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In responding to my previous post about theory and art making, Elatia Harris left a comment that is so full of potent issues I felt it needed to be brought forward, into the headlights. She touches on issues that many visual artists (including myself) mull over, struggle with and voice frustration about. I don’t necessarily agree with Elatia’s conclusion, but I also don’t have a hard and fast answer that satisfies me.

So much has been written about authenticity in aesthetic philosophy in all its various meanings, but here I am referring specifically to the use of the term that speaks to Peter Kivy’s definition of authenticity–faithfulness to the artist’s own self, original, not derivative or aping of someone else’s way of working. In this definition, authenticity is being committed to personal expression, being true to one’s artistic self rather than to the precepts of a particular tradition or -ism.

With as open-ended a definition as that, it is still fair to ask, What IS authenticity? How do you know when you have it and when you do not? There’s no answer that satisfies that question for me. I put it in the same category as a question that is often asked of painters and poets and that cannot be languaged: How do you know when a work of art finished? (Well, it feels balanced. It stops complaining. It hums. It radiates. What can I say?)

Similarly, authenticity in all its inchoate splendor is as close to a religious creed as I have when I’m in my studio. Like a lot of things in life–love, grief, ecstasy–we keep being tempted to define these powerful experiences in language, but they will not abide.

Here’s Elatia’s comment:

For my painting career, I tried to remain outside theory while including it in my awareness. I didn’t want the pigeon-holes for myself, and wondered why anyone would tolerate them. This is quite different from failing to value consistency or vision, and it also never left me feeling at an emotional disadvantage when I painted or thought about painting. After all, if you cannot or will not say what you are as a painter or how you are affiliated with other painters doing work like yours, then you are trusting your instincts, and instincts tend to be rather unfriendly to theory.

But I have to look at where all this got me — all this rejecting of -isms and refusing to be an -ist. I created a great deal of confusion in the minds of viewers — critics and other intellectuals, friends, gallerists, potential clients. I seemed never to represent any “flavor of the month” they could believe in, or to be a part of what they could understand as the coming thing. And I misunderstood how much the classification mania of the art establishment drove the career progress an artist could make. Perhaps one can’t ever truly be outside the system — only irrelevant to it. Post-modernism engineered a slow breakdown of these taxonomies, but then became, itself, theory-ridden.

I saw the way I negotiated all that as the price of being authentic, and even from this distance I still see it that way. Authentic, yes. Intelligent, no.

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