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Art and the promotion of America

By the 1960’s the United States had established an international diplomatic presence that included not only embassies but also cultural centers, art export programs, and well supported programs to have American artists perform overseas.  The idea that American culture could be a force for civilizational outreach was, of course, not new to the post-World War II years – based on his admiration of African American soldiers, for example, General Pershing had sent marching bands to Europe in 1917 all of whose members were black, and the effect was to introduce jazz to a pleasantly amazed France.  And in the 1950’s the State Department sponsored a European tour of Porgy and Bess.

The American artistic scene having been internationalized during World War II by European upheavals, the direction was to a small extent reversed as the United States government became more systematic in exporting culture.  By 1963, President John Kennedy was noting his wish for an “America which will reward achievements in the arts as we reward achievement in business and statecraft… and [for] an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization.”

In the context of American public diplomacy the arts have been broadly defined to include everything from touring sports teams to ballet and cinema.  As Richard Arndt tells the story, “The long history of American performers abroad, like that of US educators, prepared the ground for the government to step in; viable commercial performance channels already existed in Latin America in 1942 when Rockefeller first offered government assistance.  When the US government found itself ready to use performances for cultural diplomatic purposes, much of the foundation had already been laid” (pg. 403).  The American government understood that popular cultural artifacts needed no governmental assistance; the challenge was to find high cultural programs suitable for export at a time when the nation was thought to lag other countries in their quality.  Rockefeller supported Lincoln Kirsten’s effort to assemble the American Ballet Caravan, and to make it artistically compelling Kirsten hired George Balanchine, the Russian emigre.  The rest, as they say, is history.  After decades of support, by 1994 such large scale enterprises had been mainly abandoned.

The idea that such endeavors tangibly improve the influence of the United States of America overseas has waxed and waned with time.  As the Cold War raged on, a sense that resources should be put into anything that might plausibly win hearts and minds was sometimes debated but investments continued anyway.  Today, the idea that so-called Soft Power (a term championed by Joseph Nye) can usefully supplement harder forms of influence (such as battleships) is more vigorously debated.  Now even those who see some value to the explicit export of American cultural artifacts wonder whether the modest likely payoffs can surmount the accumulating bitterness overseas regarding America’s involvement in Iraq.  Meanwhile, the Bush Administration has taken repeated steps to promote goodwill overseas, from Brand America activity to the appointment of Karen Hughes as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.

Setting aside the macro-discussions regarding the wider range of public diplomatic activity and their efficacy, one might wonder more modestly about the benefit of targeted cultural exchanges like the recent trip to North Korea undertaken by the New York Philharmonic this March.  The United States and North Korea technically remain in a state of declared war, and so the brief 48-hour visit received considerable attention.  The Philharmonic performance was carried on North Korean television and radio, which seemed significant, and NYP music director Loren Maazel articulated the hope that “we may have been instrumental in opening a little door.”

Do such hopes convey any realistic expectation of realization?  The main concert was in some ways hopelessly contrived.  The handpicked audience applauded vigorously, even providing a standing ovation at the end, but the idea that they understood the conductorless encore performance of the Candide Overture (a tribute to Leonard Bernstein’s earlier Cold War tours) seems far fetched.  Then again, who knows what kind of reception the performance received?

One might imagine the response a North Korean symphony orchestra touring the United States would have received – how likely is it that Americans would suddenly respond with warmth?  The comparison is, one supposes, partly unfair since it fails to test one of the major predicates of soft power advocacy, namely, that the world will respond to cultural exports celebrating democratic culture.  Still, can one plausibly expect that Dvorak will ignite a passion for America among the North Korean elite?  Daniel Wakin, a New York Times writer, wondered “how much of [the message] got through? …During the Philharmonic’s performance, virtually no North Koreans in the audience were seen tapping their feet or their fingers, or nodding in time to the music, or changing facial expressions to match the mood.”

The question of intercultural influence is real, and the tendency to romanticize the possibilities for art by imagining that a Louis Armstrong tour can salve great power conflict should be put into perspective against the alternatives, especially the prospect that high art has an altogether slight effect on the broader currents of cultural contestation.  What does this fact say about the limits of high culture or the influence of art?

The tough questions posed by the North Korean concert cannot be escaped:  does art matter or not, and if it does, to what extent and in what ways does it matter?  These of course are the centuries-old questions artists have always faced, and admit of no certain response except perhaps the hope that even if art plainly fails today to achieve its aspirations, then maybe its future traces will influence generations to come.  And so, one might finally be left with the idea of belief in the potential of art to transform lives and nations as a faith, never confirmed nor decisively denied, but a belief in which one must have confidence if one is to believe in the prospects for civilization over those for cruelty.

SOURCES:  Richard Arndt, The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century (Washington:  Potomac Books, 2005); J. Michael Waller, The Public Diplomacy Reader (Washington:  Institute of World Politics Press, 2007); Jan Melissen, editor, The New Public Diplomacy: Soft Power in International Relations (New York: Palgrave, 2005); Daniel Wakin, “A Major Event in a Strangely Minor Key,” New York Times, 2 March 2008.


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