Thomas Sutcliffe: Bubbles, what on earth did you start?

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The Independent Online

Standing in front of the painting Bubbles at Tate Britain's big Millais show, I found myself thinking of two related questions. Query One was pretty straightforward: is the gallery correct when it claims that this picture was the first serious work of art to be adopted for commercial purposes? Leave aside, for the moment, the satellite question of whether it qualifies as serious at all – but is it really true that no Victorian entrepreneur had previously thought of borrowing a bit of cultural respectability by slapping a bit of fine art on the packet? Query Two was a little more complicated, and involved turning Query One on its head. Never mind the first time that the world of commerce turned to the world of fine art – when was the first time that the world of fine art turned to the world of commerce? Put another way, what's the earliest instance of branded goods appearing in a serious work of art?

The question fluttered away not very long after, driven out of my mind by Millais' singularly gloomy Scottish landscapes, which effectively induce a kind of seasonal affective depression. But it fluttered back again this week as I was reading Douglas Coupland's new novel, The Gum Thief. Set in a Staples superstore, The Gum Thief is a blizzard of brand names: Sharpie markers, Post-It notes, Bic Soft-Grips, Triscuits, Hyundais and Macs. It's even pointedly specific about the gum that is thieved – which, if you're curious, is Wrigley's Orbit White. And although this is entirely characteristic of Coupland, who has never exactly shied away from the corporate clutter of the modern world, it did raise the issue of the odd relationship between merchandise and art. Coupland, after all, isn't exactly typical – most novelists, even in the ubiquitously branded society in which we now live, still prefer to leave trademarks unspecified.

I take it that this is largely because naming names in this way is still associated with lower forms of entertainment. We expect Jeffrey Archer to flash the trademarks of branded goods, or Ian Fleming, but you would be distinctly surprised if Colm Toibin did it, or Margaret Atwood. Serious writers will sometimes have a bit of fun at the expense of trademarks and branding – as Martin Amis does when he invents ludicrous names for some imaginary Japanese car – but otherwise they tend to steer well clear. And it isn't hard to see why. It's true that brands are inseparable from our daily lived experience of the world, but they carry with them a hazardous specificity about time and place. Admit a recognisable brand name to a sentence and you've nailed the line to the floor in a way that may well be unhelpful in 40 years' time. What for the first readers was merely a substantiating detail will steadily corrode into an antique, because the language ages at different rates. Write "leather chair" and the accompanying mental concept may be good for hundreds of years; write "La-Z-Boy Recliner" and you're going to have to prop the thing up with a footnote before very long.

Which may be a problem if you've got a character defined by his yen for a La-Z-Boy, or a Parker-Knoll executive chair, or an Eames Recliner (each of which, incidentally, would send a subtly different message of class and aspiration to the observant reader). There are writers who take the risk anyway, John Updike being a notable example. We know what kind of car Rabbit Angstrom drives and what brand of beer he drinks, in part because that's part of the grain of the world Updike is describing. But those passages in the book are not without their faint tremor of vulgarity – a minor shock that the writer thought the matter worth mentioning.

What's slightly odd about this is that brand names enter into literature and art not through the popular forms but through the avant-garde. I don't know whether Dickens ever used real brand names in his writing, but I suspect not. You have to wait for artists with an almost polemical commitment to inclusiveness of depiction. In visual art, Manet (in The Bar at the Folies Bergère) and the Cubists incorporate commercial trademarks into their paintings rather than more conventional representational painters; in literature it is the theoretical collageurs of life, such as John Dos Passos and James Joyce, who admit brand names and trade language. I don't know whether the Sandow-Whiteleys pulley exerciser discovered in Leopold Bloom's drawer was really available for sale in 1904 in Dublin, but I hope so, because its presence seems to be evidence of a new kind of description of the modern world, one that isn't fearful of the sullying touch of commerce. And it still isn't a trademark many writers wish to share.

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