I. THE POET AS IMAGE ARTIST
“When Duran Duran arrived on the pop scene in 1980, they were scoffed at a good deal. A poor man’s Spandau Ballet, people said, in their clumsy new romantic gear; all breeches and frilly shirts and not much future. They looked…well, provincial. Yet four years later, not only are Duran Duran one of the hottest groups in the world, but they’ve cultivated an image of sophisticated, even languid, jet-setters. They appear to inhabit a world of glamorous places, designer clothes, champagne, travel and beautiful girls. Duran Duran are not much interested in being the boys next door. Every one of their singles has been a chart hit, they’ve released three best-selling LPs and excited hysterical devotion among hordes of young girls. They belong to an elite corps of young British acts (along with Eurythmics, Culture Club and the Thompson Twins) who have shaken up the American music scene with a new look, a new sound and the encouraging ability to shift vast quantities of records. In the last four years, Duran Duran have played before royalty, seen Is There Something I Should Know enter the charts at number one, spent a year in tax exile, and had their every affair or indiscretion splashed across the front pages. They’ve received few kind words from the music critics, but that doesn’t seem to matter; their popularity among young pop fans everywhere is rivaled only by that of Culture Club. And in the pin-up stakes, there’s no one who even comes close.” – Maria David, Duran Duran
“A lot of people didn’t like me. Most of them were poets. They called me names like proletarian, idealist, romantic, handsome. Fools I thought. Why would people sell themselves short and not just live the life of pure creative glamour. It was easy for me, to others it was a mirage. The real geniuses of history were the ones brave enough to be it. I couldn’t understand their criticisms to be anything but jealousy. I encouraged their cupidity and became even wilder and more attractive than ever. Around that time I released a book called Mirage, dedicated to my detractors. I won’t brag about its impact, but it was breathtaking.” – Jon Leon, Hit Wave
I want to talk about poetry and the marketing of poetry as part of a larger, image-making activity. This activity includes the creation of content along with the packaging, distribution, promotion, and performance of that content. I should emphasize, however, that actual content creation is not a requirement, since what matters most is the strategic framework that constitutes the image-making. The publishing or even writing of poems may be unnecessary—in some cases, one need only allude to their existence. So really what we’re talking about here is the poet as image artist, or in marketing terms, the poet as brand. There is an obvious kinship here with pop stars, Hollywood celebrities, professional athletes, political icons and others forged within an image matrix composed of the work they do, the interviews they give, their various associations and sponsorships, and the personal scandals and mundane details of their lives that filter through media outlets and social networks. As such, there is a collaborative component to this image matrix: the artist and the audience are its co-creators. You could even say they are co-creators of each other, with the image they share as the living, breathing document of their mutual existence.
Of course, anyone with a Facebook profile is engaging in some type of brand management. But an image artist is differentiated by a larger framework and vision. It’s a question of scale, dimensionality, cohesion and purpose. Let’s look at it from a marketing perspective:
Who is your target audience and what do they need? What is your objective, what is your strategic approach to achieving that objective, and what are the tactics you deploy to support that strategy? What are your key performance indicators or metrics of success, how will you monitor and measure them, and how will actual results inform your strategy and tactics, moving forward?
Marketing typically begins with a need: who are you and what do you need? This question determines everything. But the origin of an image artist is different. It begins with a vision (of life), which corresponds roughly to a marketing objective. It begins with a vision because the target audience is a priori everyone and no one. The image artist is always speaking to something universal in all of us, and either we listen or we don’t. Regardless, the task of the image artist is to contaminate the world with her vision, or, in marketing speak, to construct a strategic framework and tactical deployment plan that will achieve the objective. Whether cutting a diagonal across demographics or zeroing in on a specific scene, how you market and to whom you market works in tandem with what you are marketing. Everything is integrated and consistent with the objective. Everything is part of the vision.
For example, what differentiates an image artist poet from, say, a regular poet, is that, to the image artist, a book of poems and the promotion of that book have a lateral relationship: a poem from a book, the physical design of a book, marketing collateral like videos and posters, a public event, and subsequent interviews, collaborations, interventions, investments, denials, etc.—these are all related forms of a consistent, evolving vision. To the regular poet it’s simply a matter of writing a poem and publishing it in one venue or another, preferably one with a sizeable, welcoming audience and competent promotional staff. To the poet as image artist, every decision is an act of fidelity to an overarching strategy and a singular objective. Whether or not to publish a magazine or anthology, or be published in one, and how to do so or not do so; whether or not to organize an event, or participate in one, and how to do so or not do so; whether or not to intervene with a critique, or respond to criticism, and how to do so or not do so; and so on. Obviously any number of factors will inform each decision (friendship, convenience, decorum, boredom, disaster, etc.), and depending on the stakes at hand there may be retreats and concessions, or miscalculations—but at the end of the day an image artist will prioritize the vision above all else, and act accordingly.
Image artists often have an ambivalent relationship with results. This is because results, whether quantitative or qualitative, act as positive or negative feedback within an image matrix, and thereby impact the image itself. Although the objective is unwavering, the method of achieving this objective is always open to review. An image artist might adjust strategic direction, or abandon an entire communication channel, based on results. But results must first be defined. Perhaps your metrics of success are site hits, or followers on Twitter, or Facebook friends, or Google Alerts, or mentions on key influencer blogs, or old-fashioned sales and event attendees. Maybe you check these figures at random intervals whenever it occurs to you, or not at all, or maybe you develop an automated feed and cross-channel offline/online formula that weights these metrics individually and in combination to postulate an overall performance score, and assign incremental change each month. Maybe you then make adjustments here and there in the production, distribution, and promotion of real or imagined content, based on a holistic assessment of the efficacy of your strategy and tactics. Maybe you forecast shifts in the landscape, based on historical data, and make cyclical or preemptive adjustments—or maybe you have an encounter that changes everything.
II. THE PIN-UP STAKES
“And the base things of the world and things which are despised God has chosen, and things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are.” (1 Corinthians 1:28, NKJV)
I’m hesitant to attempt a taxonomy of image artists, but I do want to define a particular type who share a common objective: to end the world and change life. For ease of discussion, I’ll borrow a phrase from the opening salvo on Duran Duran and call these stakes The Pin-Up Stakes, and this type of image artist The Pin-Up Artist.
I should clarify that when I say “end the world” I’m not suggesting a kind of artistic terrorism or terrestrial apocalypse. By “life” I mean the form of nothingness we experience, and by “world” I mean the structure in which we navigate and make meaning out of this form of nothingness. Simply put, the world is a tool. One could argue that human beings could not function as such without it. The problem, however, is that this tool is most effective when it operates as life by supplanting it. The wall of Plato’s cave is analogous here, as is your handheld device of choice. What brings us closer to life is also what keeps us away from it, like Parmigianino’s hand in Ashbery’s convex mirror (protecting what it advertises), or AT&T’s plaintively ironic “reach out and touch someone” long distance ad campaign just prior to the Bell System divestiture of the mid ‘80s. This is not to critique the mediation of experience as a specifically “postmodern” condition, with techno-capitalist culture industries identified as culprits in the systematic usurpation of life by its representation. I’m positing it here instead as the foundation of human reality: life itself is the first mediating factor, or image, of nothingness, and the world is what mediates the mediation. The world is made in the image of the image.
This is all to say that the pin-up stakes are defined by a subjective rather than material objective (though it may have material effects), and it is precisely this tension between life and the world that the pin-up artist exploits: the nexus of the first image (life) with the second (world). The greater the tension, the greater the cataclysm when this tension is antagonized, and the greater the probability that a linear conjunction of world-life-nothingness will be knocked loose and repositioned into a triangulation, with the artist and audience communing at the very center of it. This center is the experience of the end of the world, or rather, the end of the dominating proximity of the world. The position of life is changed. From this space, in equal proximity to nothingness, its image, and the image of its image, reality is no longer limited by what is possible. The impossibility of existence itself is experienced first hand, whether as a rapturous, uncanny joy, or terror, or trauma, or profound boredom, or as a kind of pure occurrence, void of affect. The exact contours of the experience are incidental: no specific feeling is sutured to the specifics of what happens. What we’re talking about is the point at which meaning collapses into infinitude. If we were to locate this vision politically, it would be the moment of revolt, inside the event, where all rules of particularity are annihilated. If we were to locate it personally, it’s the experience of right now as it really happens, tethered to but undetermined by the factual chronology of our lives.
I want to end this section by talking about tactics and risk. Rather than execute a strategy of risk mitigation toward a position that can’t be flanked or undone, the pin-up artist operates entirely within the field of risk. Everything a pin-up artist does is intended to be misread, whether celebrated or dismissed, by the well-read and worldly but uninitiated: with one hand the pin-up artist speaks directly to people who get it, and with the other she blocks the profanation of her work by playing into the paradigm of people who don’t. This is an open challenge to those who have the capacity to live like immortals yet choose to live for the world. All of us have this capacity and face this choice. The goal here is not to make fools look like fools, but to risk looking like a fool in order to raise the stakes. There can be no revolution without risk. This is not to say that the pin-up artist is a revolutionary. There is no concrete objective she is striving toward, only the vision she already inhabits and offers up to us. But it is precisely this vision of the impossibility of existence that enables the possibility for change. Either you believe in it or you don’t believe at all. To the pin-up artist, these are the highest stakes. What happens next is up to us.
Coming up: Case studies on Jon Leon, Ariana Reines, and others