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Cultural Diplomacy

by Martha Hostetter, Apr 01, 2003
 

Over the past few months, despite dwindling resources and distracted audiences, cultural groups in New York have become catalysts for public debate and dissent about the war. Through works and protests, artists have resisted the flattening of debate and homogenizing of rhetoric that has accompanied the march toward war. In many cases, artists have looked to the distant past for guidance: 60 groups staged readings of Lysistrata, the 5th-century B.C. antiwar satire, and 500 artists converged on the Met to sketch ancient drawings as a show of support for the people of modern-day Mesopotamia, i.e. Iraq. The post-9/11 art of grief has evolved into a wartime art of protest.

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With mounting concern about America's image abroad, some are now advocating cultural diplomacy -- a particularly idealistic form of activism that would use arts and culture to encourage international understanding. It is clear that Americans are widely loathed in the Arab World. Now, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, Russia, and Turkey last month, resentment and hostility toward the U.S. are increasing among our traditional allies. This month, a conference hosted by Columbia University's National Arts Journalism Program will convene historians, policymakers, U.S. and foreign diplomats, artists and arts administrators to discuss "Cultural Diplomacy Amid Global Tension."

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The apparatus of cultural diplomacy has been largely dismantled since the end of the Cold War, and money to encourage international cultural relations has slowed to a trickle. Over the past 10 years, funding for government-sponsored cultural or educational programs fell by more than a third. Meanwhile, arts councils in countries such as France and England have sustained lavish programs to export their cultural products. (In January, as part of a program to reach out to Muslims, the British Arts Council sent a production of "The Winter's Tale to Iran." It was the first such exchange since the 1979 revolution.) American artists have long complained about the imbalance in cultural exchange, pointing out that -- thanks in part to unequal funding -- there are far more foreign directors, actors, visual artists, and musicians bringing their work here than there are American artists working abroad.

Such complaints may now be heard in Washington. Last June, the House Committee on International Relations chair, Henry Hyde, initiated a discussion about America's image abroad, asking how "the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has allowed such a destructive and parodied image of itself?" Hyde introduced legislation that would, in part, establish a series of cultural exchanges with the Arab world. To encourage understanding of the American perspective on 9/11, the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has already sent Joel Meyerowitz's photographs of Ground Zero on a 60-city international tour. American artists may be wary of such efforts; top-down cultural diplomacy can be heavy-handed and manipulative. No one wants a return to the 1950s, when the CIA secretly funded "independent" critical journals, mounted exhibitions of Abstract Expressionist art (to counter Soviets' propagation of Socialist Realism), and reengineered the film of Orwell's Animal Farm as a propaganda tool. But, in an era of sharply reducing cultural funding, diplomacy may also be a bargaining tool; if art won't be funded for its own sake or for the sake of strong communities, why not fund culture as a tool of peace?

Instead of literal-minded propaganda efforts to "win the hearts and minds" of our enemies, independent artists can bring diverse, nuanced perspectives to those who view an America through a lens defined by Hollywood, McDonald's, and the Pentagon. Moreover, in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where culture is strictly controlled, a demonstration of the freedom of American artists to express their own, often dissenting views would be a potent demonstration of democratic norms.

It is also important to encourage foreign artists to continue to come here. There have already been some warning signs; two French singers abruptly left the cast of a Metropolitan Opera last month, citing fears of terrorism, and the Senegalese pop singer Youssou N'Dour canceled an American tour to protest the war. Meanwhile, this July, the Whitney Museum of American Art will play host to its first exhibit of foreign art, "The American Effect," a much-needed exhibit that will explore how foreign artists respond to the presence of America around the world.

When television networks are controlled by media/entertainment conglomerates, and 1,200 radio stations are owned by a single company, there is a vital need for independent artists and small arts groups to be ambassadors of unconstrained thought abroad, as well as at home.

Back to the Blacklist?

Last month, the Screen Actors Guild sent out a news release to its members warning against possible blacklisting of actors for antiwar activities, an idea at first ridiculed (in part because of Hollywood's frequent collaboration with the Pentagon) but now gaining some credibility. Last month, New York Post columnist Richard Johnson proposed a boycott of "appeasement-loving celebs," suggesting, for example, that "those who oppose sadistic, Stalinist dictatorships won't want to show up at the Estess Arena in Atlantic City on April 25 to see Sheryl Crow's concert." The Celiliberal website mounted the Celebrity Liberal Blacklist, a list of more than 100 names that it encourages people to take with them to theaters, video stores, and music stores "so you know who to patronize and who not to." Sean Penn filed a civil lawsuit against the producer Steve Ping, claiming that Ping broke an oral agreement the two had made about a forthcoming movie after Penn traveled to Baghdad and spoke out against the war.

Update on Musicians' Strike

The Broadway musicians' strike ended on March 11 after shutting down all but one musical for four days. The League of American Theatres and Producers was unable to come to an agreement with the American Federation of Musicians Local 802 over the minimum number of musicians producers are contractually obliged to hire by the March 7 deadline. Producers had threatened to replace striking orchestra players with digital scores but, when members of Actors Equity and the stagehands' union walked out in solidarity with the musicians, that became impossible. Concerned about the financial hit to the city of the strike (estimated to have a $10 million price tag), and its dampening effect on New Yorkers' morale, Mayor Bloomberg summoned the negotiating teams to Gracie Mansion. Frank J. Macchiarola, president of St. Francis College and former NYC public schools chancellor, successfully served as moderator. After 12 hours, the two parties reached an agreement that preserves minimums for the next 10 years, though lowers the ceiling from 24 to 19 at the largest theaters. By the end of March, Broadway box office sales had picked up, in spite of world events.




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