Can Blue Men Sing the Whites? (by Paul Graves-Brown)

My involvement in the topic of authenticity was largely provoked by an interest in the history of popular music (see e.g. Graves-Brown 2009). Indeed my first foray in this area, which ultimately evolved into my chapter in our OUP Handbook (Graves-Brown 2013), began as a paper which took its title from the Bonzo Dog Band song, Can blue men sing the whites?

I am largely in agreement with Sally and Sîan’s approach to replicas, indeed it occurs to me that the original monks of Iona would have thoroughly approved of the concrete cross; to the medieval mind, if something needed to exist, but didn’t, it was perfectly legitimate to “fake” it (Geary 1986).[1] 

However, principle #2 of New Futures for Repiclias, “authenticity is not an intrinsic, material quality of a thing, but a socially mediated experience”, leaves me feeling uneasy. I adopt a Pragmatist (capital P) approach to epistemology, which is best expressed in Dewey and Bentley’s (1949) notion that knowledge is transactional. In this context, “social mediation” might imply the more atomistic process of interaction. Whilst the authenticity of an artefact derives from its embedding in social action, it also derives from how the material properties of an object constrain that action. Such that authenticity is an iterative process of exchange between persons and things. Why is this important? In an age of fake news, the material world is ever more important in that it resists attempts to misinterpret facts (see Graves-Brown n.d.), it offers what Theodore Adorno (2001[1970]) called a “negative dialectic”.

Among other things, this means is that through its transactional history an artefact can cease to be authentic, in the context of its life history. Veteran car enthusiasts insist that a vehicle retain an arbitrary 30% of its original components, and presumably beyond this the car becomes a replica, with its own authenticity as such. An instance of an ancient philosophical trope usually called The Ship of Theseus). And vice versa, artefacts can actually acquire authenticity through a “truth to materials” and also an adherence to an “authentic technique”. Thus, for example, Penny Van Esterik (1985) argues that fake Ban Chiang pottery is distinguished from the genuine article because the fakers do not understand the technique, or more exactly the chaîne opératoire, used by the original potters. Would the St John’s Cross on Iona have greater credibility if it had been hand carved from an appropriate stone, rather than cast in concrete?


Andy Warhol famously observed that “[a] Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking” (2007[1975]: 100-101). This raises a further issue about authenticity in the age of mechanical reproduction (in Benjamin’s original german “technischen” technical reproduction). In contrast to what is popularly believed, it seems that Benjamin actually endorsed such reproduction (Benjamin 1999[1968]; Buck-Morss 1977). More importantly, as Warhol suggests, in an age of mass production there are no “originals” and replicas, all instances of an artefact are both. And is seems that Benjamin himself recognised that this was both liberating and subversive.

This is not to say that mass-produced objects cannot acquire authenticity/aura/patina.  Ian Curtis’ Vox Phantom guitar recently sold at Bonham’s for £162,562. The guitar was one of a limited number of special editions of the guitar manufactured in 1967 which featured built in effects. Whilst it’s hard to know how many of these guitars still exist, one assumes that they are all pretty much identical, and what puts the price tag on Curtis’ guitar is its life history.

Another interesting example is Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”. I first saw this artefact in the Tate Modern, but was then a bit bemused when I saw it again in an art gallery in Stockholm. In fact the “original” was “lost” in 1917, or more exactly thrown in the trash by the exhibition organisers who (rightly) felt that Duchamp was taking the mickey out of them.[2] Over subsequent decades, Duchamp authorised the production of around twelve reproductions of the Fountain, which in themselves are now valued in the millions of pounds. In theory, if we could travel back in time to the J L Mott Iron Foundry in New York, we could purchase Duchamp’s Bedfordshire model urinal by the hundred and these would be more authentic than the current museum instances. At one level the various Fountains in the World’s art galleries have an authenticity as replicas. But where they differ from Curtis’ guitar is in having no material connection to the “original” Fountain and its many identical instances manufactured by J L Mott. And, given that the reproductions had to be made with only Alfred Stieglitz’ photographs to go on, they fail Van Esterik’s test of authenticity. In my view there is something irretrievably fake about the various instances of Duchamp’s Fountain, especially when national public galleries display the copies as if they were the original.

Authentic People

If authenticity does reside in a transaction between actors and things, it follows that it also applies to actors. Vivian Stanshall’s lyric satirises a question that has haunted popular music for many decades; can white people sing the blues? An issue that is underlined when we consider that “rhythm and blues” gained global popularity through its appropriation by white musicians, such as the Rolling Stones. Is the Stones’ version of Little Red Rooster inauthentic because, unlike Howlin’ Wolf (who first recorded it in 1961) they did not share his cultural roots in the Mississippi Delta? Whilst on the one hand we might want to say yes, in terms of a difference in life experience, it is also true that people’s identity, as actors, is fluid. Whilst criticisms of cultural appropriation have a genuine political and economic force (The Rolling Stones made a lot more money than Howlin’ Wolf), it is also the case that the life of an actor is a process of becoming through acculturation.

To take an unrelated example, when modern knappers attempt to recreate prehistoric stone tools, they seek to reproduce the chaîne opératoire of their predecessors; to enter the minds of prehistoric people. Appropriately, Dewey and Bentley (1949: 142) offer this as one of their examples of transactional knowledge; “Many a flint chip fools the amateur archaeologist into thinking it is a flint tool; but even the tool in the museum is not a tool in fact except through users of such tools”. The same might be said of modern musicians using period instruments to perform mediaeval or baroque music. Might it be the case then that whilst objects, through their transactions with people (and as a consequence of natural processes) tend to become less authentic, people, if they choose, can become more authentic through the act of reproduction?

Dr Paul Graves-Brown, Research Associate, University of York


  • Adorno, T. 2001[1970]. Negative Dialectics (Translated by D. Redmond) Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt
  • Buck-Morss, S. 1977. The Origin of Negative Dialectics. New York: Free Press
  • Benjamin, W. 1999[1968]. Illuminations. (edited by H. Ahrendt) London: Pimlico.
  • Dewey, J. and Bentley, A. 1949 Knowing and the Known. Beacon Press, Boston.
  • Geary, P. 1986. Sacred Commodities: The Circulation of Medieval Relics. In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. A. Appadurai, pp. 169–94. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Graves-Brown, P. 2009. Nowhere Man: Urban life and the virtualisation of popular music. Popular Music History 4.2: 220-241
  • Graves-Brown, P. 2013. Authenticity. In P. Graves-Brown, R. Harrison and A. Piccini (eds) The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Contemporary World. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Graves-Brown P. n.d. The Drill finds out the Dowser. Kuriosum Kammer
  • Van Esterik, P. 1985. Imitating Ban Chiang Pottery: Toward a Cognitive Theory of Replication. In J. W. D. Dougherty (ed) Directions in Cognitive Anthropology Urbana: University of Illinois Press
  • Warhol, Andy. 2007 [1975]. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. Harmondsworth: Penguin

[1]     I appreciate that fake is a loaded term, implying deception. But my understanding is that to the mediaeval mind this deception was entirely legitimate.

[2]     There are a number of differing accounts of the fate of the original Fountain, none of which seem definitive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Theme by the University of Stirling