I was having a vigorous discussion Saturday with a visiting Frenchman about the art market, and out of my mouth came the word Authenticity-- like a sentry, like a pillar or goddess... like one of those lovely intangible names so many girls in the hood proudly wear around gold chains these days-- Destiny, Felicity, Cadence, Chassity (yes, I looked twice at that one... ). Authenticity, in the end, is what matters, I heard myself saying… not the kind that is guaranteed by a stamp or certificate or committee when you buy a Warhol or a Keith Haring, but the real thing.
Back in the day, there were sketchy galleries on Madison Avenue who sold Picassos, Miros, Chagalls-- with or without signatures; most of these came accompanied by a piece of paper like a pedigree, guaranteeing their authenticity. None of these galleries are currently in business; their provenance is a sort of black mark on the merchandise, even if it is real. They reminded me of the papers issued when you bought a certain breed from one of those puppy stores which are also a thing of the past, buried beneath lawsuits and claims. A guarantee of purity and lineage… how were we to know this was a grey-market dog? Would we return it after adopting it into our family? Of course not. Imagine the paperwork that comes with religious and historic relics--- Napoleon's penis which is insured for an obscene sum and would auction for far more-- who knows the absolute truth, the DNA nitty-gritty?
Most of us would be horrified if we bought tickets to hear a great rock band and ended up with their lookalikes simulating the music... or if they showed up and played cover songs all night. We would know. But the art world-- the quick overnight successes-- do we feel the depth of what they do? Yes, Jean Michel Basquiat had a kind of genius-- looking at his work was like hearing the young Ramones at CBGB's before anyone told us it was cool. But too many of us are happy now to hang a poor imitation of his unique style with a bunch of silly text scrawled across the page. It 'looks' hip-- but it's really just bullshit. Half the artists showing in galleries are wannabes or followers-- and the audience lacks the time or interest to investigate who their mentors were. Most people these days get their blues from Eric Clapton, not Lightnin Hopkins or Blind Lemon Jefferson. People in general settle for the 'light' version, take their selfies and go home and watch Netflix.
There are so many awards-- nominations, honors--- a self-proclaimed candidate can produce a roster of accomplishments and offices held. Is anyone really bothering to certify these things? Our children play in sports leagues; virtually every child is given a trophy... it's misleading, not democratic-- and gives children the idea that they are the best when they are not even good. It's a Snakes and Ladders game of fame-- press the right Instagram button, and you are an instant princess-- not that I am bitter about the easy success of the undeserving-- it's just the substitution of this, like artificial sweetener, that leaves a bad taste and ruins the dream. And in the runway 'walk of fame'... who is bothering to distinguish what is authentic from the rest? Some of us are.
When I was a girl, my favorite book was The Prince and the Pauper. I loved kings and queens in disguise--- even The Princess and the Pea-- the way real heroic nobility and royal kindness shone through rags and tatters. We no longer have the example of 'good' rulers. Quite the contrary. But there are still things out there to be discovered that are badly dressed and brilliant-- or unmarketed,
non-Instagramed, and wonderful. There is more soul in a couple of the men I hear singing in the train stations than in all the top 40 recordings I can't name. Talent is no guarantee of success, and too often the best of them drop out. It's too damned hard.
I still can't get over that da Vinci painting... I mean, when I was ten, my mother took me to see the Mona Lisa on its world tour. Of course we waited endlessly on a huge line, and we were rushed by the viewing stage... but it was magical. Yes, it was curtained and 'presented' with theatricality-- but you could breathe its importance-- its quiet beauty. I had chills... I nearly cried; it was authentic. But that $450 million painting? It spoke not a word-- no song, no chills, no magic. It was flat. Like a bird that choked, or a clown in couture. It just didn't feel right; but then there are always those who want to believe in the charlatan, in the false messiah, the doctored unicorn.
For years I tried to imitate my mother's simple yellow cake recipe-- it just never came out tasting right. I finally gave up and did things from scratch my own way and discovered something else. I'm not a baker, I'm a bass player. Of course I definitely have my heroes, and have plenty to learn from the masters, but the last thing I want is to sound like them. I may never be famous or celebrated, but I'll be myself. People used to ask my Mom what her secret ingredient was, and she'd laugh it off. I finally realized it was her hands-- her skill, her unique story, the passion and love she baked in-- her inimitable recipe for authenticity.