Authenticity

August 17, 2016

I am bewildered by the amount of amazing “stuff” you can buy in modern craft/hobby stores.  Aisle after aisle of it. Not only are there paints, pencils, and canvases – there are also model airplane kits, DIY science experiments in a box, faux flowers, and… let’s not try too hard to ignore it… there’s “art” in there too.  Notice it’s not capital-A art, it’s not even little-a art, in fact – it has to be an “enclosed-in-quotation-marks-art” to show that it’s just a little bit funny.

I have to wade through all of this “art” to get to the actual art supplies I can’t afford in the back, and while I hate to say it, some of it looks pretty good – especially some of the abstract-expressionist based prints.  I look at the price on the back and sink into despair – not because it’s out of my price range, but because it is so affordable. These framed canvas prints are unfortunately priced within almost everyone’s budget.  How can I, as an artist, expect someone to pay respectable prices for my work, when they can buy something that “looks” similar for only $50?  How can I help my potential customers to realize the value of real, handmade art?  Why would they buy my hard-earned paintings when they can buy mass-produced knockoffs for a fraction of the price?

Once upon a time, a work of art’s uniqueness made it a selling point.  The claim that, “this is the only one like it,” was something that appealed to buyers.  While it is still true that each handmade work of art is unique, I am unsure that “there is only one,” still has the potency that it once had.  Rather than focusing on uniqueness as a selling point, I tend to think that authenticity is a much more powerful asset to the artist.

The one thing that these prints cannot possibly produce is authenticity.  If you look closely, these prints try really hard to look like the real thing.  The “brushstrokes” are built up out of gel medium to make them look hand-painted.  On the sculptures, you’ll notice that all of the rust is painted on.  It’s all completely fake, but from around 10 feet away, it looks believable to the average viewer.

Whether or not we like to admit it, authenticity is important.  In Kentucky, we are quite proud of our bourbon.  In fact, among bourbon aficionados, “If it ain’t from Kentucky, it ain’t bourbon.”  There are many whiskey products that are quite similar, (if not nearly identical) made out of state, yet they lack the authentic pride of “made in KY” that gets our attention and appreciation.

To be competitive, your work needs to be authentic.  People viewing your work need to be convinced that your art is the real thing, produced by a real artist.  They need to believe that your work is the truth.  Your art needs to express your personal culture (your identity, locale, quirks, beliefs) distilling it into a true reflection of yourself.  Writers always claim, “write what you know,” and the same is every bit as true with artists.  Don’t try to create things that you think everyone will like – that’s what those prints in the craft store are for. Strive to create work that is authentic.  When someone is purchasing a real work of art, they are not only buying something that looks amazing, they are also buying into the identity, the story, the personality of the artist – something that is not possible when buying a mechanical reproduction off the store shelf.

Are these mass-produced prints robbing artists of potential sales?  My knee-jerk reaction says, “Yeah!” while I run to arm my fellow artists with pitchforks and torches to start a mob, but in reality I’m not so sure.  I don’t think that avid patrons who collect real art will be tempted into browsing craft stores to decorate their homes.  I’d say most artist-to-client sales come from patrons who are already on their way to building a decent collection.  The clients –or rather potential clients- that I fear losing to cheap craft-store art are the those who are on the fence about buying real art.  They have yet to step into collecting, and might not be confident in their own tastes enough to “take the plunge” of buying their first piece.  They see a piece in the craft store that looks enough like something they’ve seen in the pages of their favorite magazine and buying copies, I fear, might be enough to satisfy them.  Buying these prints is a way for them to cultivate the “look” that they want without risking much in the way of personal style or money.  Sales that you make to patrons who are just beginning their collection are important as they are likely to want more of your work as your relationship continues to grow.

When I visit people’s homes for dinner parties, I always give them praise when I see real art hanging in their homes.  I like to thank them for supporting real artists.  More often than not, they end up taking me around the house, showing me their entire collection.  The owner will usually have a story about the artist, how they acquired the piece, and how much it means to them personally – something that simply isn’t part of buying a print from the craft store.