She’s all tied up … in a poor system 1951/2015, Hank Willis Thomas, 2015, chromogenic print
In anthropology we discuss how culture can be social comfort because it teaches us how to survive in the world and how to live a good life. From early childhood, we learn about acceptable behaviors, collective values, and our heritage by interacting with the people around us. We also learn about material culture, which is the physical stuff a society produces like clothing, tools, buildings, toys, and art. Cultures also have non-material culture, and these are the nonphysical, the ideas, symbols, values, behaviors, languages and abstractions that shape our cultures and societies. All societies have material and non-material culture and it is the material, physical culture that is the manifestation of the non-material. For example, a country’s flag is material culture. It’s just a piece of cloth we produce. But it also represents the non-material part of that culture because it is a symbol of that country’s history and values. Art, visual media, and advertisements are also a significant part of our material culture and they too give us a clue into deciphering our nonmaterial culture.
In a globalizing world, we have come to rely heavily on the material culture of images, rather than written texts, to teach us about our world. Visual advertising has become a powerful educator in shaping culture because it is more than just selling a product. Advertising sells an idea or a value and in doing so enculturates us, or in other words, teaches us how to be “right” or “normal” in that given culture. The people in advertisements are conventionally attractive and happy-looking, and we might think, perhaps subconsciously or perhaps not, that by emulating them, or by buying the product they are selling that we too can be attractive and happy. Yet, this becomes problematic when the images used to sell the product use harmful stereotypes that reaffirm prescribed ideas about gender and race, leading to conformity and systemic bigotry and injustice. We can learn a lot about a culture from analyzing its advertisements and deducing what the nonmaterial culture or values are.
Hank Willis Thomas’ Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915-2015 is an excellent exercise in understanding how the media and advertising can perpetuate perceived social roles and patriarchal values in our culture. In this series, Thomas has taken advertising depictions of white women from the last 100 years and removed text and logos. When you view the images stripped of their context, pay special attention to your own reaction. Do you appreciate what you see or does it make you uncomfortable? Considering the year the image was originally made, do the implications of what you see suggest progress or regression for women in America? Question your reaction. What part of your culture helped you form it? You might also want to consider what your culture has taught you about power, beauty, gender, sexuality, constructing whiteness, and race when viewing this exhibition.
Shelly Clay-Robison teaches anthropology and conflict transformation at York College of Pennsylvania. She researches and writes on how the arts can be used as a tool for progressive social change. Read more of her work at artandconflict.com