Politics & Policy

Smart Power & Postmodern Art

How “provocative” should our artistic ambassadors be?

It’s the latest strategic move from the State Department: smART Power. A two-year, $1 million pilot program, smART Power will field a different kind of American “diplomat” — a cadre of élite artists. Their mission: to use visual arts as a medium for winning the hearts and minds of foreign populations all over the globe. The impetus for this initiative comes right from the top. It’s part of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s new approach to U.S. foreign policy, what she dubs “smart power.”

State’s cultural-diplomacy programs have grown rapidly over the last ten years — and so has the funding. The ante has been upped steadily by $1 million per year.

Cultural diplomacy is, of course, a good thing. So, too, is winning minds and hearts over to the American ideals of democracy, individual rights, and free-market enterprise. Such ideals are woven into the very fabric of our lives as Americans. We identify with them, and they make us proud. And the more the rest of the world recognizes their universality, the more secure and prosperous all of us will be.

It is doubtful, however, that the typical American would identify with any of State’s select 15 artists, nine of whom live and work in New York City and most of whom were molded at art-establishment meccas such as Yale, Pratt, and the Rhode Island School of Design. Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with the Big Apple or these big-name schools. But just how representative of America, and American art, can such an insular, homogenous group of artists be?

It was the Bronx Museum of the Arts that was given the authority by State to select these lucky 15 from more than 900 applicants. Entrusting such a diplomatically delicate choice to this edgy establishment is a puzzling choice. The museum’s reputation, according to New York magazine, is “based primarily on provocative shows of contemporary [i.e., postmodern] art.” Indeed, one of its past exhibits on police violence drew sharp criticism from Mayor Rudy Giuliani and law-enforcement organizations. Perhaps a more neutral and accountable organization like the National Endowment for the Arts would have been a better choice.

For her part, Holly Block, the Bronx museum’s director, called the program “a fantastic opportunity for people who are interested in pushing the boundaries of art making.” Does this mean non-postmodernists need not have applied?

But that isn’t all. According to the museum’s presentation, the point of smART Power will be to address such issues as “women’s empowerment, the environment, health, education, and civic engagement.” This all may be fine and good, but it’s not clear just what kind of message our brave artists are intent on conveying. As cultural diplomats, are they purveyors of principles, or of policies? Any tilt toward the latter would likely be political — which would contradict the smART Power premise of “engagement on a neutral platform,” in the words of Maura Pally, a senior official in State’s Educational and Cultural Affairs bureau, the entity responsible for this program.

If the smART Power 15 intend to promote principles, just what will those be? Their artistic and ideological orientations, one suspects, veer off somewhere in the direction of postmodernism and utopianism. It would be helpful to hear these, our future cultural envoys, answer the very important question, “Is there any objective ideal worth fighting for?”

It is important to remember that the idea of employing American artists as cultural diplomats is nothing new, and it has met with success before. One shining example is “Jazz Diplomacy.” During the Cold War era, it greatly enhanced America’s appeal in global hotspots through the universal language of music. Not to mention that such musicians as Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong were strong uniting forces in their time, whose artistic contributions retain their appeal to this day.

It’s doubtful we’ll be able to say the same regarding another recent initiative from the cultural-diplomatic thinkers at State: hip-hop. Over the last several years, select contingents of American rappers, graffiti artists, and break dancers have held concerts and workshops all over the globe on the State Department’s dime. Intent on introducing youngsters abroad to U.S. culture, these artists promote “the positive nature of hip-hop and graffiti cultures and present them as healthy alternatives to drugs, violence, and delinquency.” So says State.

An obvious problem arises here: Graffiti is commonly perceived as vandalism, and hip-hop’s popular lyrical expressions are widely associated — at least in the U.S. — with violence, drug abuse, sexual license, and misogyny. The hip-hop group Native Deen, which the State Department sent on an early-Ramadan tour through Indonesia this year, has lyrics that include “Allahummah, help my people up in Palestine, who be dying, oppressed all the time.” Dominican rapper José “Reychesta” Collado has songs that accuse the police of racial discrimination; he held a sponsored workshop in Peru. The only way State’s hip-hop diplomats could represent American ideals is if those ambassadors were drawn from the margins of hip-hop culture — not from its amoral-leftist mainstream.

The smART Power 15 seem to have more in common with the hip-hop and graffiti ambassadors than with the jazz diplomats of yesteryear. That’s not to say that the artists sent by State should all be reincarnations of Norman Rockwell, Winslow Homer, or Georgia O’Keeffe. But it is worth recalling that we continue to be drawn to these classic artists because they tell us something about ourselves both as human beings and as Americans.

The artistic milieu has its own culture, one whose innovative attempts to portray meaning often break with tradition — after all, Rockwell, Homer, and O’Keeffe did just that. But if these 15 artists dispatched abroad by State are to represent us, it’s not enough for them merely to be good at what they do. As Americans, they should do honor to our commonly held values and principles. We Americans should be able to recognize ourselves in those who represent us, be it here or abroad.

This is part of State’s mission. Let us hope it delivers.

— Daniel Kettinger is a member of the Heritage Foundation’s Young Leaders program. He is pursuing a graduate degree in security studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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