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.

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Chris Alexakis