Posts Tagged ‘authenticity’

Context, Culture, and the Authenticity Fetish

March 4, 2013

One of the themes that I have repeated in this blog over the years: that preservation is a process, not a set of rules, is being born out daily in my work as Executive Director of the Global Heritage Fund (join here!). That is because we deal with a great variety of cultures and contexts across the world, from Asia to the Middle East, from South to North America, and from remote archaeological sites to vernacular villages and cities.
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Pheakday Ngounphon at Banteay Chhmar

The process of historic preservation/heritage conservation is actually quite consistent: Identification, Evaluation, Registration, and Treatment. My old friend Ted Hild of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency used to label it as “hunt ‘em, catch ‘em, cook ‘em and eat ‘em,” which is a fun analogy. Fun aside, the point is the process, and what the Burra Charter famously recognized back in 1999 was that while the process can be consistent across continents and cultures, there are really not universal standards for identification, evaluation, registration, and treatment. What a particular culture in a particular context IDENTIFIES as significant may differ – in terms of tangible versus intangible heritage; in terms of social history versus design history: in terms of the stories it deems indelible to the transmission of cultural heritage. The Burra Charter and subsequent protocols have urged us to heed this cultural input at each step of the process: WHAT do you think is important; HOW do you evaluate that importance; WHAT do you do legally or politically to enforce this; and HOW do you treat the resource you have identified, evaluated and registered?
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Calligraphy is the highest art form and the most important to preserve, for example

Many cultures prize historic trades and techniques much more that the fabric, the materials of the resource, which we tend to prize in the West. The Japanese Shinto temples are a thousand years old but they are rebuilt each generation using the original tools and techniques of a thousand years ago. We prize the patina and finish of the building that Washington slept in but we see no contradiction in putting it back together with epoxy and nail guns.
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Today I visited this Japanese building completed in 1991 in Hakone Gardens in Saratoga. It is an “authentic reproduction of a 19th century Kyoto tea merchants’ house and shop.” Timbers for the building were cut with traditional tools and techniques in Japan and it was assembled in the U.S. by Japanese carpenters. No nails. It has no “age value” as fabric or material, but then again those materials have been assembled using ancient methods.
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The basic cultural context issue described here is the question of authenticity. Where does authenticity reside? In the U.S. we avoided that term and used instead “integrity” because it was easier. But “integrity” also fed into our architectural bias, a bias that has both fed our fetishization of architectural authenticity and at the same time EXCLUDED many of our own minority traditions from the process of preservation. We have codified a series of treatments for architecture that, unlike the process, are not consistent across times and cultures.
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The failing we have had in the U.S. in the 46 years since the creation of the National Register of Historic Places is our tendency to focus on architectural significance. Indeed, arguably our culture has defaulted in the direction of design history, in part because it is easier to SEE and thus identify, but also in part due to our particular preservation history, which has been heavily inflected by architecture and design since the early decades of the 20th century.
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you make your bed you sleep in it
We are struggling with this issue on the Diversity Task Force at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (join here!). As Vice Chair, I have tried to bring this international perspective – that the contemporary PROCESS of cultural heritage preservation is a way to reclaim the full breadth of our historic cultures – to the Task Force’s work. The implications for outcomes are substantial: we may well call for revision of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Identification, Evaluation, Registration and Treatment. More incisively, we could request that the Secretary of the Interior adopt “authenticity” instead of the less politically challenging “integrity.” One of the reasons that we have focused on architectural design in American preservation is that it is a safe harbor, a politically neutral space, and during the rise of the preservation movement in the 1960s, a call for a Civil Rights Trail as a national heritage area (which we are doing now) would have been extremely contentious.

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This is the first McDonald’s (the one in LA is the Ur-McDonald’s), preserving an element of shared culture.
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This is an installation in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in Maywood, Illinois, commemorating a long-lost station on the Underground Railroad.

The definition of fetish is the attribution of religious or mystical qualities to inanimate objects. In the western and American tradition, we tend to fetishize the object as opposed to the process. Arguably, one can fetishize the process as well, and indeed the desire to preserve is at base a desire to retain some spiritual qualities of a thing or an act. Our challenge today with our historic process of identification, evaluation, registration and treatment is to determine more precisely how this process can capture the most salient spiritual elements of our cultural inheritance. This is much more than architecture, certainly it is much more than architectural design. If these walls could talk…..
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The emotional logic of Authenticity

April 21, 2012

I teach courses on Interpretation, a topic I was involved in in the mid-1990s when I was tasked with setting up a Wayfinding system for the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor. The challenge there was prodigious, trying to make visible the geological and historical connections between 100 miles of industrial towns and parks in a diverse modern landscape.

I & M Canal at Lockport. Figure in the distance is one of the results of our Wayfinding project, a Cor-Ten steel silhouette of a historic figure, in this case Wild Bill Hickok.

As a 1990s preservationist, I spoke a lot about the value of preservation being authenticity, the REAL buildings or landscapes or places that contained REAL history. For contrast, I would throw up a slide of a postcard of Mickey Mouse standing in front of Disney World. I was giving this lecture at the Burren College of Art in 1998 and in the back of the room, my own 20-month old daughter let out a gleeful “Mickey!” when the slide appeared. This got laughs, and we all were comforted by our knowledge and her innocence. But in a sense, it was the only slide that had authenticity for a 20-month old.

The Imagineers of Disney seemed to me quite nefarious. I still treasure a New York Times article from 1996 about the construction of a 1/4 mile Atlantic City boardwalk at Disney World. The reporters asked a couple about their experience of this newly-constructed, sanitized “historical” experience and their reply was fantastic in every sense of the word. “It was great! It brought us back to a time we really loved but never knew!”


No such luck. On your bike, sunshine.

Let that sink in a minute. What does it mean? Is it like Philip K. Dick sci-fi come to life, where memories are implanted? Perhaps it is like Thomas Kincade paintings, where images of cultural comfort are ladled with an impossible amount of cheese like a horseshoe sandwich? In any case, a cultural elite like myself should hate that stuff, right?


It’s foreign, so how do you know if it is real?

I gave a paper at the ICOMOS conference last year on Authenticity and Tourism in China, using my favorite example of Dali, where the Butterfly Spring is a 20-year old attraction based on a romantic story lacking “REAL” history, and the Nanzhao temple is a multi-million dollar complex of temples built in 2006 suggested the Tang-era complex of 1300 years ago. It is manufactured history, or at least manufactured artifacts created without documentation or forensic evidence of what was there before.


That roof tile general is only 5.

The Dali story is even trickier, as I learned from a book by Beth Notar. Western backpackers started to arrive in the 1980s and by the 1990s they had created Foreigner Street, thus attracting domestic tourists who wanted to see the backpackers eating their banana pancakes. The first tourists, seeking authenticity, were now the object of attention for a second wave of domestic tourists, who wanted to see authentic backpackers.

The Butterfly Spring trades on nostalgia for a popular 1959 movie set in Dali, which is the other attraction for domestic tourists, later supplemented by Daliwood, the palace where the popular Jin Yong novels (think Grisham or LeCarre, this guy is HUGE) were made into television shows.


So, a place based on a movie seems to be the most inauthentic history of all, right? But I immediately thought of a place we have gone many times, Mismaloya south of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. It was made famous by the 1960s movie Night of the Iguana, shot on the beach during a particularly romantic and papparazzi-filled episode in the romance between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (who wasn’t even in the movie). Then, a generation later they shot “Predator” in the jungle above the beach, and we have gone ziplining there with the kids.


The most popular tour in Chicago lately has been “The Devil and the White City” tour, which is based on REAL history but is popular because of a book, and soon a movie. Paris was beset with “DaVinci Code” tours after that fictional book came out, and Hollywood homes of the stars have always been popular. Heck, the world often elects actors and celebrities into positions of governance, putting them on the REAL stage.


Tiruchirapali, 1986. They explained that he was wearing sunglasses because he was a movie star running for office. Like Reagan.

And then the authenticity question crawled into my other favorite seminar topic on historic districts and urbanism. Sharon Zukin’s book on the Life and Death of Authentic Urban Places fomented an interesting discussion in my class. Zukin had a devil of a time trying to define authenticity, ending up combining a sense of connectedness (to the past, to a culture) with a sense of possibility or change. But each concrete example seemed to slip into the familiar vagaries of “I liked it better before…” Before Starbucks or yuppies or hipsters or sidewalk cafes.



Humboldt Park boathouse, 1989

Humboldt Park boathouse, 2006

My take in the discussion is that we form an image of a place within time and then are disappointed when time keeps moving (which is, like, all it ever does) and the place changes. We tend to find neighborhoods “authentic” when they are in the early throes of transition – still seedy, still rough, still ethnic, but with enough artists and hipsters/yuppies/punks to provide each other with emotional support while they thrive on the adventure of the urban edge. They settle into the neighborhood at its height of authenticity and sow the seeds of its future eclipse.


Phyllis’ Musical Inn mural, painted 1987-88.

So, is authenticity a moment in time that is forever fugitive and fleeting? Or is it the emotional logic of “a time we always loved but never knew.” As a historian, authenticity has something to do with accuracy and documentation, but we experience both community and travel in emotional ways and with emotional logic.


These are the traditional Bai costumes of Dali. These are not Bai children.

This fugitive temporal nature of authenticity infuses Notar’s book as well – people lamented the loss of the “real” Dali to water features and the huge gates that now announce “Foreigner Street.” But last time I was there in August we walked the side streets and found both authentic Dali and MORE authentic backpacker places than you now find on Foreigner Street. And we found the coolest Catholic church you will ever see, built in the 1920s.


Took us an hour to find it – TOTALLY worth it.

It has no Christian imagery on the outside beyond the big cross. The carved narratives are familiar Chinese stories and symbols. There is authenticity here, partly because those who built the church were still in traditional society and had not crossed into global modernity. Perhaps that is what our search for authenticity is: a search for natural communities not yet transformed by globalism.

Historic preservation, or the more precise term, heritage conservation, was born of the impulses of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, which in turn arose from the globalizing European journeys of the 16th and 17th centuries. The impulse to preserve history, even to record or document history, only emerges with the sense of loss occasioned by modernization. There is nostalgia (a diagnosed and treated disease of the 18th century) in that impulse, and the object of nostalgia’s desire is authenticity. No wonder it is so hard to define in a logical way.

When I traveled Asia as a backpacker in the 1980s, I saw the futility of that search. There were waterborne bamboo houses in western Thailand but they all had televisions. We drove for hours onto a palm plantation island off of Malaysia to find a certain woodcarver and when we found him he was chatting with a guy who shared a studio with my cousin’s husband in Milwaukee. I stumbled across the funeral of the last Prince of Ubud along with 10,000 other tourists being sold the t-shirt.

The post-industrial world is built on culture, and authenticity is a defining thread in the fabric of culture. But what is it?


Kampang Chnang, Cambodia, 2012

Maybe authenticity is like pornography – you know it when you see it? Hmmm. That lack of rigor may satisfy the Supreme Court, but not me. I think the best analogy may come from subatomic physics, where the act of observing a phenomenon affects the phenomenon.


Sa Dec, Vietnam, 2012

Authenticity is a perception. It has an emotional logic and it impacts the objects or places it perceives. The perception of authenticity has a huge impact on our environment and economy: on tourism, gentrification, the discovery and/or fabrication of attractions.


What is the commodity? What is the exchange?

But it is fugitive, like all emotions and all perceptions. As soon as you find that undiscovered place, your act of discovery transforms it forever.

Do We Really Want Authenticity?

March 10, 2011

“Authenticity” is a word we keep coming back to in the world of cultural heritage conservation. The concept of authenticity lies at the centerpiece of the international charters that have defined preservation practice since the 1930s, and especially since the shift toward “intangible cultural heritage” that began with the Nara document in 1994.

Shoso-in, 8th century temple pavilion at Nara, photographed 2004.

Authenticity is a key aspect of how visitors encounter and experience historic sites. In our work in the Weishan Heritage Valley in China, we stress the value to the heritage tourist of authenticity. This is an argument for maintaining local businesses along the Southern Silk Road in Weishan, rather than removing them for tourist shops, as has been done in Lijiang, a World Heritage Site that experienced catastrophic tourist development and became an economic monoculture.

Peaches for sale, main road, Weishan, China, 2009 Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Weishan, main road, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Tinsmith, Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael
Weishan is a county seat for the Yi and Hui Autonomous county, a diverse region made of many ethnicities, including the Hui, a Muslim group whose stunning Dong Lun Hua village I visited in 2008 and 2009.

Courtyard house at Dong Lun Hua, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Mosque at Dong Lun Hua, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

As a county seat, Weishan has businesses that service the entire valley countryside, such as coffin makers and funerals. These are authentic, and they are still done in their authentic location, in stark contrast to the tourist shops in downtown Lijiang.

Funeral wreath, Weishan, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Funeral procession in Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Coffin shop, Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

But I have also written in the past about the large market that exists for sites and stories that SEEM authentic but are not. My favorite example from near Weishan is the famed Three Pagodas at Dali, where tourists flock to see a T’ang era pagoda flanked by two of more recent vintage. These once stood in front of a large Buddhist temple complex during the era of the Dali Kingdom in the 10th century.

So they rebuilt it. In 2006. A massive complex of more than two dozen brand new temples filled with hundreds of gold leafed statues. There was a temple complex here a millenium ago, but it has not been here for a long time and the reconstruction is extremely conjectural. It lacks authenticity.


Changsheng temple complex, Dali, 2009. Photographs copyright Vincent L Michael

But it does not lack tourists (although apparently it has not attracted as many as they would like). The point here – and in Lijiang, is that for a large group of tourists, authenticity doesn’t matter.

You can call it the Disneyland effect, and while I used to use Disneyland as a sort of insult to authentic places, it is worth remembering two things. First, Disneyland itself is now an historic landmark more than 50 years old. Second, places do not have to be old to be authentic. Disneyland was authentic when it was new. But there is a reason that Disneyland becomes an epithet for the heritage conservationist: part of what it offers to the tourist is the FEELING and IMPRESSION of age and nostalgia. It is authentically new, but part of its authenticity is an inauthentic channeling of impressions of the past into the present.

One of the ways you can distinguish between Disneyland authenticity and REAL authenticity is that the real stuff sometimes is stinky or ugly or unkempt or unresolved. Like reality.

deer hoof as a hook in courtyard house, Weishan, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Despite the plethora of China images and examples above, what got me thinking about this today was a new restaurant in Chicago by the unparalleled Grant Achatz, whose Alinea has three Michelin stars and has soared past the entirety of Manhattan cuisine. His new concept is called Next, and will change its theme every few months, as reported today here. In cuisine, as in heritage conservation, there is great interest in authenticity, and Achatz’ first attempt will be to bring Next back to Paris in 1906. As the article notes, the reaction to a recreation of a 1906 sunchoke and roasted hazelnut soup was “polarizing”. A lot of people hated it. Because it was authentic.

This reminded me of a trip I did for Michelin (green guides, not cuisine) to Indianapolis in 1999. I visited the James Whitcomb Riley House in Lockerbie Square, which was never restored, only preserved exactly as it was. The proof of this authenticity came as soon as you walked into the living room, for the ceiling of the 1872 home was painted in a silver color that was uncomfortable, garish, and generally awful. And absolutely authentic. Fortunately for you, they did not allow pictures inside.

Disneyland would never have used that color, because it would drive away business. Grant Achatz is such a star at this point that he can dictate the authentic experience and NOT cater to popular taste. Alinea famously chooses your 13 or 14 courses for you (see this comic.). Special needs or tastes can eat elsewhere, which, in a sense, is the price of authenticity.

The same issue came up on the near north side of town in the Kemper House, an 1873 home that was restored by Eli Lilly, the great Indianapolis preservationist who endowed the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. HLFI had restored the house as their offices and then as a house museum, and returned the original exterior paint scheme, which upset many locals who had been used to seeing the exterior painted white, as it had been for many years. That was the authentic memory, but true, original authenticity had another color scheme.

But that scheme did not extend to the interior. They researched the original wall colors inside and through scientific analysis found the original color of the walls. And it was godawful and they could not bring themselves to recreate it. It would have been too off-putting.

I started thinking about authenticity the other night when I was perusing a hot rod magazine given me by Chris Osborne, the purveyor of the lovely magazine Brisbane Modern, which charts the mid-century Modern aspects of Queensland.

As I read about the hot rods, a cultural artifact I do not know much about at all, I noted that all had historic labels: ’34 Willys, ’29 Ford, ’50 Buick, etc. But often the bodies were fibreglass reproductions, the chassis extensively chopped or boxed, and it was very difficult to discern from the descriptions which cars had much historic material, if any at all. I guess it was beside the point: taste and appeal to past elements was the agent here, not authenticity.

Disneyland itself did this from the beginning and still does. I always have my students read a description in the Wall Street Journal from 1996 about the opening of an Atlantic-City-styled boardwalk in Disney World. It has all of the attractions of Atlantic City without any of the beggars or gambling down-and-outers. It was sanitized history, and it was a successful product. But what really struck me was the reaction people had to it. My favorite quote:

“It brought us back to a time we really loved but never knew.”

That’s it.
We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.
Philip K. Dick has come true.

Style and Authenticity (versus Sustainability)

August 21, 2009

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“Retro” describes the design of a hipster’s bicycle, and “Old World” describes the interior design of a lawyer’s new suburban house. The past, or rather, the FORMS of the past, are popular and thus marketable. They carry connotations that are coveted in 2009.
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A bath remodeling catalogue announces that “recreating a retro look is definitely in vogue” as well as “traditional décor is never out of style.” The homes section of the newspaper defines “Old World” as “a look or a feeling” rather than a style. Both stress the importance of modern conveniences and the ability to realize same within the comforting confines of traditional style.
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I look through the bath catalogue and every fixture looks a hundred years old. I glance across the photos in the new homes section and the details have the same appearance – leaving the massive windows and conspicuous lack of walls to tell you this is a 21st century building. I wonder at a phrase like “recreated the ambience of Old World charm” that would stymie a logician. Talk about nailing jello to a tree.
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I have seen the return of traditional style in the last quarter-century. We could call it a by-product of the preservation movement, especially the mass movement starting in the 1950s and 60s that saw Victorian neighborhoods restored. A guy named Clem Labine started a little newsletter to help his fellow brownstoners find the products they needed to restore these homes in the appropriate style, and today that catalogue is the centerpiece of Restore Media, which runs several magazines and trade shows with restoration workshops across the country.
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Success breeds imitation, and as soon as a sizeable demographic proved their devotion to the past, entrepreneurs decided that it would be simpler to manufacture it than preserve it, and thus we have the plethora of ersatz home styles. This is not a bad thing in an of itself. Most of our historic buildings were themselves, and in their time, trading on historic associations: Colonial purity, Romanesque stability, Classical refinement, Moorish exoticism.
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The problem comes when market demand for modern habit – the ginormous bathroom; the cathedral ceiling – takes over and authentic traditional homes are destroyed because they can’t provide the “authenticity” and convenience we now demand. Of course they can, if you are a talented designer. But we are economically set up for waste, hence the destruction of the old. I remember a decade ago watching the demolition of a fabulous Italianate commercial building on North Avenue, which was replaced – without announced irony – by a Restoration Hardware.
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There are many reasons for preservation, but the most compelling today have to do with sustainability. Historic buildings represent embodied energy and their destruction creates a massive carbon footprint that even a vacuum tube of a building coated in solar panels and windmills circled by winged Priuses can’t erase. Pre-World War II historic buildings can – and usually do – operate more efficiently than all but the most recent green buildings. This is my biggest concern about the mass marketing of authentic traditional retro style – it deceives us into thinking that form always reflects content.

books authenticity movies

January 6, 2009

I finished “Who Owns Native Culture?” by Michael Brown an investigation of the legal and political status of indigenous peoples, read a history of soccer, got through half of Bill Bryson’s History of Everything, and swallowed Yuhl’s cultural history of Charleston’s early 20th century image-making. I am topping off this literary feast with Levinas’ seminal 1948 essay on aesthetics, all within a six-day trip to Mexico so of course I am thinking about authenticity.
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No sooner had we arrived in Mismaloya than we were confronted by large protest signs painted on sheets accusing the government of robbing the people of Mismaloya of their “unique patrimony,” a neat echo of the various case studies in Brown’s book, although in this case less the specialized sovereignty rights associated with specifically indigenous peoples but rather the rights of a localized people. The protest was authentic: grass roots, geographically localized – and it was claiming heritage, so in a broad sense it was indigenous. Indigenous tends to mean specifically the pre-settlement peoples of “settler” nations like the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia and Brazil, although in most of those places the majority of indigenous peoples live somewhat inauthentically in major cities.

From what I can gather the Mismaloya protest is occasioned by the overdevelopment typical of tourist areas, which always threatens to destroy their authenticity. But then we went to dinner on the beach and were confronted by the origin of Mismaloya tourism, beyond the natural beauty typical of the larger Bahia de Banderas region: a movie. Because of course the attraction to Mismaloya began in 1964 with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr and the Night of the Iguana.
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A couple of days later we did a “canopy”tour in the jungle at El Eden, which we were constantly reminded was the set of a movie twenty years later – The Predator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
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Can the set of a movie be an authentic experience? It can certainly have a big impact on tourism, and on the preservation of historic sites. The Hearst Castle in California is a tourist site that gains much of its impetus from the film Citizen Kane, which was after all a fictionalized account of its builder. In Thailand, they had to rename a section of river Kwai to satisfy the demands of tourists flocking to see a surprisingly modest bridge made famous nearly fifty years ago by Sir Alec Guiness. Paris, with no shortage of authentic sites, experienced a recent boost at those sites associated with the novel and film Da Vinci Code. I remember visiting a bridge in Nassau at the age of 10 that I had seen in Thunderball, the most lasting (and thus most authentic?) memory of a certain family vacation.

It occurs to me that I am constantly peppering my tours with references to the use of various locales in famous or even less famous films. It also occurs to me that I have seen life size statues of Elwood and Jake Blues all over Ireland and lots of other places, too, and that moviemaking is simply mythmaking or storytelling or cultural production or whatever the theorie du jour wants to call it and it is an authentic expression of people and places and times and the stories it tells and the places it tells them add to history and add to architectural significance. And while this might seem too “meta” to be authentic, the case of Night of the Iguana – where the filming itself became a celebrity case long before the film’s release – isn’t this is fact part of the story of the place? I recall being in Monaco on the road where Princess Grace died and that was real and authentic and she had a real and authentic and even royal life that began in movies. A movie can be considered an artwork, so if we flock to see Michelangelo or Botticelli in Florence or Da Vinci in Paris can’t we flock to see Scorsese in New York? Is the Fontana de Trevi an 18th century treasure or a celebration of the 1960s sexual revolution by Fellini? I would hazard to say it is both. We like our authenticity to be pure, but that purity is itself a cultural construct. As the saying goes, the truth is never pure, and rarely simple.


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