The Conundrum – Style Vs Brand

When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, “It’s pretty, but is it Art ?”
Kipling The Conundrum of the Workshops

These days most everything done in the Art World is very, very pretty and it’s always promoted as Art. I thought of this as I stumbled through the MOMA show of Martin Kippenberger’s work the other day. Meandering into the galleries and looking at these works gives one the feeling that the well worn theoretical tracks of anxious objects and offhand throwaways are now decorously tasteful and bourgeois in their ways, and yes, a lot of that Art is very, very pretty. Today most all of the institutional usual suspects have been re-discovering – yet again – that “anti-beauty” is pretty. It’s the natural order of things – the malevalent dog ages into the family pet, the revolutionary becomes the bureaucrat. Maybe Kippenberger would enjoy this idea, maybe not. After looking at his paintings for a while I also found that his theoretics weren’t above the concept of beauty – in fact in many of these works he courted beauty at arm’s length, keeping a respectful distance. How do I know this? Kippenberger’s color is lovely and very German through and through. There is that foresty green that is never acidic, the chartreuse that looks so sour, the red that is dirt rich, the yellows that burnish into golds and the blues that fade quickly in the pasty whites. Beautiful. And Art. What is apparent straight away is that he painted even though he was neither a natural painter nor even an interesting one. His paintings are all half realized. It’s also visually apparent that the idea that started the painting was much faster and more fulfilling than the realization it demanded. Alternatively, if he had worked the paint maybe the idea would have become dull and thin. Bill DeKooning once said that painters usually don’t have very good ideas – and he was right. It’s all in how you handle it. Either way, Kippenberger didn’t want or need to master the craft or even worry about how using a certain craft might convey an idea. He was on to other things. Once one removes oneself from the game one isn’t judged by its rules. If one doesn’t develop a style one can be anything to anyone. In the end the painting really didn’t matter – Kippy was way too busy producing Art. What was the Devil whispering in his ear?

MOMA has also included a great many of the artful objects he concocted using the now academic ham-handed-spit-and-wire technique. These urbane sort of primitive objects are displayed at MOMA like we have been transported to a demented IKEA showroom (and the museum’s architecture doesn’t dissuade one from thinking this.) Of course this is part of his point. These retrofitted objects are art-like consumer goods. As Roberta Smith wrote in her 1987 review of the then 34 year old Kippenberger’s work: “Anything goes with Mr. Kippenberger, and nothing is sacred. He means to question many of the basic assumptions about sculpture: the importance of craft, of beautiful or costly materials, of visual logic itself. His objects often seem incompetently built, capriciously structured and arbitrarily titled. Their modest materials and occasional found objects are devoid of esthetic value; their crowded installation defies vision, challenging the viewer to see any one of them as sculpture per se.” This description of Kippenberger’s objects from the 80s could also be written about many of the installations and objects we see in the galleries, art fairs, institutions and studios of today. But for Kippenberger this Neo-Dada approach to consumer detritus is about making distinctions between Art and Art-as-product. I also want to point out a further distinction about a new form of an “art consumer” that was arriving on the scene at that moment. Artists were expanding the insular Postmodern critique that had focused on its own peculiar history to encompass a more ambitious critique that included the political, social and economic justifications behind that history – bringing in new customers. Here in Kippenberger’s works is the start of the first truly Global Art Movement. It not only questioned the art object, it began to address our contemporary conundrum – Style Vs Brand?

Art or Art Product

In the 30s, 40s and 50s there was a lot of talk of art being folded into the culture, making art a less specialized activity. A lot of this critique and theorizing was brought about by the combined forces of the economic depression, two world wars and the unsolvable problems inherent in capitalist doctrines. For many critics Capital-A Art should be a more “democratic” everyday experience practiced by the average working class citizen. The problem confronting those artists and theorists is that Capital-A Art is a discipline practiced by an intellectual group that is usually antagonistic to and set apart from working class sensibilities. It was the worry and hope of Modernists everywhere that Art as practiced would, should and could become a part of the everyday experience of the population at large. Art must be ingrained in the Every Man – as easy to come upon as a Model T or cup of Maxwell House coffee. Its former pretensions as something separate and higher would no longer be a point of contention between the classes. In this way Modernism hoped to level Capital-A Art by creating cultures of higher ideals readymade for the inhabitants of a new century. In other words – they wanted to swap “high” for “low.” You can see the desire for expanded higher cultures in Matisse’s idea that paintings would comfort like an easy chair for the tired business man, the Bauhaus and the Neoplastics intention to provide better design and living for the everyman, and even the Surrealists’ invasions and interpretations of the dreams and nightmares of “civilized” humans. However this idealism faded quickly at the dawn of the Post-industrial society. A new Postmodern Art was being folded into the mass culture just as the early 20th Century theorists had planned, but not in a way or with the outcome they had foreseen.

Consumer Culture did what Avant Garde Art could not do.

Over the last 40 years much has been made of the change to our economy. We moved from an industrial based economy to one based on services. The rise of the Global Corporations, the proliferation of private ownership – from copyrights to water – and the consolidation of power and capital have all been major trends during this time. In these Post-Industrial Societies goods and services have proliferated at an exponential pace. These goods and services are not necessarily based on innovations, but are actually recombinations and upgrades of ideas, goods and services already in use. These sorts of retrofitting theoretical principles are entrenched in Postmodern thought. For artists it has meant that innovation isn’t the goal of Art. For the Postmodernist style and innovation no longer drive the dialectic of art. Capital-A Art as a practice or as a dialectic is already defined as a professional doctrine. It does not exist as an actuality or a possibility. Art, then, is received and studied like a program and tweaked or upgraded to expand the capabilities of the program. These upgrades are mainly concerned with customization, personalization and identification. Identification allows one to subsume one’s personality attributes to the program itself. Personalization then takes place allowing the program user to define how the program represents one’s interests. Finally customization allows the user to make various choices already latent within the program itself. In the art world a similar process of assimilation has taken place. First there was academization and professionalization of Modernism in the 1960s. This was followed by the proliferation and mass institutionalization of art as a corporatized culture/business in the 1980s. And finally, art was seamlessly folded into the global economies of the early 21st century (the aughties) as a specialized consumer good. Art is no longer an activity of the avant garde looking to advance ideas and principles, a specialized activity of non-conformists or revolutionaries, but another profession that produces goods and services for consumption and investment. Art is now a business.

And with any business that sells products, objects, there is a way to go about it. “A brand is a collection of experiences and associations connected with a service, a person or any other entity.” In the art world brands have become ubiquitous. Brand names are synonymous with a type of product and a kind of value. Brands determine this value. Brands also determine a certain social pecking order, just as they do in other segments of the economy. Blue chip stocks, couture fashions, Hollywood movie stars and now certain types of art are all seen as representing a certain kind of individual. The fact that these brands become cultural displays places the consumer in that certain social group, certain monetary class and certain “cutting-edge” niche of society. Brands are not necessarily there to define the maker of the goods, they are there to define the consumer of the goods. They are made FOR a certain strata of consumer society. Brands, like markets, demand stability in order for them to work. Innovation is confined to slight tweaks of the products without altering the underlying appeal and stability of the brand. Synergies are the sought after outcomes. For instance let’s look to Murakami’s involvement with the fashion brand Louis Vuitton. Murakami, a branded artist, merged his designs with LV to create new products incorporating both his stylized art and LV’s iconic objects thus creating a new consumer product and a new art product – all the while defining a renewed consumer desire for both Murakami and LV. This type of cross pollination with “legit” business is becoming more common in the art world as more artists are designing art products that mesh easily in the common culture.

The point is that with the ascendancy of branding in the art world the idea of style has taken a back seat. Brands are conceptual in nature. Brands are all about the transparency of perception, and with that transparency, comes confidence. Confidence in one’s choice and confidence in one’s associations. Branding is not about the personal, branding is about the public, branding is about cultural perceptions. That’s why brands are marketed and advertised as a known quantity, a known product. Precedent is extremely important to their upkeep. One thing leads to another, but wherever we may go, we are always referred back to the brand’s original intent. And at the beginnings of today’s institutionalized art this idea of continuity became extremely important – especially at the end of Modernism and the avant garde and the rise of the post-industrialist collector. At the Museum of Modern Art William Rubin’s groupings and legacies of Modernist art, seen as a series of inevitable progressions, leads one, finally, to the Museum itself. In other words, without the history of Modernism the MOMA would not exist, and without MOMA, Modernism would fade in the public consciousness. Modernism became a Branded enterprise so that the museum would exist to service it. One brand synergies with another creating a service economy for the Brand itself – Modernism TM and MOMA Inc. As institutions grow and become known so does the confidence in the brands they service. Brand is ultimately about issues of power and control. Whoever controls the institution controls the Brand. One feeds into the other creating synergies. Brands may have style, but the concept behind the brand is not about style, it is about control. And that control of the brand and all of its implications, products and objects is finally about confidence. For art and many other products Brands will shush the whispering devil of doubt and solve the conundrum. Brands imply immortality, precedence, continuity, power and incidentally beauty. Brands have made just about everything that we see in the galleries, museums and institutions pretty and Art. One has confidence when one invests in a brand. One knows that all the doubt can just go to the devil.

The tale is as old as the Eden Tree – and new as the new-cut tooth –
For each man knows ere his lip-thatch grows he is master of Art and Truth;
And each man hears as the twilight nears, to the beat of his dying heart,
The Devil drum on the darkened pane: “You did it, but was it Art ?”

Ships of Theseus – Style VS Brand

“The Ship of Theseus paradox, also known as Theseus’s paradox, is a paradox that raises the question of whether an object which has had all its component parts replaced remains fundamentally the same object.”

(the video below is important to the critique. youtube has disabled the embedding. you can view it here or you can click into the black area of the video.)A couple of years ago we all participated in the controversy that dogged Damien’s shark. Saatchi had sold the decaying corpse to an American hedge fund billionaire who then had rehired Hirst to repair the damaged piece. Hirst purchased a new shark, and using updated preservative techniques, replaced the old remains with a new corpse. The usual questions ensued – Is it the same piece? Did he destroy the original? The common fallback position for experts and the press was to state that the piece was illustrative of a concept rather than an actual sculpture. This fallback was also Hirst’s, and it neatly tied up any arguments about the physical, the actual and the real in one big red Platonic bow. The shark tank then wound up in the Metropolitan galleries, around the corner from a glass of water by Matisse. Hirst’s idea weighs about a ton, Matisse’s idea just a few ounces. In September Hirst resold that “idea” along with a few of his others in various sizes. In the art world this has become known as working in series, in the marketing world this is known as merchandising a brand. “In marketing, one of the definitions of merchandising is the practice in which the brand or image from one product or service is used to sell another.” The advertising popularity of Hirst’s shark spawned the spins, the cabinets, the diamond skulls and the color dots – each idea then being recombined with recent art history creating a few recognizable lines of product. Each always already familiar, each understood immediately as art, each connoting a specific type of existence, comfort and desirability. But the thing built into all of the works, in their presentation, in their marketing was the one thing that guaranteed their ultimate success as sellable luxury products – nostalgia.

Throughout the history of art artists have tried to portray life in all its forms, creating new styles of art to express their times, their ideas and their lives. In fact this need to “make it new” had been the basic drive underlying western art creating an atmosphere of experimentation, progression and innovation. Until just a few years ago art was a continuing dialectic, testing first principles, new ideas and new visions. However that all changed when the avant garde declared that history no longer existed. In one fell swoop of theoretical smugness intellectuals declared that life was now outside the processes of fleshy existences. Abstraction had swamped the boat of history by encasing the physical figurative in brackets. Many critics began to focus on the institutionalization of avant garde practices and the new postculture that was taking hold. Harold Rosenberg declared that the concept of a revolutionary avant garde was being institutionalized, and in the academies, advanced art had become “…a profession one of whose aspects is the pretense of overthrowing it.” In other words by professionalizing rebellion we remove its transgressive nature. Critics also understood that reproduction and repetition, the twin barrels of the postmodern practice, now placed the artist in a parasitic relationship with the past. The institutional artist would no longer be born of art, but would instead, feed from it.

“In deconstructing the sister notions of origin and originality, postmodernism establishes a schism between itself and the conceptual domain of the avant-garde, looking back at it from across a gulf that in turn establishes a historical divide. The historical period that the avant-garde shared with modernism is over.” Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths

Suddenly there was nothing that could be new, but everything could be “new.” Our yearning for a golden time of art making, the urgency of the early modernists, the insouciant strangeness of the Surrealists, the mythic years of the AbEx painters, the iconoclasm of the Popsters, the intellectual rigor of the Minimalists, the fury of the Expressionists – all of it would return on the carousel of nostalgia in turn after turn of the New New. We continued to take Theseus’ ship apart and rebuilt it until we weren’t sure what was original and what wasn’t. It no longer mattered – we had become entranced by the thought that we were making art rather than actually creating Art. The ship of our history had attained Platonic perfection.

…To A Place Where We Know We Are Loved

Nobody wants to miss the Van Gogh Boat. The idea of the unrecognized genius slaving away in a garret is a deliciously foolish one. We must credit the life of Vincent van Gogh for really sending that myth into orbit. How many pictures did he sell. One. He couldn’t give them away. Almost no one could bear his work, even among the most modern of his colleagues… everybody hated them. We’re so ashamed of his life that the rest of art history will be retribution for van Gogh’s neglect. No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another van Gogh. And yet looking at art history we see that these other guys were pros. They started when they were kids. They sold their work. They worked on commission. There is no great artist in all art history who was as ignored as van Gogh, yet people are still afraid of missing the Van Gogh Boat.” Rene Ricard

Style is a dangerous thing. To develop one’s own style is to set one’s self apart from others’ expectations. However, this is only the outer part of the process, the inner one is far more dangerous. One must be willing to push against the grain, to consciously court failure and discomfort. One must be willing to step off the carousel. Those that have style live in the conviction of that style, and that usually leads to a confrontation – true style is always a challenge. One can get lost in the world that one creates, one can lose sight of the wheel as it turns and wind up crushed beneath it. There are many morality tales of those who flaunt the rules by developing their own style and becoming prisoners of it. Jackson Pollock drank, Van Gogh went mad, and Oscar was imprisoned.

“The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a FLANEUR, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.” Oscar Wilde De Profundis

The success of style can be one’s undoing. But there is something else going on in Oscar’s declaration as well – “I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation.” Style demands something further of an artist. Style demands passion. And for Oscar, as for many others, the idea of passion means that one may not be in control leading one to perversity, malady, madness. Style is born of one’s passions, it comes from one’s lower instincts. Style erupts through one’s being. Donald Judd who pared everything down to angles and surfaces had a style as vicious and unrelenting as Oscar’s florid quotes and quips. Whether expressionistic or sedate style emerges from one’s passions. We are undone when the passion is lost, when the style is no longer original, when we have refurbished it, reworked it and sanitized it in order to appeal to the crowd. We want them to remember, to see us at our best, our youngest, our most passionate. Success in one of its definitions means obsolescence. And achieving success means that one must court one’s obsolescence. An obsolete style no longer engages the crowds. One’s style and one’s passion are no longer fueled by the real, but have become artifacts, corpses in glass houses. We must replay that story, that history over and over for us to wind back at the beginning. We are back on the carousel, traveling through time, forward and back, to wind up at a place where we know we are loved.

But Damien is correct. His declaration that art is nothing more than an idea is where our culture has taken us. Style is too local, too specific, too physical, too personal for a global art world. Brand, however, can encompass style, history and production without demanding something deeper or more physical from the artist. A concept is all that is needed. Damien realized that making art was nothing more than developing Memento Mori out of art’s past. Death permeates his work, and as an artist, his work memorializes a different attitude towards art itself. He wants art to shock, to make one think, to challenge the status quo. But his work does none of that. It mourns. He tarts up the corpse, animates its pieces, he super-inflates its production hoping that somehow life is still there in the bits and pieces. But being an institutional artist he’s clever enough to spin his macabre nostalgia into a recognizable brand of conceptual undertaking. He does not risk style, he risks reputation. And that is the difference or differance. Style would mean the death of Damien Hirst, brand means DH Incorporated will live forever – as a conceptual artist he knows this idea is “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever.” And he is by no means alone in this attitude. Artists, designers, fashionistas, architects all are busy trying to conceptualize brands in the graveyards of history. But what of style? What of the personal, passionate, living embodiment of rebellion?

“I am a born antinomian. I am one of those who are made for exceptions, not for laws. But while I see that there is nothing wrong in what one does, I see that there is something wrong in what one becomes. It is well to have learned that.” Oscar Wilde

to be continued…

Style VS Brand: Greig Sargeant

Style and Brand are not just the aesthetic and practical concerns of visual art. They affect artists of all type and situation. Greig Sargeant is an actor working in ground breaking Off-Broadway productions. His current project is with Elevator Repair Service in their presentation of Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.” The company just returned from a successful engagement in Lisbon, and will be on the road shortly to Vienna and Amsterdam. He also is a member of Target Margin another progressive theatre company which presents exciting and groundbreaking plays. Additionally, he has been cast in two avant garde dance pieces choreographed by the amazing Kim Whittam. Greig and I have spoken a great deal about style and brand while discussing art, acting and theatre. As he has often said, style and brand are always a huge consideration at the creation of any theatre production. For Greig an actor of style develops his character by subsuming his own personality. He uses the script and the direction to become the embodiment of that character. Alternatively, an actor may impose his own personality on the character making that character a recognizable extension of his public self. Here the actor is playing to preconceived public perceptions and expectations. This is more about branding. I find it interesting that other thoughtful and talented artists, including those outside our little visual art world, must confront how one’s aesthetic practices are perceived by a larger public. Here’s more of what Greig has to say:
Greig Sargeant in Target Margin's The Dinner Party
Style is the direct result of an artist’s creativity. It comes directly from the life experience of the individual artist. Anything that makes up the unique individual characteristics of a human being is the source of a person’s/artist’s style. In my art form – acting – actors (men and women) who epitomize “Style” – truly unique individuals that defy the concept of “Brand” include – Sean Penn, Dustin Hoffman, Cate Blanchette, Vanessa Redgrave, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Helen Mirren, Toni Collette, Lily Taylor, John Lithgow, Diane Wiest, Marion Seldes, Johnny Depp, Daniel Day Lewis and Kate Winslet. These actors best exemplify my true definition of style.

On Branding and Style
Brand is the direct result of an outside source’s (the media, entertainment and advertising executives, reviewers) opinion on a particular style which is marketed to the general public. Any style that is so identifiable is easily branded. Actors who have been branded include: George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Adam Sandler, Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Shirley Temple, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. If you have ever watched an episode of Entourage, you may have heard uber agent Ari Gold say, “find me the next DeNiro, I need a Julia Roberts type or I need a Will Smith type whose cheaper.” Many actors who tend to play the same type of character in every project they undertake may have their own style, but the difference is that their “style” can be generalized and labeled. This is branding.

Sound and FuryA true artist develops his/her art from within. A brand can be developed as well, but it is clearly a polished imitation of a particular style. I do find that the media feeds these distinctions in how an artist’s work is perceived, but it is the artist that decides by the work that he chooses if the media’s branding will have any bearing.

The trick is for the artist to do what he does best. A true artist who reaches deep down to his inner-most soul to create something that is uniquely his own does not concern himself with the functions of fame. If his work is good, it will lead to more work. If his work is not good he will have to dig deeper and continue the artist’s exploration.

Style and Brand in The Real World
The reality of the situation is that being an artist is not cheap. Living in an expensive city (like New York), trying to keep the roof over your head, trying to see as much art as possible, costs money. All artists want to be recognized and paid for their efforts. Those of us who supplement our incomes with “survival jobs” have the luxury of creating for ourselves and sharing with our audience while making a name for ourselves. Achieving “fame” in this way we are not compromised by the marketplace and the economy. Those who depend on their art to feed and cloth them, have it much much harder. They often lose out to the concepts of Branding in order to survive.

Fame and recognition are wonderful – To be acknowledged for the work that comes from inside of you, that’s the icing on the cake. However, that is not the thing that drives me to create, and thank God, I don’t have to sell my soul trying to be the next James Earl Jones.

Style VS Brand: Steve Durbin

Steve Durbin is a photographer in the classic sense. His work is crystalline, sharp and connected to nature. The great American photographers at the beginning of the last century are Steve’s precedent, and he builds on their legacy in interesting ways. His portfolio of horses is pure lens-based abstraction, and he gives us strong and beautiful images. Steve has been very interested in how we see and perceive things, and on the blog Art and Perception he discusses issues of light, form and space that continue to bedevil many an artist even in these Postmodern media times. There’s always an interesting dialog going on that invariably goes right back to vision. I thought it would be interesting to get Steve’s thoughts on Style and Brand and see how those concepts might work in his practice:

Steve DurbinI’d prefer to ignore freak cases like Koons and Hirst. Mainstream media, in whatever form, will always aid and abet the fabrication of celebrity. Fascinating or not, that’s not directly relevant for more than a very few. Unfortunately, it matters indirectly for a greater number.

Most of us, whether driven by fortune, fame, or something less easily defined are also driven by an interior something that makes us artists. That something is ours, and to be ours it has to be different from everyone else’s–call that individual voice our style. But it doesn’t emerge full-blown: style is learned and developed and subject to all kinds of influences.

If our motivation is largely fame or fortune, rather than internal demands of personal artistic development, we may be tempted to take shortcuts, adopting styles, subjects, or media that are currently or predictably eye-catching or popular. To the extent a style becomes pre-dictable and pre-scriptive, it becomes a brand, leading rather than following the work. A brand is constraining; it essentially represents a promise to provide a known quantity. Go to McDonald’s or Kinkade’s, you have a clear idea of what you’re going to find–and how it will be seen by others.

Steve DurbinMedia influences are strong, including, in a paradoxical way, the rise of the Internet. The key difference is that on the web artists can speak for themselves, and that possibility has already become a virtual necessity. Those who want to be noticed need a web site, and having a web site entails packaging and presentation. This is not entirely bad, but our models for packaging may not be very honest or imaginative, but derive from what we see: 1) our network and 2) what’s offered by the marketplace (that’s where Koons and celebrity come in). The need to present ourselves in this way that feels more definitive (perhaps because so public) offers more temptations and more obstacles to a “natural” development–a concept that may seem anachronistic, but is the ultimate source of our ability to create something new, rather than merely newyish.

Personally, I’m in the position of having a day job that frees me to ignore the marketplace in art, at least as far as financial compensation goes. I’m using that freedom to work on developing my own voice, which is certainly evolving. But to join the art community and to demonstrate a certain level of seriousness–not to mention preparing for the future–seems to require engagement in the marketplace, at least at the level of convincing those with exhibition space that your work is worth showing. Again, this is not necessarily bad; in fact, it’s necessary period. But I think it can become a problem if it causes us to brand ourselves too soon. A brand can be altered or even removed, but not without leaving a scar.

For more about Steve Durbin visit his website here.

Style VS Brand: Charlie Clough

Charlie CloughRecently, Charlie Clough has been developing a new way to produce his work using a group of creative collaborators. Charlie guides the evolution of the painting through many stages of production and documentation. In his Westerly Project he continues to find new expressive possibilities for known “styles,” and he works those styles into a type of conceptual brand production. As Charlie explains: “This method is developed from the evolution of Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract-expressionism, Post-painterly Abstraction, Neo-expressionism and Pictures Theory. It is distinguished by the participation of others in the painting of the painting and the casting of Clough as the “un-painter”.” In essence Charlie becomes the producer and director of the project while the credited “actors-artists” make the work – a sort of Clough Brand Painting – in front of the lens. Charlie has always been willing to step back and watch his work evolve – at times using handmade tools to distance his direct involvement, and lenses and computer programs to further deconstruct the process of his painting. We asked Charlie what Style VS Brand might mean in the context of his practice:

Artists want attention, art is nothing if not a public relation. Gombrich wrote “From Giotto’s day onwards the history of art is the history of the great artists”.

I see branding as the connection between name and legend. I see style as the visual development of the oeuvre through time. They are both inescapable, in whatever degree, from the first moment of exhibition or publication. As much as I covet the success of Koons, Hirst & Murakami, I admire their ability for gaining attention.

I find myself imagining my practice as being morally superior to those guys, but it’s not. I’ve got my story but it isn’t as well-known (yet). In 1976 I determined my project to be “the photographic epic of a painter as a film or a ghost” and I have had the time to fulfill it. Recently my works entered fifty museum collections and a curator contacted me regarding a forty-year retrospective of my work. As these things unfold, work that I haven’t seen for years is going to start making my story public. Sure, I want more and faster, but I’m in a good place…

Visit www.clufff.com & www.westerlyartproject.com for more information about Charlie and his Westerly Project.

Finch Takes a Stand

Charlie Finch is joining in on our discussion about the art world business model. Over at Artnet Charlie lets it rip about the art collective as an antidote to the ridiculous business structures and fear mongering that takes place in the corporate art world.

…we in the art world have become so brainwashed by the market model of contemporary art that we forget that the entire history of 20th-century art was a collective phenomenon. Or perhaps you have never heard of the Fauves, the Futurists, the Blaue Reiter, the Dadaists, the Cubists, the Surrealists, the Ten, the Gutai Art Association, CoBRA, the Oz Collective, the Guerrilla Girls, Colab or the Royal Art Lodge?

In our discussion of Style VS Brand Hans Heiner Buhr layed out a similar idea about an online collective through his Art Club Caucasus. As Hans explains:

…the power is the network of ideas, concepts, styles which is only in state for a couple of years now. So it’s a very early stadium. I remember the feel of joy, when I got connected to the Internet in 2000 here from the Georgian Hinterland (I was connected in Berlin in 1994). I got able to publish my works to the world, to the few, for whom it is of interest, the dictatorship of Media, Galleries, Curators, Museums, bad time ~ bad~ place~ handicaps were destroyed.

Carla Knopp also discusses the needs of an artist to market, to be seen, especially in the age of quick clicks and jpegs. In her reasoned comment to Hans’ post she finds that the collective is more a launching pad for ideas. It provides not only community, but a chance to further one’s own creative impulses with the one caveat that systems create rules that can come to limit an artists needs:

A collective provides the power of ready-identity, and also the creative potential of working within a framework, and working from others. This can stimulate one’s ideas, but it does so at the risk of creating myopia. However free-flowing and inventive are a collective’s individuals, the very nature of a collective framework is to distinguish one grouping of ideas. This creates an artificially focused set of values, and non-collective created work may fall into a blind spot.

Charlie is absolutely correct in detailing that the power for change lies within the artists’ community. How we shape things, how we use our creativity will determine what the shape of the art world will look like. WE ARTISTS CAN NOT AFFORD TO BE LAZY ANY LONGER. That is part of the reason for our current discussion about Style VS Brand. We wanted to take a clear look at what artists have to say about the market and how it effects their work. We also wanted to posit other ideas about what is possible for us, how things might be changed and how we might proceed. Keep up the fantastic work Charlie, and we invite you to expand on your thoughts and take part in the discussion here on Henri! Stay tuned for more Style VS Brand.

Style VS Brand: Carla Knopp

I’ve had the pleasure of following Carla Knopp’s blog for a while now. She’s been posting thoughts about her painting and her business that are incisive and intimate. The fascinating structure behind her studio practice is how one part feeds into the other, how she finds ideas in both the atelier and the business parts of her art life. Lately, Carla’s been struggling with some wonderful shaped abstractions, bringing us in to her process and practice on the blog. I asked Carla if she would drop some thoughts about Style vs Brand, and she attacked it by thinking creatively and practically about how one might work style and brand in the real world:

Carla KnoppAfter ranging around mentally, I focused in on an artist’s use of branding, but in very general marketing terms. As I read your well-reasoned thoughts on Postmodernism and on market-driven creative production, I experience a split screen in my own comprehension. It’s very similar to conflicting considerations I have in the studio. I don’t believe I’ve explained this conflict here very well (yet), but rather am putting forth the idea that a market perspective can benefit an artist’s art-making. This influence can also create conflict and contradiction, but how certain decisions will play in a public/market arena is a worthy consideration.

CK Blitzkrieg 2010: “One Artist, Five Shows”

This is my fantasy marketing gimmick. I throw myself an audacious multi-venue exhibition, showing five distinct bodies of work, all of which were simultaneously created by one artist (me) over a few of year’s time. Keep in mind the background here. I’ve been laying low in the Indy art scene for nearly a decade. There is no real consistent scene here, but rather a 3-5 year cycling of current players. I’m three cycles back and no longer on many radars. This scheme is a sink (backlash) or swim play for instant recognition. It’s a public branding.

This exhibition idea also markets and reveals a truth. Many artists are exploring ideas, not just creating product. This exhibition reveals insight into the creative process. It shows five creative meanders, each a distinctive investigation by the artist, and each part of an ongoing parallel development. This public projection brands by framing the unknowable. It’s about marketing truth; creating a public lens which exposes the realm of personal discovery.

Documentation for these shows further utilizes this ‘truth via marketing’ approach. Five show catalogues are available for individual purchase, or as a boxed gift set for $xxx 🙂
Each catalogue offers earnest dialogue regarding that body of work….and so on.

Carla KnoppI struggle to control my desire-motivated marketing impulses, but I don’t entirely discount the value of them. I want to include a “hard public parts” perspective in my art-making. Marketing requires a vibrant active type of energy and thought, and it’s beneficial to maintain a peripheral awareness of how we and our work play to an audience of skimmers. This doesn’t necessarily make us scammers (though it may tempt us).

A brand provides a framework for comprehension. It may represent truth, hype, or both.

When used as part of an inductive creative process, branding and market perspective can benefit an artist’s work. It allows a public perspective, along with one’s more personal considerations, to inform the making and presentation of one’s work. Here commercial success is not the primary motive, nor is it excluded. Rather, the reality of the work’s market presentation plays alongside its artistic evolution, all part of a process-fueled creative endeavor. This broadens an artist’s working arena without necessarily changing motive. It’s still a quest for artistic discovery.

A brand may also be developed deductively, based on what is knowable and predictable. An artist can calculate for art world success. The thrill of creative achievement is ready to reap, unencumbered by the tedious process of abstracted meander. The goal is to create an “interesting” product, and the method for this is straightforward. Do what you think/know works. Oh yeah, and the prize is fame and fortune.

As an observer, it’s good to distinguish the reasons for which we value art. Marketing can seduce and manipulate our experience, and we should know how and when this happens. Clarity begets comprehension.

An artist may do better with more permissive, even compromised rationales. A softening of one’s discernment, at least for periods of time, may benefit creative direction/impetus.

Blitzkrieg Backtrack:

I do want to show the separate bodies of work simultaneously, or nearly so, but I would greatly temper the ‘Blitzkrieg’ presentation, starting with a change in the show title. I’d refine the promotion from an obnoxious identity-fest, and more towards a process-revealing offering. The ‘home town big splash in a little pond’ mentality is petty and already has me cringing. I’d hone the entire promotion to more accurately frame the diversified creativity motive/motif, and also to present a more positive brand for myself, one which I can personally stomach. I think this type of flirtation with grandiosity is natural and honest, and its indulgence generates vibrancy in one’s work. We can always rethink and backtrack and cull the detritus. This sort of self-indulgence helps us define value.

I go through a similar process when painting, where an external, top-down perspective influences and sometimes battles more internal bottom-up decision-making. As difficult and self-hate-inducing as it is, I want to work with this ambition, and not excise it.

For More about Carla check out her website.

Style VS Brand: Hans Heiner Buhr

brand-style1-1000Hans Heiner Buhr is an artist I’ve only recently begun to know. He has begun an art site called the Art Club Caucasus where a lively discussion about art can always be found. Hans is an adventurer, a thinker, and an artist – three things I hold in high regard- and he approached the questions about Style Vs Brand exactly in that manner, first with a flurry of uploaded notes and then with direct answers about how he sees these things working for artists.

MS: I wanted to examine the hard public part of an artists work and career and how those parts of our lives might be perceived – how one might play into the other. I think that 21st Century media environments may have changed our understandings and expectations concerning a career in art. There has been a real shift in how we perceive artists and their work especially since Warhol.

brand-style2-1000ohnelink-1HHB: Warhol was one of the first to create a collective, but already much longer before, artists started to prefer again the potentials and protection of Art Groups, like the Brücke, Futurists etc. I think Warhol’s success was a direct result of the Factory Concept, it just was wrongly labeled Warhol instead of Factory. This was chosen by the Mass Media, as the Warhol-geek could be better marketed.

MS: It seems to me that there are two things guiding market perceptions of artists’ work – styles and brands. I believe Warhol was the first to create a true brand in the same sense as corporations create brands – and by that I mean an accessible product that can be reproduced, marketed and sold – something tied to a recognizable “name” or celebrity. This is inherently different from an artist’s traditional development of a style. Style used to come through in the making of art or better through the living of art. Style is intimately connected to the artist and is looked at as a unique embodiment of the artistic impulse. “Style” develops through practice, whereas “Brand” is a more conceptual approach to art making, brands sort of arrive familiarly full-blown.

HHB: Artists very often changed their styles, look close to the development of Pollock, it’s all the time changing. Styles and Brands are both wrongly picking our attention, it should be instead the concepts, which choose/demand a certain style as a package. A brand is only interesting, if it is a label for an interesting concept.

brand-style3-1000-1MS: What do you see as the difference between an artist’s style or an artist’s brand? Is there such a difference any longer? Does an artist have to develop a style or brand or can one appropriate a style or brand? Do you find that “media” feeds these distinctions in how an artist’s work is perceived?

HHB: Yes, of course, ideally a collective forms a brand, where are included many different individual artistic styles, which change and develop all the time in relation to the contemporary project/concept. Styles can be approved, as true new styles (maybe) do not exist anymore. Like the basic style for text are letters, which can form endless new content. All possible artistic styles should be used to create new images and new (interesting) meaning/interpretation. The media loves brands, they give a shit for the style, as they are not interested yet in the concept. Did anybody try to look deeply in Murakami’s concept yet (has he one ?) Btw I am not a big fan of Murakami’s works, he is just an example for those working (collective) like Koons, Hirst etc. but branding their work wrongly. The (print) media and their outlets are not healthy collectives as they are run by individual bosses like dictatorships.

MS: Behind the idea of known style or a known brand are concepts of fame or recognition. For instance the current crop of Postmodern artists that are in the news seem to “put on” or “wear” a type of art fame that is easily defined and already known making it easier to connect with their brands or styles – Jeff Koons as a business man (well-appointed designer suits and ad-man sound bites), Damien Hirst as a Rockstar (looking and sounding more like Bono every day), brand-style4-1000and Murakami as a tech geek (like George Lucas and his Skywalker lab.) All three have assumed media images of artists designed to be familiar and stable, based on a prototypical business formula. This concept of fame which is directed at selling art or the artist or creating a brand focus is different even than Warhol’s artist persona – he remained a sort of show, outside of the mainstream, a caricature or an avatar of a downtown art-type. The main difference is that he continued to be an artist that played at being a businessman, while today’s artists are more like businessmen who make art.

What do you see as being the functions of fame in the art world today and how does this relate to brand making or style making? How has this changed the practices in the studio and in the public eye? What part does creativity play in the development of both fame and business and what part should it play in developing art? What sort of fame do you see artists trying to obtain? How does the attainment of recognition affect the understanding and acceptance of certain artists? How much does this public recognition factor play into the creation and presentation of the work itself? Finally does the idea of style or brand or the creation of a style or brand inform your work – do you see yourself creating a brand or forming a style or both? Is fame and recognition a consideration of that development and if so how?

brand-style5-1000ohnelinkHHB: For me fame is not necessary, I even do not want fame. Fame is fake, when it’s not about the fame of a good concept. I would like to be an artist freely inventing ideas, concepts, projects, styles – paid with a monthly salary like a Google employer and adding units of form to the art collective. Recognition comes via attention to good concepts. The Collective should sell good ideas and concepts to gain revenues. A work without attention/recognition does not exist. This should come from other collectives/artists, which find these concepts interesting to integrate in their own concepts/works (You see how much here negative is the whole Copyright-Bullshit) I would like to contribute to co-create the Art Club Caucasus as a brand, but this will succeed only, if it becomes a strong collective, what is it not yet, it is in a pre-stadium of formation right now 😉 Styles can be freely chosen any time. The power is the network of ideas, concepts, styles which is only in state for a couple of years now. So it’s a very early stadium. I remember the feel of joy, when I got connected to the Internet in 2000 here from the Georgian Hinterland (I was connected in Berlin in 1994). I got able to publish my works to the world, to the few, for whom it is of interest, the dictatorship of Media, Galleries, Curators, Museums, bad time ~ bad~ place~ handicaps were destroyed.

Hans is offering a different view of our art world times, and a new idea of how we might change the constructs and systems we’ve inherited. The Art Club Caucasus is catching on with artists around the world. The Art Club is using the internet to create a vibrant site of images and ideas for artists. Check it out!

We will continue our discussion with other artists about Style Vs Brand in upcoming posts – Stay Tuned!

2009 Style Vs. Brand

Artists are beginning this new year with cautious optimism – at least the ones I know. A new political administration is coming in, and we are hoping that a new attitude will manifest, that the economy will change for the better, and that the war will end. But I’ll take a wait and see attitude regarding all of that blue sky speculation. In our little Art World we are hoping for a change of ideas, a new aesthetic discourse, and a better “business” model. I have no hope that those things will be changing anytime soon either. The artworld made its bed in the early 90s and it will continue to lie in it. Though we, and by we I mean Henri, will continue to battle for a better mattress.

These past few months since the Fall (both seasonal and economic), I’ve been ruminating on the changes that so much of the art world press has been trumpeting and wondering how all of this real world angst will affect our microcosmic art world. Specifically, we Henri -ites, wanted to know what was on other artists’ minds – so we reached out to some folks that we know, some we’ve begun to know, and some dear friends that we get to bandy with periodically. Basically, we wanted to know what goes on in the studios, and how does this work in the larger world. Now in those moments of calm in my own studio I thought about this momentous cultural upheaval as its effects began to take a toll on my friends and in my own life. I’ve been able to have a few wonderful discussions as I was eeking out some meaning to ascribe to this enforced change. I realize I’m circling right now, but that’s how I had to approach the dialogue. In the end what we kept finding was that this moment in history very well may be changing our ideas about how our larger art world and smaller studio world can and should work.

We’ve discussed some of this in form in the past. We have found that the art world has become more like a corporation and artists ply their trade more like auteurs or corporate executives. Many of these Postmoderns insist on linking these corporate practices to studio formulations of the Old Master tradition, but with a difference. Today is the day of the outsourced art product where “manufacturing” can be literally done through the computer and relayed to corporations that specialize in art making for artists. To say this has changed the look and feel of most art is an understatement. A type of “professionalization” has occurred as the MFA became a CEO micromanaging the specifics of the manufacturing of an art product. The term studio has been transformed from its former function as an atelier into that of an international corporate distribution center.

So I took it upon myself to formulate some questions. In the posts that will follow we’ll hear from a number of other artists about what they experience and recognize in their own studios. Some had a good time with it, some were brief and to the point, but it’s all interesting and exciting! Hopefully we’ll spark some comments about your experience of studio life as well. Stay Tuned!