THE BLOG
11/08/2009 05:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Backlash against Cultural Diplomacy

As I compile, for my sins (which are many), the Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review, I have noticed, in recent weeks, a backlash against what is known as "cultural diplomacy," often defined as government-supported promotion of a country's artistic achievements overseas.

These critical reactions are, in my view, worthy of serious consideration, as they underscore the importance of not turning art into propaganda.

But I would not go so far as to say the US government should not, openly and visibly, sponsor cultural events overseas.

The initial salvo in the recent anti-cultural diplomacy mood came from Michael Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in a posting in the Huffington Post. He asks:

But does traditional cultural diplomacy work? Do we need state-supported tours by American performing arts groups when without federal funding so many of our performers and performing arts groups are appearing all over the world?

Instead of traditional cultural diplomacy, Mr. Kaiser suggests:

We can teach how we use marketing to expand the reach of our arts organizations. We can teach the importance of long-term program planning for building new sources of support.

The distinguished intellectual Benjamin R. Barber, in an article for the British Independent, writes:

[C]ultural diplomacy cannot pretend to change how countries do business and probably should not even try.

From across the pond, the most convincing, articulate case against cultural diplomacy is made by Tiffany Jenkins, in her thoughtful, but factually inaccurate, article "Artists: resist this propagandist agenda":

[T]he arts have been used by leaders throughout history to bolster their status and authority, and to lend weight to concepts such as 'the nation'. Artists, in turn, have used their talents to promote different agendas and to take sides in conflicts and revolutions. But, in recent times, this relationship has been formalised, made more explicit and prescriptive.

Cultural Diplomacy was recently the object of a spoof, The Embassy,

a multi-disciplinary group show being held during Frieze Art Fair [in October in London]. A parody of outmoded cultural diplomacy, The Embassy is that of an anonymous country, a dystopia whose tyrannical government has tested the patience of its people and brought them to tipping point. ...

Globalisation has rendered the sometime patronising kind of cultural exchange once conducted by embassies dated.

Critics of cultural diplomacy (and there are others) are, and good for them, questioning its suppositions.

But, based on my experience as an American diplomat for more than twenty years, an indispensable way for the U.S. to reach foreign audiences is to present who we Americans are by means of USG-supported cultural presentations -- you name it: concerts, exhibits, poetry readings (and, of course, spoofs on cultural diplomacy). While it can always use rejuvenation and must avoid becoming propagandistic, cultural diplomacy remains as important as ever.