"I have a background in art and photography and an interdisciplinary humanities PhD in History of Consciousness, but overall I come from the perspective of a cultural analyst. I find it important to make connections between different social arenas like advertising and art, tourism and architecture."
“I have a background in art and photography and an interdisciplinary humanities PhD in History of Consciousness,” says Professor Marita Sturken, “But overall I come from the perspective of a cultural analyst. I find it important to make connections between different social arenas like advertising and art, tourism and architecture. Because the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication is so interdisciplinary, my work fits well here.”
Sturken, who served a three-year term as the editor of American Quarterly, the top journal of American studies, has written a book that synthesizes her many interests. Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism in American Culture looks at the ways Americans are encouraged to engage with questions of history and our role as a nation through consumerism. “When the nation experiences a tragic event—such as 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing—one of the ways we respond is to purchase souvenirs such as teddy bears and snow globes.” Kitsch objects can provide comfort, she says, but this keeps us from “asking bigger questions about history—such as how aspects of U.S. foreign policy have made the United States the object of terrorism."
While Sturken has a critique of American consumer culture, she says it is not helpful to be dismissive of consumerism’s role in our national identity. “In the months after 9/11, advertisers did a better job appealing to the American public in terms of responding to tragedy that most politicians did.” She sites as an example a series of TV ads for United Airlines in which employees talk about the meaning that their jobs took on after 9/11. “These ads felt genuine and reminded people that United Airlines employees had died. There were also newspaper ads placed by corporations in the first few weeks after the tragedy that were very spare, mournful and direct. Politicians were telling people to go shopping, but these corporations through their ads spoke more effectively—and emotionally—to the American people.”
Sturken says her undergraduate students are very interested in issues of consumer culture because advertising and brand culture plays such an important role in their lives. “Usually students feel empowered by understanding how consumerism functions, and in gaining tools for critiquing how ads work. At the same time, they are very interested in advertising as a creative activity and industry.” Teaching advertising is also a way to introduce students to broader issues of how culture works, she adds, and how visual images convey meaning.
Because Sturken’s research integrates many different fields, she is also working with colleagues in other departments at Steinhardt, including Professor of Art and Art Professions Nick Mirzoeff. “The study of visual culture involves looking at images across social realms from art to advertising to media, etc., so it makes sense for us to collaborate across departments.” She feels it is an extremely dynamic time for the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. “To be here as the department is reinventing itself is exciting.”