Against the Artist as Brand | Cultura Plasmic INC | The Hypocrite Reader

Cultura Plasmic INC

Against the Artist as Brand

ISSUE 92 | CREDIT | NOV 2018
Image description: Concentric circles of small round mirrors set in a wooden board, showing a kaleidoscopic swirl of slightly-skewed views of someone's eye and the cell phone they are holding up as though to take a mirror selfie.

Image by Cultura Plasmic INC.

When it comes to publishing my work online, the first question in the submission form always gives me pause for thought: author name. This shouldn’t be hard, yet I spend 30 minutes struggling to settle on something––I can laugh at how ridiculous this sounds. For an artist working under multiple pseudonyms, drawing from areas of surveillance and power for thematic material and process, it’s a deceptively simple question that never fails to throw me. I haven’t yet found a comfortable way of navigating this inevitable curveball, but maintaining a multi-pseudonymic practice is the closest I’ve got.

In years previous, I was captivated by ideas from participatory, interactive, and installation art, wherein the “artist” took a step back in order for the “audience” to fulfill a crucial role in the creation of the work. These frameworks collapsed the dichotomy between artist and spectator, producer and consumer, self and other––it’s obvious where the power is implied in these binary relationships.

The idea of the artist-individual-self––that creative concepts appear from thin air, detached from cultural contexts, conversations with peers, encounters with strangers, or interactions with the world––has never sat well with me. As many theoretical discussions around participatory and installation art demonstrate, frameworks that platform the individual artist (although commonly accepted as the dominant norm) are not a fixed aspect of artistry and have a history of being challenged. Cultural theorist Raymond Williams, whose work traces the discourse around the individual and how it relates to socio-economic systems, argues that the artist-individual-self is a historical construct:

The emergence of notions of individuality, in the modern sense, can be related to the break-up of the medieval social, economic and religious order…. There was a new stress on a man’s personal existence over and above his place or function in a rigid hierarchical society…. Individualism is a C19 coinage…a theory not only of abstract individuals but of the primacy of individual states and interests.1

He refers to Marx when outlining how the increasing focus on the individual self is supporting particular ideologies: “Marx, who attacked the opposition of the abstract categories individual and society and argued that the individual is a social creation, born into relationships and determined by them. The modern sense of individual is then a result of the development of a certain phase of scientific thought and political and economic thought.”2

Going further back, Williams quotes Roman philosopher Boethius to demonstrate the individual’s enduring associations with that which is indivisible into different parts: “that is called individual which cannot be divided at all, such as unity or spirit.”

It was in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century that the Self really began to take prominence. Romantics prioritised individualism, and artists had a special role to play. Creative inspiration was portrayed as being bestowed upon artists as a rare minority, this feeding into the idea that artists and what was classed as art had a superior quality. Individualism was re-shaping social and cultural hierarchies.

Some, like English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, portrayed inspiration as the ability to tune into “divine winds,” an idea that gestures towards religion (the Latin word he used to denote inspiration, afflatus, literally translates to “to blow upon or toward”). This understanding of inspiration removed the creative process from society and the artist’s ideas from any of their social interactions with others in the material world. Others, like Edward Young in his Conjectures on Original Composition (published in 1759, just ahead of the core Romantic movement), took a Lockean psychological perspective by identifying the origin of creative inspiration as “the god within the poet.” This further separated the artistic process from society, this time giving full credit to the individual by alluding to their possession of divinity. The creative process was situated in them and them alone, while continuing to elevate the artist with reference to divine, otherworldly presences.

In Romanticism, the individual’s association with Boethius’ aforementioned unity grew into the notion of the Absolute, which in Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy is defined as “an all-encompassing individual: while it comprehends everything else, the Absolute is also concrete. It is an individual whole—a totality.” Here, the individual’s authority is clear. One perspective, one identity, unchanging and subsuming all others.

Continuing the discussion around artist-individual-self into the twentieth century, Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” and Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?” are published around the same time. The former examines identity through the lens of art interpretation, rejecting a single authorial intent in favour of an emphasis on the reader or viewer as participants in the creation of meaning. Barthes writes, “We know that a text does not consist of a line of words…but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.”3

Barthes argues that any claims of artistic originality are false and puts forth a notion of artistic credit that is more evenly distributed. Foucault––while acknowledging the individualization of authors and consequently, the elevated status taken by individuals––focuses on the functioning of the author’s name in a vein more closely aligned with contemporary branding:

The name of an author poses all the problems related to the category of the proper name…. It is more than a gesture, a finger pointed at someone; it is, to a certain extent, the equivalent of a description. When we say ”Aristotle,” we are using a word that means one or a series of definite descriptions of the type.4

I’m trying to show how the individual, the author, power, and this idea of wholeness (or oneness) are historically tied and how we can read this in relation to artists by discussing originality and where we find inspiration. Although the Romantics located creative inspiration outside of themselves, the rise of the individual meant that the external forces that artists were seen as tapping into were located in the semi-religious, spiritual realm (the “divine”), rather than in social relations and interactions between people. Although this approach moved towards recognizing that artistic ideas don’t originate in any single mind devoid of environmental context, it still saw culture as something produced by an individual rather than arising from society.

My use of multiple pseudonyms is part of an attempt to dissipate the ego and resist the temptations of selfie-celebrity culture (now manifesting in narcissistic social media practices). It acts to counter the focus on that singular important individual, acknowledging how working in a consumer capitalist society pressures you to be your own brand. Our names have become our marketable product, a signifier of the type of work we create. For artists, this cultural milieu manifests itself in the pressure to create a recognizable voice, a signature style by which everyone can identify your work––trying something different is seen as immature, a weakness, perhaps met with disappointment and reactions along the lines of “this isn’t what I was expecting.” But none of us are unified, coherent identities, and such singularity or strictness could be argued to be the antithesis of creativity. We all have our own contradictions and changing perspectives, so, for me, the idealistic notion of the absolute individual serves as a limitation just as much as a divide between the individual and society.

My choice not to adhere to a single, consistent, easily recognizable name is a perhaps unsurprising trigger of questions about motives. I once attended an interview for an artist residency where one of the panel asked skeptically, “Why don’t you want credit for your work? Are you ashamed of it?” The questioner assumed that use of pseudonyms to undermine the (as I see it) often toxic culture of individualism stemmed from personal doubt or dissatisfaction with my art. As it happens, I am my biggest critic and have constant doubt about the quality of my work (because I want it to be as good as it can be), but not wanting individual credit is rooted in a rationale beyond superficial cover-ups or personal vulnerability. It’s a broader political move that pushes back against the tidal wave of egos and individuals and obsessions with competitive “ME ME ME” self-expression that use singular credit to produce authority. It’s precisely the work that is important and what it says about society, not me as a single artist. Not I.

Instead of buying into the Cartesian dichotomy of the individual and the world, multiple pseudonyms are a way of shifting away from individual credit for an idea, this time resituating inspiration and ideas as a result of complex social relations, conversations and dialogue. The artist both remains a conduit and toys with the boundaries of an “essential nature” implicit in the idea of a single identity. I might have an idea, but in no way is it separate from my interactions with the world, nor can it claim a divine originality that has historically been used to elevate art and artists above others. It also becomes a method of rejecting the notions of the Absolute and unified self which shape ideas around identity and branding in modern day consumer capitalism and neoliberalism. Instead, we are fluid and “becoming.”5

There is still room for subjectivity and how personal experience shapes perspective – although I use multiple pseudonyms, I often use other identifiers that are linked to me personally (that I identify as a woman, was brought up in Newcastle, have been disabled at various points in my life, and so on) – but this experience is a two-(or more) way process that intricately binds us with others. Reconfiguring the absolute, ideas around fluid identities and rejections of the unified self lie closer to Marx’s view of the self as simultaneously passive and active, a medium, mediator and contributor. To quote Anna Stetsenko and Igor M. Arievitch’s “The Self in Cultural-Historical Activity Theory,”

That the historical origins of the self and social interactions are located in collective practices of material production does not mean that their phenomenological richness or agency is denied. What is denied is that the self and society appear and develop on their own grounds, from within themselves, as realities completely separate from material life and its production. Instead, the primacy of material practice means that analyses of the richness and agency of human subjectivity and intersubjectivity, to be efficient, need to keep in sight their ultimate origination from and embeddedness in material processes of human practice. It is in this sense that the human “essence” is not something abstractly inherent in an individual but “the totality of all social relations” (Marx, 1888/1955, p. 3; note that social relations are not simply interactions among people but the totality of ways in which humans relate to the world, other people and themselves, as they produce the world and are produced by it). Thus, human subjectivity and the self are viewed, from an activity theory perspective, not as some mysterious capacity that exists in individual heads and evolves on its own.6

Stetsenko and Arievitch are formulating a perspective of the self that is both socially embedded and recognises the interconnectivity of interactions – bringing together the internal and external – that shapes who we are. The divide between individual and society which feeds the former’s ability to claim authority, power and therefore dominance is lessened. This perspective undermines the Romantic stance that separated artistic process from society, placed credit for great ideas in the individual alone and thus played a role in laying the groundwork for a competitive culture in which ownership and credit are tools of the self. This somewhat places the onus on designing anti-authority strategies, in resistance to the historically constructed individual = unified whole. It also speaks implicitly of how power is produced when the self is portrayed as a singular and self-contained entity.

Alternatively, the use of more than one pseudonym constructs identity as a diffuse and complex form, a multiplicity that is capable of shifting and evolving. The self is no more a unified self bound by today’s preferences of surveillance capitalism, perhaps epitomised by social media models that insist on “one true name for each individual.” Instead of submitting to participate in an individual-obsessed culture which rewards competition with social status (Facebook, LinkedIn, I’m looking at you), multiple pseudonyms draw out identity as a pliable creative material that undermines the authority of brand-driven, individualistic ideologies. Here, the self dissolves revealing singular authorship a complicated and ideological struggle that I choose to push back against.


1 Williams, Raymond (1976). Keywords. Fontana Press, p. 161-165

2 Ibid.

3 Barthes, Roland: “The Death of the Author” [PDF]

4 Foucault, Michel: “What is an Author?” [PDF]

5 Heckman, David: ‘“Gotta Catch 'em All”: Capitalism, the War Machine, and the Pokémon Trainer: Glossary’ in Rhizomes Issue 5

6 Stetsenko, Anna and Arievitch, Igor M.: “The Self in Cultural-Historical Activity Theory” [PDF]

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