Written after reading another shameless suggestion that artists NEED brands. And apologies in advance for being such an ass. I think brands are just fine for the people who do prefer to work that way. That can be an honest and honorable preference. I respect that. What I resent is being told this is the natural way to make art or that it is somehow necessary. That is an attitude I will fight with my dying breath….. Forgive me, please, if I go a bit overboard in making the opposite case.

“A good simile refreshes the mind.” Wittgenstein

It is no coincidence that ‘branding’ is something they do to cattle to identify who owns which animal. It is seared right there in the flesh. No mistaking that….

The difficulty with branding humans is that we are changeable and driven by multiple purposes. It is natural for us to serve many masters. It is natural to serve ourselves, and this can be many different things differently. We are beings full of plurality and contradiction. The idea that any one of us is specifically only any one thing is unnatural, especially for artists. Branding is taking a free and multifarious being and putting it in a cage. If the point of branding artists is to make them recognizable, the conceit is that they ARE simply this one thing. Branding is at best a replacement of actual understanding, not a short cut or a substitute.

You use the words ‘coherent’, ‘specific’, ‘targeted’, and ‘genuine’ to describe the attributes you deem most valuable for marketing artists, and it is undoubtedly a fact that these ideals are instrumental in selling one’s self, in putting the brand on. In a world in which markets exist marketers will have a specific insight. And yet the question remains, are artists best thought of as cattle? Consider this: When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Is being an artists a bigger issue than what marketers have a handle on?

Marketing paints a convincing picture. And yet it is a violence done to the freedom of artists in their natural creative state. Branding ‘works’ to help sell the artists at marketplace, it is an attribute of livestock, but it is an affront to the undomesticated creative spirit. Branding an artist makes sense only to get sold. Branding is not a necessary or even necessarily desirable studio practice where creativity and exploration should most be UNINHIBITED.

As you describe it, a brand is how we can best relate to an ideal audience. But making work under that constraint IS A CONSTRAINT. Our liberty is at stake. Can it really be sold this cheaply?

The task for any artist is to navigate between expression and communication. If we are only working towards the goal of communicating, maybe it makes sense to find the language and the people who speak it well enough that can relate to what we would like to say. And branding is an act of communication. It tells an audience that “Yes, you can count on me. You will get no trouble from me. I am well behaved. I have been fully domesticated. I am safe.” To the extent that this is our goal, we DO need to communicate effectively with our audience. There is a place for brands in that.

Branding is a marketplace seal of approval for our behavior. It certifies us: We will play by the rules. We will give the audience, our audience, what they can handle. No bucking broncos. We have been broken before the audience can ride us. Tamed. And if making money is more important to us than expressing challenging ideas, than expressing things that WILL NOT be understood, then by all means lower the neck and accept the yoke. Offer up our hind quarters to the indignity of searing flesh. This makes sense.

Because the truth about creativity is that it can be forced into these tiny boxes, it can be caged and made simple, domesticated, tractable. It can be made nonthreatening. But understand that this is a violence often done to a wild creature. It has been made docile and predictable only at the expense of its inner autonomy: The freedom to follow any trail under its own willpower. It can no longer explore the open vistas from the confines of a pen. The enclosure committed to is the antithesis of liberty. And artistic freedom is exactly what has been sacrificed, tamed out of us.

But maybe that is not so important. Not to everyone, at least. When we put the brand on we are essentially agreeing that we cannot decide to do different things, to be different people. The idea that there is some ‘one true aspect’ of our being that is revealed in the brand is what we believe, and with practice and repetition we can turn ourselves into this monistic creature.

But for many it is an hallucination. Some of us embrace our inner chaos and uncertainty. Some of us evolve. Some of us are unbound by a single sense of self. The hammer is left pounding screws.

But still, maybe its the right hallucination to have. It certainly seems that way once we are living inside the cage! Because once on the inside we have certain assurances: We are protected from the unqualified and dangerously human opportunity to strike out in new directions, to be unpredictable, to be wild and serendipitous, perhaps even to want these things.

Perhaps this is a worthy aspiration. The brand is a signal we have forgone all those wild parts of human nature. Perhaps we can be ‘better’ than our natural selves. Because to be fully human is to be many things stretched over different parts of our lives and at different times. And maybe that is asking too much. And our art, a fully human art, to be truly honest and truly ‘genuine’ would reflect that diverse and contradictory natural state. It would reflect our inner chaos.

And isn’t that the problem with art these days? There is such a thing as too much freedom. Too much chaos. Freedom can be unsafe. Freedom can be complicated. Only caged animals are simple. Only caged animals are safe.

Accepting the brand may make it easier to get fed. It may make it easier to pay the bills. But I’m not sure it will make you a better artist. Is that important? Living in a cage is only good for becoming better at living inside cages. But surely that has to be okay too? “Safe art for a safer world”?

The security of living at other people’s beck and call only works because they want something from you. Domestication is a partnership when it works. We need to be useful to earn our crusts. We need to be needed. We are our best selves as the means to someone else’s end. We are doing the right thing to position ourselves to become beholden to the people who rely on our reliability and our conformity. It is important to conform. We will not stray, as we might be tempted left to ourselves.

Working for the ranch is something very different from working for yourself. And as soon as you have a brand there will always be some outside claim on you. Accept this, lower the head, even if you still have some independent spark within you, even if you are not fully domesticated…….

There is no shame in wanting to belong. Wear your brand with pride. Celebrate it. Being part of the herd is a good place to be, for some, and maybe for most. And maybe this is why you are an artist: To belong, to be understood, to play it safe, to bear the mark of ownership, to get squeezed into simplicity.

The drovers who take us to market DO look after us, after a fashion. We might starve off on our own in the hills. We might get lost. And being part of the herd will always orient us. Our brand gives us direction. We will not be so easily confused, even if it is entirely human to get confused. We will not be variable, even if it is entirely human to be variable. We can make of our art an adamantine cage and learn these new things, especially about the caging of creativity, and especially about what tame things are most worth expressing…..

Not every human has been fully domesticated, and we are right to treat the ‘free’ ones with caution. The wilderness is dangerous and unpredictable. It is much safer inside the fence. Within the herd we can find people with whom we share values and can communicate. Outside the herd it might be rare that we will be understood. The penalty of living in the wilds is that it is not a ‘safe’ place. Values are contested. People making up and changing their own minds makes it infinitely complex. Threateningly so. Don’t we want to make art in the safe spaces?

Putting up fences is a good thing, isn’t it?

Question: Is the lion INSIDE the fence or on the outside?

As soon as we have fences we need gatekeepers too. Trusting the gatekeepers and drovers to have our best interests is reasonable, isn’t it? Don’t we like being told what to do? “Take the chute to the left and don’t mind the screams of terror.” Surely we are not smart enough to think for ourselves in all situations. Don’t we sometimes have to trust the ‘experts’? Even when they are talking about what we ourselves have to say?

The fence is there for our safety. Even if we have to convince ourselves that it is we who are telling ourselves to keep inside the fence. Don’t we appreciate the trough when it is feeding time? Isn’t it right to prefer cages?


Again, apologies for making the extreme case, but I am fighting the idea of necessity, not the idea of legitimate preferences. If it is right to choose the wilds, it is also right to choose the safe road. The point is that we get to choose. And insisting you have to have a brand is telling you that it is not a choice. Insisting that a brand is a natural state is incorrect and deceitful. A brand may be important, but that speaks to marketing, not specifically to art.

One thing I am not doing is telling you you have to be wild. I am telling some of you that if you look honestly within yourselves you will find things other than the brand you have been marked with. Now it is up to you to decide what this means. That too is your choice….

Perhaps some of us will decide we can take vacations, carve smaller or larger parts out from our daily life in which to express ourselves. Maybe a night out. Something we do for ourselves, not because we have to. Because the dangerous thing about the marketing ideal of branding is that it pretends it is something we have to do, that it is something that is natural for us, that it is something that is right for us.

And if it turns out that for some people it is both natural and necessary, is it in fact natural and necessary for all of us? Mostly humans are bigger than any one mythology about us. The more that mythology looks like a hammer the more we should proceed with caution…..

Peace all!



About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Wittgenstein. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Branding

  1. John Bauman says:

    Heh. I’d be willing to bet that (ironically) the only way the free rangers know they are thus is STILL and only because of their position relative to the fence they believe to be not their own.

    It’s like the fella who said he was a “Christian Atheist”. When asked what he meant by that, he replied, “It’s the Christian God I don’t believe in”

    Nobody’s outside the fence. They’re just inside a bigger fence.

    Actually, that’s not true. At least, not functionally so. Functionally, they’re not in a bigger fence. Functionally they’re in a smaller fence that they think is bigger because it’s not the fence they think they’ve escaped from — the fence the boundaries of which they think they know and escaped from (though they usually do not and did not).

    It’s been my experience to observe that those most convinced of their independence are quite often in the smallest of boxes — and most unaware of their confinement and absolutely sure that nobody has ever been in that particular box before.

    Too bad I couldn’t go totally mythological in my allusions, but it was Pandora who had the box. Narcissus had the brook.

    • This is why I put the caption to that image of the lion as “Question: Is the lion INSIDE the fence or on the outside?” 🙂

      The only thing I would say that indicates where freedom has a sense is when you cannot do what you would otherwise like to do. You can see this as a condition of the psyche and not specifically limited to what it is one actually does. It is one thing being entirely simple and only wanting to do this one thing (you are free to do this one thing and that is what you do), but something different being forced to do it ‘against one’s will’ (you have no choice in the matter). This is why I was careful to make sure I framed my essay in terms of CHOICE.

      And so, when it comes to someone telling you you have no choice, you MUST get branded, you MUST do only this, you can see where I might object. I could care less what we end up doing or do not doing. That is entirely up to us. What I care about is being told that certain options are denied us. I object to the default mythology that branding is either natural for us or necessary. (A myth you may be familiar with is what has frequently been used to justify slavery, that some people are less than human, that some people actually prefer chains, that some people are better off as slaves…. Now what was it you were saying about functionally larger and smaller fences?)

      Did that make sense?

      • John Bauman says:

        You always make sense. I don’t know what put me in such a contrarian mood. 🙂

        • Scott Cooper says:

          While it’s hard to argue against a ‘fences all the way down’ worldview, I think most of us have a pretty good inner barometer for the intrinsic/extrinsic motivation stuff. I’d argue it takes practice and/or training to lose that, and start conflating the two.

          All the available spaces may be more or less ‘fenced in’ — it’s sort of a default condition of living. But some fences are a lot more confining than others, and I’d bet there’s a lot of Your Milage May Vary along a pretty murky spectrum.

        • Agreed. It just seems that in our climate of mythologizing the field the ideal of “consistent” and “coherent” unified expression is not even something presented as a thing we can opt out of. There is no exception to being branded in that world view. Even if the reality is fences all the way down, the pretense is that nothing at all exists outside the branded fence, rather than your choice of a different fenced in area. The harshness is not the fence, per se, but the monism it pretends.

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    “We will give the audience, our audience, what they can handle. No bucking broncos. We have been broken before the audience can ride us. Tamed.” So great.

    re: vacation, I like to think of the time I go INTO branding mode as the exception; like a vacation inside the fence, to check out what all the free food and vaccinations are about.

    Wondering about the metaphor of a semi-feral neighborhood cat that you feed. Maybe that’s closer to a compromise you/we can live with? Sort of like, “You feed me when I bother to show up, and if I can’t get a better offer anywhere else. And I’ll try not to scratch you bloody, but don’t jack with my ears or pull my tail or any of that nonsense.”

    In addition to what this post says, I love its timing. The meta is perfect.

    • Yeah, the meta was very much on my mind timing-wise 🙂

      And I hear you that your ‘vacation’ would be better framed as a week or more of “free food and vaccinations”! You have 2-3 days per week in your cubicle that is supposed to be getting you a foothold on those things! Just imagine if you had not ‘Killed the Dream’ of full time pottery and had the pressure of food and vaccines entirely on what came off your wheel and out of your kiln. What a hard choice! As long as we remember it is a choice, that is…..

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