“Some think I do wrong to go to the opera and the theatre; but it rests me, I love to be alone, and yet to be with the people. A hearty laugh relieves me, and I seem better able after it to bear my cross.”
– Abraham Lincoln
While President Lincoln is known for winning the Civil War and proclaiming the last Thursday of November to be a day of Thanksgiving (Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!), he also relied on the arts as a way to reflect upon the weighty decisions he faced during the war. Lincoln’s words remind us of art’s place in culture: it is a means of reflection and refraction on current events and the cornerstone of society. On this day, we, as a nation, should be grateful for all that we have accomplished this past year, while also reflecting on what we still can improve both domestically and, in regards to this blog, internationally with cultural diplomacy.
In many parts of the world, the U.S. garnered a bullying reputation following operations into Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. These are textbook examples of hard power, or the use of military/economic force or coercion to achieve objectives on foreign soil. Ironically, during this same time in the late 1990s/early 2000s, the impact of the cultural diplomacy’s golden age, exemplified by the Jazz Ambassadors and the creation of the Fulbright Scholar Program, began to appear in research articles. This qualitative example demonstrates hard power’s counter, soft power, or the use of culture, political ideals, and policies to achieve similar objectives (though not to be confused as a complete substitute for hard power).
The events of 9/11 also came to underline the absence of substantive public cultural diplomacy initiatives following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the political maneuverings of DC to dissolve the USIA (U.S. Information Agency), the administer of the U.S.’s worldwide cultural diplomacy programming. With the Cold War over, the USIA and its cultural diplomacy were no longer needed since the U.S. “won” and could be downsized to fit into the Department of State. This action showed an inconceivable lack of foresight into the long-term strategy of U.S. diplomacy.
Cultural diplomacy’s relevance is frequently tied to its impact. Such measurements are often qualitative and therefore oftentimes considered negligible; this is exemplified by the frequent short-sightedness of U.S. foreign policy-makers because results take years, if not decades, to appear. An example of cultural diplomacy’s impact is choreographer George Balanchine’s return to the Soviet Union with the New York City Ballet. Russian author Solomon Volkov observed: “I remember the overwhelming impression created by the tour. Older people rejected it: ‘The Americans aren’t dancing; they’re solving algebra problems with their feet.’ But the young saw in Balanchine’s productions the heights that the Petersburg cultural avant-garde could have reached if it had not been crushed by the Soviet authorities. Leningrad’s aspiring musicians, writers, and dancers were inspired (“A City Indebted to its Émigrés”).” But why?
Answering this question, on which I have been researching and writing my master’s thesis, is not an easy endeavor. The arts are the physical manifestation and extension of a culture, providing an immediate glimpse of cross-cultural understanding while also being rife with possible cross-cultural pitfalls. These misunderstandings are based on an ignorance of the unseen cultural aspects: the beliefs, the systems, and the values of foreign cultures. The amalgamation of an artist’s world informs their work – Balanchine’s choreography, though created decades following his flight from the Soviet Union, bore markers of his childhood training and was identified by younger Soviets as part of their heritage. This evolution of their art was done in a manner that had not been allowed by Soviet cultural policy. Similarly, the older generation could not relate. The instrument involved in these discussions was cultural diplomacy – a manner of using art to create a basis of understanding between nations.
Culture was attacked in Paris. The international cultural scene has responded: from U2 to the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower going dark to the recirculation of the French National Assembly’s singing of “La Marseillaise” following January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks, the power of the arts’ voice in current events has been demonstrated. It is the job of cultural diplomacy to bridge these gaps – between nations, between cultures, between ages. Effective cultural diplomacy is not just a performance or exhibit. It is the relationship bridged because of that art. It is a relationship that the U.S. is working to rebuild, one that is needed, though the path to do so is by no means simple.
Written by EALS Production Manager Sarah R. Hewitt