The Atlantic

How Culture Became a Powerful Political Weapon

Nato Thompson’s new book explores the history of how music, TV, games, and advertising have been used to influence consumers.
Source: Melville House

When it comes to living in a democracy, Nato Thompson argues, nothing affects us more directly and more powerfully than culture. Culture suffuses the world we live in, from TV to music to advertising to sports. And all these things, Thompson writes in his new book, Culture as Weapon, “influence our emotions, our actions, and our very understanding of ourselves as citizens.”

But comprehending how dominant culture has become also means thinking about the ways it can be, and has been, employed to manipulate consumers, by politicians, brands, and other powerful institutions. In Culture as Weapon, Thompson delves into the culture wars of the 1980s, the early origins of public relations and advertising in the early 20th century, how culture became a powerful vehicle for reinventing cities, and how brands associate themselves with causes to shape their own reputations. He looks at how artists have responded to these impulses, and how the emergence of the internet contributed to a new kind of immersion in culture, in which we’re more deeply absorbed in it than ever.

Thompson is the artistic director of the nonprofit arts organization Creative Time, which commissions and supports socially engaged works of art. He spoke to me by phone. The interview has been edited and condensed.

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