Cultural Diplomacy: Listen

Pere Lachaise - Vivant DenonYou know that political leaders are really making a mess of things when they feel the need to turn to artists to do their jobs.

Demos, the British think-tank closely allied with UK’s Blair and the Labour party, has issued a call to arms for “Cultural Diplomacy.” The report, written by Kirsten Bound, Rachel Briggs, John Holden, Samuel Jones, covers everything from the PGO (penetrating glimpse of the obvious) on how artistic works help build bridges between cultures to the old-time radical notion of culture not-by-but-for the government.

Example of a PGO: “Culture has a vital role to play in international relations.”

Example of old-time radical not-by-but-for government: “The UK must find ways to incentivise our cultural institutions to conduct work that contributes towards the UK’s international priorities.”

They are not talking about The Diplomats. Nor is the group proposing creating dual careers such as those of Rubens or Baron Dominique Vivant Denon. The former now known more for his artistic product, the latter earning a beautiful artistic monument for his accomplishments.

They are creating an atmosphere where cultural groups are “incentivised” by the British Foreign Office to follow, promote, and articulate government policy. (Here’s another PGO - beware of anyone who uses the term “incentivise.”)

Needless to say, this has created a lot more heat than Demos’ ideas on the “third way“ for good politics. Writing in The Independent, Tiffany Jenkins legitimately asks, “Why Should Artists be Agents for the Government?“

Of course, the strongest way to create a genuine meeting between diverse cultures, nationalistic attitudes, or religious beliefs, is through the honesty of artistic expression. How often have each of us had incredible moments of understanding and connection through a work on the stage, in a film, in a book, in a song, or through the simple act of telling a story.

However, the necessary component to this mutuality is honesty. That’s the problem with Demos’ recommendations. Once a work of art, or the artist, is perceived as a product of government bureaucracy the expression loses its immediacy, and its integrity.

Demos is not responding to a new cold-war kind of initiative where the battles take place as much in the cafes as they do in the presidential palaces.

Demos is responding to a new kind of desperation for understanding, for contact.

A few years ago, Joan Channick, a colleague in the world of theatre creation and international exchange, wrote a response to a cultural surge from the Bush administration:

There is a fundamental difference between the official approach to cultural diplomacy””where the emphasis is on the diplomacy, and culture is merely a tool or, worse, a weapon””and the approach taken by artists. Artists engage in cross-cultural exchange not to proselytize about their own values but rather to understand different cultural traditions, to find new sources of imaginative inspiration, to discover other methods and ways of working and to exchange ideas with people whose world views differ from their own. They want to be influenced rather than to influence.

So here’s my unsolicited advice to Secretary Rice: Listen to artists, who have been working internationally for all these years””collaborating artist-to-artist and artist-to-audience””finding shared values, mutual respect and understanding in the midst of difference. They are the true cultural diplomats””emphasis on the cultural.

Note Joan’s advice: Listen to the artists. That’s a lot better way to begin a relationship than telling them what to do.

- Bill Reichblum

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