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.

17 responses to “The Etsy Phenomenon”

  1. samaramc says:

    I think the comment that Etsy 'takes the “pre-eminence of personality” away from the art, which is essential to the elevation and full appreciation of art' is really interesting and true. The site is very much a marketplace for goods and commodities (albeit of the handmade type). In contrast, the contemporary arts 'industry' is very focused on marketing an artist's personality. That doesn't carry over well on Etsy. Not a bad thing, just a different thing.

  2. Tim says:

    I agree that we are in the midst of an evolutionary shift in many different areas, not the least of which is art. It is an amazing thing to browse artwork from around the world instantly.

    I consider Etsy more of as a global artisan bazaar more than a fine art museum. I bought many handmade gifts from Etsy this year and am really happy to purchased directly from the artists.

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  4. Lisa Klow says:

    “Quality control” – ? Wow. I'd say people who have a problem with Etsy, or the whole concept of selling online, are upset that someone let all these other people into their playground – there's no guard at the door! Well, guess what – if someone wants to sell art online and someone else wants to buy it? What business is that of yours? Just because it isn't on a gallery wall doesn't mean it's bad art. If people buy and sell mediocre art – again, what business is it of yours, and who cares if you think it's bad or mediocre? You've lost control. Get over it.

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  6. Kirsty Hall says:

    This would be the same fine art world that sells mugs and tea-towels with paintings on them in gallery shops, would it?

    I agree that Etsy reaches a very different audience and it can be hard to find good work amongst all the dross. But why is it OK for someone like Tracey Emin to start out with her own shop but not for an artist to sell on Etsy? Seems hypocritical somehow. Or is it only 'proper art' if artists are selling on Etsy 'ironically'?

  7. No one is saying people can't sell 'art' on Etsy… we are just challenging the notion that 99% of the wares sold on Etsy actually help the endeavor of understanding and making art meaningful. It should be noted that a world of cheap marketing thrills should be challenged and that people don't really need to fill their homes with more trinkets. I would like to see more people fairly and honestly told that the stuff is kitsch, and that the lack of curation and 'quality control' on Etsy is precisely the reason that there is virtually nothing of relevance to the continuing dialogue of contemporary art. The crass attitude that 'what business of it is yours' is the kind of world that lets beggar's and drug addicts die in the street because, well, “its not my business.”

  8. brisdeverre says:

    I like your responsed to lisa.And I agree with you ,in french we say there's art and artisanat.The second one kill art's sometime.

  9. Yes, in Portuguese its call “artesanal” … in English its called “handicraft” or “folk art” …but really there is quality folk art and then there is kitsch and camp. All useful and important terms to get a handle on. I know someone who has made basket weaving a high art and its not kitsch:

  10. susan adsett says:

    Many consumers are simply NOT interested in “long term cultural goals”. They just want to buy something cute to hang in the bathroom – and whether they buy it from Etsy, Ebay, a gallery gift shop or the local art fair makes absolutely no difference to them. They aren't looking for art – they're looking for decoration. Etsy sells some lovely decorations. And so does the Metropolitan Museum.

    Yes, there's art at the Met as well – and you'll find some on Etsy, too, but since it's uncurated, you have to dig a lot deeper to find it. Whether or not serious art collectors (i.e. those who WANT to look at long term cultural goals) will bother is anyone's guess.

  11. Miranda says:

    I agree with Tim: “I consider Etsy more of as a global artisan bazaar more than a fine art museum.”

    It's the difference between going to a craft fair or farmer's market and an art gallery. Etsy isn't meant to provide discourse on the modern art world. It speaks to a completely different audience.

    I do agree that the majority of the products on Etsy is kitsch-junk, but then so is the majority of the products at a craft sale.

    Perhaps I'm wrong, but I didn't think that Etsy promoted itself as a mecca of high art. The internet has leveled for artists in some ways, but like anything on the 'net, there's more junk than quality. It just means that the audience has to be more discerning than ever.

  12. I see etsy as an online art show, much like a local art festival…a full range of taste and quality. Also, the focus on etsy seems to be more craft than fine art, although you can argue all day about the difference between the two. Handmade anything is better than mass-produced mediocrity. As an artisan, (jewelry) it is the perfect forum, but if I were looking to be a fine artist who would someday have a painting hanging in the Met, perhaps not so much.
    So much is shifting in our culture because of the internet–some good, some bad–opening up the world of art, and craft, to more people seems favorable to me.

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  14. Whitney says:

    I find it outrageous that you compared a crafter gaining some recognition and being seen as an artist with a drug addict or homeless person dying in the streets, although I suppose I really shouldn't be surprised.

    This is precisely why, as an artist, I feel a much deeper connection to the so-called “craft” world vs the so-called “art” world. I'm sure it isn't the case with everyone, but a decent chunk of the art world appears to be stuck up. Artists stand up on a pedestal and look down on crafters, no matter how obviously talented the crafter. Even people who are part of the crafting world but are obviously artists are looked down upon if they don't fit into a certain style, or a certain medium. I myself have been the victim of that.

    No matter what anyone else says or believes, I'm an artist, and my personality comes through with every mark I make. My work has meaning, has a message, says something about me, tells a story, makes a comment on the world, just like the art in the art world. But, I'd have a hard time with getting one of my works to show up in a museum, because my style simply doesn't fit in with the countless landscape and market scene paintings. That doesn't mean my work is lesser work or kitsch. It simply means that the art world is rather too narrow in their viewpoint of what art is.

    The art has to either be a lifelike drawing, or a lifelike painting of a landscape or a people scene, or a lifelike sculpture, or an abstract painting. Then, symbolism is found in those works, even if there's no symbolism to be found. But something that is seen to be more straight-forward can't be appreciated for what it is, even if it still makes you say, “Hmm,” and ponder over it.

    Besides, a work landing in a museum and having a curator doesn't mean it's a superior work. A lot of works that wind up in a museum really have no business being there and don't at all “add to the dialogue,” but because they fit in with a certain look, style, and medium, they make their way in there.

    Now, I understand that museums have to have certain types of art in it to attract its market. That's fine. But that's all it is, a market, and Etsy shoots for a different market, which is decidedly more diverse. One market isn't superior to the other.

  15. I think you missed the point. I am talking about the notion of indifference. Read again.

  16. If you want to grow as an artist and change your life for the better, let me see you work and comment on it.

  17. Brenda Clews says:

    I think being able to craft an item must be an enjoyable activity – using well-worn and true tested techniques, one can simply fill in the blanks, make the item and then sell it at a craft show or on a site like Etsy. That item has a function. It's a bright teapot, or a plier-knotted silver wire around a crystal to make a magik pendant, or a familiar pastoral scene for the kitchen or bathroom or hallway. The price is right. These items brighten our daily lives, fill in the spaces in our homes, or adorn us as clothing or jewelry, are lovely little gifts for each other.

    Art, on the other hand, is hard, tempestuous, fickle, uncertain, a very painful execution of the unknown. While I sell very little work, and my work may sometimes seem decorative on the surface, each piece has torn me open, exposed my core – art-making is a fragile endeavour. Where I start with a piece and where I end are never pre-known. I think making a familiar object, a basket, or sewing some oven mitts with applique of flowers, must be a pleasant activity. To me, craft has a security where the ending, the product, its niche is known, and this must be comforting to the artisan, the person selling their wares.

    I can't pretend to know what art is, or even if I do it. Personally I find much museum art – or the contemporary art museums support in traveling shows, not the main collections of historically important artists and art – to be on the whole dry, academic, requiring the knowledge of a vast body of critical art theory and it often seems so abstracted as to be removed from the pulse.

    Etsy's too large for me. I've taken a peek now and then, and scurried away quickly. Though of all sites selling goods on the NET it's one of the best, hand-crafted, yes, lovely, let's support the makers of the items, the artists and artisans, and vintage, oh vintage is so beautiful, I love vintage since it's often what was formerly haute couture, fine clothing, what only the wealthy could afford, and now it's lace is under our adoring fingers, in our hands.

    As for being in the midst of an evolutionary shift in the world in art, yes, yes, yes… surely we are, as surely as in music, film, literature… where the people speak, create, offer. There has never been so much public writing in the world, blogs are booming, and we can upload our videos for public viewing and do in the millions, with the development of Creative Commons licensed music, on sites like Jamendo, music is experiencing a revival too. Perhaps we are entering a period of high Renaissance.

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