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The Arts of International Affairs: Time for a New Conversation about Culture

June 6, 2013 in Arts diplomacy, Creative economy, Cultural diplomacy

Once again the debate about the arts and their relationship to the economy has been enjoined, this time in the UK. The terms are by now entirely familiar, and certainly loom in any discussion of the “value” of the arts in the US as well. This is particularly true for the US during recessions and periods of fiscal austerity. The NEA, as we know, is frequently obliged to make the case for the arts as a contributor to national economic growth. And it has been a virtual cottage industry among a succession of arts advocacy groups also desperate to do the same.

On one side of this broken record are found often highly instrumental and entrepreneurial accounts of the surplus value of investment in the arts: efforts to relate the creative sector to the overall performance of the economy, new models for understanding artistic creativity as a catalyst for economic innovation or cultural hubs as keys to urban renewal, and new tools to measure the economic contributions of the arts. These pitches appear most often designed for skeptical legislators and business leaders, city mayors and urban developers, who apparently feel the arts to be either an engine of capital or frivolous.

Inevitably, on the other side are artists and arts advocates whose first impulse is to defend the sanctity of “art for art’s sake” – still – often against the perceived cynical motives behind any effort to “quantify creativity” and undermine artistic integrity, which, in this, our post-“age of mechanical reproduction,” threatens to turn works of art into monochromatic commodities or economic goods. In passionate defense of their calling, artists tend to represent the value of art as universal, defended, alternatively, as an essentially spiritual, expressive, or creative exercise in what it means to be human. Given this, artists are often disinclined to justify or explore the various uses or value of art. Art just is.

If apparently a debate without end, the terms of this debate are also notably parochial. It is no coincidence that this public policy argument about the arts is especially characteristic of the US and the UK, and countries with similarly relatively scant public funding for the arts, significantly privatized arts economies, where artistic products are a major export, and most notably, where the public meaning of “art” is a legacy of Enlightenment-derived aesthetic and moral concepts.

In other words, the tendency to separate “art” (as a universalizing aesthetic aspiration) from “culture” (as a localized expression of a particular people), to treat art as the unique product of individual creation, to prioritize and formally evaluate aesthetic significance, and the perceived clash between aesthetic and utilitarian goals (or art and money), are, together, a fairly specific conception of things. These several commitments participate – as basic cultural underpinnings – in constituting the overlapping art worlds of the US and UK. But these art worlds are not at the same time the world’s.

A brief international comparison makes the point. In the US we often identify graffiti as not art, as anonymous, popular, and criminal. In Mexico City graffiti has been described as a marginal genre, syncretically bridging artisanal with mass production, text and image, and manifesting urban disorder in the battle for control of public space. In pursuit of the “creative city” concept, Barcelona, Spain, has designated specific zones for graffiti artists to legally express themselves, as part of the promotion of a “context of freedom.” While in China, in contrast, graffiti has only recently appeared, as largely non-confrontational, expressing little political content, leaning more “towards fashion” in ways blurring the distinction with advertisements. As art or not art, criminal, insurgent, or fashionable, graffiti is not self-evident internationally, but a doorway into the cultural diversity of geopolitical arrangements of public and private globally.

There promises to be no resolution to the recurring debate between philistines and free spirits over whether to give art over to the “language of business” to secure its financial future, on the one hand, or to strip it of all utilitarian conceits, on the other, in “the exploration of truth and beauty.” This is the case, even as successive “arts in/for the economy” paradigms underwhelm while puritanical defenders of artistic integrity talk largely among themselves.

A cursory survey of corporate and foundation funding for “the arts and culture” reveals modest spending to support arts groups, concert series, shows, exhibitions and performances in the US, that is, artists directly enriching the civic life of communities. But, in international terms, all of this misses the point. The slot allotted to art in US public life is alarmingly narrow in scope and so self-referential as to be problematic, if instead we hope to engage the many cultural worlds of art globally.

With few exceptions, neither side spends much time: seriously working to bridge this agonistic divide, putting art and cultural production back into their different social contexts, considering the several ways art is meaningful for distinct local and global publics, or working to provide more grounded data to better understand art’s many effects. Some of these exceptions can be found here and here. But to understand the multifarious role of art in the international arena, and the ways it participates in such projects as cultural diplomacy, we should jettison the terms of our domestic discussion, since they actively undermine such inquiry.

A first step is to resist the convention to distinguish “art” from “culture,” which has served to cut off domestic arts policy in the US and elsewhere from broader appreciation of the cultural challenges that cross cut international affairs. Especially for applied arts NGOs working with international counterparts, a second step is to recognize and interrogate our own assumptions about the purpose and value of “art.” A third is to re-inscribe “art” back into its encompassing local and transnational settings of social engagement and meaning. A fourth is to take more seriously others’ conceptions of art, as a complex cultural expression.

Finally,we should be much more attentive to the diverse ways in which cultural expression — including artistic expression — is entangled in international affairs at present. The list is getting longer, but most obviously includes culture conceived as: rights, property, digital information content, heritage, security, local and national identity, as well as goods and services. It further includes the ways culture is mobilized and accounted for in: diplomacy, humanitarian response, international development, democratizing movements, and exclusionary politics. “Art” is one mode through which international affairs are culturally configured. Let’s start treating it that way.

This post first appeared on USC’s CPD blog site:

Cultural Diplomacy and Heritage Wars

May 16, 2013 in Applied cultural research, Cultural diplomacy, Cultural Policy, Culture and the Securityscape, Soft power

Over the past two decades cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, has become an increasingly evident – and fraught – subject of foreign affairs. One reason is a recent proliferation of multilateral conventions by UNESCO, among others, more specifically articulating international frameworks for the protection and conservation of cultural heritage globally. These include the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the 2005 Diversity Convention, and the 2008 ratification by the U.S. of the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, among other precedents. New collaborations between cultural professionals and the U.S. military, in the context of this increasing attention to heritage, constitute non-traditional opportunities for cultural diplomacy.

One effect of the recent push for international normative frameworks governing the conduct of persons, communities, and states with respect to heritage has been to identifiably constitute “cultural heritage” as a kind of scarce local or national resource, as a well-defined potential subject of state action, and as a basis of international relations and of conflict. Tracking this trend, some historians have referred to the contemporary onset of “heritage crusades,” which can lead to “heritage wars.” In other words, attitudes about cultural heritage have changed over time, and international actors increasingly seek legal redress, or take violent steps, in relation to an increasingly prevailing conception of heritage as: rivalrous, non-renewable, specific in time and place, and exclusively owned by people, communities, or nations.

Not coincidentally, the potential destruction of cultural heritage has become a major preoccupation, not only for particular communities and nation-states, but also for the U.S. military. Recent history is replete with multiple examples of the destruction of heritage sites or objects in active conflict zones, or leading to conflict. A short list would include the 2001 demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, the 2003 looting of the Baghdad Museum, the devastation of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the destruction of Timbuktu’s sacred tombs during the conflict in Mali, and ongoing heritage loss as part of the conflict in Syria, among others. Heritage destruction, looting, and the illegal antiquities trade are one front in these heritage wars. Conflicting claims, the definition of heritage as property, and calls for repatriation, are another front.

Unsurprisingly, then, international organizations, U.S. and other government agencies, have begun to consider more closely the vulnerabilities of heritage in circumstances of conflict alongside the growing importance of “cultural security,” as an emerging feature of international affairs and as a dimension of responsible engagement in conflict zones. For the U.S. military, this has led to a largely unprecedented set of often remarkable collaborations with an array of civilian archaeologists, museum curators, art conservators, and arts and culture organizations, and others, as part of the military’s growing awareness of the ways the mismanagement, neglect, or lack of protection provided heritage resources can actively generate conflict.

The U.S. military’s efforts to protect and conserve cultural heritage in conflict zones is part of a broader cultural turn over the past decade. And it has taken various forms. These include the development of a “No Strike List” for Libya in 2011 to insure heritage sites were not targeted, in collaboration with the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield. They also include military logistical support as part of humanitarian interventions to save endangered heritage in the aftermath of disasters, natural and man-made. They include the innovative use of new tools, such as the coordination of GIS, digital databases, and archives. And they include cultural diplomatic interventions, such as the use of cultural mapping technologies to identify an ancient Afghan irrigation system inadvertently compromised by a U.S. military base. The base was redesigned.

This work also includes the consolidation of new lines of communication and networks of collaboration between military and civilian personnel and applied practitioners in diverse fields of the arts and culture, such as the new CHAMP initiative hosted by the Archaeological Institute of America. These networks cross what have been seldom crossed boundaries between the humanities and the military. On the one hand, they highlight an emerging military footprint in humanitarian “operations other than war,” as a feature of peacekeeping, stability operations, and cultural diplomacy. On the other, collaborations with the military to safeguard heritage illustrate new directions in the applied arts, where working artists and cultural professionals are extending their skills, techniques, and creative visions as a part of the U.S. response to global crises and conflict.

The cultural diplomatic potential of U.S. military cultural heritage management is not without risks. At times the military has been so intent upon developing its cultural capacity that it has not appreciated conceptions of culture other than its own tendency to view culture as an asset and mission resource. It can also be deeply problematic for the safeguarding of heritage to be directly implicated in strategic or tactical military “soft power” objectives. Cultural professionals can be perceived as agents of coercion and control. It is, therefore, critical for them to develop robust parallel humanitarian networks in ways enabling a legitimating autonomy rather than have their work defined primarily through military mission priorities.

This post originally appeared on ARTSblog as part of an Americans for the Arts salon on the “Arts and the Military”:

Cultural Exchange and the Politics of Suspicion

March 28, 2013 in Cultural diplomacy, Cultural exchange, Soft power

This past week the Washington Post ran a story about the troubles of Russian lawmaker Dimitri Gudkov, assailed by his government for having the temerity to visit the U.S. and address U.S.-Russian relations on Capitol Hill. As the short article explained Gudkov was in the U.S. to participate in a forum dedicated to “democracy and human rights,” organized by Freedom House, the Foreign Policy Initiative, and the Institute of Modern Russia, a 501(c)(3) organization incorporated in New Jersey in 2010 “to support democratic values and institutions in the Russian Federation,” and whose president is the son of a Russian oil tycoon jailed by Putin in 2003.

For his trouble, Russian parliamentarians immediately pilloried Gudkov, while accusing him of treason, espionage, betrayal of national interests, ethics violations, calling for U.S. interference in Russia, and potentially damaging state security. If brief, the article paints a picture of surging Russian animosity toward the U.S. amid the curtailment of public freedoms, with Gudkov at the center of a witch-hunt.

Left unreported by the Post was a next level of context for the ire directed toward Gudkov by his fellow Russian lawmakers: Putin’s ongoing “war on civil society,” which he has been ramping up, against foreign NGOs described as “foreign agents” who use “soft power” to “meddle” in Russia’s affairs. From Putin’s perspective, Freedom House has been particularly problematic. It is regularly criticized in Pro-Russian online forums, and Russia has accused it of bias and of promoting U.S. interests in Russia.

The activities abroad of U.S.-style democracy promotion NGOs like Freedom House have, of course, not been a sore point just among members of the Russian Duma. The sharp debate over tensions created by Freedom House activities in post-Mubarak Egypt in late 2011 readily comes to mind. Nor is Putin alone in vilifying international NGOs and depicting them as foreign political operators bent upon undermining national sovereignty or security. Venezuela’s Chávez also regularly did the same, as do others.

I have no wish to extol the authoritarian behavior of a Putin or a Chávez. But too often U.S. responses to hostility regarding democracy promotion abroad tend to ignore that government “by the people” can mean many things in practice, and that authoritarian or populist leadership does not exhaust the reasons for why foreign governments (or publics) do not always eagerly adopt the liberal and secular “transition toolkit” of democracy assistance, as peddled by the Freedom House’s of the world.

As Thomas Carothers has highlighted – and what Freedom House, and in this case the Post, too often ignores – is that in parts of the world where “identity-based divisions” are basic features of the political landscape — like Russia or the U.S. — the problem is often a lack of legitimacy. Voluntary associations with an ethnic or religious component are often assumed to be more legitimate and locally grounded than are their international human rights or democracy-promoting counterparts.

In other words, these are cultural arguments, as Putin indirectly recognizes with his charges about “soft power” manipulations. As an explanation, Russia’s own culture wars, including the relationships among rising Russian nationalism, the Russian Orthodox Church, Soviet-era nostalgia, or Pussy Riot, rarely find their way into journalistic accounts, except as epitomizing Putin’s prickly paranoia amid the Manichean struggle between “freedom” and “authoritarianism” – threadbare Cold War distinction though it might be.

The Post might not understand contemporary Russia that well. But it often also appears thoroughly unconvinced about, or just uninterested in, the salience of cultural agency as a variable in international affairs, except to dismiss it or to make it disappear. And making culture disappear as a geopolitical global factor (except as aesthetic window dressing), has been an ongoing epidemic in U.S. foreign affairs.

Several weeks earlier the Post also published a gotcha-style investigative exposé, framed in the familiar terms of a story about congressional profligacy, which of course is low-hanging fruit in this era of dismal approval ratings and fiscal austerity. In brief, this story documented the frequency of overseas trips by congressional representatives and staff, “arranged by lobbyists” and funded by foreign governments, with what the Post described as a loophole Congress granted itself from oversight of travel restrictions “for trips deemed to be cultural exchanges.”

China is the biggest sponsor of such trips. The Post cited all-expenses-paid trips to China, organized by the U.S.-Asia Foundation, and described staffers staying at “luxury hotels” and indulging in “recreational activities.” It noted “briefings” about Chinese history and culture, and went on to quote the concerns of watchdog groups about “propaganda junkets” that generate a “conflict of interest” for Hill staffers. The article, which could have been written by a pro-Putin Russian legislator, raises ethical concerns, noting the nondisclosure of trip itineraries and the lack of a requirement to itemize time spent on congressional work while traveling.

The exposé appeared intent upon rehearsing the same kinds of objections as raised by the irate Duma members over Gudkov’s trip to the U.S. That article sought to highlight the deterioration of democratic freedoms in Putin’s Russia, while the cultural exchange-as-loophole exposé opted to use the language of conflict of interest and of sympathy-peddling to suggest the need for more oversight over congressmen perhaps not sufficiently dedicated to the peoples’ business. Both articles participate in the same way in a larger universe of skepticism.

Whether intentional or not, the exposé’s point of view is reactionary with regard to the value of cultural exchange. It does not seriously entertain the idea that congressional types would want to improve their foreign policy chops by learning first-hand at no cost to taxpayers about the history, society, and culture of their hosts. But skepticism about cultural exchanges between U.S. and Chinese policy-makers is hard to fathom. Surely, U.S. decision-makers need a regularly updated and first-hand account of China’s ongoing and far-reaching social transformation, as a responsible basis for “dialogue” between Washington and Beijing.

Skepticism about the value of cultural exchange programs is not uncommon, particularly among critics in and out of government looking to trim the budgetary fat. Partly, this is because “cultural exchange” – as a concept— is understood to be vague and can encompass a lot of different activities, while also resisting the technocrat’s need for oversight and metrics. The experience and effects are not best understood as quantifiable and so become illegible in such numbers games.

Distance-learning is no substitute. The study of cultures from afar might produce best sellers, like Ruth Benedict’s 1946 study of Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, which influenced a generation of U.S. decision-makers. But understanding U.S.-Japanese relations as a subset of the distinction between “guilt” and “shame” cultures is akin to understanding U.S.-Russian relations as the difference between “freedom”-loving and “authoritarian” politics. Such distinctions are neither descriptively nor analytically helpful, and they entrench geopolitical boundaries of difference that make dialogue harder.

For China, even if – as is most definitely the case – Chinese counterparts view visits by U.S. delegations as soft power opportunities, there is still much to be learned. This includes the extent to which, and the various ways in which China’s command and control apparatus understands foreign affairs as a cultural encounter. But when not phrased as a sweeping dichotomy, cultural explanations have been a hard sell in the U.S. and skeptical journalists are not helping matters.

An earlier version of this post appeared in the USC CPD blog:

Collaborative/Creative Diplomacy/Partnerships

January 25, 2013 in Cultural diplomacy, Cultural exchange, Social Networks

Stephanie Stallings recently suggested that creative collaboration is a useful model for cultural diplomacy. She is definitely onto something. Circumstances have changed around the work of diplomacy. Publics are now much less distant, more assertive, and actively engaged participants in the making of their encompassing cultural worlds. To embrace this new reality likely requires rethinking many of the methods of cultural diplomacy and perhaps its basic goals.

In response to this, significant attention is now given to the pursuit of collaborative diplomacy. The call for more collaborative diplomacy tends to emphasize trust-building through cooperation on mutual objectives and around shared values, often via the “team work” of more inter-agency partnerships in projecting the U.S. image abroad. This is a practical call: in a climate of scarce resources, no one can go it alone. Too, typically problems are interconnected and cross-cutting, and so require partners to address. Likewise, the power of social networking – as a social media-driven basis for collaboration – promises to scale-up outreach and engagement.

A turn to collaborative diplomacy echoes collaboration-talk across a range of related activities, from innovation, to science, to the arts. Thomas Friedman recently added his own to the chorus of voices extolling the virtues of Silicon Valley-style creative problem-solving. For Friedman, such problem-solving is epitomized by platforms like GitHub – the largest open-source computer code-sharing host in the world – and by customer-driven non-zero-sum “co-opetition” networks exemplified by the likes of LinkedIn. Thingiverse, an online platform for artists, designers, and engineers, to share digital design files through creative commons licensing, is on the cusp of this trend. Friedman’s message: innovation is unprecedentedly collaborative.

The information economy represents a public model of innovation through community-building, where distinctions between producers and consumers often disappear. And it includes innovation for diplomacy. An emerging biodiplomacy promotes “new forms of technology-based international partnerships” with the promise to “alter the traditional patterns of international cooperation.”

Science is no exception. Knowledge generation is an increasingly borderless activity, and access to necessary expertise, ideas, samples, funding, equipment and machinery now routinely requires international cooperation. Global scientific challenges – from climate change, and biosecurity, to nanotechnology – are trans-boundary problems requiring CERN-type collaborations in the search for global solutions. And the number of transnational research networks continues to rise steeply. Last year set a record of more than 120 published papers in physics with more than 1000 authors.

The National Science Foundation’s new Science Across Virtual Institutions platform, fostering global interaction among STEM researchers, exemplifies this turn. Science is now anything but the solitary visionary toiling alone in his lab. And as has been suggested, a new more multipolar “era of science diplomacy is emerging.”

We might also consider arts diplomacy. But I do not mean the traditional model, held over from the Cold War, of sending, say, the New York Philharmonic to North Korea for a one-off concert. Instead, as I have previously discussed here, we could consider the work of international applied humanities networks. Whether as a dimension of humanitarian response, conflict mitigation, or peace-building, these networks apply arts-based skills in the theater, heritage conservation, and museum curation to facilitate skills transfers and enable expressive opportunities. Rather than singing the praises of one’s own culture, they represent relationships of collaborative storytelling.

These networks at once create new opportunities for public dialogue, and transform conceptions of participation in such ongoing projects as “Europe.” The Europeana project, a cross-border, cross-domain, user-centered service drawing on the collections of over 2000 European libraries, archives, and museums, offers one ambitious example of this sort of frame-building, creating new ways for users to participate in their own cultural heritage even as they are also empowered to generate original content.

Yet not all collaboration meant to be creative is so. It turns out that “brainstorming” – a widely popularized generative technique taken from American business practice – is counterproductive, if creativity is the goal. It generates fewer ideas than the same number of people working alone.

Research suggests this is because brainstorming encourages groupthink at the expense of debate, dissent, and critical engagement with unfamiliar viewpoints. Brainstorming tends to marginalize encounters along the frontiers between disciplines, industries, and kinds of expertise, encounters that promote what urbanist Jane Jacobs identified as “knowledge spillovers”: the non-rivalrous cross-fertilization of ideas among individuals that advance neighboring fields.

By and large policy rationales for public diplomacy emphasize self-representation, defining the message, and identifying a common basis for cooperation (usually articulated as the promotion of “shared values”), as these promote national interests.

But to take creative collaboration seriously as a model means to think more about how particular forms of collaboration engender different creative outcomes and what these outcomes have to tell us about the changing practice of diplomacy. Instead of an initial – sometimes incorrect or superficial – commitment to searching out shared values or interests to the end of building trust and goodwill, the object would be to focus on the often unscripted results of collaboration.

We should start by distinguish mere partnership – fine so far as it goes – from work associated with creative collaboration. The possibilities of collaboration are minimally addressed with the recognition of the practicality or cost-effectiveness of partnership in the face of resource scarcity. If an enabling prerequisite for collaboration, relationship-building is not a sufficient rationale for attentiveness to creative outcomes.

Networked virtual platforms producing user-generated digital content represent one model for creative collaboration, but certainly do not exhaust the possibilities. Over at least the last fifty years, with one foot in the humanities and the other in the social sciences, cultural studies have documented the historical sources of cultural expression. With regular attention to the multiple sources of any given expressive form – say, the Japanese influence upon the spaghetti western – they have consistently described the hybrid results of cultural engagements, often as these occur along fraught social frontiers, in ways relevant to the practice of diplomacy.

Applied cultural studies have much to offer the practice of cultural diplomacy, starting with the fallacy of understanding creative expression as if derived from a unitary cultural source. It we are to take the possibilities of creative collaboration seriously, a cultural-studies-based appreciation for cross-fertilization might helpfully counter a tendency to view cultural exchange as display in the service of representation, where art diplomacy is too often considered a universal and self-evident language.

Instead, we might consider cultural diplomacy as it participates in the blurring of genres, or the work of bricolage, or more recently as part of a culture jam or a mashup. Each offers a different account of the collaborative multi-vocality of cultural expression with which we might animate international relations.

This post first appeared in the USC CPD blog:

Risk Assessment in Encounters between Culture and Security

October 15, 2012 in Cultural diplomacy, Cultural Policy, Culture and the Securityscape

Since at least the late 2000s, I have been observing – sometimes organizing, and sometimes participating in – diverse forums featuring different combinations of politicos, policy decision-makers, academics, and applied practitioners, which have broached the relationship between “culture” and “security,” sometimes in overlapping but often in notably different ways. At times, the purpose is to ascertain how new cultural developments might disrupt established security goals. At other moments, it is the other way around, with an emphasis upon ways new security priorities are driving cultural interventions. A previously obscure term – cultural security – is now in much wider use, even if it means different things to different people.

I am not alone. In 2009 the Aspen Institute put together a big-name event also dedicated to “culture and security.” In 2010 the National Intelligence Council hosted a meeting on the topic of “cultural diplomacy and security.” In 2011 the National Humanities Alliance sponsored an event addressing “national security and other global challenges through cultural understanding” at the Capitol Visitor Center. Also in 2011, the Wilson Center hosted a conference to promote interagency conversation on “culture in the military.” Early this year, Georgetown University hosted a Chatham House event on “cultural dialogue in East Asian security.” This past June in D.C., the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy hosted a “global dialogue about cultural diplomacy, national security and global risks.” And so on.

Below the surface of these frequent forums are multiple ongoing initiatives across the securityscape – and periodic efforts to organize them – for enhancing cultural capacity or for identifying key cultural factors of conflict. But beyond the U.S. military’s well-documented cultural turn, something more is percolating here. Less observed are the effects of a preoccupation with security upon the agendas of civilian cultural agencies and other non-traditional participants in security policy and practice.

We could describe this as two simultaneous trends: the securitization of culture and the enculturation of security. The first comprises attention by national security agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere to culture as one potential source of insecurity; in the process re-conceptualizing it in ways consistent with a security-centric worldview. This trend includes groups and countries that perceive the security of their own cultures as under constant existential threat. The second trend includes ways that culture, as a resource, has been applied in many different ways as a part of solutions to diverse problems of security. Often, it seems, security agencies promote the first trend while non-security actors respond by bolstering the second.

One arena in which the term – cultural security – has gained a foothold is in discussions of the strategic importance of preserving artworks, monuments, archaeological sites and artifacts when considering the implications for international affairs of the international art market, the antiquities trade, and the illegal looting or destruction of art and artifacts. This attention includes greater recognition by the U.S. military of the strategic value of capacity-building in heritage training, protection, and preservation, as a force multiplier, incorporated into stability operations, and in collaboration with civilian partners.

Efforts of heritage planning—emergency preparedness and response—also regularly coalesce in terms of the push and pull around “cultural property,” as increasingly defined by international law, as a basis of calls for repatriation, as a politicized resource of community or national identity, and as a source of conflict or its mitigation. If the historian David Lowenthal condemns the proliferation of these “heritage wars,” such developments indicate how cultural identity and related questions are now subject to an ongoing global process of securitization.

Reference to cultural security also points to distinct or diverging national security policies. If the term is not a part of the U.S.’s domestic security lexicon, it figures significantly in China’s. A search in Google Scholar for [cultural security + China] generated over 1,500 hits since the early 2000s, demonstrating a lively scholarly cottage industry in China around its cultural security. China’s approach to cultural security is often embodied in concepts from the Chinese martial arts, or wushu, which is regularly extolled as a resource for “safeguarding national cultural security.”

In 2011, the Central Committee of China’s Communist Party approved a decision to further develop the country’s cultural industry, improve citizens’ confidence in Chinese culture, and enhance its soft power, all understood as parts of the effort to protect China’s national “cultural security.” And earlier this year, President Hu Jintao made the case for China to bolster its cultural security and to “strengthen its cultural production to defend against the West’s assault on the country’s culture and ideology.” China’s Ministry of Culture includes Lady Gaga on a growing list of songs that cannot be legally downloaded because they “endanger national cultural security.” For China, cultural security is a national policy issue in ways it is not in the U.S.

If China’s government understands its national identity through a cultural security framework, one recent trend in international affairs has been to consider the sources of difficulties in multilateral cooperation to be, in significant part, cultural. As the conventional wisdom holds, particular national cultures lead to distinct policy worldviews which, in turn, inform differing assumptions underlying security goals. New joint efforts, therefore, encourage “cultural dialogue in international security” as a way to act internationally while not thinking universally, and to head off a “clash of values” provoked by “contrasting cultural approaches to security.” Other projects seek to be low-profile platforms promoting “strategic listening” and cooperative research on non-traditional threats – including the increased “securitization of identity” – by exploring the multiple ways culture can be “an important dimension of human security.”

Public agencies and non-profits in the U.S. active in “culture and the arts” – traditionally not so concerned with national security policies – now regularly consider what constructive role they too might play in the universe of possibilities presented when culture is brought to bear on problems of security and vice-versa. But it is not clear if there is such a role.

Safeguarding cultural property, cultural diplomacy, and the building of international applied humanities partnerships are three activities we might point to. But future cultural diplomacy efforts addressing the priorities of the security state would do well to consider how those priorities often problematically determine the range and shape of available cultural interventions.

Traditionally, cultural diplomacy aspires to a mixed bag of countering stereotypes, building relationships, improving dialogue, telling stories, creating spaces of commonality, or raising controversial issues, often across fraught geopolitical boundaries. The recent run of “Black Watch” at the Shakespeare Theater Co. in Washington D.C., which follows the fortunes of a Scottish regiment in Iraq, is a good example of theater crossing boundaries to address controversy generated by security decision-making.

Yet ours is a moment characterized by multilateral and political formulations of cultural property, whereby culture is conceived as a rivalrous, exclusive source of identity, existentially threatened, and with sharply defined boundaries to be defended and safeguarded. And “cultural security,” with its associated language of strategic value and threat assessments, appears to promote the manufacture of an increasing “climate of risk” vis-à-vis culture that seeks to solidify boundaries instead of enabling cross-over. In other words, aren’t cultural diplomacy and cultural security largely at odds?

Note: This post originally appeared on the Center for Public Diplomacy blog site:

The Hard and Soft of Cultural Diplomacy: Networks and Stories in Global Affairs

September 28, 2012 in Cultural diplomacy, Cultural Policy, Social Networks

Amy Zalman recently proposed that “soft power” – as a conceptual frame for understanding global politics – is too narrow and has outlived its usefulness. Her provocation generated fruitful responses and suggests that we might be ready to stop treading water and move beyond our decade-long fixation with the term to new and more constructive places. Zalman rightly points to the costs of the partial privileging of the “soft” (e. g. cultural narratives, symbols, stories) at the expense of the “hard” (e. g. economic or military force), insisting that these two cannot be pried apart, even analytically, without diminishing appreciation for how power in fact works.

Complementing Zalman is Craig Hayden’s additional suggestion that her critique helps to shift attention to the myriad ways soft and hard power are connected and simultaneously expressed through the continued proliferation of diverse kinds of (often non-state) networks. The increasingly variegated facts of Castells’s “network society” make clear that networks mediate the distribution of meaning and value in ways demanding our attention.

Conjoined, these arguments present a compelling picture. They suggest the need to reframe our analysis of global politics in ways transcending distinctions of “soft” and “hard” while better accounting for the many entanglements of the “symbolic” with the “material.” This is particularly congenial to me, trained as a sociocultural anthropologist, since this discussion has been front and center in the discipline for some time. I too have promoted doing so in my own recent writing on cultural diplomacy.

Together, one question these discussions encourage is: How are stories meaningfully distributed across different kinds of networks and to what effect? Instead of inferring cultural consensus when identifying specific groups, for the practice of public diplomacy such questions help us to a more realistic appraisal of the variety of cultural accounts among people otherwise related.

At this juncture we can offer the inverse of Zalman’s argument about soft power: too often, ever more ubiquitous network analyses seem to privilege the “hard” over the “soft” to the detriment of our understanding of how networks work. Certainly in security policy and studies this is the case. We have seen a flood of so-called link analyses, where the game is always to identify connections between nodes in different networks, or who is connected to whom and how. The emphasis is upon the importance of the “hard” social facts of the shape and distribution of connections within and across networks, in order to identify key “information nodes,” “information brokers,” or, in the War on Terror, the “bad guys.”

Ann-Marie Slaughter’s recent call for more attention from U.S. foreign policy decision-makers to the ubiquity of “network centrality” is timely. But, while she notes in passing network “nutrients” – flows of goods, services, expertise, funding, and political support – she is most interested in the density of connections and positioning of networks. Likewise, a recent study in Nature on social influence across networks of Facebook users concluded that more frequent interactions between friend pairs – “strong ties” – have a much greater influence than do “weak ties” on a person’s behavior. Again, it is all about the facts of connection. We can further note how behavior, composed of empirically observable actions, is prioritized over cultural meaning or belief.

More attention has been given to identifying people, their behavior, their connections, and network nodes than has been given to how information is distributed across networks or what these symbols, values or stories mean to network participants.

The New York Times recently ran a story about researchers who used the computational tools of social network analysis to assess the historical or fictional sources of well-known epics like the Iliad. In other words, they were examining the relation between epic narratives and networks. Their analysis privileged connections that were highly assortative – that is, with high frequencies of people associating with people like themselves – as one key “real-life indicator” corroborating an epic’s likely historical origin. Here and most everywhere else “hard” trumps “soft”.

Assortativity is a useful principle in epidemiology because it helps to explain the behavior of diseases as they spread through a population. But we are too prone to use viral metaphors to describe the movements of information, ideas, or beliefs through networks. Despite our fascination with social media technologies, we should not assume that a contagion model best characterizes the relationship of stories to networks. Instead, this might be a case of misplaced concreteness, to use A. N. Whitehead’s useful term.

Significant work has been done on so-called “knowledge-based networks” and their relevance for public diplomacy. One case is Mai’a Cross’s analysis of networks of policy decision-makers working toward security integration in the European Union. She shows how greater internal network cohesion increases network influence. For the EU case, cohesion includes the ways these decision-makers share expertise, common cultural and professional norms, and regular participation in the same meetings.

Assortative thinking encourages demonstrations of how like seeks like, while the effectiveness of knowledge-based networks is understood to turn on shared commonalities, notably, of culture. But exclusive attention to the social facts of connectivity through networks – rather than how people invest network participation with significance – means we assume that the information, knowledge, symbols, or stories that circulate through networks are shared in the same ways and mean the same things. But this is a poor assumption. Social solidarity (or, shared network participation) does not require cultural consensus.

What about when cultural information – like stories – is unevenly distributed through a given network? We are in dire need of a sharper and more grounded appreciation of how compelling ideas, values, or cultural meanings travel through social arrangements of people and how people differently relate to them. This means paying greater attention to variable interpretations of cultural information across networks beyond the shared facts of membership in networks.

Uneven distribution can take the form of stories that mean different things to different people in different locations across a given network. In the 1990s, while conducting research on political change in Bolivia, I interviewed dozens of men about the start of their political careers. Many cited the decisive influence of radicalized high school teachers who encouraged them into joining the Bolivian Communist Party in the 1970s. These men still consorted as members of informal political networks, connected by shared political and economic ties, relationships of kinship, friendship and heritage, as well as long hours spent in each other’s company. But many cited the party’s ideological intransigence – especially its derision of the relevance of cultural identity in largely indigenous Bolivia – to explain their departure from it. While carrying over much of the party’s discourse, they were swayed to other forms of political participation more consistent with their indigenous heritage. While each told the “story of the Left” in Bolivia to me and to one another, they did not interpret it in the same ways.

Resonant stories, particularly political narratives, can mean many things to those perpetuating them. Even “strong ties” in identified networks don’t guarantee cultural consensus. In a climate of policy and research where our attention to networks is increasing, but where this work is focused on the use of computational tools to identify their shape and constituent parts, we might be neglecting the problem of cultural meaning in networks. And so we risk having little insight into the sense network participants make out of their own participation. If we confuse the facts of sharedness with a potentially nonexistent interpretive consensus, we risk missing the import of the story.

Note: This post originally appeared on the Center for Public Diplomacy blog site:

International Applied Humanities Networks and Global Cultural Engagement

July 4, 2012 in Applied cultural research, Cultural diplomacy, Cultural Policy

While taking part in an energetic three-day convening at Georgetown University dedicated to “Global Performance, Civic Imagination, and Cultural Diplomacy,” it became clear that the meeting was itself evidence for the continued emergence of a global network linking artists, performers, cultural policy makers, human rights activists, social justice advocates, academics, diplomacy practitioners, and others in international affairs, all variously  pursuing new intersections of the arts with cultural diplomacy. The conversation sought to further encourage the development of this incipient global network of the “applied arts,” in the process asking what it means when the arts are incorporated into the work of other sectors and put to other ends, like diplomacy.

In addition to the opportunity to witness this effort of network-building, the meeting served as further evidence of increased attention to partnering, collaboration, and reciprocity as the basis for global outreach by often U.S.-based non-profit and other agencies of non-governmental and citizen diplomacy. In a sense, through a variety of diverse endeavors across the applied humanities and arts, we are seeing the spirit of “mutualism” enacted – less emphasis on the pursuit of national self-interest and more pursuit of closer inter-relationships – a concept taken up here and there in the policy discussion about public diplomacy but, at least so far, not robustly pursued in practice. This appears to be changing.

Organizers Derek Goldman and Cynthia Schneider set the tone for this meeting by comparing the efforts currently underway with past U.S. programs like the Jazz Ambassadors during the Cold War. Although that program was highly successful then, times have changed and now it is neither appropriate nor effective simply to take your show on the road, as it were, to demonstrate one’s “culture in a monolithic way.” Nowadays it is necessary to “work more collaboratively” and to ask, “What story do we want to tell together?” Theater is one richly expressive avenue for collaboration. Goldman summarized this trend during the meeting as a “movement away from models of display to imparting agency to others.”

Throughout the meeting “performance” was discussed as a methodology to the ends of: amplifying local voices, enabling people to find ways to tell their stories, creating contexts for public dialogue, enabling social critique, transforming conflicts, or pursuing reconciliation. Art was discussed not as a medium of message delivery so much as “a part of the agenda of others,” where, along with the transfer of skills such as choreography, a collaborative goal is to better appreciate how other people express themselves and what this might mean for how they are currently thinking about themselves, their circumstances, and their worlds.

The Georgetown meeting provided multiple examples of this sort of collaboration, such as Theatre Without Borders, which facilitates global theater exchange among people and institutions. Theatre Without Borders is currently collaborating with the Peacebuilding and the Arts program at Brandeis University to use performance creatively to transform understandings of conflict in chronic conflict zones around the world.  Utilizing the tools of community-based performance, this project seeks to nourish and to restore peoples’ expressive capacities as a way to help them better address publicly questions of justice, memory, identity and resistance, but also complicity. This is a collaboration, in other words, that enables dialogue among the participants in, and victims of, chronic violence. But it does not impose an agenda on that conversation.

And this emerging network around socially—engaged  applied artists who work globally is just one corner of a larger international environment in which a mixture of cultural producers, workers, and agencies – including non-profits, museums, archives, and libraries – are pursuing parallel applied and humanitarian work with partners. What I will call “applied humanities networks” now comprise a growing diversity of creative collaborations leveraging the knowledge, expertise, and creativity of U.S. cultural professionals, in the service of a variety of international partnerships well beyond the traditional work of arts management.

By and large these activities are not on the radar of decision-makers in international affairs, but they include such efforts as: participatory curation, applications of new social media, archival training, oral history and public memory projects, cultural heritage conservation, digital game design, documentary film, culture mapping, the negotiation of cultural copyright and building of cultural commons, and the management and exhibition of antiquities and other national cultural collections, among other activities. One feature of this work is cultural diplomacy, though not as we conventionally understand it.

A collaboration between U.S.-based folklorists and like professionals concerned with intangible cultural heritage and their Chinese counterparts, the China-US Forum on Cultural Sustainability, is another case of an incipient transnational applied humanities network that has direct implications for cultural diplomacy. On the one hand, the Forum contributes to the internationalization of folklore studies. On the other, it directs comparative attention to the often differing theoretical, policy, and practical frames that inform what is, nevertheless, shared attention to the sustainability of intangible cultural heritage (hereafter, ICH) in both countries. And, the Forum sets out from a shared commitment among scholars and practitioners in both countries to identify, document, present and safeguard ICH, as critical to their “national interest and well-being.”

The Forum facilitates collaborative U.S.-China efforts to chart, compare, analyze, communicate widely, and to generate shared products focused on “tradition-based cultural expressions” through a variety of related initiatives. In the course of their collaboration, ICH practitioners from the U.S. and China have to work through different underlying assumptions and theories that shape and define the scope, meaning and location of ICH in both countries, including different challenges posed for national culture industries, community development, cultural tourism, and for the status of cultural minorities.

One difference is distinct time horizons bounding attention given to ICH among scholars: recent popular culture is given regular attention by U.S. practitioners while Chinese counterparts direct their attention to much older forms of traditional cultural expression. Part of the purpose of the Forum, therefore, is to engage such differences through the encompassing goal of professional development among ICH specialists in both countries.

Notably, the Forum is a model for how to take up what can be potentially explosive bilateral questions (e. g. the status of religious or cultural minorities in China) without also imposing any particular agenda. In fact, collaborators on the U.S. end, like the American Folklore Society and Vanderbilt’s Curb Center, are actively engaging with the Chinese Folklore Society and other counterparts, with the stated goal of establishing a “field of folklore studies with Chinese characteristics.”

A final example is a recently constituted applied humanities network, now working in the humanitarian context of disaster relief, organized around the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project. An effort coordinating many partners and led by the Smithsonian, the project has mobilized applied cultural practitioners from the U.S. and elsewhere to support the efforts of Haitian cultural professionals to rescue, safeguard, and restore the country’s national cultural heritage in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. The rescue of key expressions of Haiti’s heritage has provided continuity to Haitian cultural identity by saving artifacts of collective cultural memory, helping to maintain a cultural basis for Haiti to address its post-disaster national identity going forward.

Incorporated into the overall disaster relief effort, the Cultural Recovery Project is primarily composed of museum professionals – conservators and curators – engaged in the work of stabilizing, documenting and restoring artwork, including: paintings, murals, artifacts, documents, media, architectural features, and historical and archival items. Smithsonian conservators also train their Haitian counterparts in the skills of conservation and restoration, to help build and promote a sustainable Haitian-led center.

The work of rescuing Haiti’s threatened art evolved into an opportunity to relationship-build, to share “common values” around heritage conservation, and also an opportunity for new shared creative cultural expressions. Understood by Haitian counterparts as “arts for survival” that activate the relationship between culture and resilience through the interconnections between art, healing and community, so far these include a documentary film, considerable media coverage, a website, as well as new museum exhibitions focused on the recovery effort.

Notable is the kind of U.S.-Haitian relationship this project represents. A cultural recovery base was set up in Haiti, rather than bringing the artworks to the U.S. for treatment. Capacity-building of Haitian counterparts is one major feature of the project going forward. Cultural conservators from the Smithsonian and other U.S. institutions have taken a supporting role in helping Haiti consolidate its own efforts. All decisions about relative cultural value in the work of identifying, inventorying, and prioritizing individual items of cultural heritage are made by Haitians. The guiding question of the collaboration is “What do Haitians want to do?” A basic goal of the project is to preserve the ability of the Haitian people “to tell their own story to future generations.”

This collaborative work is making the case that effective cultural diplomacy need not aspire to control the message. It is not best deployed when closely linked to the priorities of policy makers or defined national interests. Nor is it always desirable for acts of cultural diplomacy to be framed in terms of the goal of the representation of a people. The development of new applied humanities networks, which feature the efforts of U.S.-based cultural producers and workers, suggests another approach, which we might take note of as a means to rethink conventional wisdom about cultural diplomacy.

The new approach includes:  working through collaboration rather than exchange, ceding authority while bringing skills, promoting the agency of others, and pursuing shared creative outcomes, while seeking to address the needs of others in humanitarian terms. This approach avoids trying to convert people into receptive audiences for our own story—however much we happen to like it.

Note: This post originally appeared on the Center for Public Diplomacy blog site:

Cultural Engagement and Glocal Diplomacy

May 14, 2012 in Cultural diplomacy, Cultural Policy

If we do not highlight it often enough, cultural diplomacy promotes the creation of transnational social spaces of engagement and interaction. And, even as they are often identified with particular cultures or countries, cultural diplomatic interventions are also unavoidably cosmopolitan in nature, insofar as they move between, confront, and conjoin multiple social worlds. In this way and even when carried away by the worst excesses of national chauvinisms, cultural diplomacy is inherently a transnationalist project of sorts. How does the work of cultural diplomacy account for its perpetual context of “transit”?

But nor do events and expressions of cultural diplomacy occur in an internationalist ether so much as in specific places and informed by particular historical conditions of possibility. This specificity includes the ways that “global” concepts and practice engage “local” ones or the ways “foreign” ideas and values mix (or not, as the case may be) with “national” ones. How these elisions occur is not often enough a focus of attention but it is also a fundamental question for understanding how cultural diplomacy is received and how it resonates with people’s meaningful horizons.

Perhaps it is time for us to think of cultural diplomacy in more “glocal” terms. Here I am not so much referring to the popular mantra, “Think globally, act locally,” as pointing to the ways that the expressive content of cultural diplomacy: is not self-evident; circulates among publics in particular ways; is often understood by audiences in terms of already familiar and available concepts, beliefs or values; and if it resonates is typically appropriated into local frameworks of meaning and relevance. It is impossible, in other words, to understand the extra-local content of cultural diplomacy apart from its local context.

The British cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s discussion of encoding/decoding is helpful here. Hall helps us to appreciate the extent to which the coding of any given message does not dictate its reception, which is perhaps an unfortunate inconvenience for the advocates of strategic communication. Hall undermines confidence in any notion of communication that mistakenly adopts a straightforward or linear “sender-message-receiver” model. Instead, Hall insists, the two moments of “encoding” and of “decoding” are relatively autonomous from each other, and differently determinate in any process of communication.

In other words, any given public, if an intended audience for the work of cultural diplomacy, is also an important source for the meaning of that same cultural work. And as such, Hall encourages recognition of the “struggle over meaning,” not as zero-sum but as fundamental to all communication. Another way of putting this is that, whatever the intention of cultural diplomacy interventions, publics for whom they are intended will always actively make sense of them in terms relating to their own interests.

Here I am not referring to any so-called “realist interests” – the rational calculus of political self-interest or practical advantage – but to the cultural grounding of ideas, concepts, values, or commitments, that people everywhere use to evaluate the meanings of statements, and which invest the views people have about the world around them with significance. Interests, in the more encompassing second sense, most often take shape amid regular traffic along frontiers of interaction between the global and the local.

We can consider the significance of cultural diplomacy, then, along a glocal gradient. Take the example of “McDonaldization,” as a case of the global circulation of American popular culture. Much attention has been given to whether the ubiquity of McDonalds franchises worldwide represents the triumph of the attractiveness of American fast food (and its associated model of economic efficiency) or is primary evidence for the predatory qualities of American cultural exports that threaten to displace local cultural diversity with a shallower and more monochromatic cultural globalization.

In fact neither story adequately captures another tendency, as colorfully reported in Watson’s Golden Arches East: the burger franchise effectively plies its trade along a global-local frontier that it constantly negotiates, and where the global and the local are brought together in diverse ways. While McDonald’s serves beer in Germany, does not offer beef in India, and offers seasonal “tsukimi” burgers in Japan to celebrate the harvest moon, this is not just an example of catering to local tastes. Franchises are turned into “local” institutions by patrons in a myriad of ways. In this sense, they are not altogether perceived as “American,” but in significant part as different kinds of neighborhood haunts. How a global franchise becomes a local haunt is about what Japanese do with a McDonalds to make it “theirs.”

Another illustration is human rights discourse and practice, which is a regular dimension of U.S. public diplomacy efforts. Typically the U.S. asserts the universal aspirations of human rights, promotes human rights in conjunction with secular and individual freedoms of equality and choice, and disregards cultural frameworks when advancing human rights goals. Nevertheless, international human rights law typically comes to matter to peoples around the world only once it has – in the words of researcher Sally Merry – been effectively “remade in the vernacular,” often in locally contingent and fragmentary ways.

Merry is clear that, to be most effective, human rights advocacy must be appropriated, translated, and framed in local terms. This might include human rights concepts about the nature of the person, the community, or the state, which do not travel easily from one setting to another. Instead of the more prevailing understanding of culture by international human rights activists as retrogressive and anti-modern “custom” and as a ready excuse for non-compliance, Merry encourages attention to the ways transnational human rights ideas and institutions are made meaningful using cultural images, symbols, and narratives – in places like Fiji and India often couched in religious rather than secular terms – that help to articulate specifically local conceptions of social justice that do not simply echo international human rights covenants. Instead they are articulated, for example, in relationship to prevailing kinship obligations, culturally-defined ideas about the body; or particular historical contexts, such as long-term struggles over land ownership, among others.

As a recent lucid essay by Charles Kupchan argues, the contemporary world is not best met with the expectation of “conformity to Western values,” but instead through recognition of the proliferating hybrid modernities that characterize it. In glocal terms, whether dealing with global popular culture or with the universalizing discourses and practices of human rights, we should be considering how the subjects, recipients or audiences of these culture industries, global discourses and frameworks, are also at the same time agents of them, sources for them, and authors of them. Promotion of a more “glocal diplomacy” – the translation of the global and its often creative elision with the local – remains mostly disregarded, given the constant pressure to “control the message.”

Note: This post originally appeared on the Center for Public Diplomacy blog site:

Aspiring to an Interest-free Cultural Diplomacy?

April 26, 2012 in Cultural diplomacy, Cultural exchange, Cultural Policy, Cultural relativism, Propaganda

When I hear from people about the relative advantages of cultural diplomacy, they often point to the apparent “neutrality” or “apolitical” basis of, say, cultural exchange. Coming from an anthropological background, this often advanced claim has always puzzled me.

At least historically, when anthropologists have talked about cultures – for example, in the typical mode of cultural relativism – they have referred to the ways that different cultures are either configurations of specific “values” or interpret the world around them in ways distinct. And, if this is not exactly how I would encourage us to think about the culture concept today, it is precisely because the meanings people ascribe to things in the world vary so much across cultures that we seek to take account of cultures in the first place. When we refer to “neutrality” in the context of cultural diplomacy, then, it is often unclear how this reconciles with cultural difference.

I am actually pretty sure that the problem of cultural difference is not intentionally being dismissed by these frequent assertions about the relative neutrality of cultural diplomacy. But, I do think that we might be mixing things up here and that we could more rigorously sort out what in fact we are talking about.

Respondents to a cultural diplomacy survey I conducted described some of its advantages this way: Cultural diplomacy is successful because “it is not there to sell a product.” And there is “no message control.” It is typically “most effective when it is politically neutral, non-confrontational and non-ideological.” It is effective when it is “free of state-to-state interests.” And it tends to be ineffective or it fails when trying to “push a policy position” or “when deeply contested interests limit the impact of cultural diplomacy activities.” In a nutshell, the idea is that when cultural diplomacy efforts are perceived as too obviously entangled with “interests” they run the risk of illegitimacy, and so, ineffectiveness.

Policy recommendations for cultural diplomacy also reflect this equation. A White House conference on cultural diplomacy in 2000 touts its advantages because cultural diplomacy “relates to human creativity beyond the scope of politics.” The Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy’s 2005 report confidently notes the ways cultural diplomacy “creates a neutral platform for people-to-people contact.” A 2007 Demos report likewise asserts, “The value of cultural activity comes precisely from its independence.” As such, culture is a “safe space for unofficial political relationship-building.” And as a 2010 report by the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation on cultural exchange programs recently emphasized, these exchanges can “remain apolitical.”

“Neutral,” as these several reports make clear, is most often contrasted with “political.” As Cynthia Schneider suggests, the advantage of cultural diplomacy – particularly in the form of citizen diplomacy – is that it provides an “alternative to the official presence of America.” And, indeed, critics of government-sponsored U.S. cultural diplomacy have pointed to the ways the involvement of the State Department – or during the Cold War, the CIA – have tended to politicize, and so undermine the credibility of, U.S. cultural diplomacy. Neutral-as-apolitical, then, is set against the perception of the pursuit of so-called “national interests” in the competition among nations.

But if we are not careful, neutral-as-apolitical can invite confusion, as seems to be the case with Joseph Nye’s counterintuitive conclusion in his most recent treatment of the problem of power, where he observes that “the best propaganda is not propaganda.” We think we know what Nye probably means here: cultural diplomacy is effective when the “culture” part of the intervention is understood to be authentic and credible. It cannot be viewed as contrived or as having an ulterior motive – as Frances Stonor Saunders’s story of clandestine CIA sponsorship of American artists and intellectuals during the Cold War makes clear. Indeed, as Richard Arndt and others have reminded us, it is important to try to rescue “the diplomacy of cultures from the embrace of propaganda.”

However, we also need to take account of the fact that at least beginning with the end of the Cold War the “culture” of diplomacy has significantly changed its location as well as its meaning. If the 2000 White House cultural diplomacy conference unproblematically assigns culture to the activities of “human creativity,” a 2008 report by the Curb Center points to a more recent trend of the supplanting of a cosmopolitan notion of “culture” as the output of artistic and intellectual elites by an increasingly pervasive understanding of “cultures” in the anthropological sense. This shift is evident, for example, in the recent multilateral promotion of the concept of “intangible cultural heritage,” as generationally transferrable and community-based, over and above the previous international consensus for tangible heritage represented by such landmarks as the 1954 Hague Convention.

And when culture – as universal creative expression – is folded into an anthropological conception of different cultures, cultural diplomacy becomes more like an ongoing series of transactions across frontiers resembling intercultural communication. On either side of these frontiers, we suppose, are relatively different configurations of cultural values.

Part of what is conveyed in claims about the potential neutrality of cultural diplomacy is that we can sort out expressions of culture from the narrow pursuit of interests or political advantage, in the competition among nations. But, while realist accounts of international affairs often assume that politics are driven by competitive self-interest, it is nevertheless a mistake to assume any such interests are at the same time value-neutral. In his classic discussion, the American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins demonstrated the impossibility of, in his words, separating out the “utilitarian postulates of practical interest” from the “system of symbolic valuations” – i.e. culture – that invest such an interest with meaning.

The politics of our own culture wars in the U.S.should serve as a ready reminder of this. The very notion of a culture war is based upon the premise that so-called “values voters” are motivated to patrol the borders of a particular definition of moral community in ways commensurate with public life in an otherwise diverse society. When controversies over the public appropriateness of cultural expression are touched off in the U.S., as with the case of the Sensation art exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum several years ago or in the more recent decision by the Smithsonian Institution to censor the video artwork “A Fire in My Belly,” the difference between what constitutes public interest and what, cultural values, is nowhere to be found. And, of course, it is also that way everywhere else in the world.

Put another way, rather than understanding “interests” to be value-neutral, and as distinct from more authentically credible expressions of culture in diplomacy, we might do better to give our attention to the ways that values determine interests. We might consider how cultural expressions in international affairs are value-laden. In other words, proceeding as if cultural diplomacy is a relatively neutral and apolitical way to build bridges that enable later and more frank dialogue about national interests is likely to cause us to ignore some of the unexpected cultural value commitments – if not narrow national interests, interests nonetheless – that account for the differences we are seeking to bridge in the first place.

The difference between propaganda and an interested or value-laden cultural diplomacy is that the former seeks to manipulate publics, often through purposeful distortion or by withholding key facts, to the end of control. Perhaps, then, the important distinction is not between neutral or apolitical, on the one hand, and interests or values, on the other, so much as between interests or values and manipulation or control. Cultural diplomacy cannot honestly avoid the former – and why should it? But it should take no part in the latter.

Note: This post originally appeared on the Center for Public Diplomacy blog site:

Cultural Diplomacy’s Representational Conceit

March 22, 2012 in Cultural diplomacy, Cultural exchange, Cultural Policy

This post continues my preliminary discussion of the results of a survey I recently conducted, designed to invite practitioners of cultural diplomacy to reflect upon their own practice. Additional discussion of this survey can be found in my February 15th post. As I noted in the earlier post, this analysis is less about criticizing or evaluating cultural diplomacy, and more about arriving at a better understanding of the key assumptions underwriting it. How do those regularly engaged in cultural diplomacy define to themselves the meaning of what they do? This includes how practitioners imagine the relation of culture to successful communication and whether this prevailing understanding promotes a more thoroughly dialogic engagement.

In addition to a notable lack of consensus among cultural diplomacy practitioners about the meaning of “culture” itself, as reported in my previous post, respondents’ survey answers tended to promote what I will call diplomacy’s representational conceit. That is, a majority of respondents assumed that in the diplomatic mode cultures – typically, national cultures as self-evident and as the proper subject of diplomacy – are unproblematically expressively available to others for the purpose of representing a people.  This representational conceit also takes for granted that the “message” (or cultural “value” it intends to convey), which is understood to be easily extractable from its cultural “vehicle” (e. g. an art form, musical performance, or a poetry slam), effectively explains a society in question to international publics. And this assumption is widespread, as a recent report by the International Cultural Engagement Task Force illustrates, noting, “It is in cultural activities that a nation’s idea of itself is best represented.”

Respondents also appeared convinced of this idea, describing “cultures” as the ways different peoples “express themselves.” Again, culture is the “presentation” of “a society’s thoughts and values.” Or, a culture is a community’s “outlook.” The arts are “expressions of American society.” As was noted, cultural diplomacy is “the efforts nations make to portray their societies and values.” It is a case of the “projection” of culture abroad. Likewise, “The best way to explain our culture is by putting it on display.” It is effective when using “the most visible forms of outreach to large audiences.” Another respondent asserted that cultural diplomacy is a case of “explaining” by “demonstrating.” It is effective when it helps people elsewhere “gain a firsthand view” or a “more accurate picture” of American culture. A majority of respondents described the successful communication of cultural diplomacy as analogous to effective visual representation – as a “show.” And historically this has characterized much such work.

When prompted to offer examples of the activities of cultural diplomacy, respondents favored the performative and visual arts, such as exhibitions, motion pictures, radio programs, T.V. broadcasts, music, dance, theater, the plastic arts, and similar activities. And this should not be surprising, since such activities have been the focus of cultural diplomacy programming for some time. Richard Arndt has offered vivid details about the work of the cultural offices of U.S. embassies during the Cold War, which was “to publicize, present, and stage events.” Arndt characterizes the diplomatic efforts to “internationalize America’s arts” as a case of “the US export of performances,” which, it was hoped, were a “highly visible” means to expose international audiences to, in Arndt’s words, the “sounds and sights of democracy.”

In keeping both with the history and practice of cultural diplomacy, then, respondents equated cultural performance with acts of expression primarily understood as representation (usually of “American society” or desirable American “values” like “freedom of expression”). In so doing they took for granted that: cultural expressions correspond to cultural values; they are self-evident, portable, and contextless; and so available for acts of exchange and performance. They also appeared to accept that the performance of this representational conceit amounted to effective diplomatic communication. In other words, key cultural values – as transparently expressed through diverse cultural vehicles of performance like the arts – were understood to be relatively straightforwardly extractable by international “audiences.”  But why do we think this?

The elision by respondents of acts of cultural diplomacy with acts of representation is reminiscent of Suzanne Langer’s discussion of “presentational symbols.” She describes these as presenting otherwise abstract “ideas” because they correspond in form or by analogy to that which is symbolized, as a “projection” of it. Presentational symbols function independently and they work all at once like a “picture.” Langer’s conception reflects a long-standing philosophical commitment, the so-called correspondence theory of truth. But there is a critique of this view. For Richard Rorty, the representational theory, where knowledge is acquired through a process of “mirroring,” mistakenly proceeds as if meaning is like a picture that faithfully “represents.” Rorty has made a strong case that we are better off treating this representational theory as our own folk theory of what’s going on. Such a representational conceit, in other words, might not be shared across communities or internationally in the same ways.

But the work of cultural diplomacy has been consistent in this regard. As with the Department of State’s smART Power program, which sends U.S. artists abroad to create “public art projects” as an example of “people-to-people diplomacy through the visual arts,” we think national “cultural ambassadors” are engaged in comparable sorts of representational spectacle. Historically, this has been the case, whether hip-hop diplomacy, or the USIA’s erstwhile “Arts America” program. Notably, the justification for an “Arts Diplomacy Festival” soon to take place in Berlin is that “cultural diplomacy must show rather than tell.” In each case, whether as part of the formal program or tour, or as part of the more informal interactions on the margins of such programs, individual cultural or arts ambassadors are thought to be showing, expressing, performing, picturing, presenting, mirroring – literally embodying values they are understood to represent – and in this way creating audiences for the uniquely desirable values of one country or another.

And this is not unique to U.S. cultural diplomacy. UNESCO’s “Living Human Treasures” program is a notable enactment of this representational conceit. Initially proposed in 1993, the program identifies and confers official recognition upon individual culture bearers deemed to possess intangible cultural heritage that is at once scarce (and so, threatened) and particularly representative of a specific group, community or nation. These are, typically, cultural “practices and expressions,” the development and transmission of which UNESCO promotes by providing duly designated “human treasures” with opportunities to perform, demonstrate, or exhibit them, and so to build a larger audience for them. That is, “human treasures” are supposed to generate “public recognition.” As the living embodiments of a community’s intangible cultural heritage, human treasures are granted the dubious honor of being cultural ambassadors for life. In the process they are reduced to the role of perpetually representing – as living mirrors – the “way of life” of his or her community.

There is nothing wrong with any of these activities as such. Artists, musicians, poets, and other performers, should circulate internationally. But why do we also believe that they carry the representational cultural burden of the nation, as a set of shared values? And how do we imagine they effectively communicate, say, the sights and sounds of democracy in the U.S.?

There is good reason to think that, whatever happens as a part of these expressive or performative opportunities, cultural diplomacy as display and for the creation of an audience is in fact not the best route to intercultural dialogue. The effort to perform, express, and project, might succeed in conjuring an audience among international publics, but in so doing this can also build barriers to conversation. An audience member watches the show but is seldom an active participant in it. Audience members occupy another world than that of the players. The representational conceit of diplomacy might inhibit dialogue, in other words, when publics are recruited as audiences for cultural spectacles. If meaningful reciprocal dialogue is a purpose of public diplomacy, in Rorty’s words “to think of language as a picture of the world” – as a set of representations – makes conversation a challenge.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on the Center for Public Diplomacy blog site: