The Branding of the Creative Class

Every time I read about the “creative class” I feel uncomfortable. I thought that we (speaking as a former American, and now as a Norwegian) have been deliberately seeking to dismantle the social classes of previous centuries.

Isn’t the “creative class” is just another division of privilege? These people who set themselves above working class (who get their hands dirty), and the blue-collar workers (who are, apparently, creativity-devoid drones); who position themselves as more sensitive, more attuned, and somehow entitled.

Only the privileged can leave the grid, trespass in the wild, and exploit what is left of the wild to find their individual authenticity. Not that it usually ends well for those who do manage it. Even if we all had good field guides to edible plants, it’s hardly a sustainable prospect for our species. Someone has to hold down the fort: work in the hiking boots factories, print and bind the field guides, while the chosen ones instagram the view for us.

I am torn about projects like kickstarter and patreon. One the one hand, it is an inspiring, class-defying solution for arts patronage. On the other hand, they seem contribute to the climate of reward-for-potential. A world of virtually realized ideas.

Obviously, I am not even on the forward edge of the wave of the desire for real craftsmanship. But are we so seduced by the desire for belonging and association that the actual quality of the product no longer matters? It is the experience of proximity to whatever is popular? Not coffee, but the experience. Not the experience, but the image of the experience?

It’s all about branding. Bluff, pose and con. It’s still the cult of personality. Our current obsession with  “living in the now” that also manages to keep us continually entertained: Nothing really needs to be taken seriously. We are all post-truth anyway.

How was the earnest Occupy Wall Street swept out of the way for the bread and circus of this election cycle?

The history of our cultural self-destruction might well be written in sarcasm font.

Not that it’s a new concept. History repeats itself. For example, the Catholic church sold indulgences, and today quasi-secular meditation gurus will sell you a mantra.

Surely even before Oscar Wilde, artists liked to be recognized for their personalities as much as (or more than) their physical labor. And with the rise of conceptual art, artists only had to point to a bit of clever interpretation of the obvious. It’s all in the packaging of the commentary, the marketing, and the branding of the mouthpiece. No investment necessary in anything other than one’s self.

I think it is a little ironic that in a culture that seems to be increasingly disinterested in history, people seem to be increasingly concerned about their “image”. Their place in the world, rather than their relationships with the world. Even “documentaries” have become little more than infomercials for people-as-brands. Singers. Murderers. Gurus.

Today I saw a video with celebrities encouraging people to vote.

So we can see a celebrity’s naked penis. Wink, wink.

Bread and Circus.

I’ve always had little crushes on the bad boy celebrities, so I’m not saying I am above it all. I’m not saying that I don’t secretly want to be in the club, want a spot of my own on Olympus with all the other flawed demigods who can rise above their little foibles (ranging from illegal drug use to the eternal torment of some inconsequential mortal). Of course I do. And the Internet (which now has an identity all its own: as in, “this latest leaked sex video broke the Internet”; and which also demands capitalization from my spellcheck) makes us think it’s possible. The demigods may just reach down, once your twitter followers hit so many K, and pull you up onto the mount. For a while.

Even the presocratic philosophers believed that good reputation was a factor in happiness: a kind of fame, I suppose.

But what matters? The fact that Gandhi is promoted as an icon for good, doesn’t change the fact that he was a sick son-of-a-bitch who slept naked with his grandniece. People forget that he was disavowed by many of his followers before his death.

Ben Jonson was a much beloved playwright who overshadowed the “upstart […]plagiarist” Shakespeare during their lifetimes.

Michelangelo relied on the church (so did Dali – much to his fellow Surrealists’ dismay) to fund his projects. He bowed, and bent, and served in order to paint.

Ah, the complex details of history; the complicated lives.

Not that I’m a historian.

Last year, when I was studying in Lillehammer, I kept passing a poster in the hallway at the university. There were three photos of the same young woman: one with her holding a baby, one in which she wears glasses and holds a book, and one with her holding a bottle of beer. The tagline was something like “What do you want to project to the world?”

Really?

While at the same time we are touting the importance of – and claiming our commitment to—authenticity?

That young woman should be allowed to be all three of those images. Whittling ourselves down for the sake of branding means loss, in terms of the complexity of our humanity for the sake of a image, an income, or (the hope of) a legacy.

Writers who have never published a best seller, sell courses on writing a best seller. (Writers whose specialty is writing about writing, or writing “content” are probably the only people who get paid to write.) Writing gurus crawl out of the nether by the hundreds of thousands, telling you how to make a fortune branding yourself. It is not an uncommon question: Do I write the book first, or develop my brand?

They tell us: Quit your job. Believe in yourself. Invest in yourself. Write your own narrative; create your own brand: now. Promote your “acclaimed” novel, your “Pulitzer-nominated” book (for the record, you can nominate your own book if you are an American citizen – some people have already noticed this little marketing gem).

Gertrude Stein was independently wealthy, and a master at branding herself. I will always admire her for both her writing and her audacity. But Wallace Stephens was an insurance lawyer until he died, and he is a good enough role model for me. I will leave the new creative class to their branding. I am too old for that club, anyway. I’ll continue to work a day job that puts me squarely (safely housed and fed) in the lower middle class, and I will write.

I’m no entrepreneur. I’m a poet.

823545_471015519620816_2013814071_oThe bulk of my books will continue to be remaindered after a few years in my publisher’s warehouse, but every now and then someone will write to let me know a poem meant something to them on a particular day. Then they will forget my name.

But at least, when it’s over, it will have been an authentic run, in real time.

They say look to the source of your envy to find out what you desire. Yeah, I’ve been doing that.

Now it’s time to figure out how to move on.

I am hereby giving up any and all self-conscious attempts to brand myself. To sell myself as an image. It has been like trying on clothes for paper dolls.

This is going to have to be good enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Jim Brock says:

    Ren,

    This is something I’ve been mulling over for some time, and you express so well a kind of curious disavowal of this cultural hoo-hah (and you’re right to note that it’s a very old thing, this “pay-attention-to-me” thing and its attendant bluster and bother). Art itself requires a sharing, an earnest thing, but also gets caught up in the laurels, the fame, the reviews, the exhibitions, the readings, the gigs, etc., so that it makes hucksters of us all in practicing it. And now that we have the whole digital revolution which is wonderfully democratic, why that makes us all writers (or worse, “creatives”), and so what’s left for us to do but market ourselves in the worst ways possible? It’s dreary and confounding, a muddle.

    And weird, too. Because now I can “access” and see so much, come across material and perspectives I wouldn’t have back in the day–like yours, for which I am really, really grateful.

    Like

    • Ren Powell says:

      Thanks for reading, Jim- And commenting! I also have this kind of sadness about the one-way communication of things like twitter – the virtual world that is so isolating (I wrote today on Facebook about the “theater” production that used virtual reality technology and seems to defy the very heart of theater as an art form – because no one is really there in a room together. And yet… like you said. Without it, I would never have “met” you.

      Like

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