March 3, 2007

Is cultural diplomacy the way forward?

Posted at 12:27 pm in British Museum

British Museum director Neil MacGregor regularly talks about how the museum is helping to spread cultural diplomacy. It appears tat the government has also now caught onto this phrase, courtesy of the Demos think-tank.

The Guardian blogs

Artful politics
A commitment to cultural diplomacy could open British politics up to the possibility of change.
March 1, 2007 5:00 PM

Charles Clarke was not the only senior government politician opening up a very public debate on the future of Labour policy yesterday. Secretary of state Tessa Jowell, speaking at a Demos forum on a new role for cultural diplomacy was doing the same – possibly unwittingly. In the cavernous, even overwhelmingly impressive Raphael Gallery in the Victoria and Albert Museum, she spoke about a new approach to arts and culture as vehicles for Britain’s “soft power” in the world as “a set of ideas whose time had come”.

She described the fateful weekend when the London bombings immediately followed the news that London had won the Olympic bid for 2012 as a juxtaposition of “hard and soft power”. In this, Jowell appeared to throw her weight behind the latter force as the way forward for the future. The best response to terrorism, she insisted, is to facilitate events where the world can come together in all its diversity and actively foster our connectedness.

Other members of the panel picked up her baton and ran with it. Referring directly to its implications for foreign policy, Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum called it a “pre-imperial idea for a post-colonial world”. “Whereas, in the 18th century, we wanted to present Britain to the world. Today, our task as Britons is to present the whole world to the whole world”. A typical British Museum project now is the recent introduction of Syrian Art to China.

Nobody mentioned the elephant in the room. It took me a while to notice it myself. While we had been welcomed to the chamber by a huge, smiling statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, we were conducting the discussion facing the Retable of St George, depicting the bloody Crusades in all their glory. They perfectly symbolised the wishful thinking bordering on schizophrenia going on in the room. How can a Labour government put its full weight behind the image of Britain as facilitator of international cohesion at the very same time as partner Bush in his drive for global supremacy?

Sir Richard Dalton, ambassador to Iran until 2006, attempted to bring the new idealism down to earth. “We have to be clear headed and not sentimental about what contribution the arts can make”. “Politics”, he said, “always comes first”. He advised those present to avoid arts “strategising” for fear of depleting resources for the front line of arts “making”. Unless, he said, you can get Gordon Brown behind it.

And therein, as Shakespeare would have it, lies the rub. To what extent is this new push for a different, softer image of Britain abroad, a real possibility for the future under a new prime minister? As it stands, Tessa Jowell’s depiction of Britain as a servant (or maybe grand facilitator) of global cohesion through soft power, directly contradicts the current image of Britain abroad as a hard power, willing to coerce others by economic and military means.

One would like to think that Jowell’s close relationship to Brown means that she spoke with his blessing. When referencing the week of July 7th, she forgot to mention the other crucial event that took place at the same time – the Live 8 event for Make Poverty History. Maybe, by linking together all three, she would make an even bigger argument for a new rationale for international politics. The connection between poverty and terrorism is something that Gordon Brown has always understood and acted substantially upon and the arts help us to make those links.

But as the V&A displayed today, arts are not politically neutral. Buddha was a pacifist, Raphael was not. And the last thing the arts community would want is a new politicising of the arts in order to make them fit for diplomatic use. There is a danger, even in the writings of Joseph Nye, for soft power to be “used” as an adjunct to hard power: another, more seductive way for strong countries to get their own way.

That the arts can play an invaluable role in developing culture is clear: but they can also be a way of keeping it static. A number of people in the room today warned of the dangers of limiting our idea of culture to all that is “excellent” and hence elite in the world of the Arts. Karen Brown, director of Action Aid, preferred a wider definition of culture as being the expression of the diverse values that underlie and drive society rather than a collection of beautiful objects, or the events themselves.

Those underlying values are, often, just as evident in how we run civil society as in how we perform on any stage. Action Aid’s style of “leading the way globally”, for example, is similar to how Tessa Jowell wants to run the Olympics, emphasising the contribution of the whole community over the role of Britain as organiser.

Would that definition of culture and the arts leave our politicians bereft of a new tool to promote and in fact heal the image of Britain abroad? Not, as Lola Young, head of culture for the GLA suggested, if they were willing to accept that our values are constantly changing and developing. And that the arts and sports – as the spaces in which diversity is embraced and enhanced – are great ways of helping to facilitate the emergence of new values. Their commitment then would be less to culture as a product and more to culture as a process.

Which brings me back to Charles Clarke and his new thinking initiative. To hand the process of reframing Labour over to the public is not just a risky idea – it is a vote in favour of the new networks of social and non party-political activity that have emerged on the internet. Such openness, if genuine, could make the Labour party very “attractive” to disaffected voters.

Tessa Jowell’s response to the ideas of cultural diplomacy, may add up to a similar movement towards more participative politics, specifically involving the arts. If British politics could find a way to formally embrace the messages emerging from the our burgeoning culture, from the radical ideas of our national playwrights to the new demands of those engaged at the grass roots in the culture of identity – without seeking to control them – it would effectively open up British politics to the possibility of change. In fact, if properly pursued, such a commitment constitutes change itself.

See also, the article that this is based on:
Demos’s website

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