Can We Afford Authenticity?

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.

 

 

 

 

Ricë is the author of Living the Creative Life, Creative Time and Space, and Destination Creativity. She also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.


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6 Responses to Can We Afford Authenticity?

  1. CarolineA says:

    The development of a mass-produced craft industry makes it very hard to be authentic and true to your own creative muse. Particularly when much of it is described as “art” and you can make “original” art using paint-by-numbers techniques. The bar has been set to the lowest common denominator in everything we do, no matter how badly, and our education system is set up to help us believe that we cannot rely on our own ideas and workmanship if it is in anyway different from the accepted norm.
    Its much harder to feel authentic,or to judge something as authentic, when you can go to Pinterest and see vast collections of similar work by others. It works to devalue the talents and skills of the original artist who starts out from scratch to plan, design, sweat buckets, and bring their project to fruition when someone with a printer can simply download the image and copy it to create their own “original”, and in the case of the Chinese, produce it by the million without paying you royalties or commission or acknowledging that you are the original artist.
    But lack of respect for talent and skill or not, I still firmly believe the truly creative person will never be satisfied for long with merely copying the work of others and will sooner or later yearn to express what comes from within themselves, out of their own imagination and personal beliefs. This is authentic art; it may superficially resemble mass-produced craft, but it won’t be the same, because it now contains some of the soul of the artist, and its that that makes the difference. As creative skills improve,and self-confidence grows, the creators style will evolve into something unique that turns them from a crafter, copying someone else, into an artist who has learned and honed their craft.
    The medieval craftsmen used to make a sign on work they produced to proudly announce to the world that “XX made this”. It might look like someone else’s work, particularly in the case of a stone mason or carpenter, but it wasn’t made by anyone else. We need to recognise this uniqueness in our own work. Its what makes it authentic.

    • Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

      Thank you for taking time to comment so thoughtfully. I agree with what you say, and I wish artists didn’t have to worry so much about what will sell but could, instead, listen only to their own true voice.

  2. Johanne says:

    Can we afford not to be authentic? So much is lost when we don’t show up wholeheartedly.

    Between the artist who produces only art that sells and the one who produces nothing, or produces art that doesn’t sell, there is a whole range of possibilities. I suppose that’s part of the compromise you’re talking about Ricë.

    Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the framework provided by work and time constraints. Don’t get me wrong, when I have more time and less work, I enjoy it and usually go to the studio. Limits have focused and influenced my creativity and artwork. I would also say that creativity has influenced the way I work.

    I just hope to live a very very long time, because there is so much work I still want to do as an artist…

  3. Caatje says:

    I’m not a working artist. Well, I’m an artist and I work on my art a lot, but I’m not one who makes a living with her art (I like to say I make a life with my art). Anyway that probably makes it easy for me to say this.

    I wonder if you can afford NOT to be authentic? If you make work dat doesn’t reflect you and your preferences/styles/ideas etc and then it becomes succesful or sells reasonably well, how would that make you feel in the long run? Basically you would be succesful at something that is not you or a major compromise to the customer. Wouldn’t that eventually just become exhausting? You would have to keep coming up with the stuff your buyers like instead of spending that time to really develop your own style.
    I even wonder if you can still call it art if you produce a product to sell in such a way that it reflects the potential buyer more than it does you.

    Also I wonder if imitating the styles of other people (I’m not talking about copycatting) is not authentic when it’s done because you really really love what somebody makes. Apparently your love for a certain style is you. Is it original? Hell no! But I’m not so sure about not authentic. Aren’t the things we love part of who we are as well? (I’m not saying it’s okay to sell stuff that clearly is a rip off of somebody elses work, just so we’re clear on that.) I’m just saying that originality and authenticity may not be the same thing. My love for chocolate is very authentic, but hardly original, haha.

    • Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

      Great points, Caatje–I esp. like what you said about what would happen if you began doing something that became successful and then you had to keep doing it even if it wasn’t really what you want to do. I know people who are in just this position: finding success with something and then not being able *not* to do it. If only everyone could find the success they want making exactly what they want.

  4. Johanne says:

    Can we afford not to be authentic? So much is lost when we don’t show up wholeheartedly.

    Between the extremes of the artist who produces only art that sells and the one who produces nothing, or produces art that doesn’t sell, there is a whole range of possibilities. I suppose that’s part of the compromise you’re talking about Ricë.

    Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the framework provided by work and time constraints. Don’t get me wrong, when I have more time and less work, I enjoy it and usually go to the studio. Limits have focused and influenced my creativity and artwork. I would also say that creativity has influenced the way I work.

    I just hope to live a very very long time, because there is so much work I still want to do as an artist…

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