Society vs. Culture: The Crucial Distinction

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Society and culture are two overlapping dynamic systems. They are both at play in nearly everything we do as citizens, and understanding this distinction is key to the successful navigation of life. But for artists, the distinction between society and culture— and further between culture and capitalism—is the single biggest determining factor in everything we create. When we confuse society for culture, or vice-a-versa, we confuse what we create with what creates us. Culture is the direct result of our individual actions, whereas society is the immovable sum of our collective habits. In short, you can wake up, have an idea, and make a tangible impact on your culture before the day’s end, while affecting change in society takes more time, more ideas, and more people. Of course culture is not determined by individuals, it is the result of groups of people with shared interests and values, but an individual can have a substantial impact on a shared culture. Similarly, there are some individuals whose influence is capable of affecting society directly, but for the sake of this conversation those individuals and that phenomenon will be left out. And, while artists create work that takes place in society, the undeniable material of our work is cultural.

I went to grad school at NYU, and got an MA in Performance Studies. I’m not mentioning it for status–I don’t think very highly of grad school to be honest. I only mention it because I was there with academics learning their ways, and while they’re a terribly off sort of people as a whole, they’re really good at what they do: study the world around us, and extract objective data from it.  One of the most vital pieces of wisdom that I gleaned from my studies was the distinction of society and culture. I don’t remember what book I read it in, or who said it, but I’m pretty sure Claude Levi-Strauss–the famed and problematic anthropologist–said something along the lines of:


Society is the relationship of human to environment.

Culture is the relationship of humans to humans.


This is the simplest way to understand the difference between the two. Of course, it’s a slightly hazy distinction due to the times we live in: the environments where we carry out our lives are mostly of our own design, and filled with other humans. But, have you ever stopped to ask yourself how much of that socially constructed interaction actually relies on two human beings interacting with each other? A lot of the time it’s just 2 human beings, each having an isolated interaction with a social construct, wherein another human being is the social construct. This behavior is normalized to the point of banality. Although many of us spend our days floating through a sea of people, we don’t form cultural relationships with the vast expanse of strangers around us, instead we treat each other as meaningless nodes in a social network. However, once you put a little bit of thought into this distinction, it’s never hard to deduce whether you’re dealing with culture or society. This isn’t a complex topic that requires extensive explication. In fact, the more concise the better. Here are a few illustrative examples:


A drawing is culture.

A museum exhibit of drawings is society.


A person making food for other people is the practice of culture.

The ingredients available at the grocery store are the result of society.


Going to a concert is a culture affair.

Radio broadcasts are societal explications.


A poem is culture.

The Pullitzer Prize for poetry is a social institution.


A book is culture.

A reading list from an educational institution is social order.

As artists, it’s essential for us to always be aware of the distinctions between culture and society. We need to be able to act with intention with regards to both society and culture. We need to be able to recognize society’s shortcomings, and understand how to create culture that can affect society. If our work cannot be integrated into the world around us in a productive way, then it isn’t actually artwork–it’s just capitalism with an aesthetic priority. The people who don’t understand the distinction between society and culture are the same people who don’t understand the distinction between culture and capitalism. And if you don’t understand the distinction between culture and capitalism, then it’s highly unlikely that you’re making art.

In order to make art, you first have to understand how to not participate in heinous social institutions—capitalist and otherwise. Much of being an artist is figuring out how to not participate in social constructs that conscript us to moral compromises. These unseen moral compromises undermine the efficacy of culture (art is culture), and render the perpetrator impotent. As artists we create work that captures and conveys the values of our culture, and over time those values influence society. Our work in culture is only as valuable as the measures we take to ensure the continuation of the values that define our cultures. If we print  art on a t-shirt that is made in a third world sweatshop where women are abused, using chemicals that harm the planet, and the shirt is shipped between multiple continents at different points of production, then what are we really selling? Or more bluntly:

If the t-shirt says “black girls are awesome,” and the t-shirt is made from dead black girls, and the people who make the t-shirt are enslaved black women, then what is the t-shirt really saying?

When you don’t know the difference between society and culture it’s very easy to create a terribly negative social image for yourself. In recent years money-hungry capitalists developed a lot of businesses that cater to “DIY creatives” and called them culture. If you aren’t acting with deep intention, and you haven’t considered the effects of your actions, then it’s far too easy for you to become a crucial collaborator in one of these capitalist scams. And then you will be accountable for hurting people, damaging the planet, squandering resources, and creating pollution in the name of art. And that will just make you look like a chump. It’s not worth it to make more consumer goods if those consumer goods aren’t having a net positive social and environmental impact in the manufacturing phase. That’s why Creative League shirt are printed on Everybody.World trash tees: it’s more important to curtail waste, and empower small domestic manufacturers than it is to make a new t-shirt.

It’s one thing to be born into this mess of abstracted and outsourced abuse and violence that we call consumerism. It’s a whole other thing to willingly participate in capitalist institutions that have been identified as oppressive and abusive. It’s not cool to pollute the environment in the USA, but it is cool to pay someone in China to pollute their environment while they manufacture your society6 decorative phone case? Nah homie. Artists need to understand how to navigate society through the productive use of culture. It’s up to artists to find ways to use culture to change capitalism into a system that serves the people. And we cannot allow people to claim “artist” if they’re contributing to detrimental social institutions. It’s a new day, so let’s make sure that we take charge of what’s in our yards, and put it to use for us. If this article is unclear, or you feel this is incorrect, then feel free to ask questions in the comments, or challenge the examples provided. You can always holler on social as well: @twinbeastla @zachmoldof.