Creative identity in an age of products and brands

In Little Girl Blue, the recent documentary about Janis Joplin, one commentator (I think her sister) reflects on the singer’s powerful stage presence and cultural image. She says Janis’s wild and poetic image was a way of manifesting truth, of living out her deepest values in the world.

In an age of social media and the so-called “creative industries”, it seems like there is no place for this conception of the artist.

You need an identity to communicate, and your identity is a work of art, it is always a process of refining the image you project out into the world so that it best reflects your values.

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Janis Joplin lived out her inner creative values through the projected image of her performances. Her whole life was a celebration of this process

The word “brand” is overused, and means that words like “authenticity” seem hysterical or grasping.

It’s a destructive antithesis. Rather than seeing it as a war between brand culture and authenticity, we can see creative identity as a legitimate, natural tendency of the artist.

It is a process, rather than an invention. One sculpts an identity over time, always stripping it back or building on it in order to manifest a set of values. All artists do this, and some people who don’t understand the necessity of it, or who are cut off from their own values, call it pretentious.

The artist, especially the performing artist, knows that their “being” in the world is a creative instrument in what they are called to communicate to others.

The things an artist is called to project are often subtle, difficult to translate into ordinary language, and they feel compelled to embody what they feel lacks in their everyday environment.

A good example of this is Patti Smith. Smith’s recent writings in M Train reveal an artist who gloriously ritualises the mundane into a fluid creative experience. Even instances of getting sick and losing precious items, become ways of embodying her artistic values.

In Smith’s case those values could be said to be bohemian, capturing something of the hidden paths of former great creatives.

But it is not necessary to capture in plain language what these values are. If you have to ask, you’ll never know. Some call this pretentious, some eccentric. Some call it genius.

You can’t translate the values communicated in John Coltrane’s solos. But there can be no doubt that communication was Coltrane’s business.

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Patti Smith is able to make the most everyday examples of experience become statements of creative genius. In doing so, she makes her life a work of art

Artists make their lives works of art. They ritualise their experience in order to manifest something new in the culture, to create a living crucible of artistic energy from which their works can emerge.

In a sense, the artist builds an identity in order to be ready to perform when called. Projecting a creative identity keeps your artistic energy on the boil.

Creative existence, and artistic identity cannot be easily shovelled into the sewers of economic language games. A work of art is not a product, it is a statement, a form of communication. Artistic culture is not a “marketplace”, it is dialogue of ideas.

The clumsy metaphors of business and economics do not apply to art. They must not apply. To speak of creativity and artistic expression as economic acts is to degrade them. Art reflects values and virtues, and we must leave it at that.

A work of art does not have to justify its existence. Neither does the artist.

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