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Authenticity: Keeping It Real And Then Some

Leigh Roche says authenticity means expressing your real self, whether in life, art, or skateboarding.

“The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knows”
– Buddha

The Buddha knew about keeping things real. He could’ve stayed in his princely life instead of becoming a wandering ascetic, but knew deep down that was not his truth – his authentic life.

Authenticity is also important in extreme sports such as skateboarding, where it’s about more than just being honest. It’s about not being a poseur. ‘Keeping it real’ is instead about being true to one’s self, one’s beliefs.

This concept of authenticity provides a benchmark by which we may separate those truly devoted to an art form or way of life, and those who are pretending to be – who use a mode of expression that is not true to their essential beliefs or talents. Authenticity is about using a form of expression that comes from within, not just appropriating someone else’s form of expression. Lance Mountain, skateboarding legend, cuts right to the heart of it: “Skateboarding doesn’t make you a skateboarder: not being able to stop skateboarding makes you a skateboarder.” Or in music we see challenges to supposed authenticity expressed when a middle-class suburban kid is rapping about their struggle in the ‘hood. Regardless of how good their rap skills, their verbiage, or their groove, legitimate rap artists and their audience know it’s just BS.

A post on the site iskatethereforeiam.com (ISTIA) presents this thought: “Actually the concept of legitimacy is at the core of skateboarding… if you are legit and DIY, you belong to the skate community, if you are not, you are definitely a poser (sic). Well, that was painless and simple.” And yes, vert skating is as ‘legit’ as street. Competing is as ‘legit’ as riding in videos. Being sponsored and making a living riding is as ‘legit’ as skating at the park. As long as what you’re doing is expressing who you are to the best of your abilities, then you’re not being a poseur.

Further along the path of authenticity, Reverend Al Sharpton, President of the National Action Network, has a radio show appropriately enough called Keepin’ it Real, where he talks about issues such as violence, education, criminal justice, and human rights in general and for African Americans specifically. He started from nothing, and he’s been keeping it real for many years. That doesn’t mean that one has to start with nothing to be authentic, nor does it mean that if you find success both publicly and financially that you’re selling out and are therefore no longer authentic. I can think of nothing more authentic than finding success in an endeavor that is an expression of one’s true self. There are many external pressures to do or to be something that contradicts one’s nature, so facing down that pressure takes hard work and much courage.

The Authentic Artist

“We should not force ourselves to change by hammering our lives into any predetermined shape. We do not need to operate according to the idea of a predetermined program, plan or goals for our lives. Instead, we need to practice an art of attention to the inner rhythm of our days and lives, which will bring a new awareness of our own human and divine presence.”
– John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: Celtic Spirituality

When I was an undergraduate doing a fine arts major I faced many challenges to artistic authenticity. For instance, I had a friend who had a mild appreciation of art. He saw work by Rothko or Gorky and decided to take a canvas and paint blobs of paint in a similar non-representative fashion, and saw no difference between what he was doing and what those masters of art created after struggling with how to outwardly express deep inner thoughts about life, emotion, and experience through what they knew about color, line, shape, and representation technically as artists. I tried to explain why my friend’s painting of blobs, although attractive enough, was not real art – it wasn’t authentic. That didn’t go over real big. But authenticity is more than merely appropriating symbols or modes of expression; it’s about a clear expression of yourself.

German existentialist Martin Heidegger associated the artist’s need for authenticity with the artist’s interest in truth, as realized through their visual understanding. And in Picturing the World (1986) modern philosopher John Gilmour says “truth requires that we give to imagination a central role in our quest for truth…” Generally, art is imagination in creative action, and art both reveals and conceals truth. Art is also created in a historical/social context, and has a question and answer exchange between the work of art and creator as well as an equivalent exchange between the work of art and the viewer, and this dynamic is part of the artwork. This ‘dialectic’ is the dialogue of differing viewpoints brought to the exchange, both spoken and unspoken. Merleau-Ponty and other thinkers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricouer share this ‘dialectical’ concept of truth in art. And only through this dialogue with an artwork can an artist authentically express themselves.

For any artist (visual, writer, musician, or even athlete) the resolution to be true to your inner calling happens when the pain that results from being inauthentic becomes greater and more unbearable than the pain of just doing it. It means opening up, accepting one’s self and then backing this acceptance up with the drive to do the thing one must do. The French writer Ana ïs Nin encapsulated this attitude well: “The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Authenticity is the drive to achieve something from within to make your life the way you know it has to be to feel ‘right’; and often the labor, heart, and agony involved is a necessary part of the process. Authenticity manifests itself in devotion backed up with hard work; but as opposed to ‘trying too hard’, the authentic expression often appears effortless and belies the amount of agony invested.

It is indeed challenging to be true to one’s essential nature and calling. Sartre went so far as to say that to follow one’s sense of authenticity, to pursue ‘absolute freedom’, causes a vertiginous sensation: the responsibility can be so overwhelming or frightening it can cause mental or emotional vertigo, perhaps even bodily symptoms. Yet battling through the nausea is necessary to live according to one’s true talents and nature, to be true to one’s self and thus to be authentic.

It’s Not The Stream You’re In, It’s How You Swim

“There’s always going to be something a little ‘black sheep’ about being a skateboarder, despite how much Target or Toyota tries to temporarily back it or get their hands in the till. We didn’t start skating so we could get a reality show and a Bentley.”
– Rob Brink, The Skateboard Mag

Being authentic has often been equated with being out of the mainstream and part of the counter-culture. Being in a counter-culture can be part of being authentic, but it’s not a guarantee of authenticity. I can adopt the dress and persona of a Goth, and be a part of that counter-culture, but I certainly wouldn’t be living authentically. It’s great to be different, but when one is trying to be different just like everybody else, then it’s conformity, and that’s not keepin’ it real at all. Rather, being who you are is the biggest act of subversion.

By contrast, people in marketing or in business supporting athletic endeavors for instance (as Target and Toyota are in the above quote) might only be an ancillary part of a sub-culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily inauthentic to work in those industries. These people are often being true to their skills, and in the process, helping others achieve their success in their true calling, their sports. Furthermore, extreme sports athletes are not selling out if they don’t don a saffron robe and pick up an alms bowl.

However, there comes a time when it is not one’s personal best to remain uneduc8d or unmotiv8d for fear of selling out. That attitude breeds self-absorption and self-deceit and can result in sponging off others in the name of keepin’ it real (“I resent your money-grubbing ways… can ya loan me rent money?”) This attitude gets played out in the lives of many who feel authentic just because they’re living outside of the mainstream. It reminds me of a musician I knew who felt it would be dishonest to his art to get a job, but had no qualms about being financially dependent on his stripper girlfriend. We all have to depend on others from time to time, but as Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.”

It’s great to have a desire to remain outside of the mainstream, but it’s not cool to denigrate others who are finding and expressing their reality in the midst of that stream. If it were not for the mainstream, there would be no counter-culture, if only because we are dependent upon each to define the ‘otherness’ of the other. Athletes and anyone else listening to their calling, and striving to have a whole life that encompasses their prefered mode of expression, have found a way to make a living while seeking their bliss. What could be more authentic than that?

© Leigh Roche 2012

Leigh Roche is Sports Columnist for the online magazine International.to and writes features about skateboarding and BMX freestyle for Suite101.com. She is working on a book, The Noble Sk8fold Path, about living a positive life and experiencing the spiritual through extreme sports.

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