MADE IN CHINA – The paradoxical concept of authenticity in a globalized world - Part I
Dealing with a pandemic, such as the corona crisis, elucidates how interconnected we have become. Yet, it also highlights how we are still culturally and ethically different. In this blog, the paradoxicality of authenticity within a globalized world will be explained.
A virus that started in Wuhan China made its way to the rest of the world in a matter of months. The pandemic has forced us to work together globally, which elucidates our interconnectedness as a global culture, but, moreover, shows how we are still culturally and ethically different. Whereas China wastes no time (re)producing beds and even entire hospitals and produces uncountable identical face masks to systematically and mechanically deal with the continuous flux of sick people, together as a community, European countries and the United States try to stay as close to the known as possible, taking care of the (literally and figuratively speaking) isolated and individual self to deal with the corona virus (Image 1 & 2). This difference in outlook on the world is also the case in the perception of the material world, artworks, and, consequently, that of copies and the idea of forgery. This blog will briefly introduce the paradoxicality of authenticity within a globalized world.
Authenticity: a Western concept
When we think of art, words that automatically come to mind are ‘genuinity’, ‘aura’, ‘authenticity’, the element that separates artworks from common objects. When I would ask anyone to define what makes art art, the answer often revolves around the Western perception of this concept. As the Oxford English Dictionary exemplifies:
But what makes something 'real', 'genuine' or 'true' to us? Whereas the Greek word authentikos (αὐθεντικός) refers to ‘principal, or executed with one’s own hand’, nowadays the concept of authenticity is far more complicated. Only since the end of the eighteenth century, when the involvement of science within the humanities increased together with the rise of nationalism in Europe starting with the French Revolution in 1789, we have become fixed on an object’s materiality as the one and only provider of a true and genuine experience (Image 3.).
Western society today is still largely fixed on this romantic idea of the ego: the belief that authenticity is something that is unique to every individual and the only way to encounter ‘aura’, is through an artwork’s unique composition of materials that is characteristic of one fixed moment in time and was skilfully crafted by the autonomous genius and has been put on display in a museum, the gatekeeper of truth with the primary goal of protecting us from everything that is not the real thing. Parallel to our interest in (material) authenticity emerges a growing resistance to everything that is inauthentic; hence a negativity towards copying.
Yet, this Western focus on authenticity has proven to be problematic within a world that is growing closer than ever. An often referred to example of the collision of different perceptions of authenticity is that of the 2007 Terracotta army exhibition at the Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg. The museum's director decided to close the exhibition, because a group of terracotta warriors the museum received on loan from China were newly created statues, and not the 2000 year old they expected and wished to put on display. As an advocate for the truth (from a Western perspective) the museum felt disgraced with the copies and did not want to falsely inform its visitors. The exhibition was cancelled and tickets were reimbursed. However, to the Chinese, these reproductions were perfectly acceptable and equally original as the 2000-year-old warriors, as they were produced in the same manner. (Image 4 & 5)
As cultural anthropologist and philosopher Byung-Chul Han describes, it was German philosopher Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) who first accused the Chinese for lying and deceiving whenever they get the chance and of believing in nihilistic nothingness over a singular and truth-seeking God.Although the Asian stance towards authenticity is more nuanced, as the Hamburg example shows, Hegel’s description is still compliant to our lack of understanding for the Chinese concept of authenticity. However, in China and other Asian countries, the reason for the mass-reproduction of material objects is not to deceive. On the contrary, copying artworks is a perfectly respectable and a much-encouraged practice. Moreover, it is seen as a necessity if not the most important action to secure art’s significance and its survival. Thus, Asian philosophy radically breaks with the Western idea that authenticity is substantive, immutable, determined through moral subjectivity and normative objectivity, as to them, authenticity is a 'deconstructivistic' element from the outset.
山寨; pinyin: shānzhài - the opposite of the Western idea of authenticity?
The Cantonese word shānzhài is often used as a derogatory word for knock-offs or fakes. If I talk about a shānzhài Louis Vuitton bag, I mean one that is not the 'real' thing: it is one that I have bought via Ebay with a slightly mis-designed the logo (Image 6). It is this idea of Asian culture that is very accurate in today’s Western perception. Whenever we see MADE IN CHINA on a product, we often assume that it is a lesser version of a (possibly Western) original that is qualitatively better, and worse, it tries to trick the beholder into thinking it is as good as the original product. To us Westerners, this is disgusting and should be avoided at all costs. Yet, what we tend to forget through our Westernized view is that to the people that produce these ‘fakes’ they are not crude forgeries. On the contrary, to the people and cultures that created them they are seen as multifunctional, stylish, and as good as or better than the originals.
As Han explains, shānzhài expresses a continuity, a history, and a genesis and it stems from the Buddhist philosophy embedded in Asian cultures. Whereas our idea of being is empirical, singular, unique and final, the basis of Buddhism relies on the idea that life is not final, but is recycled through reincarnation. Therefor, the idea of being cannot be compromised in only one final product. It gives way to a cyclical process of endless repetition. Consequently, zhen ji, or originality, is not determined by the act of creation by one individual at a unique moment in time with a specific genius idea in mind, but by an unending and continuous process. Thus, only through repetition can art, our culture and the world continue to exist. It is not coincidental that the printing press was first invented in China in 1050: there are no cultural and material barriers that prohibit the reproduction of any material object, as the copy is as good as the original.
So in this notion of being, of life as an endlessly repeating cycle, can we understand that Asian authenticity starts with 'decreation' instead of creation: instead of fighting and preserving art and its ‘aura’ against death (death being material decay beyond repair), as we desperately try to do in Western culture, art’s authenticity in Asian cultures revolves around the end of art, of moving through and beyond a final material manifestation. Art’s material ‘death’ or unimportance explains the occurrence of shānzhài: the idea that the process, mode or handling is more important than achieving a final product. Therefore, a cheaper shānzhài Louis Vuitton bag I bought near the Eiffel Tower replica in Tianducheng is just as original as a real Vuitton bag I bought in Paris for hundreds of euros: they are both created in a pretty similar way, it was sold near an Eiffel Tower that is just as 'Eiffel Towery' as the one in Paris, they both succeed in fulfilling their function as a bag (Image 7).
Creativity and the artist in a culture of continuous copying
So how can creativity exist within a culture that relies on continuity and repetition, a European or American might say? The answer partly lies in our own history: Cicero and Quintilian’s translatio (or interpretatio), imitatio and aemulatio for long have been the core of Western artistic production. To exceed the past and create new and better artworks, one must include them: only then we can learn from mistakes and become even greater. Moreover, the modular way of interacting with materials shows that Asian art is more functional in nature than mimetic. It is not about exactly reproducing what something looks like, but if it operates exactly the same way. In nature, this often means that successive variations: creativity naturally comes into existence.
For example, if a gray and a red fox reproduce, their offspring might be brown, not gray or red colored like its parents. Yet, its divergence in color does not make it less 'foxy' or a worse fox. Moreover, the brown baby fox's color might possibly make it better in surviving in nature. The brown fox’ parents did not decide that their cub should have this trait, it just came to be that way. This way, by using repetition, the old and the new become integral and part of the same lifecycle and creativity becomes occasional. Therefor, it can exist without the idea of the single artistic genius that is behind everything.
Dreaming of the impossible? Towards a global understanding of authenticity
All in all, it can be concluded that, in the end, we all want the same thing: to preserve what was created in the past for the present and the future, inspiring the creation of new and better things. Yet, these difference in the perception of authenticity show that authenticity is not a fixed entity that is measurable, but it is a culturally constructed, contextually variable and observer dependent phenomenon. This difference in the approach to authenticity makes for an interesting discussion within the art field. With a world that is becoming closer every day it becomes clear that a more systematic, holistic and integrative perspectives of authenticity is necessary if we truly want to understand and respect each other in working towards constructing an understanding of what authenticity means within our contemporary global culture.
For now, I hope to have opened the eyes of the reader and to have made you curious to approach material objects in a different way. Because think about it, if you would throw out all your objects that are MADE IN CHINA, how much of your material belongings - products that contribute to the creation and survival of your authentic being - would still remain? Maybe the Chinese stance towards reproduction in preserving our Western concept of authenticity is becoming a necessity after all...
In a follow up blog I will look at a couple of cases with this knowledge in mind to see what these crossing visions on art’s authenticity means in practice and how we can deal with these cultural differences.
 Bird, S. et. al., “How and why has the approach to coronavirus differed in Asia and Europe? Cultural, social and political differences have altered how each country has tackled the crisis thus far”, The Telegraph, London: March 28, 2020. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/28/has-approach-coronavirus-differed-asia-europe/ (accessed April 20, 2020)
 αὐθεντικός - Lindell, H.G. & Scott, R., Liddell And Scott's Greek-English Lexicon, (Oxford: Claredon, Abridged edition, 2007)
 Han, B., Shanzhai:, Deconstruction in Chinese, transl. by Hurd, P., (Cambrigde: MIT Press, 2017), pp. 1-5.
 Hegel, G.W.F., transl. by J. Sibree, The Philosophy of History, (Dover: Courier Corporation, 2012), pp. 116-120.
 Han, 2017, pp. 23-29.
 Ibidem, pp. 9-11.
 Gaskell, I., Paintings and the Past: Philosophy, History, Art, (London: Routledge, 2019), pp. 1-23, 149-170.
 Gregory, S., Vasari and the Renaissance print, (London: Ashgate, 2012), pp. 229-231.
 Wong, W., Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), pp. 209-231.
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