Curator Nato Thompson shines a light on art and the culture wars in ‘Culture as Weapon’

We live in an era in which image memes are lobbed as political salvos. In which security is “theater” and defining who controls the “narrative” in a world of facts and alternative facts is the daily bread of the hot-take class. In which words are bombs, delivered in 140-character installments in the “new culture war” — a phrase that can and has referred to all manner of cultural conflicts: The face-off between elite versus populists, urban versus rural, Hollywood versus the heartland.

Culture is a weapon — a pretty effective one at that. And it’s a topic that New York-based curator Nato Thompson takes on in his latest book, “Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life,” which explores the ways in which the tools of culture are deployed to do everything from sell iPhones to wage war.

As far as timing goes, the book’s landing during the early days of the Trump administration couldn’t have been more impeccable. “Culture as Weapon” provides a broad overview on how individuals, corporations and governments employ design, storytelling, imagery and art to stir emotion and mold sentiment. The prominence of the Internet and social media, naturally, makes this all the more profound and far-reaching than in the past.

Thompson’s book kicks off with an extensive historical primer. Over the course of the 20th century, the fields of public relations and advertising have created visually resonant cultural icons — such as the Marlboro Man — to move merchandise. Thompson shows how political figures have employed those same techniques to sway elections and stoke fear. For example: the 1988 presidential campaign ad for George H.W. Bush about Willie Horton, the Massachusetts convict who raped a woman while on furlough — an ad that ignited anxiety about crime (and African American men) and likely cost Michael Dukakis the election.

Thompson also provides a backgrounder on how visual symbols have been historically wielded socially and politically. The Nazis, for example, were famously meticulous about their aesthetics. Adolf Hitler himself devoted great care and attention to the design and look of the Nazi flag.


“The Nazis loved culture,” notes Thompson. “They used culture. They distributed culture. Cinema, music, flags, banners, book burnings, rallies, and holidays were all deployed in a phantasmagoria of stark blood red, swastikas, and blinding white.”

Interestingly, political groups, such as the Nazis, have also been perfectly happy to co-opt the symbols of those they impugn. Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, decried so-called degenerate art — anything Modernist or made by Jews — even as he put that art on view in an extraordinarily well-attended touring exhibition titled, naturally, “Degenerate Art.”

A similar phenomenon occurred during the U.S. culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s, when Congress attacked some of the artists funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. “The NEA hubbub,” writes Thompson, “was an opportunity to condemn luridness and bask in it in equal measure.” An artist’s own work weaponized against him. (The Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts are part of a long-running conservative animosity toward the NEA.)

The look back is interesting, and in the process Thompson delivers priceless instances of cultural manipulation, such as when the American Tobacco Co. used the trappings of women’s liberation to encourage women to smoke in the late 1920s.

But far more vital are the chapters that the author devotes to the recent past and the present — to the ways in which big business and government have liberally borrowed from culture for their purposes. (These are topics he comes at from the left, with a healthy skepticism of capitalism and its habit of turning everything into sellable merch.)

Thompson examines how art and architecture have been used as an implement of urban development, via so-called starchitectural development projects and family-friendly public art installations such as “Cows on Parade.” “The commodification of bohemia,” as he calls it, has led to art being viewed as an “engine” rather than the cultural mirror of a nation. The NEA’s motto, for example, has gone from “Because a great nation deserves great art” to “Art works” — a model that “would no longer be focused on excellence based on taste,” writes Thompson, “but rather on the way that culture could make things happen.”

This, interestingly, has led to “an increasing mistrust toward the idea of culture itself.” Los Angeles certainly offers a vivid case in point: The anti-gentrification efforts in Boyle Heights have specifically targeted art galleries (though, curiously, Thompson doesn’t mention them).

“Culture as Weapon” covers myriad other topics: How the U.S. military employed cultural anthropologists during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, how staged social relationships are as intriguing to artists as they are to corporations, and how culture informs our everyday retail experiences. (The maze-like layout of Ikea is inspired, in part, by the disorienting ramps of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York.)

In taking on so much disparate material, “Culture as Weapon” can feel scattered and often delves into topics that the reader is likely already familiar with. (Do we really need another overview that covers the improbable rise of the personal computer from Steve Jobs’ garage to our back pocket?)

Instead Thompson is at his most effective when he is dissecting what it is about culture that makes it such a potent social tool.

Art, in its appeal to emotion, can override rationality, he notes. “Fear,” he writes, “motivates faster than hope” and “appeals to emotion do not rely on the truth.”

How the rational brain might counter the barrage of cultural string-pulling that we experience on a daily basis, and how the world of culture might save itself from becoming a mere tool, Thompson doesn’t say. But “Culture as Weapon” provides a compelling manual for determining how the manipulation begins.


“Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life”

by Nato Thompson

Melville House: 288 pp., $27

Sign up for our weekly Essential Arts & Culture newsletter »