SOURCE: David Trend, Elsewhere in America
LENGTH: 400-600 words
DUE: Tuesday, March 3 11:59 pm)
WEIGHT: 10% of course grade
Pick one of the prompts below and write a formal academic essay in response. (Formal writing
means structure [introà body paragraphsà conclusion], development of argument [thesis, claims
supported by evidence, logical argument], formal English, and footnotes[1] for citation.) Also,
double-space and use proper margins. You will submit this assignment through Canvas(click on the
essay assignment).
1. Trend argues that the United States is an “unfinished project.” [2] How does he mean this
claim with respect to the United States having an aspirational culture? How does he
understand it to include the potential for outsiders to belong to American culture?
2. Trend argues that culture helps frame boundaries for including or excluding certain
subjectivities. With respect to at least two distinct groups, how does Trend suggest these
groups struggled to change their status from “not belonging” to “belonging”?
3. Trend wonders what might happen if the notion of “identity” was treated as nothing more
than “fiction.”[3] Discuss the ways in which at least one identity you claim has become
important to your sense of belonging (or lack thereof) in some aspect of your life. In what
ways is that identity a basis for you activism/engagement with the world. How is it more than
a fiction?
4. Arguments about religion and morality lie at the heart of much conflict in contemporary
society. Describe three issues profiled by Trend that have matters of faith at the core of the
[1] Footnotes should follow either the Turabian or (the nearly indistinguishable) Chicago style. For a
convenient guide to footnote citation systems, please consult either of these websites. They present
the same information but package it different ways so rely on the one you find easier to comprehend.
Alternatively, look at how Trend organizes his citations and copy what he did. A simple example
(citing a book by a single author) is fn. 7 (p.
28). (Links to
an external site.) (Links to an external
site.) OR (Links to an
external site.)
[2] David Trend, Elsewhere in America: The Crisis of Belonging in Contemporary American
Culture (Routledge, 2016), 99. [This is how a first citation of a book with one author should look.].
[3] Trend, 123. Trend follows up that speculation by sourly observing that such thinking amounts to
“utopian silliness.” This passage from Chapter 6 thus seeds his discussion of this country’s utopian
aspirationalism in Chapter 12. [This footnote models how a second citation of a previously cited
source should look. The next two sentences demonstrate the footnote’s other function, as a place to
expand upon an idea raised in the main text.]
Copyright © 2016 by Nato Thompson
First Melville House Printing: January 2017
Melville House Publishing
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Title Page
The Real Culture War
The Persuaders
The Persuaders, Part II
Fear Machines
The Real Estate Show
The Insurgents: Community-Based Practice as Military Methodology
Sounding the Trumpet: Charity and the Image of Doing Good
Corporate Sociability: IKEA, the Apple Store, Starbucks, and Other
Corporate Annexes of the Civic
The Ever-So-Personal Computer
About the Author
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
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.

There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is
a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the
Cold War itself.
Donald Trump’s extraordinary ascent in 2015 and 2016 may have
undermined much of what we understand about American politics, but it
has also reaffirmed a truth almost forgotten: as Pat Buchanan goes, so
goes the Republican Party.
When Buchanan spoke at the 1992 Republican convention, his
hyperbolic appeals to the human soul echoed a growing furor in his party.
After eight years of Reagan and four years of Bush, it was no longer
enough to define American values. It was time to look inward—to fight the
war within. Buchanan did not get the Republican nomination, but his
diagnosis (“a religious war…for the soul of America”) would have a
tremendous impact in the years to come.
But what, exactly, was that impact? For those American liberals who still
remember the culture war—and their number is decreasing—the story is a
straightforward one: the fear of change—of cultural irrelevance—was used
by Republicans to sustain an increasingly white, increasingly aging
coalition. Postmodernity had sunk its teeth into the heart of the United
States, and the salt of the earth were scrambling to get their bearings: the
parts of the United States that had frowned upon the upheaval of the
1960s could be mobilized into action. Artists would be collateral damage.
In the popular liberal lore, then, the culture war has become
synonymous with a cheap form of politics perpetuated by the American
right. But the culture wars were more than a battle between darkness and
light, between conservatism and liberalism, between the past and the
future. Something else was at work.
Everyone who works in the arts has been indoctrinated into the origin
story of the culture war. From within, it was a story of contraction and
fear. In the span of only a few years in the late 1980s and early ’90s, direct
grants to artists were eliminated, and the National Endowment for the
Arts (NEA) was forced to confront a pattern of budgets cuts that
diminished an already impoverished federal department. The arts became
a focal point for a party determined to galvanize the masses of white anger
against liberalism, democracy, and freedom of expression. The land of
Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley, of AIDS activism and socialist
leanings, of queer-friendly attitudes and bohemian lifestyles—this land
was condemned and stigmatized.
Looking back, though, it’s hard not to see a double game at work. If the
narrative of evil Republicans and victimized Democrats seems somehow
too familiar, too cozy, that’s because it is. To see the culture wars as a story
of culture—of Culture—as a victim is to miss the methods with which the
war was fought. The culture war wasn’t a war on culture—at least, not
exclusively. It was also a war that used culture.
This strategic deployment of culture was both an improvement and an
innovation; many of these methods had been developed decades earlier in
the field of public relations. Three decades later, we can see examples
across the political and social spectrum. Today, culture is a weapon
deployed by Democrats and Republicans, by the news media and by
powerful corporations, by architects and social-media developers. To an
extent that would have been difficult to fathom in the early 1990s,
competing uses of culture are no longer a sideshow; they have moved
toward the very center of American life.
This is not to suggest, of course, that there exists some glorious, logical
past in which our politics were free of irrationality, emotion, or fear. As
long as there have been politicians, business leaders, ad executives,
activists, artists, hucksters, and public-relations experts, there has been a
shared awareness that battles in public life are not fought and won purely
on the basis of logic and information. What has changed is scale.
Advertising now pervades every aspect of daily life, and public-relations
departments—once a novelty—have become critical components of every
business and nonprofit.
This is, above all, a book about that investigates the consequences of this
shift in scale. It is about the transformative change in the uses of culture by
the disparate network of people and institutions we’ll call—perhaps a bit
hyperbolically—“the powerful.”
But it is also a book about artists. Emotion, affect, manipulation—the
very tools key to the cultural shift I intend to describe are, after all, tools
artists have deployed for centuries. These tools have been captured and
coopted, and this, in turn, has had an impact on how artists work. (This is
not to say that all artists—or most artists—have stood in opposition to
power. Indeed, throughout history, many of them produced little more
than a kind of advertising campaign for the powerful—think of court
painters or sculptors who ultimately produced fetish objects for the
Which artists are most salient to this discussion of the deployment of
culture by the powerful? Whose work and life overlap with the concerns
I’m laying out in this book? I’d like to briefly suggest three imperfect
categories of artists.
First, there are the oracles: artists that conjure visions of the future
through their art. These are artists such as Andy Warhol, who could see,
with peculiar clarity, the imminent fusion of consumerism and visual
Second, there are the resisters: artists who use their art to resist the
forces of the powerful. This group could include everyone from antiwar
poster artists, to artist-activists like Abbie Hoffman (who dumped dollar
bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to demonstrate the
inherent greed of American financial capitalism), to artists who practice a
more conceptual approach, such as Adrian Piper, whose interventions in
New York urban life in the 1970s brought into relief questions of race and
Third, there are the world makers. These are artists who create, through
their art, alternative ways of living. Think of Robert Mapplethorpe, the
photographer who, in giving an active visual representation of homosexual
culture, brought a world into the public light.
This, then, is a story approached from two angles. Throughout this book,
I will hone in on groups and individuals who understand that culture is a
tool. The goal is not to counterpoise the noble artist against the cynical
advertising executive: I am more interested in the evolution and growing
complexity of cultural manipulation over the last few decades than I am in
condemning that manipulation. Still, I do not want to draw a false
equivalence. Art, even at its most public and most ambitious, doesn’t have
nearly the kind of effect that the culture industries can have. It’s also true
that the story art can tell is more contingent, more radical, and ultimately
far less beholden to power.
We will move back and forth, in historic leaps and bounds, between
artists and the groups that deploy culture to their own ends. This approach
requires explicating certain industries and histories in detail, even if some
of the protagonists—Starbucks, IKEA, the advertising executives paid to
market luxury condominiums—seem prosaic and banal. But in that
banality lies the truth of culture as it exists today: culture is a dangerous
device, culture is a twenty-first-century weapon.
We will first turn to the culture war, a historic moment when the two
parts of our story—culture as weapon, launched by the powerful, and
culture as a tool, deployed by artists—found themselves facing off in the
battlefield of politics.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign against Jimmy Carter
hadn’t required much cultural weaponry: skyrocketing oil prices, the
hostage crisis in Tehran, and the early spasms of deindustrialization were
potent symbols; they didn’t need significant elaboration.
But for reelection in 1984, Reagan made a stronger pitch. Some of the
largest advertising agencies in the country helped the campaign develop a
tone that would stand not only for the candidate, but also for his era. By
the time the advertising executive Hal Riney created “Morning in
America,” the most influential ad of the 1984 campaign, he had been in the
advertising industry for decades, including a stint in the military’s publicrelations office. “Morning in America” brought to life the nostalgic vision
for the future that would help secure Reagan’s second term.
The ad begins with images of Americans quietly at work. A fishing boat
heads out to sea in the dawn, a businessman exits his taxi, a farmer works
his fields, a paperboy delivers the papers, another businessman waves
goodbye to his family before getting in his station wagon. Homes are fixed,
families are wed. Riney himself delivers the voiceover:
It’s morning again in America. Today, more men and women will go to work than ever before
in our country’s history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000
families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This
afternoon, 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of
what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It’s
morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is
prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than
four short years ago?
The advertisement’s strength lies in its subtle shifts from the general to
the specific, its leaps between the vague past and the concrete present. In
any given sentence, we move from jobs to homes to marriage to inflation
to nostalgia, the ad’s animating spirit.
Another of the campaign’s ads—also produced by Riney—perhaps best
captures the flip side of Reagan’s “aw shucks” American optimism. Titled
“Bear,” the advertisement is an extraordinary document of American Cold
War paranoia. As a brown bear wanders through the woods, we hear the
following script:
There is a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don’t see it at all.
Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it’s vicious—and dangerous. Since no one can
really be sure who’s right, isn’t it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear.
More Zen koan than narrative, this peculiar parable—also read in Hal
Riney’s sonorous, avuncular voice—hints at the rising power of the Soviet
Union and Reagan’s capacity to wield a big stick. But it’s only that—a hint.
Or perhaps a riddle, or a campfire tale: every viewer gets to imagine her
own bear, and the campaign trail thus becomes a locus for all manner of
private fears.
Riney’s two contributions to the Reagan campaign are as apt a metaphor
as one can find for America’s turn toward nostalgia during the 1980s—a
turn that seems particularly striking when one recalls the many visible
artistic, cultural, and political movements and subcultures promoting the
opposite message during the era. (A partial list might include everything
from Run-D.M.C. to the antinuke movement to the aforementioned
Mapplethorpe, about whom more in a moment.) But this shift was more
than organic; it was, in effect, a weaponized transformation: in only a few
short years, what began with advertising would gravitate toward the center
of politics.
What Buchanan described as a culture war in his convention speech was
both about conservative politicians’ specific confrontations with left-wing
artists, and simultaneously about a larger clash of values. This war was
between a mostly white, mostly Christian community of nostalgists and a
sexually open-minded, politically progressive constituency open to cultural
change and artistic transformation. The “silent majority” Richard Nixon
had first identified in 1969 now had a mouthpiece, while the artists,
activists, and radicals who had begun their very public work in the late
1960s were ready to go further, to make their presence known.
If Hal Riney was an expert propagandist in what we might call the broader
culture war, North Carolina senator Jesse Helms was the brilliant general
tasked with ground combat in the more targeted culture war—the assault
on the artists.
On May 18, 1989, Helms offered his verdict on the artist Andres
Serrano, whose infamous photograph, Piss Christ, depicted a crucifix
submerged in his own urine. “I do not know Mr. Andres Serrano,” Helms
said from the Senate floor, “and I hope I never meet him. Because he is not
an artist, he is a jerk…Let him be a jerk on his own time and with his own
resources. Do not dishonor our Lord.”
Two months later, Helms introduced amendment 420, a controversial
bill whose purpose was “To prohibit the use of appropriated funds for the
dissemination, promotion, or production of obscene or indecent materials
or materials denigrating a particular religion.” The target was obvious: the
National Endowment of the Arts, which had supported Mapplethorpe’s
openly homosexual photography (“obscene”) and Serrano’s provocations
(“denigrating a particular religion”).
Attacking the NEA, which served the interests of the Republicans’
political rivals, was a foolproof political strategy. Ronald Reagan had first
attempted to eliminate the NEA in 1980, and by the end of the decade, the
wildness and radicalism of artists like Serrano and Mapplethrope
presented an irresistible opportunity for confrontation. In June 1989, Rev.
Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association (AFA) released a
statement condemning Serrano and his Piss Christ as blasphemous, and
politicians like Helms, Buchanan, New York senator Alfonse D’Amato, and
Texas congressman Dick Armey picked up the ball, if they hadn’t already.
Yet for most people who followed contemporary art at the time, the idea
that an artist might tussle with religion or revel in queer culture didn’t
seem especially shocking. Indeed, by the time his name received
congressional attention, Serrano had been doing this kind of work for
nearly a decade. It was edgy, but it was unlikely to freak out gallery goers;
if anything, his photographs had a professional, commercial sheen, which
would have been impossible to convey to Helms and his supporters.
Serrano grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the only child of a
Honduran father and an Afro-Caribbean mother. He dropped out of high
school, but attended art school, where he began to incorporate bodily
fluids, dead animals, and religious iconography into his work. As his
surrealist photographs began to garner significant attention, Serrano also
spent time with a growing counterculture New York art scene. By the time
Piss Christ gained Jesse Helms’s attention, Serrano was something of an
insider, and the photograph had been on view—on and off—since 1986, in
New York, and in an exhibition organized by the Southeastern Center for
Contemporary Art (whose NEA grant was the source of all the controversy
that followed).4
That Serrano was from New York and emerged from its bohemian
subcultures was far from incidental. In fact, New York was key to the
success and controversies of many of the artists implicated in the culture
war. Mapplethorpe was perhaps the paradigmatic example of an artist who
remained committed to the battles and freedoms won and fought for in the
1960s and 1970s: like Serrano, he made visible that which many hoped
would simply disappear, and New York was where this visibility could
assert itself. A photographer since the 1960s, Mapplethorpe was an
unapologetic, enthusiastic participant in the homoerotic subculture of the
New York City he was born in. For the photographer, the camera was
merely part of an overall sexual experience. “For me,” Mapplethorpe said,
“S&M means sex and magic, not sadomasochism.”5
The focus of the attack on Mapplethorpe was the traveling retrospective
Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, organized by the Philadelphia
Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) and curator Janet Kardon. Two weeks
before its opening at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.,
Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association brought its campaign
against “indecent” art to the attention of the Corcoran board. The
Corcoran canceled the show.
The fight over the Mapplethorpe retrospective was even more dramatic
than the one over Piss Christ. It took a lot of work to be more offensive
than Jesus dumped in piss, but if someone could do it, it was the naughty,
leather-bound visionary. Mapplethorpe’s iconic black-and-white
photographs explored not only homosexuality, but homosexual sexuality,
which made for a particularly vivid controversy: by attacking the NEA,
politicians could gay bash on cable television. In one self-portrait,
Mapplethorpe turns back to the camera in chaps and holds a whip that
extrudes from his ass: a perfect image to sear into the collective
unconscious of a constituency terrified by gay people and gay rights.
Naturally, there were other controversies. Also in 1989, Dread Scott
Tyler, a twenty-four-year-old artist and art student, came under fire for
What is the Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag? on view at the School of
the Art Institute of Chicago. The piece featured a photomontage of flag
burnings and flags draped over coffins. Below the image lay a blank book
for visitors to contribute their own thoughts on the subject, and below that
was an actual American flag, which one would need to stand on in order to
write in the book. To participate in the artwork, visitors had to desecrate
the flag.
The response was predictable. Veterans were outraged, and President
George Bush, Sr., called the artwork “disgraceful.” One offended art
teacher even painted a police outline of Tyler, upon which people could
walk in order to look at an American flag respectfully hung on the wall. A
1989 article from The New York Times captures the spirit of the response:
Call it performance art, Chicago-style. About 3,000 protesters, many of them veterans, flocked
to the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago on Sunday to protest an exhibit that, they charge,
desecrates the American flag. Some did it by desecrating the Soviet flag. Others carried
patriotic signs and flags as they sang and chanted. Some railed against the “satanic
communists” they held responsible for the “travesty” inside.
The show had to be temporarily cancelled—not once, but twice—and the
Chicago City Council unanimously passed an ordinance enforcing six
months in jail and a $250 fine for anyone found mutilating or defacing the
flag. And in a triumph of bipartisanship, Republican senator Bob Dole and
Democratic senator Alan Dixon cosponsored a flag desecration bill that
passed unanimously. Meanwhile, the participatory comments book in
Dread Scott’s artwork became a sort of Rorschach test for the American
mood at that time. A sampling of the messages:6
Go fuck yourself Dread Scott Tyler. You are lucky to be living in this country. See you in hell. —
Chicago Police Officer
I think it’s ridiculous that our entire country is symbolized in a flag, an idiotic piece of cloth. It’s
time people start questioning a country that says it supports freedoms of all sorts when one
can’t even step on a piece of cloth.
Dear Dread, It is a disgrace to display America like this. Who do you think you are? A small
time minority looking for attention—you asshole! If you don’t love this country leave it. FUCK
Given our familiarity with clickbait and slanderous internet comments
and the perpetual whirring of the outrage machine, we can appreciate the
drama over Serrano, Mapplethorpe, and Tyler as more of the same, only in
embryonic form. This appreciation would be entirely accurate as long as
we understand just how pervasive these techniques have since become.
The cultural battles taking place in the late 1980s seem, in retrospect, like
the ascent of something new then and ubiquitous now. Here were news
stories driven and dominated by shock and indignation—stories that could
essentially be reenacted and regurgitated by the media with little concern
for judgment or conclusions. The various battles of the culture war were
surely not the first instance of collective moral panic reinforced by the
news media, but it’s hard not to see the interchangeability of news and
outrage as a prefiguration of our cultural condition. In other words, it’s not
just angry comments, it’s a perfect fusion of culture and politics.
A year after Serrano, Mapplethorpe, and Tyler, Americans learned the
name John Frohnmayer. Frohnmayer wasn’t another controversial artist;
he was, rather, the unassuming fifth chairman of the NEA, appointed by
George H. W. Bush in 1989. Unassuming, that is, until 1990. On June 29,
Frohnmayer vetoed program grants to artists Karen Finley, John Fleck,
Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller, who subsequently became known as the
NEA Four.
Unsurprisingly, in their rejected performances, the four artists explored
sexuality and the concerns of oppressed communities (especially queer,
lesbian, and female communities). Hughes’s were called The Well of
Horniness and The Lady Dick, which should speak to the objections.
Finley, in a piece called We Keep Our Victims Ready, covered her naked
body in chocolate, “a symbol of women being treated like dirt.”7 Fleck’s
Blessed Are the Little Fishes actively explored the artist’s homosexuality
and Catholic upbringing—and featured a toilet, which couldn’t have
pleased the authorities. Miller, meanwhile, made even the language of his
grant provocative, writing that he “told Jesse Helms to keep his Porky Pig
face out of the NEA and out of my asshole.”8 Speaking to the NEA panel,
Frohnmayer put it aptly: “We are in a no-win situation folks.”9
Naturally, the veto produced a vast backlash and catapulted the artists
into the limelight. In a letter to the editor of The Washington Post, Finley
wrote, “I know that a witch-hunt of the arts does not truly represent the
wishes of the American people but merely those of a fanatic faction.
Americans want controversial artists to be funded, and the evidence is
there in a new nationwide poll. I hope American citizens of different
backgrounds will be able to continue to express themselves freely without
fear of censorship.”10
It didn’t quite work out that way.
Which isn’t to say that artists had no defenders in Congress. Certainly,
there were outliers: during an appropriations meeting in 1990, New York
representative Edolphus Towns said, “In essence, art allows us to
overcome, transcend, and be made sublime. Those who oppose art oppose
openness, and new ideas. To oppose art is to oppose the potential inherent
in each of us. To oppose art is to oppose yourself.”11 But for most
congressmen and congresswomen—especially those not from Brooklyn—
the NEA hubbub was an opportunity to condemn luridness and bask in it
in equal measure.
The Republican Party had learned that one could gain the public’s
attention by sensationalizing a behavior or an artistic practice and criticize
it at the same time. Pornography, homosexual sex, feminist liberation,
anti-Americanism—all of this was wrong and produced anxiety in a fearful
public, and yet it was hard to resist this alluring material: one could stand
back and decry it while making it the center of attention.
And if politicians and their constituents were eager to yell and gawk, the
news media was thrilled to fan the flames. In their desperate effort to stop
the spread of deviance across America, the Republicans turned to the
airwaves, the newspapers, and the magazines. Writing about sexuality in
the nineteenth century, Michel Foucault might well have been describing
the American cultural landscape circa 1990:
Rather than the uniform concern to hide sex, rather than a general prudishness of language,
what distinguishes these last three centuries is the variety, the wide dispersion of devices that
were invented for speaking about it, for having it be spoken about, for inducing it to speak of
itself, for listening, recording, transcribing, and redistributing what is said about it: around sex,
a whole network of varying, specific, and coercive transpositions into discourse. Rather than a
massive censorship, beginning with the verbal proprieties imposed by the Age of Reason, what
was involved was a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse.
It is a pattern with which we have become familiar.
People will fall over cut glass to get what you tell them they can’t have.
—BRUCE ROGOW, the lead lawyer for 2 Live Crew, 199012
The visual arts were just one front in the culture war. Just as elitist, statefunded art was supposedly corrupting our society, mainstream,
unabashedly capitalist music was supposedly hurting our children.
Fortunately, Tipper Gore was on the case.
In 1985, Gore heard her daughter listening to the Prince’s gloriously
perverse, deliciously nasty “Darling Nikki.” Prince was at the peak of his
fame, and between Purple Rain (the album) and Purple Rain (the movie),
he was inescapable. Which was why children like Gore’s eleven-year-old
daughter Karenna were listening to a song about a nymphomaniac with
the following lyrics: “I knew a girl named Nikki / I guess you could say she
was a sex fiend.”
Thus the Parents Resource Music Center (PRMC) was born. The PRMC
proposed adding warning labels on albums considered to possess adult
content and compiled a list of fifteen songs they felt epitomized their
concerns, widely known as the Filthy Fifteen. Not unlike the circus that
erupted during the Mapplethorpe scandal, the PRMC’s proposals provoked
a national uproar. A Senate hearing was held, and a diverse group of
musicians went to Congress to pay tribute to freedom of expression.
Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, folk musician John Denver, and art rock
superstar Frank Zappa all made rather ham-fisted declarations about
democracy in a protoreality television spectacle that relied on celebrity for
its appeal.
The PRMC’s Susan Baker (wife of the secretary of the treasury) argued:
“There certainly are many causes for these ills in our society, but it is our
contention that the pervasive messages aimed at children which promote
and glorify suicide, rape, sadomasochism, and so on, have to be numbered
among the contributing factors.” Here, again, was an expression of anxiety
about American values—about the unfamiliar world the United States’
children were encountering.
But most of all, the entire confrontation made for great television. How
could any TV viewer resist tuning in as Snyder explained to Gore that, yes,
while his band’s fan club was called “Sick Mother Fucking Fans of Twisted
Sister,” he was nonetheless a good Christian?
For its part, the PRMC succeeded in instituting its warning labels,
which, as one might guess, only helped sales. And a couple of years later,
Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association took a page from the
PRMC playbook and turned their attention from audio to textual
obscenity. Setting their sights on 2 Live Crew, Miami’s most outrageous
booty bass ensemble, the AFA decided that warning labels were not
enough where songs like “Me So Horny” were concerned.
The lyrics to “Me So Horny” were raw and dirty. (“I know he’ll be
disgusted when he sees your pussy busted / Won’t your mama be so mad if
she knew I got that ass?” is just a modest sample.) They objectified women
and they offended common decency. But so, too, did a lot of music. Like
the NEA scandal, the war between the AFA and 2 Live Crew was ultimately
less about specific lyrics than about a media spectacle that combined
vulgarity and condemnation. In June 1989, U.S. District Court judge Jose
Gonzales declared 2 Live Crew’s album obscene. Not long after, a record
store owner found himself on television, in handcuffs, for selling the illicit
album to an undercover agent. And after that, Luther Campbell and 2 Live
Crew were arrested for performing their album in concert. For everyone
but the people directly implicated, it was a win-win: you could enjoy the
scolding and the object of that scolding all at once.
Patrick Buchanan failed to win the Republican nomination in 1992, and
that same year, George H. W. Bush asked Frohnmayer to resign, a week
after Buchanan accused the Bush administration of “subsidizing both
filthy and blasphemous art.” The fight over subsidized art and censorship
would recede from its intense highs, but even as one culture war was
coming to a close, the other, larger culture war was gaining strength.
Wasn’t Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow”—Bill
Clinton’s campaign song—not much more than an ideologically and
aesthetically palatable version of “Morning in America”? Indeed, the
Clinton campaign deployed culture far more aggressively than any
previous politician: here, after all, was the Democratic nominee on MTV
and on Arsenio Hall, playing the saxophone while angling for the youth
Culture was no longer the enemy. It was the weapon.
As we’ve seen, the culture war was influential in part because its lessons
are more ambiguous than they first appear. What took place in the late
1980s and early ’90s wasn’t merely a war between two cultures, but a
broader realignment. A number of forces were learning to utilize the power
of culture to push forward their own agendas, and their successes would be
grander and more pronounced than before.
During the culture war, artists were certainly victimized—as were some
of the institutions that supported them. (In the NEA’s case, the damage
was especially severe.). Yet at least for a time, some of those same artists
also attained a fame wildly incommensurate with what they might have
dreamt of at the beginning of their careers. One could argue that their
fame—that onslaught of visibility—was itself a kind of turning point. Visual
artists had successfully leveraged the media in the past, of course (think of
Salvador Dali appearing on late-night television), but in its scale and
saturation, this media attention was something new.
To put it simply, the more culture we take in, the more we as consumers
become aware and accustomed to it. Generations have now grown up
under a historically unique level of cultural bombardment. A few numbers
can make the point. In 1950, 9 percent of American homes had televisions;
by 1959, that number had grown to 85.9 percent; and by 1978, it was at 98
My emphasis on scale and saturation suggests that this cultural turn
wasn’t bound to a particular ideology or to a rigidly defined set of heroes
and villains. Or, for that matter, to a fixed understanding of intention and
causality. A media executive, politician, or a cultural figure’s culpability for
a specific form of cultural manipulation—or a media executive’s
passionate belief in his or her goals—is less relevant than the effect of that
manipulation. Culture is a vast dynamic imposing itself on everything from
politics to media to advertising to warfare.
This dynamic didn’t emerge from nowhere: its techniques have been
gradually distributed. In the next chapter, we will encounter some of this
story’s progenitors, including Bill Ivey, Edward Bernays, Leo Burnett, and
David Ogilvy. It is hard to believe that in the early twentieth century,
businesses did not rely on marketing departments, and politics hadn’t yet
turned into a battle between rival pollsters, focus-group organizers, and
brand strategists.
These techniques understand and utilize emotion, violence, outrage, and
fear. Those people and organizations who use culture toward their own
ends know that the rational is no match for the affective. And we are thus
quite vulnerable to the tools deployed by the most powerful forces in
John D. Rockefeller felt misunderstood as he looked over the newspapers
spread out on his desk. The headlines read as a coordinated assault on his
very personhood: he had become a monster, seemingly overnight. Only
recently, he had been the savior of the American economy; now he was the
villainous enemy of the American dream. His father had endured his own
share of problems at Standard Oil, but now in the twentieth century, a new
company had new enemies. Namely, the media, which had, with the
proliferation of magazines and newspapers, become much more
The year was 1914, and a dozen people had died in an attack on striking
coal miners in Ludlow, Colorado. The media had eaten it up—they were
calling it the Ludlow Massacre—but Rockefeller knew it wasn’t his fault.
The papers didn’t understand that economic growth always had negative
consequences: it was a statistical fact that people died unnecessarily, and
there was nothing he could do.
Rockefeller needed a new story—a more truthful story: one with
different protagonists and different villains. As he saw it, the fault for the
deaths lay with the overzealous miners’ unions, who had exacerbated the
situation. The unions were trying to stoke the public’s sympathy to
misrepresent what had clearly been an accident—an accident for which
they had lain the groundwork.
Rockefeller called Ivy Lee, a young employee of the Pennsylvania
Railroad, who was working in the then-emerging field of public relations.
Lee advised a strategy that impressed the billionaire. “This is the first
advice I have had that does not involve deviousness of one kind or one
another,” Rockefeller told Lee. “The obviousness of the course you suggest
does appeal.”14
What Lee advised was a strategy of transparency. Rather than paying off
reporters or posting full-page advertisements that amounted to little more
than propaganda, Lee wanted the facts to win the day. Let the coal-mine
operators and the National Guard tell their stories. Show that your
eagerness to get the truth out to the public exceeds that of the reporters on
the story, who, after all, may have an agenda. Let the Colorado Fuel and
Iron Company win back the hearts of the American public.
And so began Ivy Lee’s first great public-relations campaign. Lee
released bulletins to shapers of public opinion, including the press, which
produced a deluge of facts on the situation in Colorado. His facts, his
information. He denied the strike’s legitimacy and placed the blame for the
lack of law and order squarely on the shoulders of the strike leaders
themselves. He demonstrated Rockefeller’s limited role in the company,
while also showing how much coal mining contributed to the American
economy. He demonstrated a mutual interest in fair wages, thus taking the
wind out of the strikers’ sails. And he made the press realize that
Rockefeller had nothing to hide.
Upton Sinclair would later refer to Lee as “Poison Ivy,” and historian
Howard Zinn would describe the Ludlow Massacre as “the culminating act
of perhaps the most violent struggle between corporate power and
laboring men in American history.”15 But these descriptions hardly
undercut the significance of Lee’s accomplishments. Lee understood,
before many others, that transparency was complicated—that objectivity
was, in itself, just another perspective. So when he advised Rockefeller to
tell the truth, he knew that truth wasn’t a fixed quantity.
Public opinion, publicity, and public relations all came to prominence
toward the end of the nineteenth century, and from there, they only grew
in importance. The increased deployment of these industries suggests that
over time, power has increasingly come to understand and utilize the tools
of culture to sell, manipulate, and excite.
Essential to the rise of techniques designed to cajole, provoke, placate,
and outrage is a shared understanding of human fallibility. Every
successful PR executive and every advertiser has understood that people
can be reduced to their emotions, which can then be manipulated. Though
the following two chapters will discuss the increased professionalization
and sophistication of public relations and advertising, their true subject is
the emergence of a set of skills that takes for granted people’s fundamental
And through the story of that emergence, we’ll better understand the
ways in which culture is deployed today. The innovations of Ivy Lee will
help us grasp the innovations of Karl Rove. The techniques of George
Gallup and his focus group will shed light on the interior design that
makes the Apple Store so distinctive—and seductive. I hope, too, that a
richer understanding of these connections will help us recognize, with
greater specificity, the way power operates.
War often provides a major catalyst for innovations in techniques of
cultural manipulation, and World War I was no exception.
President Woodrow Wilson had come into office on a platform of
nonintervention, but by April 1917, he had declared war on Germany. He
understood that in this moment of historic national divisions, he would
have to rally the troops and civilians in support of the war effort. The
Committee on Public Information (CPI) was the answer.
George Creel was chosen to head up the agency. An investigative
journalist who had emerged from difficult circumstances in Missouri,
Creel understood how propaganda could be used to mobilize public
opinion. “People do not live by bread alone,” he said. “They live mostly by
catch phrases.”16 The zeal and energy with which Creel undertook his
effort to build support for the war effort proved the truth of his remark.
As usual with propaganda, there was a stick along with the carrot: the
Espionage Act, passed in 1917. “Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and
anarchy must be crushed out,” Wilson said in 1915. “They are not many,
but they are infinitely malignant, and the hand of our power should close
over them at once. They have formed plots to destroy property, they have
entered into conspiracies against the neutrality of the Government.”17
Here we see a strategic use of propaganda to redefine the heroes and
villains, enacted by Lee previously, being used at a federal level. Over the
following years, the CPI and the Espionage Act galvanized national
enthusiasm for the war—and suspicion of all its detractors. Though the
CPI is long gone—dispersed into more numerous and more sophisticated
institutions—the Espionage Act has remained a formidable law for a
century, targeting everyone from Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to Daniel
Ellsberg to Chelsea Manning.
Creel’s greatest success might not have been any individual aspect of the
CPI’s propaganda, but his skill at avoiding the term entirely. “We did not
call it propaganda,” he said, “for that word, in German hands, had come to
be associated with deceit and corruption.”18 His job, he insisted, was
simply communications.
Still, there were many triumphs—think of J. M. Flagg’s poster of Uncle
Sam pointing a finger and saying, “I Want You for U.S. Army,” or Creel’s
spectacular deployment of the “four-minute men.” These nearly 75,000
volunteers demonstrated their oratorical skills and personal passion for
the war effort at social events, public gatherings, and in small groups of
friends. Why “four-minute” men? At the time, public-opinion experts
believed that the average person had an attention span of four minutes.
(Today’s advertisers surely couldn’t imagine what they would do with four
whole minutes of people’s time.)
Creel’s efforts had their detractors, of course. Walter Lippmann, the
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and New Republic founder, viewed Creel
as both incompetent and arrogant. Censorship, Lippmann wrote, “should
never be entrusted to anyone who is not himself tolerant, not to anyone
who is unacquainted with the long record of folly which is the history of
What Lippmann saw in Creel’s efforts echoed his broader concerns
about democracy. Like the master propagandist himself, Lippmann
believed that the public operated predominantly through what he called
“pictures in their heads” and cared little for the actual facts of any
particular issue. Consequently, he distrusted power that was concentrated
too strongly in one place, believing that power of this kind could
manipulate a broad public. The people were too easily misled and the
powerful too easily corrupted.
Lippmann’s answer to this paradox of democracy laid in the field of
journalism itself. Journalism, he felt, should not only communicate the
facts, but act as a mediator between an easily befuddled public and an
easily corruptible government. In 1922, Lippmann published Public
Opinion, which offered great insights into the emerging fields of
advertising, marketing, and public relations. It also offered—perhaps
implicitly—a stark rejection of a fundamental element of democracy: that a
voting population could be objective. As Stuart Ewen writes of the period
in PR! A Social History of Spin, “In the citadels of the Enlightened West, a
naïve faith in reason was beginning to fade from view. Publicists were
beginning to look for unconscious or instinctive triggers that might be
pulled to activate public passions.”20 How, then, could people vote when
they clearly didn’t know what was really in their interest?
A focus on wartime propaganda can’t ignore the exponentially larger,
exponentially more horrific reality of the war itself. World War I was
unprecedented in its destruction, and such a human tragedy was bound to
have tremendous cultural consequences, especially when counterpoised by
the onslaught of prowar iconography and rhetoric that blanketed every
participating nation.
The efforts of Creel and the CPI were echoed by— among others—the
propaganda machine in Germany, which tapped into the mythology of
Nordic traditions through depictions of dragons, Valkyries, and Wagnerian
epoch imagery; the goal, as the propagandists saw it, was to summon
latent cultural mythologies in support of present-tense warfare. World
War I thus marked the moment when Europe first confronted the
overwhelming power of nation-based propaganda.
Against this backdrop of government-sponsored, prowar art, Dada came
into being. Dada emerged in 1916 out of a radical nightclub called Cabaret
Voltaire. Named after the French philosopher who implored his
countrymen to cultivate their own garden as an exercise in self-liberation,
the Cabaret Voltaire was an exercise in creative, collective cultural
exploration. Poetry readings, sing-alongs, paintings, and plays all
coexisted in a smoky, drunken haze occupied by artists and political
refugees. Formed by Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, and—soon thereafter—
Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Tristan Tzara, Sophie Taeuber-Arp,
and Jean Arp, the nightclub quickly grew into an artistic enclave that
captured a growing disillusionment.
Drawn together in despair, hostility, and a desire for creative freedom,
these artists were mortified by the war’s destruction, brutality, and utter
stupidity. They were disgusted with the war machine, but just as much,
they found themselves abandoning the idea of a rational society altogether.
If this war were the natural outcome of modernity, they wanted nothing to
do with any of it. As Ball wrote in his Dada Manifesto of 1916, “I don’t want
words that other people have invented. All the words are other people’s
inventions. I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and vowels and
consonants too, matching the rhythm and all my own.”
If Walter Lippmann wanted journalists to interpret the facts for people,
Dada wanted people to accept nothing at all from above. Propaganda had
to be battled, and because images were being used to conscript, to enlist,
and to garner support, they had to be resisted. Thus the name: Dada. The
word sounds infantile, antilingual—a baby’s first blubbering words. But
better to traffic in non-sense than a corrupted kind of sense. The Dadaists
wanted their own language—one that wasn’t implicated in blood and
Their movement soon spread throughout Europe and across the Atlantic
to New York; it seemed that the notion that official images should be
resisted at all costs held a growing appeal. Dada showed that disgust was
an attractive option in the face of a common political enemy. Take the
artist George Grosz, a World War I veteran whose visceral sense of the
war’s absurdity led him to form the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity)
movement with Max Beckmann and Otto Dix. These artists opposed the
cascade of materialism and nationalism that defined the Weimar Republic.
In his drawing of Berlin’s most famous commercial street,
Friedrichstraße, Grosz depicts the denizens of the city under a looming
mass of what can only be described as corporate logos. This piece was
something new: a recognition that propaganda hadn’t ended along with
the war effort, but that it had blossomed into something more diffuse and
more insidious. Like Lippmann, Grosz understood that even in peacetime,
images of power were shaping the minds and emotions of the people. This
insight was a remarkable prescience, and we should keep it in mind as we
explore a twentieth century defined by just this kind of cultural barrage.
A few years later, in 1929, New York’s Easter Sunday parade played host to
a spectacular display, revealing and lurid (by the period’s standards), and
in many ways the tonal opposite of Grosz’s dark, urban vision. In the
middle of the parade was a group of women, proudly lighting up Lucky
Strike cigarettes in direct defiance of the public taboo on women smoking
in public.
The event was widely reported in the press as an actual protest. “Group
of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of ‘Freedom,’ ” read The New York
Times headline,21 and according to the United Press, “Miss Bertha Hunt
and six colleagues [had] struck another blow in behalf of the liberty of
women.”22 The event captured the imagination as it redefined gender and
smoking all in one go. No one suspected that these reactions had been
entirely orchestrated.
Yet a crucial aspect of the performance went unreported: publicrelations guru Edward L. Bernays staged the whole thing. Bernays had
paid each of the women for their participation on behalf of his client,
American Tobacco Company. This classic stunt—neither Bernays’s first
nor his last—helped define the field of public relations over the following
Born in Vienna in 1891, Bernays was boastful, obsessively competitive,
and terrifyingly resourceful. (That his aunt was Martha Bernays, Sigmund
Freud’s wife, is a suggestive piece of family history.) He understood that
public relations was about more than clever catchphrases or
advertisements—it was, above all, the production of reality. But unlike Ivy
Lee, he saw PR as a kind of magic rather than a version of journalism.
Bernays understood that PR could produce a mood and a spirit—that facts
were necessarily secondary to emotion.
Bernays had been involved—peripherally—with the CPI’s efforts, but
through his work for American Tobacco he emerged as an innovative force.
He knew that existing attitudes were important to his work: he wrote that
“institutions which modify public opinion carry on against a background
which is also in itself a controlling factor.”23 And so he honed in on that
As Bernays saw it, the two issues central to women in the 1920s were
body image and freedom. What became known as the Torches of Freedom
campaign took care of the latter, and to tackle the former, he came up with
a new method: he paid health experts to testify to cigarettes’ effectiveness
as an appetite suppressor. This testimony seems overheated now—Bernays
convinced Arthur Murray, a dancing school owner, to testify that,
“Dancers today, when tempted to overindulge at the punch bowl or the
buffet, reach for a cigarette instead”—but it was strikingly successful.24
“If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious
cooperation,” Bernays wrote, “you automatically influence the group which
they sway.”25 The effect of third-party testimony remains so powerful that
it’s hard to think of an aspect of contemporary life that hasn’t to some
extent been affected by the method. Indeed, the leap from cigarettes as
weight loss device to climate scientists’ well-subsidized skepticism toward
climate change is not all that dramatic.
The smoking campaign was one of hundreds. And the clients weren’t all
corporate: in an attempt to transform President Calvin Coolidge into a
warmer, more personable politician, Bernays orchestrated a pancake
breakfast attended by celebrities, captured by the news media. Here was
the president as human being, and here, too, was the first great modern
political publicity stunt. No politician who has visited a state fair in Iowa
or a diner in New Hampshire is wholly free from Bernays’s influence.
Bernays’s client list ranged from Proctor and Gamble to the NAACP to
the Aluminum Company of America. And like any consultant, he adapted
and refined his skills according to his clients’ needs. As the twentieth
century progressed, his approach would become a lingua franca. No
matter the ideology at work, public relations became inescapable.
Bernays’s methods are key to the strategies we’ll encounter throughout
this book.
If Bernays and Lippmann were the early masters of manufacturing
consent, George Gallup was the first to take the collective temperature.
Born to a family of dairy farmers in 1901, Gallup studied journalism at the
University of Iowa. As the editor of the school newspaper, the Daily
Iowan, he promoted an unshaking faith in the democratic project. “Don’t
be afraid to be radical,” he wrote “We need atheists, free-lovers, anarchists,
free traders, communists, single taxers, internationalists, royalists,
socialists, anti-Christians…Doubt everything. Question everything.”26 His
belief in democracy went hand in hand with his early interest in polling,
which initially manifested itself in an unconventional way: the story goes
that Gallup created a newspaper poll that sought to determine the prettiest
girl on campus; his future wife, Ophelia Miller, won the contest, and they
were married in 1925.
As a junior in college, Gallup took a summer job with D’Arcy Advertising
Co. in St. Louis, which would go on to produce the Santa Claus icon for
Coca-Cola and Budweiser’s famous catchphrase “This Bud’s for You.”
D’Arcy was surveying the public to find out what news articles they read,
and Gallup thought the results were unconvincing: “I found that a high
percentage of respondents claimed that they always read the editorials, the
national and international news. Few admitted reading the gossip columns
and other features of low prestige.”27
This insight shaped his academic interests, and in place of a Ph.D.
thesis, he submitted a new polling method. Titled “An Objective Method
for Determining Reader Interest in the Content of a Newspaper,” the
survey sought to determine, with greater accuracy, what readers were
actually paying attention to. Gallup worked with the local paper, the Iowa
Register, and discovered that the Register’s heady international-affairs
headlines weren’t making an impression on readers: the language was too
fluffy, and it didn’t move quickly enough. But while “the most important
articles published in the newspapers attracted far fewer readers than
shown by the typical questionnaire procedure,” Gallup wrote, “the comic
strips, the love advice features and the like had considerably more
In 1932, Gallup was recruited by the advertising powerhouse Young and
Rubicam to head up their emerging research division. At Young and
Rubicam, he studied the effectiveness of print-media advertising and
oversaw the first-ever research into the impact of radio. But more
crucially, that same year, he began his work on election results. He started
with his mother-in-law Ola Babcock Miller’s political campaign, and when
she won—becoming the state’s first female secretary of state—Gallup’s
scientific poll was widely hailed as the first to predict an election.
Bolstered by his success, Gallup went on to found the American Institute
of Public Opinion in 1935, and in 1936, he correctly predicted President
Roosevelt’s win over Republican contender Alf Landon. Gallup was
catapulted into the limelight: if he could predict elections, what else could
he do? How might these public-opinion-monitoring tools apply to a
growing set of industries interested in tailoring their message and
products to an equally growing audience?
In the years to come, Gallup would move seamlessly between politics,
advertising, journalism, and entertainment, as public relations and polling
matured into tools that could, perhaps, shed light on the way power in
American life was wielded and manifested itself. Meanwhile, industries
across the American landscape showed an increasing interest in—
depending on one’s degree of sympathy—either cultural manipulation or
the tailoring of their products to specific audiences.
If the early twentieth century gave birth to public relations and the
insti t ut​i onali z​ati on of pol l ing, the fi eld of advert ising took these ski l ls as
essential in its meteoric rise.
The consumer society had emerged: clothes that fit off the rack were
suddenly available, automobiles were conquering city streets, and
Americans were learning to live on more than just the essentials. As
consumption became an increasing priority, differentiation and perception
of new and existing products was often more important than product
development itself. By the 1920s, advertising agencies like J. Walter
Thompson (clients: Proctor and Gamble, General Electric) and BBDO
(Dunlop, General Motors) had become essential parts of corporate life;
without their services, companies could not expect to launch successful
products. According to Mansel Blackford and K. Austin Kerr in their book,
Business Enterprise in American History, “In 1919 advertising costs were
8 percent of total distribution costs in industry; by 1929, the share was 14
percent. In that latter year, advertising costs reached nearly $3 billion.”29
The J. Walter Thompson agency’s Stanley Resor and his revolutionary
copywriter—and eventual wife—Helen Lansdowne were two of the most
influential figures in the advertising revolution. Lansdowne, the first
woman to occupy an upper-level position in an ad agency, would have a
tremendous influence on a mode that was usually geared toward the
woman consumer. “In advertising these products,” wrote Lansdowne, “I
supplied the feminine point of view.”30 For example, she notably
introduced sexual themes into advertising campaigns, such as an ad for
soap that read, “A Skin You Love to Touch.” Resor, meanwhile, applied his
interest in statistics and psychology to a field that, until recently, had been
defined more by intuition than analytical rigor. He believed fervently in
the science of advertising. With that conviction, he hired economists and
psychologists, and like Bernays, Resor widely used third-party
testimonials, hiring society doyennes and celebrities to vouch for beauty
products. Resor and Lansdowne made J. Walter Thompson that largest ad
company of the period.
The venues for advertising were also growing in scale and reach. In
1923, the twenty-five-year-old Henry Robinson Luce and his roommate
Briton Hadden started Time, the nation’s first weekly magazine. With its
enormous growth came the potential for advertisers to reach the entire
country at once. As Stephen Fox writes in Mirror Makers, his remarkable
book on the history of advertising, “Advertising would never again have it
so plush: the public so uncritically accepting, the economy so robust, the
government so approving; the trade at its zenith, high tide and green
New physical spaces for advertising appeared as well. Department and
chain stores like Sears, Roebuck, Woolworths, and Walgreen Drug were
key to the emergence of consumer culture, and they offered—in addition to
a previously unimaginable supply of consumer goods—advertisements in
three-dimensional space. Interior designs and window displays became an
object of collective fascination, as stores invested greater effort and energy
into luring customers inside.
The early days of the consumer culture marked an unprecedented fusion
of aesthetics and industry, and naturally, the arts were not impervious to
the influences of advertising—and vice versa. The prevailing art
movements of the time reveled in wealth, glitz, and glamour. Art Deco,
which had been the rage in France before washing up on American shores,
borrowed from every artistic style and blended them all with a certain
consumerist glee. Here were the angular outbursts of cubism, the speeddriven boldness of futurism, and even the mystical exoticism provoked by
the numerous archeological discoveries then under way around the world.
Unlike Deco, the art-in-industry movement had a narrower set of
influences: particularly, the British Arts and Crafts movement. (William
Morris, the fervent anticapitalist designer who favored small shops and
guilds, would have been shocked and horrified by the appropriation.) Also
unlike Deco, art-in-industry was less an artistic movement than a
philosophy of retailing: store designers on the cutting edge were deploying
high design toward utilitarian ends. In that sense, it was the ultimate
symbol of a trend that had become undeniable: a fusion of culture and
marketing that used the terms and language of the former to produce the
results sought by the latter.
Radio was different. Radio really was radical—a new technology that
quickly transformed not only the way Americans encountered all kinds of
culture, but also increased the scale on which that culture could be used to
disseminate commercial messages.
Radio was the next great mass medium after newspapers, and indeed, it
may have really been the first—the number of people reached by radio far
exceeded the circulation figures of even the most successful newspapers of
the time: by 1933, two-thirds of American households would own at least
one radio.31
Like the public-relations industry, the radio emerged as a force during
World War I, and it exploded in the following years. Radio gave birth to an
extraordinary diversity of capitalist cultural forms to come: everything
from programming sponsorships to soap operas, not to mention major
communications networks, like ABC and CBS. Even during the Great
Depression, with millions in poverty, most Americans felt compelled to
own a radio. They had to: not to own a radio was to be detached from what
was happening everywhere. The ears of a nation became synchronized and
Recorded music, too, was in an age of unprecedented ascendance. In the
1890s, records were predominantly consumed in “phonograph parlors”:
these public areas were far more accessible than expensive concert halls,
and were—definitionally—more for average Joes than for connoisseurs.
Sheet music remained wildly popular until the 1920s, at which point the
sales of records began to skyrocket. Four million records were sold in
1900; nine years later, that number was thirty million; and by 1920, the
number had jumped again, dramatically, to 100 million records a year.
The extraordinary growth of radio only amplified this effect, and the
combined scale of radio and the record industry meant that there was now
a national audience for art that might, in the past, have remained small
and regional. Jazz was the paradigmatic example of an art that flourished
in the radio age.
Jazz emerged out of a combination of African rhythms, Afro-Cuban
music, and the classically trained music of ragtime composer Scott Joplin.
It was the sound of America’s most brutalized and impoverished class, it
spoke a language of resistance and freedom, it embodied a generational
break (kids loved it, parents hated it), and it marked a critical divide: most
music experts argued that jazz embodied the culture industry’s unbearable
depravity, and yet because of its means of distribution, through radio and
the record industry, it became more than another genre—it was a genuine
craze, unprecedented in the enthusiasm it provoked. Jazz created new
dances and fashions, and it had an impact on family norms: the age of
family sing-alongs and traditional formal dances was, for all intents and
purposes, over.
Jazz revealed a paradox: in the age of mass communication a cultural
force could be both wildly disruptive and wildly successful. And—at least
for the moment—that cultural force could be critical and interrogative; it
could celebrate independence. Culture was powerful, in other words, but it
didn’t seem to be in the hands of the powerful themselves. Or at any rate,
not yet.
The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of
the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological
form that will arrest the attention and appeal to the hearts of the national masses. The
broad masses of the people are not made up of diplomats or professors of public
jurisprudence nor simply of persons who are able to form reasoned judgment in given
cases, but a vacillating crowd of human children who are constantly wavering between
one idea and another.
If these words sound very similar to the inklings of George Creel and
Walter Lippmann, it is because the idea was en vogue (and perhaps even
true). Manipulation of the unthinking masses had become a given for any
rising-star politician, and Hitler manipulated by any means necessary. For
him, and the rest of Germany, the sting of the loss of World War I was a
powerful motivating force. Hitler wanted to correct mistakes, including
changing the methodology of the propaganda campaigns. While the Nazi
party took time to develop a popular platform, from the beginning Hitler’s
political thinking rested heavily on a long list of enemies. They were
everywhere: bolsheviks, gays, artists, and Jews remained the threat from
within, and the forces that had fought them in World War I were the threat
from outside. And they became the target of the Reich’s propaganda.
Not unlike the fervent homophobia of Jesse Helms, the anti-Semitism of
Adolph Hitler sprung from a deeply held belief. By the end of World War I,
Hitler, like many Germans in the postwar trauma, held a deep conviction
that Jews were responsible for backstabbing the German people.
Irrational, yes, but extant nevertheless.
To call Hitler obsessively anti-Semitic is so obvious that historically
Hitler has become synonymous with anti-Semitism. But as we can see in
the story so far, many of the toolsets from which Hitler culled were already
in the air (and continue to be so). Rather than an aberration, Hitler’s rise
to power came as a catalytic crescendo of the forces of culture as they
combined the growing techniques of public relations and advertising with
the burgeoning technology of cultural distribution. Mix all that with
Hitler’s rabid racism and one gets a historically unprecedented powder
keg. The Aryan nation rolled through Deutschland like a precapitalist rock
Even though Hitler was rejected by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in
1907 and again in 1908, he always possessed a deep belief in design,
aesthetic, and poetics. His sensibility was innately operatic. He excelled in
excess in everything, not only in rhetorical flourishes. His sense of
aesthetics would become a signature feature of the Nazi party. After World
War I, in 1919, he joined the German Workers Party (which would become
the National Socialist German Workers Party [NSDAP], which would
become the Nazi Party). Drawn particularly to their anticommunist,
anticapitalist, nationalist ideology, Hitler soon redesigned their flag with
the black swastika in a white circle on a blood-red background. Hitler
writes in Mein Kampf: “The question of the new flag—that is, its
appearance—occupied us intensely in those days. From all sides came
suggestions…the new flag had to be equally a symbol of our own struggle,
since on the other hand it was expected also to be highly effective as a
poster…an effective insignia can in hundreds of thousands of cases give the
first impetus towards interest in a movement.” The swastika had already
been in great circulation during the period, and Hitler was determined that
his party have a flag more red, brilliant, and striking than their communist
competitors. Hitler found himself in not only a political struggle, but also
an aesthetic one. And he was determined to win.
The virulently anti-Semitic sycophant Joseph Goebbels famously and
adeptly abetted Hitler in mobilizing propaganda. Rising up in the ranks to
become head of Hitler’s Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and
Propaganda, Goebbels fancied himself a writer, philosopher, and public
speaker. With a degree in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg, he
eagerly penned speeches that detailed his philosophy on the great Aryan
race, the rising tide of bolshevism coming out of Russia and at home, and
the list of wrongs perpetuated by the Jews. Like Hitler, Goebbels was an
orator and practiced his speeches in front of the mirror. Inflammatory
speeches were a major part of his propaganda arsenal, and his most
trusted companion was the same one as that of jazz: the radio.
Radio brought Nazi words into the living rooms of Germans. A
movement that was simultaneously anti-intellectual yet deeply committed
to public speaking, the Nazi party desired most of all an intimate
connection with the human ear. During the Depression, when all seemed
lost, the stirring words of Hitler and Goebbels would come on and send a
bolt of electricity through the listener. As the economy lagged, German
radio began to act as a vehicle by which one could locate enemies and
salvation. “We live in the age of the masses; the masses rightly demand
that they participate in the great events of the day. The radio is the most
influential and important intermediary between a spiritual movement and
the nation, between the idea and the people.”32 So wrote Goebbels.
While radio might have been Goebbels favorite technology, he possessed
numerous forms for galvanizing support for the Nazi party. The Nazis
never lacked a P. T. Barnum sense of showmanship. Starting in 1923, the
NSDAP held massive stadium rallies with speeches, banners, and
Wagnerian music. They held their first mega-rally in Munich, but they
moved the second rally in 1927 to Nuremberg. It was a calculated move
made with a sense of site specificity. Nuremberg became the home to the
rallies as the medieval backdrop of the town itself provided the proper
atmosphere for catalyzing a massive onslaught of nationalist hysteria.
History spoke through the rubbled ground, through the distinct Bavarian
architecture and the wooded hills. These massive events acted as an
incantation of the spirit the likes of which the arts could never achieve,
because even by the early twentieth century, they had all developed that
un-German, and frankly unworldly, trait of skepticism. But for the Nazi
youth, and there were many, these rallies proved primarily cathartic. The
romantic capacity to not think critically was perhaps at an all-time high
and even more so in a country that had been beaten down by war and was
at the same time flooded with the new mechanisms of mass culture and
advertising. It hit them in the face.
The rallies were deeply choreographed affairs chalk full of impassioned
nationalist speeches and occult-like rituals for the growing Aryan nation.
At the end of each rally, a ceremony called the “consecration of the colors”
took place, whereby the new Nazi flags would touch the supposedly
bloodstained flag of those killed in Hitler’s failed military coup, the Beer
Hall Putsch, of 1923.
In a bureaucratic demonstration of ambition, the scale and pageantry
inevitably grew exponentially. An Aryan nation–style rock opera on par
with Woodstock, the Olympics, and an Iron Maiden concert, the rallies
gradually became an integral part of the Nazi propaganda machine. With
Nuremberg becoming the ongoing site for the rallies, the architect of the
party, Albert Speer, was commissioned to design the grounds. At the
height of Nazi fever, Speer came up with the idea of utilizing the
antiaircraft searchlights and producing what he called the “cathedral of
light.” These lights—all 130 of them—were shot directly up into the night
sky, producing a spectacle that could be seen from miles around. More
than theater, Speer had created a totalizing phantasmagoria. To say it was
an art piece would undermine what it truly was: Speer created a spell.
These rallies were captured in film most famously by Nazi-propagandist
filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, particularly in her epic Triumph of the Will
(1935). Considered to be the greatest propaganda film of all time, it
documented the 1935 Nuremberg rally which featured 700,000 attendees.
She utilized numerous innovative cinematic features, including aerial
shots and shots taken with the camera moving. Before anything Nazirelated would be equated with evil and Refinstall with it, she received the
gold medal in Venice for the film.
By 1933, as Goebells ascended to the head of propaganda and Hitler to
chancellor, the entire spectrum of cultural apparatus became centralized
in the government. The film industry, in particular, became nationalized as
Goebbels was intent on consolidating and deploying this powerful tool of
the moving image. It is estimated that 45 million German people watched
these government-produced features.33
Ever the shunned artist, Hitler would exact his revenge in the
production of the Great German Art Exhibition. Intended to highlight the
kind of art that fit with the approval of the Nazi regime, the jury was
initially organized by Goebbels. As art was a subject dear to Hitler’s heart,
it should be no surprise that when he saw what the jury selected, he had
them all fired and started, again, from scratch with his own jurist,
photographer Heinrich Hoffmann.
The slight to Goebbels only made the propaganda minister all the more
creative. In a move that prefigures Jesse Helms, Goebbels concocted the
basis for a simultaneous art show titled the Degenerate Art exhibition. It
would feature German art that presented the degenerate spirit and the
seeds of culture that were rotting the country from the inside out. It is hard
to imagine Helms concocting such a thing, but at the same time, one can’t
help but think that Helms had curated these shows in his mind. The
Degenerate Art exhibition featured 650 works of art, including those by
German Dadaist Georg Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and
Marc Chagall. The show drew massive crowds of nearly 20,000 people a
day. Lacking in all irony, the Nazi party also considered it a success.
The Nazis loved culture. 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. While certainly all this is known (anti-Semitism,
propaganda, and Nazis are often synonymous in the post–World War II
era), it is productive to view it in light of the mid-twentieth century’s
rapidly expanding culture industry. These phenomena were not
individuated things; the cocktail of anti-Semitism, propaganda, and Nazis,
combined with the growing techniques of culture, exploded to produce one
of the largest meltdowns of that thing we call humanity.
Certainly there existed a social and political economy dimension to the
landscape of Germany itself that paved the way for World War II and its
holocaust. But the capacity to galvanize a population with the assistance of
not only cultural manipulation but also, and more important, the emerging
tools of cultural distribution made for a fertile terrain to coalesce a
national psyche. Relentless Nazi anti-Semitism that made its way into
every space was a powerful device to mobilize culture, with its connected
devices of film, radio, print, design, and speech. The Nazis utilized the
powerful device of the enemy to produce a nation. The enemy was a
fulcrum for cultural manipulation and that enemy would end up being, as
is known, placed into camps and murdered.
The Holocaust punctuated the end of the mid-twentieth century in a
cloud of dread and doubt. Hitler as a figure became almost mythical.
Bigger than life, the reputation of the Nazis and Hitler himself became so
specifically exceptional that for many parts of the world the answer was to
simply enjoy their victory. If anything, the lesson of the Holocaust became
one of fearing the power of not only tyranny but also mob mentality.
Writing on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Secret Service officer
responsible for deporting Jews to the ghettos and concentration camps,
philosopher Hannah Arendt writes, “Despite all the efforts of the
prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it
was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown. And since this
suspicion would have been fatal to the entire enterprise, and was also
rather hard to sustain in view of the sufferings he and his like had caused
to millions of people, his worst clowneries were hardly noticed and almost
never reported.” Arendt’s words spoke for many in the intellectual
community. The most troubling aspect of the Nazis was not only the mob
mentality, but also the sheer capacity to follow with conviction without
much criticality at all. Like lemmings, the German people had collectively
jumped off a cliff together into the torpid madness of their leader. Clowns
In the United States, the war years were marked by rationing, belttightening, and modesty. It was a kind of patriotic frugality, all for the sake
of victory. The postwar era marked something of a release. Here was a new
kind of consumption—grander in scale and more expansive in possibility.
The culture and advertising industries, too, grew bigger than ever: they
would shape, determine, and encourage American consumption for
decades to come.
As we’ve seen, governments in the first half of the century had learned
how to unleash PR and advertising with unprecedented sophistication and
—at least in the case of the Nazis—unprecedented insidiousness. In the
second half the century, those efforts were democratized: in the postwar
era, the uses of culture were no longer only material for the state, they also
became essential tools to be deployed by every business, no matter its scale
or function. Each branch of the military had a marketing department, but
so did the grocery-store chain and, in many cases, the local bank.
Commerce became inseparable from the forces of PR itself.
At the same time, immaterial goods took on a new degree of importance
in the United States’ economic and cultural life. Not only did television,
music, film, fashion, and advertising come to play an enormous role in the
domestic economy, but also—crucially—they would prove essential to
Americans’ understanding of the world around them. Culture was
everywhere, and it radically altered the texture of daily life in the United
But paradoxically, even as its methods grew in size and sophistication,
culture nonetheless succeeded in encouraging our national obsession with
individuality and self-expression. The beatniks and Alan Ginsberg extolled
liberation and independence, but so, too, did Madison Avenue. In other
words, a generation’s pursuit of its own identity had assistance and
encouragement from the institutions that seemed, at first, like its classic
antagonists. It’s hard to imagine a better metaphor for the impact of
culture and marketing than the selling of individuality and its relationship
to acquisitiveness. In the second half of the twentieth century and into the
twenty-first, could you really stand out if you didn’t possess the consumer
goods that would make you unique?
In 1941, the German Marxist Theodor Adorno arrived in Pacific Palisades,
which had become, in the words of Thomas Mann, a kind of German
California. The growing film industry (and its occasional left-wing
sympathies) garnered the interest and incredulity of Germany’s diasporic
left-wing intelligentsia: by the time Adorno landed, Bertolt Brecht and
Arnold Schoenberg were already on the scene, along with Mann himself.
Like Brecht, Adorno quickly realized that everything about Hollywood
was antithetical to his own critical project. Adorno took aim at what he and
fellow academic Max Horkheimer referred to as “the culture industry,”
which is best summarized in a chapter from their book, Dialectic of
Enlightenment titled “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass
The essay illuminates the growing confluence between public relations,
advertising, and the emerging technologies that distributed them. If
George Gallup was interested in measuring public opinion, Adorno and
Horkheimer posited that the entirety of these efforts was for the expansion
of a consumer market:
The assembly-line character of the culture industry, the synthetic, planned method of turning
out its products (factory-like not only in the studio but, more or less, in the compilation of
cheap biographies, pseudo-documentary novels, and hit songs) is very suited to advertising:
the important individual points, by becoming detachable, interchangeable, and even
technically alienated from any connected meaning, lend themselves to ends external to the
work. The effect, the trick, the isolated repeatable device, have always been used to exhibit
goods for advertising purposes, and today every monster close-up of a star is an advertisement
for her name, and every hit song a plug for its tune. Advertising and the culture industry merge
technically as well as economically. In both cases the same thing can be seen in innumerable
places, and the mechanical repetition of the same culture product has come to be the same as
that of the propaganda slogan. In both cases the insistent demand for effectiveness makes
technology into psycho-technology, into a procedure for manipulating men. In both cases the
standards are the striking yet familiar, the easy yet catchy, the skillful yet simple; the object is
to overpower the customer, who is conceived as absent-minded or resistant.34
Adorno and Horkheimer were concerned with how capitalism was
shaping daily life, and thus they focused not only on culture, but also on
the machines that produced it. The production of culture, they argued,
couldn’t help but produce a homogenizing affect, which reduced all
cultural expression to the same filtered product. This product was easy to
consume, but its reward wasn’t purely aesthetic—ultimately, the object was
commercial success, rather than quality.
For Adorno, this commercialization was hardly an abstract concern. An
admirer of Schoenberg and modern experimental music, Adorno loathed
the massification of culture: he found jazz particularly repellent and
mainstream, but his disdain for popular culture cut across genre. (Living
down the road from child star Shirley Temple probably didn’t help
matters.) Like many other avant-gardists, Adorno wrote off music and
culture that were designed for the masses—as he saw it, all of it amounted
to little more than commercials for the docile.
To say that this perspective had its blind spots is an understatement.
Indeed, that jazz was one of America’s greatest and most complex art
forms was obvious to many at the time. But more broadly, the relentless
emphasis on culture as a capitalist enterprise can’t account for…well, joy.
What is Motown or early rock and roll—or Willie Nelson or Fleetwood Mac
—if not a wondrous phantasmagoria of spirited self-transformation and
expression? To be as dour as Adorno about the culture industries means
that one would have to reduce, say, D.C. hardcore to something much less
than it was (which was absolutely amazing), or pretend that death metal
isn’t exhilaratingly terrifying. It means avoiding the greatness of RunD.M.C. and Kendrick Lamar and everyone who has made any art that
resonated with more than a handful of people. While one can and should
be cynical about the role that capitalism has played in the emergence of the
culture industries, one must also temper that cynicism with a deep
appreciation for—and righteous belief in—the treasures that mainstream
art has brought.
We should bear all of this in mind, even though, to a large extent, the
critique holds. By the time Adorno and Horkheimer offered their critiques,
cinema had become a major American export. For much of the first half of
the century, the big six film companies dominated the industry. Columbia
Pictures, Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures,
Warner Brothers Pictures, and 20th Century Fox not only made films, but
they also produced the film stars, owned the distribution channels, and
controlled the movie theaters. There is, perhaps, no greater sign of the
industry’s dominance—and no greater validation of Adorno’s argument—
than the fact that the man Hollywood had recruited to gauge public
enthusiasm for films of the era was none other than our old friend George
Gallup. Everyone from Orson Welles to Ginger Rogers was, to a large
extent, market tested.
But the golden era of the film industry was also a deeply centralized one,
and in the 1950s, the double whammy of an antitrust suit and the
emergence of television knocked the industry back. Attendance dropped
significantly in the 1950s: from 60 million in 1950 to 40 million in 1960.35
Still, the film giants weren’t going to cede cultural control without a
struggle: they invested heavily in the television and music industries,
ensuring that in one way or another, film remained dominant.
On October 29, 1952, Charlie Chaplin, the celebrated hero of silent
cinema, hosted a press conference in Paris for Lime Light, the new film he
wrote, directed, and starred in. Claire Bloom plays a suicidal dancer down
on her luck who is nurtured back into health and confidence on the stage
by an equally washed-up stage clown, Chaplin. At the end of the film,
Chaplin performs a benefit concert with a fellow performer once thought
lost to time played by Buster Keaton, only to suffer a heart attack as the
dancer ends the performance to rave reviews. Lime Light is a comeback
film that ends in tragedy, and it’s hard not to see it as a metaphor: a story
about the changing of the guard in Hollywood.
The press conference didn’t go well for Chaplin. For all his fame and
glory, Chaplin had remained a darling of the left for his consistent
portrayals of the down-and-out and the working-class man. But a young,
radical fringe had singled him out as a convenient target—and decided to
use a mass-media opportunity to critique the power of mass media.
Members of a group calling themselves Lettrists descended on his Paris
press conference with leaflets in hand that stated “NO MORE FLAT FLEET.” The
accompanying text read in part, “Because you’ve identified yourself with
the weak and oppressed, to attack you is to attack the weak and oppressed
—but in the shadow of your rattan cane some could already see the
nightstick of a cop.”36 They were outing Chaplin as a phony. A rich man
capitalizing on the image of poverty. Chaplin was blindsided and
The group evolved into an even more radical outfit, and in 1957, the
younger cadre formed a new group called the Situationists International
that was fiercely anti–pop culture and pro–avant-garde (and proMarxism). Their most prominent spokesperson, Guy Debord, was a
petulant type with a fierce intelligence and little patience for idiocy. The
Situationsts were particularly concerned with what they called “advanced
capitalism”—the production of people’s tastes and desires through
marketing and cultural programming—and Debord would go on to write
Society of the Spectacle, one of the most influential (and vicious) critiques
of media culture.
But the encounter with Chaplin wasn’t simply a matter of an internal
rupture within an avant-garde organization: it is, in many ways, a perfect
symbol of the era’s defining tendency toward distrust of mainstream
culture. What was a fringe opinion in 1952 was a dominant intellectual
current by the late 1960s, when the Situationists’ unforgiving analysis and
totalizing distrust translated to a generational mood. Their critique of
visual culture and its collusion with capitalism struck a chord with the
insurrectionists of 1968 Paris, who covered Paris with graffiti and
pamphlets riddled with classic Situationist phraseology, “Under the
sidewalk, the beach!,” “Never work,” and “We don’t want a world where
the guarantee of not dying of starvation brings the risk of dying of
But widespread skepticism toward mass culture hardly meant immunity
from culture, generally. A year after the 1968 uprising in Paris and
elsewhere, a three-day music festival on a dairy farm in Woodstock, New
York, cemented the marriage between youth and music. Many young
Americans were in a rebellious mood, but it wasn’t easy to tease apart the
growing appetite for music with the equally growing appetite for freedom,
liberation, and self-defining. After all, by 1969, music was big business—in
many was as dominant as film had been earlier in the century. Woodstock
concert promoter Michael Lang went so far as to describe Woodstock as a
“relaxed” way to bring entrepreneurs together. The spirit of the creative
industries already existed then. And certainly, the numbers were there to
prove it. And so, despite its many virtues, …
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