Wednesday, 12 March 2014

It's The Real Thing

Accept no substitutes, they say.  For what?  Why, for the Real Thing!

But what is the Real Thing?  Everything is real, isn't it?  Apart from imaginary things (and a good case could be made for their reality, too).  PVC is every bit as real as hand-tanned hide.  What is meant, of course, is that real leather is better than its substitutes, because it is the thing for which they are mere surrogates.  We still assign primacy to materials and methods which were long ago superseded in the mass market.

For some, the Real Thing persists as a shadowy ideal, standing behind the ersatz approximations that we encounter in the, ah, real world.  I suppose a paper bag of plums from a market-stall does somehow feel more authentic than a plastic supermarket pre-pack, doesn't it? In the ideal world of Real Thing enthusiasts, everything would be manufactured to the standard of a Swiss watch, and delivered in a wooden box with proper dovetail joints, or perhaps wrapped in straw and waxed-paper, and packed in hand-crafted baskets or ceramic pots.

Once upon a time, of course, this ideal world was the real world inhabited by the wealthy. Nowadays, though, even the wealthy are content with the good-enough quality of mass-market goods; no-one expects the cabinet of a TV or a PC to be made of French-polished mahogany with gold-plated knobs.  That's why the Hasselblad Lunar is so risible.  I believe even the Queen helps herself to muesli from a Tupperware plastic box.  But authenticity and truth to materials are, in fact, as much matters of design and taste as vintage or tradition: so perhaps Tupperware, like the iPhone, is the Real Thing?

In the aesthetic realm, the Real Thing used to be the canon: those supreme works of the human spirit that stood, marmoreally eternal and unchallengeable, as the stern measure of everything else. In the late 20th century, we began to feel oppressed by these Nobodaddy superegos -- and rightly so -- and knocked them all over.  Free at last!

Now, there is a basic move in therapy, which is learning to say "I feel this is bad" rather than "this is bad".  It's a very simple, but very empowering shift in emphasis.  A similar, therapeutic move has happened with aesthetic judgements.  We have learned to say, "I feel this to be beautiful" rather than "this is beautiful", in the process disempowering a whole class of culture gurus, handing down their Olympian judgements.  That distinction between essence (this is) and experience (I feel) is an important part of contemporary culture.  But in a world where everyone, it seems, is compulsively sharing contradictory views on everything all the time, you could find yourself longing for culture-gurus and a fixed canon again, if only to expedite the process of finding the genuine article.

For -- reluctant as some might be to admit it -- there is a Real Thing, isn't there?  Or rather, a range of things that remain "real" for longer than most things.  Perhaps not eternally, and certainly not for everyone, but there is a cultural top drawer that holds works by Bach and Beethoven, John Coltrane and Joni Mitchell, and even the likes of Abba and AC/DC.  A "real" work of art doesn't have to be outstandingly original; in the end, everything is derivative of something else. The condition may not even last within an artistic lifetime, either: the Beatles produced the Real Thing up to but not including the White Album, and neither Lennon nor McCartney proved capable of the Real Thing separately.*

Authenticity is never a permanent condition in art, because all art has a mutable aspect, which is often overlooked:  the reception and use of works of art by audiences.  Without that, all you have is the sound of one hand clapping.  Keats was the poetic touchstone of the 19th century; now, many of us find his antiquated style  -- and not just all those thees and thous -- gets in the way.  "Verdurous glooms"?  "Blushful Hippocrene"?  Really, John?  The words haven't changed, but we have.  The volume of the applause is gradually fading.

Unless you are some sort of bloodless connoisseur, what you are seeking, in this pursuit of the Real Thing, amounts to a physiological response.  We talk of the chills, goosebumps, involuntary tears, hairs bristling, the spine tingling, a quickening of the pulse...  We know the Real Thing when we encounter it, because we feel it.  It is not the art object itself, or a property built into it by its creator, but an experience, felt when a mysterious, elusive wire joins the two poles -- work and audience -- and delivers an unmistakable, authentic jolt.  Everything else is just a way of passing the time.

Whether you regard this as a spiritual or a material experience is a matter of inclination.  When you sit among a rapt, wet-faced audience as King Lear soars to its conclusion -- "Never, never, never, never, never!" -- I doubt it matters much whether half the audience are right, and half wrong, about why this is happening to them.  Similarly with a good joke: no amount of analysis will make it any funnier, or enable you to come up with another one.  No doubt if the right area of the brain could be identified and stimulated, the same experience would be triggered.  But that would be a simulacrum**, not the real Real Thing.

That leaves the important question of how necessary it is to educate this response.  Is it OK to leave kids happily swilling Coke and only Coke into middle age (the Real Thing, allegedly), or should we attempt to broaden their horizons, in a world that also includes teas, coffees, beers, fine wines and single malt whiskies?  Are these "acquired tastes" more satisfying? Another time...

* IMHO. Not even "Imagine"?  Not really...

** I'm aware that this word has a technical use in deconstruction which is relevant to these reflections -- see Baudrillard and Deleuze --but we don't care about them any more, do we?  "So bad it's good" / "So unreal it's hyperreal" is fun, but you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our  fate.  So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.

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