A while back I read an article by two marketing academics in which they wrote that, to be successful, artists need to market themselves more effectively and to view themselves as brands, to be carefully managed, polished and promoted. They weren’t talking about “getting your work out there” but about considering yourself as a brand. This is necessary, they argue, because artists are in competition with each other. In the hunger games of emerging art the strongest brands, or those with the best costumes, will win. Shudder.
Uniqueness or novelty
Normally when you market a product or a brand, one of the first steps is to find its USP (unique selling point). This is common sense to marketing professionals who are trying to differentiate their client’s car insurance or toothpaste from the competition. Whether we acknowledge it or not, all artists stand on the shoulders of giants. I’m not defending or advocating plagiarism, but uniqueness should be far from the only criterion used to judge whether the art in question is worth your time.
Uniqueness is novelty. When we see the latest artist make their 15 minute splash on the TV news, it’s often easy to believe novelty is the sole reason they are there. Perhaps it is. The media are notoriously hungry for attention-grabbing news pieces, so exploding kangaroo holograms will win out over an exhibition of portraits in pastel. But we’re not children here, and we shouldn’t need a constant stream of novelties to keep us happy. There are other criteria. Does the work move us? To tears? Laughter? Joy? Contemplation? Is it saying something about how we live? The value and power of the work is in how it makes us feel or think, not in its ability to fluff jaded media hacks.
As universities wish artists to be research academics, so business consultants wish artists to be entrepreneurs. The marketers in the article, and other business graduates scrabbling to offer us advice, want us to see success in their terms: sales and exposure. Don’t you want to be a household brand like Picasso? Warhol? Emin? Personally I know exactly how successful each of my works is or is not. Did it say what I needed to say? Did the colours work? Were the drawing marks the right weight and in the right place? And so on. Those are my yardsticks for success. Sales? Compliments? Fame? Of course it’s great when folks like what you do, but you’d do it anyway, right? Even in a vacuum.
Finally, I’ve always believed that an artist’s search for honesty and integrity is the deciding factor in how meaningfully they can shine a light on how we live, on our experience of the world, on contemporary values and so on. I find it impossible to square this with the idea that artists should then manage themselves as brands, knowingly and self-consciously manipulating their public image for personal gain.
Artists deal with truth and integrity: branding’s for pop stars and toilet cleaner.
Disclosure 1: Lars Stenberg was a marketing professional for 18 years and has no intention of getting back on that train.
Disclosure 2: This opinion piece could be considered part of his wider branding strategy