If only because it runs counter to familiar American exceptionalist arguments about culture, now is a very good moment to contemplate a cultural listening project, a dialogue with the many ways cultural claims now form the basis for diverse political, economic, and legal priorities beyond the U.S. but in ways that nevertheless matter for the U.S. These priorities are taking shape in terms of arguments, policies, programs, and politics about culture as the basis of claims to: rights, property, digital access to information content, heritage, security, goods and services, and identity. While we seldom hear about any of this in the U.S., we should be giving more attention to the reasons why culture has become a basis for claim-making, friction, and competition, and a subject of multilateral policy making in these and other terms. These are not trivial issues. They passionately matter to people around the globe.
What are the ways culture matters for the rest of the world? I am not talking about the need to fix public diplomacy by improving unilateral U.S. efforts dedicated to message delivery nor sounding a cross-cultural communication-inspired call for better understanding of “Chinese culture,” “Iranian culture,” or “Russian culture.” I am talking about the expanding relevance of culture as it is incorporated into national and multilateral policy making. In short, culture – as a subject of policy – is a basic feature of political decision-making, global problem-solving, as well as new knowledge production and innovation, in ways both different than in the past and growing in importance. Missing – if sorely needed – is a more regular engagement between domestic U.S. cultural policy and the very different international conversations about cultural priorities and investments now carried forward by states, global civil society, and multilateral policies, programs, actors and institutions. But cultural policy in the U.S.– historically largely dedicated to promoting “arts and culture” on the home front – is barely engaged with the global rush to promote and to protect cultural expression, representation, and practice.
Currently U.S. cultural policy tends toward a relatively narrow commitment to arts policy, and as such is primarily dedicated to defining public support for the arts and U.S. national heritage in partnership with private support. If support for the arts in the U.S. is itself important, it should not be the only priority. Domestic goals, in turn, are often disconnected from considerations of culture in U.S. international affairs, dedicated to the promotion and deregulation of U.S. cultural goods and services as an economic concern and to the branding of the U.S. image as a strategic part of diplomatic efforts to win the “hearts and minds” of different publics. These commitments deserve more regular discussion, evaluation and critique. But the evident lack of communication between domestic and foreign cultural policy in the U.S., as a problem, is nothing compared to the near total neglect of global cultural concerns, formulated as policy.
We are not served if we continue to view them through the narrow lens of our own arts policy in the U.S. Counting how many people “participate” in the arts, NEA-style, might be a necessary rearguard action in the U.S. to defend budgets, particularly during economic crisis and as a way to survive domestic “values” debates. But it is also insular. State Department cultural ambassadors are fine, but offer little opportunity to hear from other corners of the world about how culture matters in their lives. Massive exports of U.S. popular cultural content might be the key to soft power, but encouraging people to “want what we want” obviously actively discourages listening. It’s not surprising, then, that recent NY Times articles have, in different ways, pointed to the thoroughgoing inadequacies of U.S. cultural policy for Afghanistan, in China and Iraq. This is a dismal record. And it results from the long history of U.S. neglect of culture as a serious subject of policy and of international affairs. This is, too, about a legacy of exceptionalism that has never advanced more meaningful engagement with other peoples’ desires, commitments, values, and attitudes.
The terms of globalization and global conflict are not defined simply by the global economy, new media technologies, or transnational movements of people, but also by the meaningful cultural frames that organize the ongoing significance of globalization as an everyday lived experience in both these and other ways. These cultural frames include the stories and forms of representation publicly mobilized to convey diverse circumstances of cultural identity, which, if they acquire global circulation often have specifically local origins. Particularly in the post-colonial, post-Cold War and post-9/11 era of international relations, culture is a more self-conscious fact embraced at once – if differently – by communities, civil society, and states as a basic transversal factor and framework for a variety of public, political, technological, economic, and security goals.
Cultural identity is a source of new social movements but also of exclusionary politics, conducted in terms of religion, nationalism, ethnicity, language, the built environment, and more. Culture has at once become a basis for the power politics of advancing political claims and a creative source driving new global developments. This is the case for: the creative sector and the post-industrial information economy, new international legal and human rights frameworks, and approaches to public diplomacy, efforts in sustainable development, multicultural state reforms, and democracy promotion, as well as the work of civil society, and the advancement of community claims, among comparable local and global projects. These developments have far reaching implications for the changing public role of cultural institutions – museums, libraries, and archives – which now often function as important sites of convergence for interactions among cultural producers, communities, and international policies, and as key nodes in global cultural flows.
Constructive engagement with this emerging international cultural division of labor has never been more important. Understood as a question of policy, this includes not simply the recognition of culture as: an expressive basis of identity, source of conflict and potential obstacle to desired change; but also: as a resource, and asset, as empowering, and as creative capital, as a means of self-definition, basis for expanding choices, and as an essential element of basic freedoms. At the same time cultural policy and practice are directly implicated in such wide-ranging priorities as: the expressive life of nations, humanitarian aid, the content of the information economy, urban planning, the application of so-called soft or smart power, and efforts to understand the meaning of political change, among others – all evidence of the ongoing international renovation of the culture concept as a component of global events.
But in the U.S. we pay little attention and there appears to be little room for such a cultural listening project. Despite: a regular concern about the decline of the U.S. image abroad, growing appeals to uses of soft power, a recognized deficit in applied cultural knowledge and training, and the encouraging fact that the Obama administration is the first ever to formally present a cultural policy platform prior to the election, there is little sign that the U.S. is ready to change its exceptionalist ways in cultural terms in the interest of real global dialogue.