"The world is but a canvas to the imagination"
Henry David Thoreau
The case against the intangible
There is in some quarters a certain disquiet – spiced with some moral indignation – at the notion of branding.
The case for the prosecution invariably goes something like this:
“Brands and their intangible so-called ‘added values’ are nothing but a shallow fiction. They’re the product of deliberate manipulation and ruse on the part of advertisers and their agencies. They are but froth. Lacking in any real substance.
Marketing groans under the weight of outmoded and unhelpful metaphors. It spends its time noodling away on meaningless adjectives in brand pyramids and brand onions. Marketing’s focus on the nonsense of intangible ‘brand values’ distracts it from providing people with goods and services that add real value to their lives.
Nobody believes or wants these fictions anyway. People saw through the games and make-believe of brands a long time ago. The so-called hidden persuaders were outed decades ago. Now we can all see them and their tall tales coming a mile off.
Moreover, a reliance on brand values distracts marketers from leveraging all the new and exciting ways that technology is allowing us to create and deliver utility and value to people. Modern marketing and branding isn’t about creating fictions, but making something altogether more valuable, more useful, more authentic, and yes, real.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, modern brands don’t make believe, they don’t pretend, they don’t tell stories, they DO stuff.”
While no doubt brands do find it harder to pull the wool over their customers’ eyes, it is a line of argument that gets dangerously close to declaring a new era of utilitarianism and rationality in which the prime focus of marketing is the development of new (useful, practical) things, not new meanings.
The imagined world
If we look outside the tiny world of brands and marketing, it is evident that we do not live in a world where our experience is limited to simply what we see.
In doing so I’m going to call on two star witnesses from outside marketingland to give us a fresher perspective. Those with a finger on what makes culture (in its deepest sense) tick. Regular readers will already know I have a fondness for the wisdom of these two gentlemen. Professor Karol Berger is the author of the wonderful A Theory of Art. And Gerhard Richter is a contemporary painter who has written vividly about the experience of being a creative soul in his The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962 – 1993.
Arguably, human beings have long needed not to live in a world where what we see is all we get. What are religions but beliefs that what we see is not all there is. That the mechanics of the world are invisible, but nonetheless real?
I suppose the difference today is that – surrounded by a mind-boggling plenitude of brands, entertainment and sporting celebrities, books, stories, movies, objects, video games, magazines, chat shows and reality series and all the other stuff we invent for ourselves – our experience of the world is now heavily mediated. We don’t experience the world directly. But via other stuff.
As Karol Berger notes in his analysis of the functions of art:
“As our cultural competence, our ability to use media, grows, much of our actual experience, beyond the most rudimentary sensations of pleasure and pain, is heavily mediated, that is, involved making comparisons between what is really there and what we recall in imagination.”
We are all – both consciously and unconsciously – constantly making comparisons with the real and the imagined world. The two are so porous that we hardly notice we think and behave in this way. But we all live and work – many of us skilfully and effortlessly – within two worlds; the world of objects and the world of meanings.
And we need this imagined world to give our identities, lives and experiences depth, significance and meaning.
For the contemporary painter Gerhard Richter this need for, and belief in, a world of (necessarily invisible) significances and meanings beyond the world of tangible objects is what makes us human:
“Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense. It is like the religious search for God. We are well aware that making sense and picturing are artificial, like illusion; but we can never give them up. For belief (thinking out and interpreting the present and the future) is our most important characteristic.”
Living in a disenchanted world
It’s worth reflecting on what our world would be like if it were populated by objects and rituals with absolutely no meaning beyond the visible, the tangible, and the practical.
Imagine for example, if the Sunday roast your mum’s lovingly prepared on one of your all too infrequent visit home were simply sustenance, not a gesture of love and devotion. Or if the diamond ring your boyfriend has just bought you was nothing more than a billion year old piece of carbon set in metal, and not a declaration of undying love. Or if the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was covered in painted figures and scenes because the colours brightened up the place a bit. Or if shoppers everywhere regarded Tesco Value Baked Beans as being baked beans identical in absolutely every single way (other than price) to Heinz Baked Beans. Or if Manchester United were nothing more than just one of a number of football teams from former industrial cities in England that one might support. Or if the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour was thought simply to be a very big likeness of a rather masculine-looking woman in sandals holding a torch in the air.
Karol Berger in his analysis of the functions of art A Theory of Art puts it thus:
“It would be naïve to think that all that is expected in the appreciation of food and wine or in erotic pleasure is a fine-tuned discrimination of the properties of the object actually out there. Once they transcend mere natural hunger and sexual appetite, once they begin to aim at the pleasures of the table and bedchamber rather than self-preservation and procreation, the gourmet and the libertine (to say nothing of the lover) know full well that the objects they desire are shot through and through with concepts and images, are cultural as much as natural.”
The cultural anthropologist Professor McCracken makes precisely the same argument. Goods are instruments, as McCracken puts it, of the self: “Consumer goods capture us because they capture the meanings with which we construct our lives.”
It is worth too reflecting on what our lives and world would be like if we were denied any and all representations of alternative worlds and alternative ways of living, if there were no representations of our very best (and worst) values and aspirations. What would we reach and strive for? What would we compare our current choices, behaviours and experiences with?
Without the imaginative resources to think and projected ourselves ahead, the restless human drive to create and to change would arguably wither and die. As Richter put it:
“Consciousness is the capacity to know that we and others are and were and will be. It is therefore the capacity to visualize, and therefore the belief that keeps us alive. Without visualizing the future, and our own goals and tasks, we should vegetate and – since we lack the instinct that animals have – we should perish. Belief (view opinion, conviction, hope, plan, etc.) is thus our most important quality and capacity.”
The supply of imaginative capital
As Berger has argued, history can provide an important source of imaginative capital for individuals and communities.
The mythologies of Dunkirk, and the Blitz, for example, still continue to provide the British with a powerful representation of stoicism, bloody-minded determination and self-sacrifice, and thus an important and necessary representation of ‘British-ness’ (a vague and slippery notion at the best of times) at its most robust and confident.
Greek sculpture meanwhile gave us an idealised male physique that centuries later is replicated every month in the pages of Men’s Health magazine and stalks the efforts of many a man working up a sweat in his local gym.
We need the fruits of creativity, the stimulus of ideas to feed our imaginations, to invest the world of objects we inhabit with meaning, and to provide us with representations of other ways of being, other ways of living and behaving.
Without imaginative capital at our disposal, our lives and identities would arguably be significantly impoverished. Berger sees art as playing a significant role in the supply of such imaginative capital, arguing that it:
“Keeps our world from being totally ‘disenchanted’, flat, and devoid of significance, maintains the depth that stories impart to our existence and to our world and thus allows us to preserve the pre-modern seriousness in our attitudes to ourselves and the world, without giving up on what is attractive about modernity – namely a clear-sighted, critical, empirical-scientific attitude.”
So we need images and representations that feed and supply us with imaginative capital. We need ideas. Happily, the supply of imaginative of imaginative capital, is great. It feeds us with alternative realities, possible ways of being, with representations of our hopes, dreams, fears, and different depictions of life’s ambiguities, and the important yet invisible aspects of being human.
In other words ideas play a fundamental and crucial role in providing us with imaginative capital. They offer us points of contrast and comparison, they give us representations and stories we can inhabit and adopt. In this way, they provide us with a crucial means of working out, creating, inventing and reinventing our identities.
As the composer Brian Eno put it in his essay ‘The Big Here And Long Now’:
“What is possible in art becomes thinkable in life. We become our new selves first in simulacrum, through style and fashion and art, our deliberate immersions in virtual worlds. Through them we sense what it would be like to be another kind of person with other kinds of values. We rehearse new feelings and sensitivities. We imagine other ways of thinking about our world and its future.”
The imaginative capital that springs from ideas transforms our existence. It supplies meaning and significance. It provides projected futures and possibilities, offers us with insight into the present, and shows us places to strive towards in the future.
Imaginative capital is as Berger noted of art, a potent form of self-invention. Not surprisingly, Richter (never short of a provocation) was moved to write that:
“Art is not a substitute for religion: It is a religion (in the truest sense of the word: ‘binding back’, ‘binding’ to the unknowable, transcending reason, transcendent being)…. The Church is no longer adequate as a means of affording experience of the transcendental, and of making religion real – and so art has been transformed from a means into the sole provider of religion, which means religion itself.”
The case for the defence
The instinct to attach meaning to inanimate objects is ancient and hard-wired in us as humans. We’re naturally disposed to be meaning makers.
I began with the the case for the prosecution. Time for the other closing argument. I think my case for the defence would go something like:
“Those who argue against the value and utility of intangible values misunderstand not just brands, but how we make sense of the world.
We do not merely see the world at it is, but through the mind’s eye make and remake it. What we see and experience is as much the product of our imaginations as it is the product of our hands, factories, and laboratories.
Those who argue against the intangible argue for the stripping of meaning from reality. They argue for a world that is disenchanted. And where’s the joy in that? What will stir our senses and emotions? What will will give us pleasure or solace? What will encourage us to raise our ambitions, to strive for something greater? It might be a flat world. But let’s not make it a disenchanted one.
I acknowledge that the intangible dimensions that we invent and surround objects with may well be but the froth on the cappuccino of life – 99% inconsequential, useless air. But ladies and gentlemen of the jury, without the froth, it just isn’t a cappuccino. I thank you.”
Karol Berger, A Theory of Art
Brian Eno, ‘The Big Here and Long Now’, at longnow.org
Grant McCracken, Culture and Consumption II: Markets, Meaning, and Brand Management
Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962 – 1993