When Jill Berry and I last talked, she talked about this year being one of being more authentic. I think that’s something that interests many of us, the pull of more authenticity in our lives and in our work. If you Google “authenticity,” you’re going to find rather a lot of avenues to explore. But what do we mean when we talk about becoming more authentic? What does “authentic” mean, at its core?
The word “authenticity” comes to us from the Greek “authentikos,” which has as its root “autos,” meaning “self,” which is also at the root of words like “automobile” and “automatic” and makes it lots of fun to think about how these words came about: a car is something that moves itself.
Anyway–we’re not here to geek out about Greek but to think about authenticity and whether or not it’s possible in the marketplace. There are lots of definitions of the word, but the one that concerns us is not the first one or the second–or even the third. It’s #5 (in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary), the one that’s about being “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character,” and I’m guessing our current fascination with authenticity springs from two things: our ongoing concern about the provenance of ideas and techniques and classes and design (including that whole never-ending discussion about copying and plagiarism and out-right theft), and our struggles to find a way to make it in a scary economy where everyone is trying to find The Next New Thing and jump aboard. Because, really, for lots of people, there aren’t that many alternatives. If you’re trying to make a living with what you make, you have to think about things like what’s popular and what’s going out of fashion. That’s the nature of making and selling, and it’s something all working artists and teachers have to think about, to one degree or another.
But that’s also a slippery slope, and once you find yourself thinking about what’s hot and what’s not and what might be hot next year, you also find yourself thinking about how you can capitalize on that, how you can latch onto it and make it work for you. The risk is embracing it so thoroughly that you lose sight of what your work is about, what is authentic about what you do. If, for example, you believe that polymer clay jewelry is what’s going to sell at fairs and shows and in galleries in 2013, and if you really need to make some money as soon as possible in order to keep gas in the car, working polymer clay into your studio may be something you need to consider. If you make art dolls, maybe you can create jewelry for them. Or maybe you can make molds of your faces for clay jewelry. Maybe there’s some way to meld the two in ways that work for you. The question is: can you do that and still create work that is authentic? What if being authentic is not only about refraining from copying someone else’s designs but also is about figuring out ways to make adjustments in what you do in order to be able–from a financial perspective–to keep making it without losing site of your true work.
I don’t know the answer here. In a perfect world, artists and writers and musicians would be able to do what they do, doing it as well as they can, and make a living doing that. They would be truly authentic, making work that springs from their individual personality and spirit and character, work that was like no one else’s. In the real world, this is not often the case. We have to compromise, doing what we love as much as we can while making the adjustments necessary to make it valuable to other people. The real question in today’s world seems to be this: How much authenticity can we afford?
For more about authenticity, try Sheri Gaynor’s book Creative Awakenings: Envisioning the Life of Your Dreams Through Art.
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