With the New Year around the corner I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of authenticity. What does it mean to be “authentic”? On social media? In personal relationships? Regarding art especially, authenticity often gets lumped in with the concept of purity. There’s this idea that to be authentic one must essentially exist in a vacuum, paying no heed to outside input, advice, or influence. That a true artist’s ideas must be wholly original and her engagement with the world wholly altruistic.
We all know this is impossible. Even famous artists whose work is highly conceptual, non-(overtly)-commercial, and society-focused are motivated by something. If it isn’t money, it might be influence, power, prestige, or passion. It might be a desire to impress a significant other or challenge a parent’s expectations. Even those motivated by loose hunches and unidentified feelings know that these visceral urges are, like everything else, composed of influences at the end of the day.
So is the concept of authenticity dead? Can it mean anything in a world where we acknowledge the all-encompassing nature of influence and motivation?
I think it can. To me, the concept of authenticity is more closely related to transparency than purity. It hinges on self-awareness and a willingness to share your motivations (of which you are conscious) with others. I, for one, know that I am currently motivated by a desire to make money from my art. But money isn’t an end in and of itself. It symbolizes much more: independence from my parents, a sense of validation and camaraderie manifested by the realization that strangers are interested in my work, the ability to purchase new materials and experiment with them, and eventually, the freedom to continue to pursue my passions uninhibited by the necessity of more cash.
Some would nevertheless call anyone who admits to wanting to make money from art a sellout: someone who sacrifices passion on the altar of materialism. And maybe there is a grain of truth to this characterization, but so what? The standard that used to deem someone a sellout in this instance condemns us all as sellouts in every area of our lives where motivation “clouds” our “pure” pursuit of “divine purpose” (can you tell I’m being sarcastic?). You make work that always addresses the most talked-about social issue of the day? Sellout. You choose to pursue a career as an accountant to support your family even though you always wanted to be a graphic novelist? Sellout. You eat the last slice of pizza just so your brother can’t have it? SELL.OUT. (srsly, why would you do that?)
My point is not that there’s never an appropriate time to use the word sellout. It’s that the word needn’t be necessarily loaded with such a negative connotation. We all make choices that reflect our priorities and every designation of a priority necessitates sacrifice in other areas. It’s up to us to prioritize things that will lead to our long-term gratification. For some, that might be money, time, or family. For others, career, prestige, or consistency. None of these motivations are inherently bad. Context determines value-judgment. It is up to us to know ourselves well enough to choose wisely, and to change our priorities as we change as people.
This new year will be an important one for me, in which many of my priorities will be translated from thought into action. My resolve to make a living while retaining a high degree of creative agency will be put to the test as I strive for a greater degree of financial independence from my parents. The nature of my romantic relationship will change as we balance co-dependence with the pursuit of our personal goals. In all likelihood, I will lose the comfort of my current sense of place and be challenged with adjusting to a new setting.
A year ago, I could never have imagined facing these changes without overwhelming feelings of dread and anxiety. It is a testament to how far I have come in 2017 that I look to the future with tentative positivity and even a bit of excitement. I accredit the change to a lot of introspection that manifested in tangible action, prompted by healthy relationships and fortunate opportunities. I’ve gotten in good habits that have enabled me to know myself better, to consider my own strengths and limitations when faced with decisions, to trust myself more and recognize the possibility for change when times are bad. In 2018 I hope to continue this trajectory despite more difficult circumstances, to strive for success and arrive there through authenticity.