On Authenticity by Cara Ober

Previous Story

MLA Launch Party Feb. 21

Next Story

Waterlines: Photography and Drawings by Elena Vol [...]


“Authentic. 1. Conforming to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance, or belief. 2. Having an undisputed origin, genuine.”

Let’s suppose that there is no such thing as authenticity. I have to say first that originality is something quite different. As far as art goes, there is no such thing as originality and maybe there never was. But authenticity is another issue.

We live in a world where authenticity is championed, but mostly as an advertising gimmick. Organic and local produce often arrives from South America doused in jet fuel. Identity theft is a common crime – most people I know have experienced this first hand. We live in a world where people prefer virtual friends in chat rooms to their own neighbors. None of this is shocking, new, or even, necessarily, bad.

But if authenticity doesn’t exist, then what are artists actually doing in their studios? Are they hamsters, spinning away on a wheel, merrily sacrificing time and money to an artificial god – the illusion of their own creative selves?

What about the thousands of graduate students across the country, taking out loans to pay for ever-expanding MFA programs? Instead of growing their ‘artist-selves’ through research and practice, all they are doing is paying for a diploma – a meaningless slip of paper, which is permission to participate in this game called Art.


I was told recently, when discussing the state of my life, “You need to choose between Oz and Kansas, Dorothy, because you can’t do both at the same time.” And my friend is correct. As artists, we straddle the uncomfortable middle ground, between different states of being – on one hand, living in a place of imagination and enchantment, while, on the other, printing postcards for our next exhibit and counting on sales and reviews. We want the big, cruel, inauthentic world to reward and recognize us for what we do and are disappointed when it mostly does not.

I will reiterate – there’s probably no such thing as authenticity, as defined above, in the art world or otherwise. Deep down, I think we all know that ANYTHING and EVERYTHING can be stolen, forged, and knocked off and that people will buy them. Even the thoughts in your head that you haven’t expressed yet can be stolen, and, even if they’re not, there are no new, original ideas anyway.

In light of this, I have made a decision. I have decided to willingly and knowingly choose the state of Oz over Kansas. I don’t care if it isn’t real. I don’t care if it doesn’t exist. To make the kind of work I feel compelled to make, I HAVE to live in a place where mischievous discoveries delight me, where ‘capital P poetry’ finds me in the strangest places, and where ethics and integrity abound. To make work that satisfies me, I have to live in a world where I let go of my intellect, and submit to an authentic creative force I don’t understand. This world has its own costs and limitations, but, for better or for worse, I am committed.

Related Stories
On fearless artmaking, the value of openness, and why wanting stability is not selling out

"Nothing is ever failed. It's just going to take a form that I don't know about yet.”

Highlights: Black History Month, Pyer Moss, Kenya Barris, book banning, AP Courses, Ilhan Omar, George Santos, reading the internet, awe, and the Dallas Zoo. 

It's Black History Month!!!

A Conversation with the Pivotal Author of 'Thinking with Type'

A discussion of design as a superpower, Lupton's experience as a curator, and the rewarding process of writing books.

Baltimore news updates from independent & regional media