What is authenticity anyway?

One artist’s experience of selling out

There are only two types of artist. It’s a well-established fact. The first is rattling around a house with boarded-up windows, coughing into a bloody rag, spending feverish nights hunched over a canvas and surrounded by broken fragments of whisky glasses and relationships. The second owns a home that is large enough to have a specifically designated wine and/or murder room, and the garden is filled with statues they made, huge whimsical monstrosities that loom over perfectly defined hedges. 

There is no third kind of artist. They were all, apparently, banished to a special circle of hell reserved for Sell-Outs. Since I have taken up residence in that circle, allow me to mark the route on your map in case you fancy heading this way.

Welcome to Hell

Louise with her fugglers

I didn’t always live here. I started creating toothy teddy bears to entertain myself when I was working in a minimum wage job. They were never meant to sell, only to amuse people by simply existing. I listed them on Etsy for £12 each (which barely covered the materials) along with a description about how unimpressed my husband was with my hobby. I used a battery operated sewing machine, which was exactly as useful as you’d imagine it to be, bought the cheapest felt and stuffing I could find, and I spent my evening’s sewing, and super glueing teeth into bear faces, happily chuckling away to myself. They were exceedingly amateur, but since they were a joke it didn’t matter. They were an easter egg on the internet for people to find. 

Except they kept selling. 

They kept selling, so I begrudgingly had to make more to keep the joke going, and this pattern continued until I – quite accidentally – became better at making them. As demand grew, Fugglers took over larger and larger parts of my life, eventually shouldering my job out of the way. As I improved, as the work became more popular, as I started sourcing higher quality materials, as I started needing the income to sustain my life rather than just feed a hobby, I began charging more. Eventually, I was working flat out making Fugglers, all the hours I could fit in the day. 

Selling without slaving

When I reached the peak of what I felt comfortable charging for my work, I introduced merchandise; cards, keyrings, mugs, necklaces. I did so for two reasons: firstly, to ensure the original customers that I might have out-priced with the handmade Fugglers could still be included as the brand developed and secondly, it meant that I could make money from selling objects that didn’t add to my workload or weren’t crafted by fingers that were already starting to feel the tug of RSI. 

It was my first, joyous, tentative step into becoming a sell-out, and dear reader, I heartily recommend it. Selling something not directly hewn from hours of your life is liberating. It’s the self-employment equivalent of putting on an old coat and finding a ten-pound note in the pocket. I encourage you all, where possible, to start taking small steps towards becoming a sell-out immediately. 

Unwrapping the sell out stigma

We have this standard of authenticity we hold visual artists to that we don’t apply evenly to other creative fields. A song captured in a studio can be licensed for a TV show or advert, sold in an album, or streamed over the internet, passively earning money every single time it’s heard. Merchandise and musicians go hand and hand, T-shirts and posters seen as a way for fans to express their allegiance. Fashion designers can see their work in stores throughout the world without having to hand stitch each one. Actors can perform in a play that has been acted out a thousand times before without accusations of a lack of originality, and then that same performance can be mass-produced on DVD to sell to millions. Writers will sell untold books, but only have to type out the finished copy once. They can even pass on their ideas to a film company or a TV company, and this isn’t seen as selling out but instead as an achievement worthy of plaudit. 

However, in their purest form, there’s an expectation that visual artists must pour whole swathes of their lives into each separate piece of work, and then sell it to one singular individual. They may deign to sell prints if they absolutely must, but really they should be limited edition so that their precious artistry is not diluted by anything so uncouth as mass production. Merchandise is (whisper it) crass. Tacky. Kindly hold back my hair while I heave with spasms of integrity at the notion of a printed mug, or the sheer vulgarity of a calendar. Worthy art is precious because it is rare. 

So let’s break down what this actually means, and looks like. A true, pure, successful artist that passes that litmus test of authenticity must claw their way up various echelons of customer as they improve and grow until they are only selling to the most marbled, fatty cuts of society; those that can drop thousands on a painting, a sculpture, an installation without once wondering if that will impact their ability pay bills or buy food.

There’s no best-selling chart for artists, no section in the supermarket brimming with our work. You want a promotion as an artist? Sell your art for more. You want to build up a security buffer of money in case you fall ill? Find richer customers. You want to contemplate retiring one day? Graze off investment bankers, or royalty, or find a rich vein of footballers to mine. For the love of Minerva, just whatever you do, don’t sell out. 

Like I did. 

And honestly… sod that. If that’s the way you want to work, then absolutely more power to you, but it’s spectacularly unhealthy to pretend it’s the only credible route. I was lucky that my art was humorous, and that lack of seriousness spared me the worst edges of this judgement, but, there’s something inescapably archaic about our notion of the career path of a visual artist. 

There’s a special circle of hell reserved for artists that sell out.

– Some guy on Reddit, talking about me

Subconsciously some people are still tethered to the idea of visual artists and their patrons, rather than a visual artist and their community. Traditionally galleries and auctions stood as both a gatekeeper and buffer between artists and the public. Now online platforms grant greater scope for artists to find and interact with their audience, to monetise their work in ways they see fit, while also offering increased autonomy over the commodification of their art. However, vestiges of this artist-patron stigma still linger. What some perceive as selling out in the visual arts is seen as a milestone achievement in nearly every other art form. 

The joy of selling out

When an agent approached me about representing my work, I was at the manatee stage of pregnancy. I had the beginnings of RSI in my wrist and fingers. I had no way of keeping up with the demand for my work and was at some points running a 16-week backlog for orders that would individually only take me a couple of hours each to make. The year before I’d been hospitalised for emergency surgery, and while my customers were incredibly supportive, it made me realise the vulnerability and lack of safety net in my career. All in all, it was a perfect storm to help me understand that I had reached the peak of what I could achieve in my work without making drastic changes to the way I operate.

So, when my agent later told me a company wanted to buy the rights to Fugglers, I took it. I enthusiastically, jubilantly sold out.

Here’s what I learned about authenticity. It doesn’t have to be a set of rules, carved in stone. If that was the case, my business model would have looked very different. When I first started out, I never made the same design twice. I’d use the same template a couple of times, but always use different materials and features to make every Fuggler unique. It was a point of pride. However, when an image went viral, you’d get hundreds of people lining up to buy that exact same design. I quickly adapted, offering listings where people could commission a design they’d already seen while also using any downtime to still create new creations. Don’t confuse authenticity with dogma.

It’s certainly not something other people get to decide for you. I know what was integral to my vision of Fugglers when I started out, and it wasn’t hand-making everything in a spare bedroom surrounded by stuffing and a Dyson that constantly had at least three false teeth whirling around inside it like the world’s most morbid snow globe. At the core of it all had been a desire to make people laugh. Physically making the Fugglers was simply the most convenient way for me to get them to exist, and to set the idea of them loose in the world. 

This Christmas, years after selling my business, someone sent me a video of their daughter. She was dancing in a Fuggler costume, surrounded by people who were absolutely not dressed as Fugglers and certainly not dancing with anywhere near as much enthuasiasm, and it was ridiculous and incongruous and perfect. 

My vision for Fugglers persists, without me.

Authenticity is a compass that you consult, to decide whether you’re heading where you want to go. 

– Louise McGettrick

When my agent told me a company wanted to buy the rights to Fugglers, it was the fact that Spin Master understood the humour that made me certain it was the right decision to make. That wasn’t the only factor, of course. Authenticity is also the maths of what you want, minus what you’re prepared to lose. There was financial maths and ‘At What Age Can I Trust A Baby Not To Try To Eat Individual False Teeth’ maths and emotional maths and ‘Where Do I See Myself In Ten Years’ trajectory maths, but honestly I would have had a much harder time balancing out all of that if the company hadn’t understood the personality of my work. 

The humour was the core of Fugglers, and selling them on without that aspect would have felt like whittling out the soul of them. When Spin Master sent me a mocked-up re-homing video for Fugglers, complete with a suitably melodramatic background song, I knew it was the right decision. 

The reality of selling out

But that’s not to pretend it was all sunshine and glitter, with no flickers of remorse. The Fugglers had been my constant companions for years, and while I in no way enjoyed turning myself into an accidental one-woman sweatshop, the moments when a finished design clicked together and you saw that spark of life creep into the bears still felt magical all those years later. The community that formed around them was a never-ending source of joy and comfort and pride, and handing over the keys to the social media felt like walking out in the middle of your birthday party and handing over the cake and hat and crowd of happy faces to someone else. To this day I still search for Fugglers online, my nose pressed up against the glass, watching everything from outside. I miss them, and I miss the community, and I miss that spark of creation, and the incessant chiming of my phone when an image went viral.

But it was still the right decision for me to make. Selling out meant that my creations could finally run out into the world at the speed they’d been trying to for years, previously held back by the rate my fingers could work at. Selling out meant that the customers who had been left behind by the price hikes could be properly reunited with the work. Selling out meant that my ideas could live separately from my manual labour, as the past years had seen me transform from a creator into a one-woman factory. 

I sold out because I loved my idea, and the company that wanted to take it on understood exactly what it was, and what made it work. I sold out so I could create something new, and let other concepts that had been smothered by the workload of Fugglers grow and take shape. I sold out so I could shop at Ocado if the mood takes me, so I can have a sick day without feeling anxious about the financial repercussions, and so my husband could leave a job he hated and retrain for a career he loves. 

Authenticity is an equation, taking everything into account and weighing it accordingly. It’s a compass. It’s the spark at the core of your idea. Authenticity is not an immovable object you must build in the shadow of. 

So, artists, be brave. Be thick-skinned. Chose a path that suits you, and not one that fits the narrative of what an artist is expected to be. Your well-being and ambitions should never be secondary to somebody else’s cliché of what you’re meant to be. 

Besides, if there’s a circle of hell reserved for artists that sell out, I’m here to tell you that it’s actually a pretty nice place to live. 

__ 

Louise McGettrick is most well-known for unleashing the internet-notorious Fugglers upon the world, but prior to that she had realised a successful career as a children’s author, writing books that were published around the world, and translated into over seven different languages. She’s the owner of an exceedingly eclectic CV, veering from a brief stint as a stand-up comic to an all too long period designing bathrooms, but Louise always finds her way back to conjuring little pieces of happy or strange to throw out into the world.

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