Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
It is over twenty years since the American cultural theorist Miles Orvell identified
a major shift … within the arts and material culture from the late nineteenth century to the twentieth century, in which the arts of imitation and illusion were valorized to a culture in which the notion of authenticity became of primary value. One might describe this … as a change in the meaning of a phrase that remains central to both nineteenth and twentieth century culture, ‘the real thing.’
While Orvell focuses on the United States and is interested mainly in aspects of high and popular culture, authenticity — and its corollary, trust — have been recurrent motifs in our discussions of society, culture and politics in 1920s and 1930s Britain. Why do we keep coming back to questions of authenticity and trust as we try to make sense of this period? Can Orvell’s chronology provide us with new ways of understanding interwar modernities?