The Third Quality of Authenticity

It seems clear that the whole preservation and restoration movement is much more than a means of promoting tourism or a sentimentalizing over an obscure part of the past – though it is also both of those things. We are learning to see it as a new (or recently rediscovered) interpretation of history. It sees history not as a continuity but as a dramatic discontinuity, a kind of cosmic drama. First there is that golden age, the time of harmonious beginnings. Then ensues a period when the old days are forgotten and the golden age falls into neglect. Finally, comes a time when we rediscover and seek to restore the world around us to something like its former beauty.But there has to be that interval of neglect, there has to be discontinuity; it is religiously and artistically essential. That is what I mean when I refer to the necessity for ruins: ruins provide the incentive for restoration, and for a return to origins. -J.B. Jackson The Necessity of Ruin

PROMPT: What are the seekers of authenticity actually seeking?

To address the desires of authenticity seekers without first addressing the definition of authenticity itself would be a step misplaced.

“Authentic: not false or copied; genuine; real.”

This definition of authenticity applied to varied fields of study yields surprising findings. In the field of Art, authenticity is the “perception of art as faithful to the artist's self, rather than conforming to external values such as historical tradition, or commercial worth.” From the standpoint of psychology the definition of authenticity stands as an “attempt to live one's life according to the needs of one's inner being, rather than the demands of society or one's early conditioning.”

More generally, authenticity refers to the degree to which one is true to their own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures. Perhaps this definition of authenticity hits nearest to intention of what “authenticity seekers” are actually seeking in authentic historic communities. To begin, it is crucial to note in any subjective analysis that “we can only see spaces as authentic from outside them.” (Zukin).

"Slums so feared by the righteous middle classes continue to appeal to artists and intellectuals because of their reservoir of danger and decay as well as their tolerance of or unwillingness to police cultural diversity." -Sharon Zukin

The analysis of a community as “authentic” or “inauthentic” comes from a solid grounding in a variety of academic and social perceptions. One may perceive authenticity as truthful only to its historic cultural grounding—that is, the degree to which a community maintains to its original cultural traits and customs. Alternatively, a community may be perceived as authentic based solely on the state of its physical condition—that is, the degree to which built and infrastructural artifacts are still extant over time. This analysis not only mandates the physical presence of built infrastructure (buildings are still physically standing as opposed to being demolished) but also concludes that buildings must be in use respective to their original function (buildings originally constructed and occupied as residential spaces may still serve that same purpose in the modern day, and industrial/commercial properties in kind true in social purpose to their original built intention).

But there is a third quality; a quality that goes beyond the traditions of a community or the physical presence of buildings and infrastructure the community has preserved. I call this third quality “grit,” corresponding to the social and material evidence of the passage of time and diversity of population and use that transcend the original demographics that once existed and functions that buildings once served. As illustrated by Zukin, “new residents do not always share the same social status or ethnic background, but they do share… a desire to seek out aesthetic evidence of cultural diversity, and an occupational motivation to use the city streets for artistic inspiration” (Zukin).

This quote harkens to our original definition of authenticity as “true to personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures.” If a community can likewise maintain its personality, spirit, or character, (in spite of physical, social, or economic externalities) it builds that quality of grit. That quality of genuine purpose which seekers of authenticity so adamantly pursue.

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