Recently, I have been thinking about the trend towards corporate sponsorship of music and arts. Now, arts have been sponsored by business at times, and I have no issue with most of it. The issue I’m talking about today is the use of arts to create an image around or rebrand the business into something they are not. In short: Arts as marketing.
I had a buddy who ran a skate company. He asked artists he was friends with to design decks, and he’d print them up. It was a skater-run business, and he made what he thought was awesome. It;s pretty amazing when someone does that. Same for friends that run their own record labels, being fans of the music they put out, and their resulting business being an extension of those interests that they hold.
Conversely, there are companies existing in these spaces now that want to appear to be a thing. They hire the makers of art to help build an aesthetic around their company to appear to be ‘cool’. This process, much like greenwashing, takes an aesthetic, and applies it, to give the perception of a thing despite the thing actually being something else entirely.
For example, If you run a huge company, and you are super concerned about the environment and so you integrate environmentally sound practices into your process of production, then your product will be a product of that process. However, if you just hire folks to make your product seem environmentally sound, it’s called greenwashing.
Coolwashing works the same. If you are person that grew up in a subculture and went on to run a business, and make products that cater to specific niche, thats great. But if your company is a completely different culture, and you try to brand your company’s culture as something other than it is, then that is fucked.
These companies come to artists, with their very uncool (IE: un-ethical) production processes, and hire the artist of the moment to make them look cool. And it sucks. Because now I see murals around my city with their logo, meanwhile, they are producing their products with no accountability, fucking up other peoples lives and livelihoods because ‘out of sight, out of mind’, and when questioned on their labor practices, they defer. Their factories are kept thousands of miles from their murals. And while they will hire a camera crew to come and do documentary on someone using their product, or painting a mural for them, they will do everything they can to keep that same camera crew out of the factory that actually makes their goods.
Why is that?
It’s because there is a difference between what they sell, and what they want us to think they sell.
So their approach is: make the product look cool, keep the process out of sight. Its a rewrite of the narrative of their product.
Coolwashing is what happens when a company presents itself in an image-based society, where consumerism has divorced the idea of products from process, and their interpretation is largely based on the aesthetic of presentation via media. It’s showing how these products are employed in consumer society, versus how they are made in a political society. Its reducing the sum of it’s operations to a photo of an artist making a sponsored mural on Instagram. But behind the scenes, it’s a very different story. No murals grace their factories. No Instagram shows the condition of their workers. And no sponsored documentaries are made about the people making their shoes. Why? Because the image of businesses that exploit shitty labor conditions doesn’t fit with their Brand.
And that is another part of Coolwashing. The brand. It’s a story about a thing. Sometimes it’s true, other times it’s fiction. I’d bet that 99% of the brands we encounter today are fictional narratives.
But this only happens so long as folks are willing to lend their narratives to these companies.
Without our art, they are a naked system of structures. Their only clothing is secrecy and distance. And their culture is boardrooms and supply agreements. Nowhere in this formula is anything close to what they try to present as their brand. And when we lend them our services, our art becomes their visual representation, and our music becomes their voice, drowning out the visual and audible reality of their process. In short, they are weak in image culture, and we, as creatives are what give them the bodies to make them walk among us, and sell things to our friends, and those we love.
And that, folks, is coolwashing. And it’s a dissasociative process.
What are the downsides to this? Well, it means that smaller businesses in certain niches have to compete with companies that are hundreds of times their size, yet in image, appear to be the same level of interest, relevance, and ethic. And for the careers of artists, it means that the more funded artists, and hence, more visible, will be those whom are willing to play nice with coolwashing corporations, which leads to the arts being tilted, through the lines of status and power, towards a pro-corporate view. And retroactively, with their sponsorship of documentaries about past culture, the companies will show our past back to us, through a lens that works with their corporate behaviours, and favors their place in the narrative more than others. So in essence, it’s a force that rewrites both past, present, and future, towards a more shallow aesthetic and product oriented world view, rather than one that is mindful of process, societal cost, and is ultimately more political. In the long term, it reduces power from us as individuals, and gives it to corporations, in both the physical world, and in our minds.
How to fight it? Make our own narratives. Show our own worldview. And own it. Sign it. And don’t lend it out except to those we believe in. At best, our friends businesses will thrive and succeed, and the big companies will have to compete with them on process, and make better, more human-minded goods. At worst, the big companies will just hire a hack to remake your art and sounds in a way that is close enough to evoke a ‘cool’ image, but not close enough for you to sue them.
The real question is: Where do you, with the power you hold as an artist, and the responsibilities of a human being, want to be in this process? Do you want to make your own narrative? Or do you want to coolwash a corporation?
That is the choice we face these days.