A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Brand

It was really not all that long ago that a “brand” was just a useful symbol for purposes of distinguishing the ownership of one cow from that of another. But over the course of the 20th century, mass producers realized they needed not merely to mark their product with a unique label but to imbue that label with a distinctive personality, or identity. And a brand became a kind of metaphor—a sort of simulacrum of an emotion or idea—that defined, however gauzily, an underlying product or service. From mass marketing it was a short hop along Madison Avenue to politics. Politicians and their strategists now talk freely about a candidate’s “brand,” with no notion that they might sound as if they are selling soap, and with no detail too trivial to need attention. (“My brand is hair up, isn’t it?,” Sarah Palin asked John McCain’s media strategist in 2008, according to the book Game Change.)

Over the past few years, as the concept of branding has seeped ever more deeply into the culture, I’ve heard colleagues begin to refer unself-consciously to their own personal brand. It still startles me to hear people, particularly journalists, apply the language of marketing to themselves, but in our disrupted economy, it makes perfect sense. As institutions come to matter less, what has long been true of Hollywood has become true of the corporate world, sports, journalism, and academia. Elites are increasingly set apart by their ability to turn themselves into stars by marketing themselves as brands of one.

In this issue, David Samuels tracks Kanye West as he learns to reconcile his jagged artistic temperament with the marketing demands of popular music, in part by scripting into his act an unsettling, off-kilter moment that he repeats night after night. Sufficiently tamed and corralled, his once-notorious behavior can safely be sold as his distinguishing brand, and West can create the music he believes in.

There’s nothing wrong or new about a little bit of hucksterism, of course, or even Gatsbyesque self-invention. But as the technology of social media rewires all our ways of dealing with one another, it is turning individual brand-building into a full-time, alienating preoccupation. As Stephen Marche writes in his essay, many of us use Facebook not to create and strengthen bonds but to project a prettified story of ourselves on our wall. We may be in the early stages of substituting a superficial engagement via social media—an exchange of advertisements—for the complex but satisfying work of tending relationships, much as brands of one dump the messy, collaborative work of building any institution bigger and more enduring than oneself. Even our communication with others becomes a form of self-regard. “Our online communities become engines of self-image,” Marche writes, “and self-image becomes the engine of community.” He argues that by avoiding the complicated, hard stuff with one another—the business of asking and answering difficult questions, of debating and figuring out how to get along, of thinking about things besides ourselves (or, failing even that, beyond our marketed selves)—we are making ourselves more lonely.

You may be surprised—I hope you are surprised—that it is in the realm of video games that we discover, in this issue, evidence of a culture that does not just project a flattened, even cynical idea of itself, but that questions itself in pursuit of deep and maybe uncomfortable truths. Taylor Clark profiles Jonathan Blow, a game developer who believes so-called social games are “evil” and the industry itself is a “den of mediocrity.” Blow says of himself as a child: “I didn’t want to hide from things, and I didn’t want to believe convenient things just because they felt good.”

Like a painter or a novelist, Blow resists explaining the meaning of his work, but Clark sees in him a determined, painful pursuit of self-knowledge. For Clark, Blow’s games constitute an art form that puzzles and challenges players, that entertains them by making them think. The games are a kind of anti-branding, sending signals that compel users to notice details, not just absorb a message; that complicate their notion of reality, rather than simplify it; and that stimulate them to think about the broader human experience, rather than just their own.