Thursday, May 27, 2010

buying the brand

I remember becoming aware of brand names in Elementary school. Back then my little metropolis had only one traffic light and as far as I knew the primary purpose of an automobile was to effectively transport people and good from point A to point B. Today this appears to be a secondary or even tertiary purpose falling well behind being an outward demonstration of the driver's personality or financial status. Radio and TV ads teach us exactly which car brands are the cool ones, which ones will make us still seem cool while we transport our kids and things, and which ones will make us feel macho and manly while driving to our cubicles. When you think about it, it makes you wonder what the highway landscape would look like if there were no advertising at all. If cars were still just transportation would you be driving what you are driving?

I don't care what kind of car you drive or why you drive it. What concerns me is how the ideas of brand marketing bleed over into areas not normally thought to be associated with advertising. Maybe you're into religion. Have you noticed how your local church is being managed like a business? Have you noticed how your church is marketing itself to a certain demographic? Maybe you have kids. Have you noticed how fashion and dietary concepts are introduced through cartoons? Have you watched as your child begged for the "Scooby Doo" gummy fruits instead of the ones without familiar characters on the box?

Or maybe you like art.

It would be easy to start with Picasso. As the first real art superstar he stands as the beacon of art marketing. And while he certainly deserves some credit for learning how to make the most of the attention he received, we'd have to look more to the left on the Art History timeline to trace the branding of art. In fact, just follow that imaginary line back to the early Renaissance in Europe. This was the time that money began to flow more freely from the royal and aristocratic donors and among those with money, certain names began to surface as the most sought after artists. At this point a person's social and financial status could be outwardly demonstrated by the name of the artist they hired for portraits or altarpieces. We could presume that these artists were actually the most talented, but realistically we should consider that they were just the most connected. After all, the reason many of them are in our Art History books is that their brand was chosen by the people with bags of money.

We'll get back to the bags of money momentarily.

But you're an educated, self actualized American - you don't buy into branding. You're smarter than that. Right? OK, maybe on a very subconscious level the car you picked out was designed by an artist who used strong lines and hard angles and large proportions in order to visually communicate ideas of strength and reliability. So they slipped that one by you. And maybe your religious group is targeting a specific demographic who happens to have families and money, but that's just what churches do, right? And kids, come on, kids love Scooby Doo, heck, they're even called "Scooby Snacks", what's not to love about that? But there's no way branding has anything to do with my sense of aesthetics. I mean, some things are sacred.

So what about Robert Therrien? Have you seen his work? Do you have a T-shirt he designed? Any books? Do you have any prints of his drawings hanging in the guest bathroom? No? And yet Therrien has been producing very strong, relevant works of Contemporary Art for years.

OK, but what about Shepard Fairey? What about Banksy? What about Damien Hirst? You've seen their work, you may have a T-shirt, a few books, and every artsy person needs a couple of their prints to hang in the guest bathroom so that, almost as an afterthought, you can tacitly suggest to visitors that you are just hip enough to have such a thing.

But, you argue, these guys are amazing artists! Their work is everywhere. Fairey just had a show at the ICA/Boston last year. That Banksy guy is everywhere and he's all over the news...and he's so mysterious. And haven't you seen that diamond studded skull? The dead shark in formaldehyde? Genius, right?

Maybe genius is a good word because it gets us around the idea of having to discuss the artistic merit of the work they produce. Do not misinterpret me here. I'm not saying they are bad artists. But are they the best? Do these guys represent the peak of Contemporary art in the early 2000's? Or do they simply represent the state of branding in Contemporary art?

Hirst does make some finely crafted objects. He certainly has found ways to communicate subversive ideas of beauty in the post-Post Modern era, but there's also evidence that he's much better at marketing than he is at sculpting. ( - details a few examples of this including how he "sold" the diamond studded platinum skull to himself for 50 million pounds and how he's used art auctions to inflate his sales by self bidding. Thanks to for the link)

Maybe you thought Banksy's illegal graffiti paintings were witty when they began popping up on walls in England. Maybe you like that he's figuratively and sometimes literally giving the finger to the government and the social structures of many countries. But you also have to consider that he's been playing that same note for quite a long time now. Sure, he takes his one trick pony to other cities and news shows foam at the mouth when his work appears, but it's still the same note again and again. Maybe he missed his calling as a political cartoonist (see Thomas Nast) or maybe he could consider making his artistic statements a bit less obvious and become the new Dr. least that would provide a new audience for the single note symphony. You should also consider the Robin Hood factor when you think of Banksy. It's romantic to think of the man who steals from the rich in order to give to the poor until he steals something from you. Strip away the romance and you just have a thief. Strip away the street art hype and you just have a guy who spray paints things on walls. And don't even get me started on the use of stencils. But if you can find a way to keep the hype going and you can convince a modern art gallery that hype equals paying foot could be the next golden child.

In college Andre the Giant stickers were everywhere. Or at least they were everywhere that Shepard Fairey went. If you're near a college town in South Carolina, you might still see one on a traffic sign and oddly enough there's still an "Andre the Giant has a posse" sticker on a handicap sign in a parking lot here in Sparkle City. As a fellow Sandlapper, I want to support Fairey but I've seen his artistic feet of clay. ( - a very well supported argument with critical notes at the end. Thanks to for the link) And that's not to mention the whole Obama poster scandal from the recent Presidential campaign. (Whoops!) I should note that I'm a bit personally biased with this one. A few years ago Fairey was a guest speaker at Winthrop and there was an explosion of poorly executed graffiti on campus directly afterwards. Everyone who could cut cardboard and purchase spray paint felt they were empowered to be a great public artist. All spray paint was banned from campus two years later. At last check Google image search was still allowed. (Come on, that's funny if you read the article.)

I know many of you are really fond of some or all of these artists. I know many of you at this point want to argue about the impact of these artists and their relevance to Contemporary art and Graphic Design. And surely some of you would want to go personal and say, "It sounds like someone is jealous of their success."

Totally. I would love for my creative work to have a fraction of the media attention these guys have enjoyed. I'll say again that the word "genius" comes to mind when I think about how these men have used the system to succeed. They observed the industry, they considered plans of action, and they found intelligent ways to work with the system to promote their work. What I'm saying is, they branded themselves and their work and they effectively sold that brand to an artistic culture.

As London art critic Ben Lewis is quoted in the article from Art Practical above, "I don't think there is a disconnect—there is rather an over-connection. The money splurged on these big-name artists generates headlines—the money and the headlines make the artists into stars. The museums want attention and to increase footfall, so they exhibit the work of these new stars. Museum-goers, tourists, art lovers pour through the doors of museums and see the work they've read about in the papers or seen on TV."
Genius branding indeed. If it's cool, people will buy it. And we're back to those bags of money. Who needs money in a faltering economy? The Arts. And if all we have to do is make some super-stars to increase our cash flow, so be it.

*Note to the arts agencies of the State of South Carolina: Hey y'all, this works, maybe you should consider creating a couple of art superstars to bring back that much needed art cash. I sacrificially offer myself to this cause. Call me.

Let's not forget about Robert Therrien. I know, he doesn't even have a website so some of you won't believe he's a real person, but he does exist. He avoids the media and tends more towards the hermit side of life, but he's there and he continues to turn out great quality fine art. He appears to be very content to focus his attention on the artwork and leave the marketing schemes to someone else. It is the quality of the work, after all, that will be put to the test of time. Go on and look for the websites and historians dedicated to criticizing his work - you're not likely to find any.

Remove the media-colored glasses for a moment and see what's left. Without those diamonds, maybe it's just a skull. Without the enigma, maybe it's just a couple of guys pulling a prank with spray paint. Without hipster status, maybe it's just a guy who's really good with Photoshop. Then there's Therrien over there in the shadows making stuff for people to enjoy and think about. He's just a guy going from point A to point B and trying not to make a fuss about it.

All this begs the question: Do you like it because it's hip or do you like it because it's excellent?

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