Artists: resist this propagandist agenda

In a speech for the Battle of Ideas, Tiffany Jenkins argued that cultural diplomacy leads to bad art and bad politics.

Tiffany Jenkins

Topics Culture

The relationship between culture and politics has never been straightforward. The 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.

After the failures of the ‘war on terror’, politicians are now elevating the role of culture in international policymaking. And far from rejecting these advances, many cultural leaders – eager for affirmation and purpose – have embraced them, arguing that it is about time the positive impact of the arts on foreign relations was recognised.

In 2006, with the enthusiastic embrace of many cultural institutions, the British Council, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport developed an International Cultural Policy. The intention is not simply to collaborate and to share works of art between different countries, which would be a good thing. Instead, the aim is to employ the arts as propaganda and, in the words of Labour peer Lord Carter of Coles, to promote ‘behaviour change’. The Carter Review argues that the arts should not just create positive perceptions, but also change the way people act (1).

As a consequence of this review, a Public Diplomacy Board has been established, comprising representatives of the British Council, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the BBC World Service. The cultural sector has been directed to develop international partnerships in areas of specific cultural and government priority, and to use cultural activity for development, diplomacy and as part of post-conflict resolution.

This means that arts organisations and artists now have an extra bunch of boxes to tick when they apply for funding: will the artwork improve gender relations, stop terrorism or prevent regime change?

The cultural sector is astonishingly uncritical about this sorry picture even though artists are being instructed to act as propagandists. There are several problems with these developments, which have not been addressed but should be – because, as far as I’m concerned, culture should never be diplomatic.

Cold War cultural diplomacy

President Woodrow Wilson once argued that popular culture ‘speaks a universal language [that] lends itself importantly to the presentation of America’s plans and purposes’. For Wilson, exporting culture was good diplomacy and would promote the right values.

America pioneered cultural diplomacy to combat Nazi propaganda prior to the Second World War, but this strategy became more important during the Cold War. In this period, US cultural efforts were funded by the CIA as well as the State Department’s Division of Cultural Relations. Policymakers identified a link between an engagement with foreign audiences and victory over their ideological enemies.

The United States thus armed itself with jazz, abstract expressionism and modern literature, and promoted them abroad as part of a strategy to win people over to American values. In the late 1950s, more than 100 acts were sent to 89 countries. The idea was that artists, including Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, would bring to life concepts of liberty.

The primary job of the Office of War Information during this period was to promote and explain America’s purposes and objectives to the world. You might ask ‘what is wrong with that?’. Wouldn’t anyone like to hear Louise Armstrong, after all? But, even if there were artistic benefits with this relationship, there were also problems.

Firstly, it promoted the formalisation of a subservient relationship of the arts to government, where the arts were considered the instrument of foreign policy. Apart from the first problem with this relationship – that politics shouldn’t direct culture – it also assumed that artists had the same interests as the government. But at times, indeed often, their interests are at odds.

It was a contradiction to use black artists to represent a particular notion of freedom when the US was still living under formal segregation. The civil rights movement subsequently had to take on the US state to fight for freedom at home. In the promotion of freedom abroad, we often ignore the lack of liberty on our doorstep.

In a similar vein, if British artists and cultural professionals are concerned about art and politics today, they should mount a greater critique of immigration policies that keep artists from coming over to work in the UK, and fight for the free movement of practitioners, as recently advocated in the report UK Arts and Culture: Cancelled, by Order of the Home Office. This would involve, not cosying up to government and its restrictive immigration policies, but criticising it. Such criticism, however, would not be considered ‘good cultural diplomacy’.

Cultural diplomacy encourages art to be aligned with government and politics, when the relationship is always more complicated. The danger is that art is used as propaganda, which both dictates the message and reduces the complexity of artists’ work, minimising the more interesting ambiguities and limiting creativity. Even when art is political, it is usually at its most powerful when it is nuanced.

Under senator Joseph McCarthy we saw the flipside of art as propaganda: its repression. Once artists agree that they can and should play a positive role for government they give away their independence. In turn, their work can easily be classified as negative or dangerous, and thus find itself censored.

Post-modern cultural diplomacy

In the past decade in Britain, cultural foreign policy has moved up the agenda, with interesting differences to the way it was used in the past. Firstly, there is the broader context for policymakers in embracing this agenda: the reaction to 9/11 and the failure of subsequent Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. This new context is important as it has contributed to a profound discrediting of foreign policy.

The interest policymakers have shown in culture since 9/11 can be partly explained by the growing illegitimacy of Western forces abroad. Involving the arts in their work can help to legitimise their role, the logic goes. And that is one good reason to be critical of this agenda.

The second difference to the cultural diplomacy of the past is the presentation of today’s promotional artworks as consciously post-imperialist, and its distancing from the concept of universal culture. Previously, the development of cultural diplomacy assumed the existence of cultural authority. The notion of universal cultural value was the criteria of ‘excellence’ to be appreciated by everyone. Today, however, in line with postmodern thinking, the definition of culture refers not to that once described by the Victorian paternalist, Matthew Arnold, as ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’, but the quotidian habits, customs and traditions of wider society.

Thirdly, cultural value is no longer regarded unequivocally as durable and transcendent, but as relative to each society or community that produces it. The multicultural argument in cultural policy, which has gained ground since the late 1990s, brought not just a challenge to the universalist approach, but also placed increased emphasis on culture as an essential reflection and expression of particular identities. It reflects a re-imagining of the subject at the heart of policy where, for advocates of identity politics, people’s differences are no longer something to be overcome but are the basis of their social solidarity and their shared experience of social problems.

Theorist Stuart Hall, for example, argues that identity is formed through cultural representation. It is ‘formed and transformed continuously in relation to the ways in which we are represented or addressed in the cultural systems which surround us’.

Identity is increasingly invoked as a factor in the analysis of social problems and proposed solutions. Policymakers are interested in how nurturing identities might lead to an increased sense of community and improved relations.

In this context, the field of culture in an increasingly broad anthropological sense – with its attributed potential to nurture a sense of identity – has become regarded as way to improve relations between people and tackle social problems at home and abroad. So, for example, in its report on cultural diplomacy, the think tank Demos argues that: ‘As identity politics exert an increasing influence on domestic and international exchanges, culture is therefore a critical forum for negotiation and a medium of exchange in finding shared solutions.’ (2)

Similarly, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, suggests that the role of the museum today is far more about ‘listening’ than promoting British views and values. He argues that museums can encourage a broad understanding and appreciation of the interrelatedness of the world’s cultures and thus promote ‘tolerance’, branding the institution as a museum of different cultures for world peace.

Whereas in the past cultural foreign policy had a robust concept of universal standards and values of the work promoted abroad, today such an attitude is understood to be imperialist. Instead, culture in its broad sense is credited as being a source of, and solution to, conflict, and the promotion of culture can, it is thought, build nation states and affirm identities.

Instead of beaming jazz to the Soviet bloc, today’s cultural diplomats are using museums and galleries to promote tolerance and the concept of different identities working together and thus contributing to conflict resolution. As Demos argues, ‘More than ever before, culture has a vital role to play in international relations. This stems from the wider, connective and human values that culture has: culture is both the means by which we come to understand others, and an aspect of life with innate worth that we enjoy and seek out. Culture enables us to appreciate points of commonality and, where there are differences, to understand the motivations and humanity that underlie them.’ (3) According to Demos, the power of culture in international relations should be recognised and unlocked.

The denigration of art and politics

If the cultural diplomacy of the past was a flawed strategy, severely limiting and compromising those interested in both politics and the arts, then what about the cultural diplomacy of today?

Today, cultural diplomacy involves different but equally problematic assumptions and consequences, both in relation to how the arts are regarded and to the character of collections, as well with regards to how we understand ourselves and political conflicts. There is a real danger that conflict will be understood as something that is simply caused by cultural differences. This simplistic explanation of war and conflict comes at the expense of a more structural analysis, which examines the different state interests and why leaders may take their people to war. Instead, we are told that people need to realise that ‘we’re all different’, that we should be more ‘understanding’ and learn to ‘get along’.

This naive approach to international relations not only obscures political analysis; it also situates blame in peoples’ identities, which are essentialised. Contemporary cultural diplomacy reifies difference, and leads to a depoliticised understanding of conflict.

In turn, while the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, cannot be solved or understood through a display of historical artefacts in museums and galleries, cultural institutions are burdened with the responsibility of cultural diplomacy.

In 2004, for example, the British Museum exhibition Sudan: Ancient Treasures surveyed the archaeology of Africa’s biggest country over the past 200,000 years. Initially the idea was to underline the overlooked cultural significance of Sudan, but when Darfur hit the headlines the museum decided to relate what was happening in the news with the exhibition. Like many contemporary exhibitions at the British Museum, explicit links were made to understanding the present-day conflict through the region’s past.

But those links were, at best, highly simplistic. Worse, by compressing history to link the distant past to the troubles in the present, the chief impression left by the exhibition was that the Sudanese are a violent bunch. The exhibition suggested that there is something intrinsic to the Sudanese that lends them to fighting. And it avoided putting present-day Africa today and international relations under any scrutiny. The ancient treasures of Sudan were pushed aside in the interests of a greater narrative. The objects, and the lives of their creators and users, were obscured.

By asking collections to be diplomatic, we lose what is interesting about them. We ignore the accomplishments, the ways of life and the meanings of the rituals of peoples from past civilisations, because we are too interested in what they can purportedly do for us now.

Cultural diplomacy will only politicise objects further, making them the focus of more controversy and claims-making. In the past 10 years there have been several brilliant exhibitions about Islamic art, at times in the name of improving cultural relations. This hasn’t helped to get the troops to withdraw from Iraq or improved life for Afghans, but it has been a feast of artistic riches. At the same time, however, there have been increased calls for censorship in the name of avoiding offence, often expressed by arts professionals worried about the impact of culture on communities.

Tate Britain, for example, cancelled plans to display John Latham’s work ‘God Is Great’ as part of the 2005 British Art Displays exhibition because they were worried it could upset Muslims after London’s 7 July bombings. ‘God Is Great’ consists of a large sheet of glass and copies of the Koran, the Bible and the Talmud that have been cut apart.

The museum directors explained: ‘Having sought wide-ranging advice, Tate feels that to exhibit the work in London in the current sensitive climate, post-7 July, would not be appropriate.’ They were worried that this work of art might damage community relations. This illustrates that the flipside of cultural diplomacy: work that is seen to be ‘dangerous’ will not be shown.

In response, the Muslim Council of Britain commented: ‘We have not received any complaints about this piece of artwork… We would have preferred to have been consulted by Tate Britain before the decision was taken to remove John Latham’s piece… Sometimes presumptions are incorrectly made about what is unacceptable to Muslims and this can be counterproductive.’

They are quite right: the concept of cultural diplomacy is full of misconceptions about culture. But with the increased attention given to artwork as agents of cultural diplomacy, it is likely that collections will become more and more politicised. By taking the path of cultural diplomacy, museum collections will be the focus of increased concern and claims-making, rather than enlightenment.

Tiffany Jenkins is an academic and cultural commentator. Visit her website here. This article is based on a talk at the Battle of Ideas satellite event Museums for World Peace. She is also speaking in the debates Can the arts save the economy? and The art of criticism: judgement in crisis at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 1 November 2009.

Previously on spiked

Tiffany Jenkins reviewed Whose Culture? and met critics of the ‘disorganised apartheid’ of cultural diversity. Angus Kennedy defended civilisation as more than ‘good culture’. Brendan O’Neill showed how Gordon Brown’s vision for the future was a new Cold War. Munira Mirza questioned the idea that modern art is ‘left wing’. Jan Bowman argued that state funding undermines artistic independence. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and Entertainment.

(1) Lord Carter of Coles’ Public Diplomacy Review, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 2005

(2) Department for Culture, Media & Sport International Strategy 2006 (PDF)

(3) Cultural Diplomacy, Demos (London), 2007

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Topics Culture


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