Panel Discussion Prompt: Jack White on authenticity

Late last year, Jack White was awarded honorary patronage from the Philosophical Society at Dublin’s Trinity College. This is one of the world’s oldest student societies — previous members include Bram Stoker, the Edge,  Bob Geldof, John McCain, Newt Gingrich and Oscar Wilde. On break from the Dead Weather tour, White gave an impromptu interview that yielded some near-philosophical rumination

I always feel that I’m looking for that in music and art, I’m looking for truth, I’m looking for something beautiful. In my own mind I imagine that as authentic. I don’t know sometimes if the artists that I love the most truly are authentic. I don’t know if Bob Dylan and Tom Waits are as authentic as I think they are. Perhaps they’re not. Perhaps they’re like a David Bowie creation that they’ve made themselves and perhaps we’re witnessing the art of that….Sometimes you start thinking that maybe Britney Spears or someone like that who’s doing exactly what they want to do in the way that they best know how is more authentic than any of those people you could mention.…I assume that Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson are authentic…Then you read stories which say Robert Johnson also played Bing Crosby songs at supermarkets and that’s very inauthentic.…

There are times when you can be at a supermarket and hear a song on the radio and it doesn’t have to speak volumes or be beautiful in the sense that you can get some kind of depth out of it or some kind of life changing notion form it, but it’s enjoyable on a different level. I really love Charlie Patton and his songs speak from a completely different generation to me, but I also hear Ace of Base come on and I think they’re doing something really good. I don’t know how to differentiate at times. I think it really is a philosophical paradox if you really think about it, if you really decide what side of beauty that you want to be on. I need for it to be authentic, especially the music that I make myself.…

There are a couple of interesting points here… first, White suggests that a certain naivete about the employment of artifice might lead to an easier authenticity. He seems to be saying that an artist like Dylan or Bjork or Bowie — who intentionally constructs and maintains an ambiguous image — might be less authentic than an artist like Britney Spears, who is more explicit and straightforward about the fact that she’s an entertainer putting on a show. In other words, there’s no apparent critical distance between Britney and her productions. Second, White implies that beauty and aesthetic appreciation are independent of any assessment of authenticity, which he characterizes for himself as an internal, personal orientation and decision. Both of these ideas seem at play in design: is a “Britney Spears” type of designer — who’s not at all critical about the constructed nature of his/her production — somehow more authentic than a designer who plays with his/her roles and intentionally, reflectively breaks boundaries? What do we make of this paradox? Does the authenticity of a designer (in terms of personal orientation) even matter in terms of how effective a design might be in communicating its message?