consumer base in markets around the world, and creators were going to have to adapt to them, or perish.
Shorin does a good job of detailing how the adaptation eventuated. While he is, at times, a touch extreme in his denouncement of authenticity as a positive attribute (at one point, he says it “…can have harmful side effects and may be damaging to your health”) his understanding of how it has changed the commercial landscape is clear.
In light of his skepticism, it’s a surprise to reach the final line of the essay to find Shorin exclaiming “trust in business can no longer be based on visual signals of authenticity, only on proof of work”. On the surface, it might seem like the statement confirms his claim that authenticity is obsolete, but to my mind it actually certifies the importance of true authenticity.
They might not always be the majority, but nevertheless, there are great groups of consumers that are seeking authenticity in the work of artists and business operators alike. Such authenticity confirms not only the identity of the consumer (as was the case in hipster culture), but the identity of the creator.
Shorin’s essay establishes a divide in the two when he talks about cultures feeling infantilised by Western anthropologists who wanted “original experiences” to base their studies on, or when he shows a fried chicken ad that portrays the food as “handcrafted”.
True authenticity does the opposite. It forms a connection between creator and consumer that transcends marketing spin. It drives engagement and appreciation that shines through in the proof of work.
Consumers are right to be critical of creators who claim to be authentic. They should be. For every one that seriously wants to engage with them, there are a few that only want to engage with their wallet.
But when they find the proof they need, they will support a brand that supports what they believe in. Popularity, irony, commercialism – these considerations that used to define authenticity don’t matter anymore. All that matters is the work.
Authenticity is dead. Long live authenticity.