Sunday, February 15, 2009

High Hurdles to Cultural Diplomacy

In this post on WhirledView, Patricia Kushlis laments how overzealous security concerns and bureaucratic red-tape stifle public exhibitions of American art abroad, whether through State's Art in Embassies program or on display at American Cultural Centers in foreign capitals. She speaks to the issue with some authority--having organized an exhibit of American sculpture art in downtown athens back in the days when an ample USIA budget and more reasonable security protocol facilitated that kind of cultural diplomacy.

America Houses Need American Exhibits, Too
So, it seems to me if the Obama Administration is serious about reestablishing America Houses (or Centers) throughout the Muslim world then it needs to rethink the current restrictions on exhibits – because, believe me, there needs to be something attractive and compelling on the walls and in the exhibition halls of those institutions.

I agree with Kushlis that few--if any--foreign citizens probably have real access to art displays sponsored by U.S. embassies, despite the best efforts of our Cultural Attaches. While her qualms over funding and logistics are well-founded, we should consider security barriers to cultural exhibits and performances as a perhaps necessary evil.

To pick Jordan as an example, as I often do, it was hard enough for me--let alone the average Jordanian--to take advantage of cultural resources in the inner sanctuary of the fortress that is the U.S. Embassy in Amman, or even an off-site American jazz quartet concert that was essentially open only to elite Jordanians with the right connections to fetch advance tickets. Yet, the accessibility of American high culture in parts of the world such as the Middle East is subject to very stark security realities. The library and cultural information center of Amman’s Fulbright House was bombed (at night) in 2005, an event that probably well explains the discrete location of the new Fulbright center and lack of an American Cultural Center in the country.

The upshot of these realities is that commercialized pop culture overshadows (in fact, dominates) any attempts at PD-sponsored fine art displays and exchanges in the region. As we discussed in class, Jordanians and other Arabs are thus bombarded with Hollywood’s finest takes on Middle Eastern intrigue like the shoot-em-up flick The Kingdom or worse still, Body of Lies. A prominent Jordanian blogger, Naseem Tarawnah (Black Iris of Jordan), had this to say about the DiCaprio/Crowe thriller:

Jordan is referenced in a pretty negative way, especially with the extensive referencing of the [Jordanian Security Service] GID’s notorious torture tactics. Calling the country’s primary security apparatus as the “fingernail factory” wasn’t very flattering. However, these sorts of things are kind of expected from a Hollywood movie.

The solution for reinvigorating this ‘softest’ of soft power, cultural public diplomacy, in the Arab world seems elusive. Kushlis, for her part, offers up this plea:

Maybe the Art in Embassies art is – for whatever reasons – off limits to those of us plebians, but then a public diplomacy office with sufficient funding, know-how, and ability to coordinate exhibits (and this takes skill and know-how) needs to be established.

It can be done – but not the way the State Department’s public diplomacy efforts, staff and budgets operate now.

1 comment:

  1. with some creative thinking, it is entirely possibly to work around and with these security concerns to reach out to non-elite publics everywhere in the middle east. witness what we have done in iraq, afghanistan and sudan recently! I recommend going into universities, schools, cultural centers and organizing in-house performances for so-called captive audiences by day and performing for the elite in hotel ball rooms or concert halls in the evening.