(I read this piece at my event at LAAA's Gallery 825 last night...)
Sometimes a notion so offensive comes along that you wonder how it managed to work itself into the popular consciousness. Such a one is the concept of branding.
You hear it touted as a value everywhere—in the marketing of products, celebrities, politicians, ideas… And to judge by its ubiquity, you’d have to believe it works. Everyone has to have a brand. Or be a brand. Once you get branded, you or your product become instantly recognizable to the masses eager to consume it—or you.
But let’s pause for a moment to consider the origin of the word. Branding is the practice of burning an icon into the flesh of a living being by means of a red hot iron, to assert ownership. Slaves were branded. Cattle were branded. Perhaps they still are, to this day. It is worth bearing this origin in mind before we delight too much in its transference to the field of marketing. I personally have no wish to be imprinted with the mark of a corporate owner—who will the presumably have the authority to tell me what to do. I become a slave, whether to some image of self I wish to sell, or to others, it matters not. A slave is a slave is a slave.
Had branding remained the domain of the corporate world, it might not have been quite so offensive. They, after all, are defined by their need to satisfy the bottom line. Unhappily, its toxin has spread into the creative world, and it risks poisoning our collective cultural life blood. Consider the world of books, for example—my own pet beef (with apologies for the pun!) The major publishers depend more and more heavily on the brand to market their product. We need look no further than the “success” of former Governor Sarah Palin’s book to understand that it’s not a celebration of the writer’s art but rather a product that is profitably marketable thanks to its author’s “brand.”
Or consider the world of fine art. Who wants to be known as “the guy who…” (fill in the blank: paints Campbell’s soup cans, immerses sharks in formaldehyde, whatever); or, “oh, yeah, she’s the woman who…” (fill in your own blanks.) One sad effect of this kind of thinking is that it stifles creativity: the market does much better, thank you, if artists simply repeat their previous successes. How many artists have started out, in the past fifty years or so, to great éclat, only to fade into obscurity? Thank God, the best of them have learned to ignore the dictates of the market, only to be “rediscovered” much later in life—like Carmen Herrera, a wonderful artist, 94 years old, written up a few weeks ago in the New York Times after decades of obscurity. You have your own favorites. They are more numerous than they deserve to be…
It “pays”, then, to be branded as an artist, too. It pays to do the one thing you’ll be known by, recognized by, sold as. It pays to create a certain name associated with a certain product. But whatever happened to the “Renaissance man”—or the Renaissance woman? The artist, writer, philosopher, scientist whose curiosity about the world led him or her to explore many different paths, many different outlets for the life of the mind? Try “branding” Leonardo! The guy who…! What?
It’s in this way that our culture gladly sacrifices true creativity to siren call of commerce. In this context, it seems to me, the true task of the artist, the writer, the musician is to learn the difficult skills of non-collaboration, the art of finding their own distinctive voice, yes, but with the understanding that the voice must articulate, always, something new.