Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life

Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life

by Nato Thompson


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One of the country's leading activist curators explores how corporations and governments have used art and culture to mystify and manipulate us.

The production of culture was once the domain of artists, but beginning in the early 1900s, the emerging fields of public relations, advertising and marketing transformed the way the powerful communicate with the rest of us. A century later, the tools are more sophisticated than ever, the onslaught more relentless.

In Culture as Weapon, acclaimed curator and critic Nato Thompson reveals how institutions use art and culture to ensure profits and constrain dissent—and shows us that there are alternatives. An eye-opening account of the way advertising, media, and politics work today, Culture as Weapon offers a radically new way of looking at our world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612196800
Publisher: Melville House Publishing
Publication date: 03/06/2018
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 614,196
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

NATO THOMPSON is chief curator at Creative Time, one of New York's most prestigious and exciting art organizations. He is the editor of The Interventionists: A Users' Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life; Experimental Geography: Radical Approaches to Landscape, Cartography, and Urbanism (Melville House), and Ahistoric Occasion: Artists Making History. And he is the author of Seeing Power (Melville House).

Read an Excerpt

Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life

As every artist knows, Plato argued that artists should be banned from society. A believer that we live in a pale shadow of a world of perfect forms, he felt that the arts were dangerous imitations, three degrees removed from the world of ideal forms. He feared that the arts could stir the passions of the populace, muddying the objective rationality required in the republic.

Plato’s opinion certainly runs counter to the operating logic of society today. The United States is a consumer society awash in the products of culture. I consider movies, online programming, video games, advertisements, sports, retail outlets, music, art museums, and social networking all a part of the arts, as they all influence our emotions, actions, and our very understanding of ourselves as citizens. And as much as politicians would never call themselves artists, they all understand the value of showmanship and public relations when it comes to the machinations of governance. But as much as I would like to simply discard Plato’s warning, it certainly haunted the writing of this book. For that artistic technique of stirring the passions and appealing to the intimate side in each of us has become inseparable from power.

In Culture as Weapon, I do not seek to uncover a cultural conspiracy that puppet masters deploy culture to brainwash us. Instead, I want to explain the ways in which those in power have to use culture to maintain and expand their influence, and the role that we all play in that process. Throughout the twentieth century and into the contemporary era, the world has witnessed the realization of age-old avant-garde demand that art become part of the everyday. Art and life have in fact merged.

At first blush, this train of thought strikes us as fairly obvious. We understand that media is a crucial part of how the world works. We understand that advertising has creeped into many facets of consumer life. And we even understand that spin has come to be a critical part of the political landscape. Ultimately, we understand that message-craft and manipulating the world to cater to how we feel has ingrained itself into every mechanism of power. So, if none of this is new, why write a book?

Simply stated, the industries dependent on shaping how we think have reached an unprecedented scale. As a global strategy deployed at every level, culture has become a profound, and ubiquitous, weapon. Communications and public-relations departments have become essential parts of every business. Global spending on advertising reached nearly $600 billion in 2015.1 One in seven people on the planet are on Facebook. By 2011, 91 percent of children ages two to seventeen played video games.2 In the United States, teenagers spend nearly nine hours a day looking at screens.3 And those are just the measurable aspects of culture’s exponential growth. There are countless philosophical questions to be asked: How has the role of music in everyday life changed in the last one hundred years? How many scripted television shows can one watch? How many more creative ways are there to shape the city?

And yet, we remain unappreciative of just how dramatic this shift in the techniques of power has become. In particular, we continue to read the world as though it still has one foot solidly planted in the realm of reason. It is in our global DNA to identify as rational subjects. But perhaps, this Enlightenment-era thinking could use a heavy pause as we discover just how emotional, affective, we truly are.

Certainly this turn away from an Enlightment belief in our own rationality stands on the shoulders of great thinkers from Adorno to Gramsci, from cultural studies of the Birmingham school with figures such as Stuart Hall, Dick Hebidge, and Raymond Williams, to more contemporary, less structuralist, approaches by Judith Butler. But while I invoke some of these theories in the book, my main goal is to make sense of just how affective, how culturally savvy are the institutions—Apple stores, Facebook, real-estate moguls, to name just a few—that we confront daily.

I hope to demonstrate a broad-strokes reading of the uses of culture. We will define culture simply. And in doing so, we begin to see it everywhere, from counterinsurgency tactics in the Iraq War to the origins of IKEA to rock bands singing for aid for Africa to the design of the Mac to the war on drugs. It is a motley assemblage of seemingly disparate phenomena—and intentionally so. For power is visible in the hands of our elected officials as often as it is hidden in a package of inanity. The many forms of power in our world have sophisticated approaches to reaching that very needy, fearful, and social creature we call ourselves.

One of my key hopes for this book is to echo something that Walter Lippmann had voiced long ago: that democracy is a fallible project rhetorically dependent on a rational subject, who, quite frankly, does not exist. In fact, the illusion of the rational subject has been extremely helpful in hiding the totality of these techniques. Understanding the power of association and the uses of emotion can explain a U.S. election better than a lens of capitalism. Just as Marxist philosophers in Britain sought to understand why the British populace turned away from Labour through the rise of Margaret Thatcher, just as Thomas Frank struggled to understand why working-class Kansas voted Republican, and just as, further back, Karl Marx asked why the French people rallied around the tyrant Louis Bonaparte in 1852, I want to make a further contribution to the cultural study of why people don’t act rationally.

While it is certainly demonstrable that one can encourage a consumer to purchase Coca-Cola through a clever, large-scale advertising campaign, it remains unclear how the aggregate of advertising approaches collectively affect the opinions and actions of that consumer. It also remains unclear the secondary results of cultural manipulation when deployed by politicians, whether in the case of war abroad or at home. These cumulative effects of the deployment of affect has made for a very messy social terrain. It is sort of like a greenhouse effect of cultural production that changes our sense of the world around us.

Some compelling implications arise when we read power through its use of culture. For example, power has contributed to the strategies and vulnerabilities of social movements by manipulating media and public perception. Media activism and social movements that cull from the techniques of advertising to make a larger point have a long history, but it is useful to appreciate the double-edged nature of deploying culture. Simple facts—that fear motivates faster than hope, that appeals to emotion do not rely on the truth, or that rationality need not drive enthusiasm—make the terrain of activism that uses culture more precarious.

From an arts perspective, I would like to place what is considerated the traditional arts (theater, visual arts, dance, and film) into conversation with not only the commercial arts, but also public relations and advertising. In this way, we can position this more broad definition of art as something that has a potentiality for being both deeply coercive and absolutely powerful. After a century of cultural manipulation, it would be naive to discuss art without simultaneously discussing the manner in which art is already deployed by power daily. With real-estate developers and the tech boom both boldly embracing the power of art to change society, with the deployment of the use of the term creative to rebrand innovative capitalist design as an art, one has to appreciate, and perhaps second-guess, just how far art has come. By demystifying the inherent good of art, one can place art in the same conversation as other phenomena of daily life.

As much as this book is about public opinion, I know that public opinion is not everything. In fact, I would say a large part of power doesn’t depend on public opinion. The Fortune 500 companies list Walmart at number one with its basic approach of low-cost consumer goods being its strategy. The second company is ExxonMobil, who continues to churn out oil for an energy dependent globe. For both of these companies, power resides in getting the basic goods to people while controlling that market. Yes, they advertise and to some degree shape their brand, but that isn’t the formula for their massive sales. So while the uses of culture have grown immensely, they don’t exist in a vacuum.

That said, how we understand the world certainly remains a key part of our collective journey. It’s an obvious thing to say. But perhaps we have to appreciate that we, as evolutionary creatures, are ultimately fearful social beings who try our best to grapple with phenomena beyond our ken. We try to understand everything from climate change to global war to capitalism to biotechnology. But we can only process that information through the lens of our intimate selves. We interpret the world by way of our personal needs and desires, and so we are vulnerable to larger powers who know how to speak to those needs.

Table of Contents

Introduction ix

1 The Real Culture War 3

2 The Persuaders 25

3 The Persuaders, Part II 53

4 Fear Machines 75

5 The Real Estate Show 97

6 The Insurgents: Community-Based Practice as Military Methodology 125

7 Sounding the Trumpet: Charity and the Image of Doing Good 155

8 Corporate Sociability: IKEA, the Apple Store, Starbucks, and Other Corporate Annexes of the Civic 183

9 The Ever-So-Personal Computer 213

Acknowledgments 259

Notes 261

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