One of the more curious inquiries into contemporary life to be published in The New York Times in recent months was Paul Goldberger’s article “25 Years of Unabashed Elitism,” which appeared on the front page of the Sunday Arts & Leisure Section early in February. Ostensibly, the article was a tribute to the upscale couturier Ralph Lauren on the occasion of his award for Lifetime Achievement from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. In fact, it was an occasion for Mr. Goldberger—formerly the architectural critic of the Times, now its Cultural News Editor—to do a little musing on the subject of authenticity.

Is authenticity such a good thing, after all? Mr. Goldberger clearly has his doubts. “Perhaps the real question to ask is how much authenticity even matters anymore,” he writes. “Is it an outdated idea in this age in which newness itself is not longer a compelling concept?” Now it would be difficult to think of a more Goldbergian gambit than this attempt to frame a discussion of authenticity around the work of a fashion designer—by definition, so to speak, someone who trades in the chic, the trendy, the ephemeral? “In an age in which artifice often seems to become reality,” Mr. Goldberger writes, “Mr. Lauren has become the ultimate life-style purveyor, the ultimate producer of a completely packaged, perfect life.”

Is authenticity such a good thing, after all?

Is Mr. Goldberger attacking this notion or extolling it? It is not always easy to say. He describes Ralph Lauren as an expert in “the artifice business” whose lavish emporia present us with “a grown-up Disneyland, a theme park for adults.” This mention of Disneyland is perhaps the key to Mr. Goldberger’s inquiry into the subject of authenticity, for we are reminded that the current Cultural News Editor of the Times made his debut many years ago in the paper with an article celebrating the design of Disneyland as the architectural model for the future. So we are probably on reasonably safe ground if we assume that Mr. Goldberger really does believe that authenticity is an “outmoded” concept, and that a “grown-up Disneyland” and the reduction of every cultural question to “life style” and “artifice” are OK things.

If this is indeed what Mr. Goldberger’s article actually means, then we can glimpse some of the consequences in his own prose. What, for example, can it mean to say that Ralph Lauren’s designs “are continually energized by a remarkable tension between awe and accessibility”? Just how can a pair of chinos—even a wildly expensive pair—illustrate this alleged “tension”? This is not criticism, and it isn’t reporting. It is the journalistic equivalent of Muzak—or should we say Disneyland?

All this would be merely absurd if it were not for Mr. Goldberger’s position on The New York Times, where the imperatives of “life style” have lately come to supplant the serious reporting of the news. Are we to conclude that in the Times’s cultural pages, as well as elsewhere in the paper, artifice is now to be given priority over authenticity in reporting? Mr. Goldberger concludes his bagatelle by asking whether “all this appealing artifice [is] wrong because it is too right—or is it right because nothing about it is ever wrong?” Is black white? Is truth a lie? Is the inauthentic the authentic? Is this a paradox—or the description of an editorial policy?

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 7, on page 3
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