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ICON Seminar 6

Dartington Hall, UK


Authenticity, Courage and Mirrors

Carlos Lopez-Real

Last updated August 19, 2013

After the recent Reflective Conservatoire conference I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity and courage, both in institutional and personal terms. As an artist in society I aspire to have a clear vision and to share that vision. Sometimes that vision is clearer, sometimes it’s not so clear, and the question of how my own voice fits into that vision changes. Sometimes I feel more confident that I know my voice, but other times I doubt myself. Of course my voice changes too. Even when I’m feeling confident that the voice I’m aware of is authentic then it’s another step to have the courage to share that voice. We probably all adapt to circumstances and edit what we share of ourselves, but wouldn’t it be great to have the courage to share our authentic voice in an uninhibited way? Or would it? Maybe this is losing the balance between ‘self’ and ‘other’…

The images of Mandela and Ghandi below are so iconic that it’s easy to take these people for granted. For me, and for millions of others, they represent the epitome of authenticity and courage. Of course there are many lesser known figures who have equal, if not greater, authenticity and courage, but somehow the fact that Mandela and Ghandi are so much a part of the public consciousness has an additional power. I remember watching on live TV the moments when Mandela was finally released from prison after 27 years. It was a defining moment in my life; I was at university at the time, and one of the most powerful feelings I remember was the sense of connection with millions of other people around the world who were watching. Did this ‘shared experience’ tell me something about myself?

We don’t live in a vacuum, and we can’t find our authentic voice merely by introspecting. It’s often said that the artist holds a mirror up to society, but perhaps it’s equally true the other way around. Maybe society holds a mirror up to the artist, and they can only really know themselves and find their authentic voice in relation to society. In a way this isn’t really saying anything more than ‘you need to live a life if you’re going to have anything to say’. But it makes me reflect on the symbiotic nature of the relationship between the artist and society and on the implied collaboration involved in that relationship.

The image at the top of the page is a mirror, a ‘sound mirror’. It’s origin is actually quite prosaic; it is one of many similar sound mirrors that were built during the first world war and located around the coast of Britain, acting as a very large ‘ear’, a precursor to radar, listening out for enemy planes. But the picture of this long-disused piece of stone makes me think of it in slightly more mystical terms. If we are open, if we truly listen, what will we hear? What will we learn about society, about ourselves, and about how we work together?

Today’s environment is one in which collaboration and partnership are more necessary than ever before, and as an artist I feel I have lots of related issues to get to grips with. I can’t simply ‘do my thing’, that’s clear, and yet I feel a tension. Is there compromise of the authentic voice when we collaborate? Is it changed? If so, then perhaps this is a good and necessary thing. The process of collaborating may reveal our authentic voice, and give us the supportive context in which to have the courage to share that authenticity.






  1. I remember a conversation with my uncle who met Mandela years ago in South Africa as a young man, just beginning to rise within the ANC. I was totally surprised to hear my uncle (who I think of as a very perceptive man) describe his impressions at that meeting of Mandela as an unremarkable and rather headstrong person, quite ordinary. To me Mandela is an extraordinary figure, as you say embodying authenticity and courage. I wonder how much these are things he learned from his experiences, not least the long years imprisoned. And I’m reflecting now on how much he experienced isolation and a lonely journey of development, quite different from the collaborative journeys that seem to dominate the zeitgeist now.