Christina Patterson: Fight back against the tyranny of brands</b>

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The Independent Online

So, you're staring at these splodges of colour – pink and yellow and blue and a bit of red – and you're thinking, well, at least it would brighten up the dining room, and it reminds you of those sweet little mats your daughter made when that Australian supply teacher ditched creative writing for batik, and you think, well, OK, I'll bid a couple of hundred quid.

And your bid is accepted and celestial choirs serenade you with songs of jubilation and on every corner of heaven and earth there is rejoicing. For the painting you bid for is that thing more holy than a relic of the cross, that thing more precious, perhaps, than life itself – a Damien Hirst.

And, as they say in gameshows, everyone's a winner. Well, perhaps not the art dealers who spent a fortune on work which proved to be by A-level students from Hammersmith, but even the sainted Hirst himself had reason to be cheerful.

"If I give you this thing, I don't want it to be sold frivolously," he told the film director Kevin Allen, who organised the anonymous auction in County Monaghan. "I want someone to buy it because they like the painting."

It's a familiar cry. Love me for who I am, not because I'm famous. Yes, even multi-millionaire, world-dominating YBAs sometimes grapple with a question which often defeats the rest of us. Is Damien Hirst any good? Yes, we know he can get a team of people to stud a skull with diamonds, or chuck some paint on a circular canvas and give it a twirl, but is he any good? Would anyone like his work if it wasn't, you know, a Damien Hirst?

Sadly, we still don't know, because this delightful fairy-tale of innocent love rewarded isn't quite as touching as it first seemed. The man who bought the painting was not, it turns out, some local farmer making a tentative foray into this modern art malarkey, but a film producer who already owns two Hirst Spin paintings and instantly recognised this as another.

The picture was auctioned again and fetched £95,000. Loose change in Hirstworld, but, still, a bit more like it. Innocence lost, perhaps, but honour restored. You can't have everything. And, really, how can you expect anyone to like something unless they know they should? Unless, that is, they know its brand.

There was a time when the brand was not the prevailing principle in matters aesthetic. Home décor was a cheerful hotchpotch of whatever took your fancy: in the case of the English upper classes, floral cushions, Persian carpets, squashy sofas and masses of leather-bound books; in the case of the working classes, swirly carpets, woodchip wallpaper, lots of framed family photos and a comfy settee. The upper classes, when not togged up for some fancy dinner, wore dull tweeds and old cardigans. The working classes, when not trussed up for a night on the town, wore car-coats and slacks.

There were, as throughout history, those who tried to follow fashion – by aiming to replicate the currently prescribed shape, hem level and cut – and those who didn't. They thought – innocently, sweetly – that looking good was about, well, looking good. They didn't understand that you couldn't look good without the official stamp of a brand.

Sadly, this is a virus that has spread beyond art and fashion. This year's Man Booker judges spend months ploughing through the cream of this year's fiction and produce a longlist of impressive diversity and what happens? The bookshops, all poised for massive Booker displays, go a bit cold. The newspapers cough and sputter. Will Ian McEwan win? Is he overrated? And who the hell are these other writers? Where, in other words, are the brands?

Well, hooray for the Booker judges, hooray for Kevin Allen, hooray for all the consumers of art and literature and fashion who believe that there's still something in our culture that can beat the tyranny of the brand, something that's worth fighting for. Yes, it's called the brain.

No longer the apple of my eye

She was brilliant in Sylvia. She was great in Shakespeare in Love. She is, no doubt, a wonderful mother. And, frankly, if eating brown rice and tofu gets you a body like that then sign me up for whatever no-alcohol-plus-yoga-plus-sense-of-humour-bypass regime will get me those results. But it really is quite hard to get away from the idea that Gwyneth Paltrow is seriously weird. Not because she names her daughter after a fruit or because she and her rock-star husband apparently lead the lives of middle-aged Mormons, but because the born-again mum has just announced that she's leaving hubby and kids for two months – to do a cookery show in Spain. Land of chorizo and horse ham. Hmm. Baby Chorizo. Now that's a name you'd remember.

* If the Tory faithful are practically having orgasms over David Cameron's titillatingly "tough" stance on crime and immigration in his Newsnight interview on Wednesday, others might be a little more hesitant. While they might not disagree with the old Etonian's assertion that his wealth and "fortunate upbringing" need not necessarily disqualify him from "making the changes you want to see in this country" they might also think that it's not a great idea to flaunt them. Which appears to be what his wife is doing in this month's Harper's Bazaar. In a Hello-type spread, Mrs Cameron shows off her £2m home and extols the beauty of her diary, pen, key ring, and (£150 pink, calf-skin) Bible. All made by Smythson's, the company she just happens to work for. Husbands can't be held responsible for their wives' decisions, of course – or, indeed, their values. But this little glimpse of life à la Cameron is not one to deepen one's faith in the former PR man's proclaimed passion for the poor.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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