Thy lady of authenticity

The Paris cathedral of Notre-Dame burned partially about a month ago. Drama, tears, money, resentment etc. Everyone spoke about it or felt compelled to express sentiments about it or issued a statement.

The two most interesting readings on the topic according to my interests have been the one by Paul B. Preciado, as it enlightens some relevant aspects of how distorted can the proposed re-building be, and the philantropic US perspective I read on the New York Times, because my focus was somewhere else and it is always important to rememeber where the general focus is ($$$$$$$) or how completely divergent the perspective on the non-profit sector is from a distant point of view, that of a country with substantially different cultural politics & social welfare state.

What called my attention at first was how mesmerizing it was for everyone in Paris: I myself could not stop looking for pictures of people staring at the flames and comparing them to medieval European paintings of suffering saints. I went to sleep over-excited thinking that it was the first time I had consciously assisted to the disappearing of a European landmark, I woke up to check if it had burned out entirely over night and a few days later a friend even wrote me she had dreamt of us living in a roof house on top of it. It was all very present.

A couple of days after this happened, a personal trip brought me to a yet unknown to me part of uninhabited Spain, the super beautiful and incredibly green montanous area between Castilla La Mancha, Aragón, Valencian community and Catalonia. We spoke about Notre-Dame while driving around, and the opinion of my family was “thankfully they are going to rebuild it”.

We visited, I believe, all the tiny and rare villages that the agricultural structure of the past centuries left on our route: we drove for kilometers through the countryside without seeing even a single abandoned house (the opposite of the central Italian landscape, where the division of lands created a pattern of little properties, and the human footprint is strong and evident everywhere. I am so not used to visually face empty spaces). I was with my parents, born in 1940 and 1954. They diligently trust tourist guides, and my father loves to be seen around with a book with the name of region he is visiting in his hands, trusting this will bring him in conversation with local people who will tell him stories, while at the same time being identified as a curious person discovering a new territory. Those 40 years between us are a personal endless source of inspiration, clearly. Anyway, many villages were marked as relevant in their guide, maybe empty, abandoned but with a historical center, or a castle and a monastery etc. As said, we stopped in ALL of them, and many were included in the route of the “nicest villages of Spain“. While I was rather interested in how wild and GREEN the nature around us was, my parents’ focus was on the monuments. Some they found interesting, peculiar, etc. but most they did not like because they were rebuilt. They lacked authenticity.

I asked them why Notre-Dame should be rebuilt instead, and in spite of this it would not lose its identity nor its symbolic meaning and consequent value but instead increase it, while these places could not experience similar paths or afford the same potential. They thought it over and honestly had no rational answer. Instead, facing the evidence that one was socially and politically constructed and artificially made more important, they, who are not so blind not to see that it was a contradiction, could not dare to acknowledge the logics behind it or structuring any thought on the power of emotions and materials.
Having situated authenticity as a cultural construct, it is as if layers of authenticity can be simply wrapped around any object irrespective of its unique history and materiality. The argument that ‘visitors to archaeological sites or museums experience authenticity and aura in front of originals to exactly the same degree as they do in front of very good reproductions or copies – as long as they do not know them to be reproductions or copies’ (Holtorf 2005: 118) exemplifies the cultural constructivist stance. It is undoubtedly the case that replicas can acquire authentic qualities (Hall 2006; Holtorf and Schadla-Hall 1999; Holtorf 2005; Pye 2001), but the important question is how and why some become more powerful loci of authenticity than others. Furthermore, to what extent is their authenticity a product of their physical state and material substance? Sian Jones, “Negotiating Authentic Objects and Authentic Selves: Beyond the Deconstruction of Authenticity “

Picture: Valderrobres, Aragon, deepest Spain. April 2019