The Etsy Phenomenon

With 400,000 active sellers, 4.2 million members and a steady increase in sales, Etsy now generates nearly 20 million dollars in Gross Merchandise Sales per month. There are almost 7000 pages dedicated to the sale of art. Collages, drawings, illustration, photography, prints, sculptures, fiber art, mixed media and paintings; the art category is (and has been for a long time) in the top five categories of items listed and sold on the website.

Not all of it is good, even less of it is great but as you sift through the pages you will discover that somewhere between the good, the bad and the ugly lies a truly unique and wonderfully executed piece of art. What defines the wonderful is up to you and if you can’t be bothered looking through the thousands and thousands of entries, then let someone else do it for you. There are blogs that document the best art on Etsy, listing up to one hundred of the better artists, such as a thing of beauty and Etsy Art.

The art for sale on Etsy is often mediocre and sometimes derivative. You will recognize many of the offerings as something you’ve seen before, or notice the same ideas coming up again and again. While the work is generally not overly challenging or confronting, Etsy art can be cute, daring, boring, exciting and a million other things. This is art that people want to buy for themselves, or as gifts for their friends, accessible and affordable, relevant and broadly appealing.

Artists and designers are using Etsy to showcase their talents and supplement their careers. While a purchase on Etsy isn’t likely to bring your great grand children millions in an auction at Sotheby’s, you never know. Basquiat probably would have sold his handmade postcards on Etsy instead of on the streets, and Van Gogh may have found success and recognition much earlier in life had Etsy been around in his time.

Etsy is a community that actively supports the offering of alternatives to mass-produced objects. Etsy stands for

the true value of handmade goods and their creators and encourages awareness of the social and environmental implications of production and consumption.

The website was created to “reconnect producer and consumer, and swing the pendulum back to a time when we bought our bread from the baker, food from the farmer, and shoes from the cobbler.” (Etsy, 2010)

However, not all agree, many of them artists. Canadian artist Marissa Tamari feels that despite the promise of a one-on-one marketplace, the platform still feels impersonal and takes the “pre-eminence of personality” away from the art, which is essential to the elevation and full appreciation of art.

Tamari also emphasizes her distaste for the buy-and-sell element of Etsy. She doesn’t like to put a “price tag” on her work, and feels that this form of commerce diminishes the whole process of exhibition, which is of utmost importance to the sale of art. She prefers to steer clear of the “paint to sell” philosophy.

While Etsy may not be right for some, others find the online environment suited to their purposes. Australian artist Charlotte Wensley found the international exposure appealing, and the interface to be “very user friendly and easy to navigate around, fresh and uncomplicated graphics allow the artwork to speak for itself, the color scheme of the site is calm, non-confrontational and welcoming.”

Etsy differs from other types of online art galleries in that the website is not curated or discriminating in regards to quality or taste, and the only prerequisite is that the goods must be handmade or vintage. The selection process is left to the buyer. This may result in frustration as you sort through the pages of creative outpourings (and many iterations) of a thousand different minds.

However, Etsy likes to make things easier for the user by offering a user defined interface that lets you search by geographical location if you’re yearning to buy local or to select the “Etsy age” of your seller. You can refine your search by color as well.

But does this empirical method of arranging, itemizing and presenting art reduce the meaning and context of the works? According to Canadian artist and scholar Mark Philip Venema, “art is not decorative, art is art. Any decorative attributes an artwork has is merely a tertiary by-product of the work.”

The purchasing public, on the other hand, appears to want decorative works and the millions of Etsy members seem to have no problem with blurring the lines. Rather than reducing the intimacy of fine art or eroding the perceived value of it, Etsy advocates suggest the website encourages initiation and contribution to the world of the creative arts.

Marcus Westbury from The Age writes, “The Internet is not a place to passively receive.”

Embedded in their expectations is the idea that culture is something you create and not something you passively consume. Not so long ago, the thought that you would publish your own writing or curate your own images was unthinkable to most people.

Westbury sees the Etsy phenomenon as a “return to creating.”

Even though he thinks it can work, Venema is still hesitant to embrace this new model of selling art. “It’s about quality control . . . it is just silly for artists, even artists who know better to say ‘anyone can make art’ which is potentially true . . . but ultimately misleading.” He feels that Etsy contains little art that has “any relevance to the dialogue of contemporary artwork,” and suggests the art displayed on the website does not participate in the “dialogue that artworks of quality make with other artwork.”

Artists like Venema believe Etsy could actually be damaging to the fine arts; Etsy’s lack of curation hinders the development and appreciation of art; the hands-off philosophy diminishes the value, both culturally and financially, of fine art.

Without knowledge and art education there can be no development of art. A major problem with our global economy is its lack of insight into long term cultural goals. Etsy . . . in a pure market sense is a waste of the serious artist’s time.

Perhaps the proliferation of art on sites with minimal curation like Etsy and Society6 and even sites with traditional curation like 20×200 and Tiny Showcase will reduce the influence that institutions and academia have on art in today’s culture. The dot com art movement may be the first step to a fully democratized and redefined art culture where anyone can contribute and anyone can purchase. This could mean smashing open dialogues about the definition of contemporary art. Are we in the midst of an evolutionary shift in the art world?

If it is anything like the other arts that have migrated online, like music and literature, then yes, we are.

I would like to extend my thanks and warmest regards to Jon McNair, Rory Kurtz, Charlotte Wensley, Marissa Tamari, Mark Philip Venema and Leon Sidwell.

Lara Cory recently completed her first novel and she’s starting a food blog. She’s always been interested in music, writing, art, film and books. She studied Communications and Music and lives in Sydney, Australia with her husband and two small boys.