Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Tomorrow I'll be attending the Symposium on the Role of Arts and Culture in Canadian Public Diplomacy, held here in Montreal. The League of Poets asked me to represent them there, because, well, I am the Quebec rep on its National Council and live in Montreal. I actually imagined this affair might be drab as dishwater -- and it may well be -- but a research paper sent to me as preparatory reading, by Rachael Maxwell with the rather straightforward title, The Place of Arts and Culture in Canadian Foreign Policy, surprised me by being quite engrossing, and made me privy to the astounding bit of information that I'm going to share with you now.

In an overview of the history of public diplomacy, Maxwell says that the Cold War set the stage for "what was arguably the largest and most ambitious public diplomacy program ever put forth". (Public diplomacy can be defined as cultural and academic exchanges between nations and more broadly, the promotion of cultural and national values so as to create a favourable image of one's own country abroad.) I quote from her paper:
It was, for all intents and purposes, a propaganda program that aimed to encourage anti-Communist psychology and create allies for the cause. With the help of the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the goals were largely pursued through the dissemination of "anti-Communist culture" directed at foreign publics, and thus was a large-scale exercise in cultural diplomacy. The U.S. government sunk large amounts of funds into the CIA's campaign to "culturally" fight communism, culminating in the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) that was set up by 1950 and three years later in the creation of the United States Information Agency (USIA) that was devoted entirely to public diplomacy. The idea of the Congress and the USIA was to display art, primarily visual art, literature and music, that was directly opposed to Soviet dictates about what art should be. Art was to represent the freedom of American life, that being, the freedom of the individual as opposed to the collective ideology of Communism.

Basically, the CCF sponsored art that was banned in the Soviet Union. As an example, they put on the International Conference of Twentieth Century Music in 1954, which concentrated heavily on atonal music, for the express reason that atonal music was not allowed in the U.S.S.R. In 1959 the Congress for Cultural Freedom sponsored the Masterpieces Festival of modern art, which was to display great works that could not have been created under totalitarian regimes such as Nazism or Communism. The primary art of this exhibition and a number of other widely publicized art extravaganzas during the fifties was Abstract Expressionism. According the the CIA and American government, the art of Abstract Expressionism represented the antithesis to Communism. At the same time, the USIA facilitated numerous cultural and educational exchanges and was responsible for the allotment of Fulbright Scholarships and international radio broadcasts of the Voice of America (VOA).

American Ambassador Cynthia P. Schneider notes that this was a turning point for the instrumentality of cultural diplomacy; in fact, it was the "heyday" of cultural diplomacy. America went against the Soviet Union clad with, "jazz, abstract expressionism and modern literature." Musicians like Louis Armstrong were sent on government-funded tours throughout the Soviet Union and to countries such as Iran, Iraq, Nigeria and Egypt. In fact, American cultural centres during this time prospered in Islamic capitals. Schneider surmises that cultural diplomacy worked so well during the Cold War because it seemingly opened space for critical voices to be heard, in fact, "it even allowed and fostered dissent". Since [artists], actors, musicians and writers in any culture act as the national conscience, reflecting them often critically, on society" they were the most fitting ambassadors to send abroad to promote freedom, as they embodied the ideal of democratic societies, that being, freedom of speech.

Other countries were also active in cultural diplomacy programs, notably the UK, France and Germany; still, nothing compared to the potency and presence of the American program... Moreover, just as the U.S. used culture to undermine the authority of the Communist Party, so did the Soviets with their cultural achievements of the time. For example, the Soviets organized a momentous exhibition in New York in 1959 to display their cultural achievements and often sent their National Ballet on extensive touring programs around the world.

Public diplomacy experienced somewhat of a 'death' at the end of the Cold War. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the United States shut down more than 80 of its cultural centers around the world, under the rather short-sighted belief that "cultural outreach had outlived its purpose." This happened in combination with an anti-arts movement in the American Congress, which further led to cuts in American cultural programming both nationally and internationally and to the eventual elimination of the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1999. Such short sightedness failed to account for nationalist movements that would spur religious and ethnic conflict, notably in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, and in general, across much of the Islamic world and many regions of the African continent, such as Sierra Leone and Rwanda.
As goes Mr. Bush, so goes Baby Bush (otherwise known as Stephen Harper.) Despite our massive national surplus, Harper's government has slashed virtually every penny for promotion of Canadian arts abroad, and made it clear through his policies, communiques and express indifference that the arts couldn't be a lower priority at home. (Margaret Atwood has a number of caustic things to say about this...) Indeed, it is to discuss and raise awareness about these concerns that this symposium is being held. On the panels I see a couple of former federal gov't ministers, namely Bill Graham, former Foreign Affairs & Defence minister, and Marcel Masse, former Communications minister. Too bad, though, that no one from the present government is on any of the panels. Did they decline to send anyone at all? If so, I may be in for a day of futile griping and bickering...


Anonymous said...

It's tough to fight the 'evil commies' when we ourselves are now the 'evil commies'--it's just that most of us here in North America are so comfy in our apathy and brainwash, we don't realise it. Over the past 25 or 30 years, we've co-opted virtually all the worst elements of the former Eastern European Marxist bureacracy, and virtually none of the good. We can't expect the Canadian and American governments to fund us in condemming ourselves.

Brian Campbell said...

What good elements were there? A bunch of empty slogans? A pristine environmental record?