Last weekend, as I said before, I attended the Canadian Conference of the Arts 2007 Symposium on The Role of the Arts and Culture in Canadian Public Diplomacy. This is a draft of a report I’ve written for the League of Canadian Poets. It was not requested of me; but since they paid my way in, I figured certain people there might benefit from more than a thirty-second synopsis on a conference call. And maybe you, as well. (If not, then scroll way down.)
As a working artist, of course, it was hard to get my mind around the notion of “public” or even its subset, “cultural” diplomacy. 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. For me, this seemed an almost theoretical issue, the concern chiefly of politicians, academics and arrangers of international events. My own preoccupation as an artist is surviving while putting out the best art I can, and publishing or performing it in the best (or at least decent) places; for the rest, come what may.
Part of the haziness of the topic, of course, lies in the terms in question. Culture can be defined in at least a hundred ways, from the fine arts to fast foods. The working definition for this conference seemed to be products and performances of the various disciplines conventionally understood as “the arts”, with the values and experiences of the culture as a kind of matrix or background.
“Diplomacy”, also, is a particularly sticky word: it suggests not only reasoned negotiation, but doing some sort of PR for your country. What if as an artist you have serious issues to contend with, and choose to show your society as you see it, warts and all? Isn’t social criticism one of the fundamental purposes of art? If you as an artist engage in such exposés, does that rule you out as a cultural “representative” of your country? These questions I had in mind as I went to the conference.
Although, as I said before, I imagined the conference would consist of so much complaining about our present arts-unfriendly government, which was conspicuously absent from the proceedings, the moderators tried to set a higher tone by presenting the day as one of “gentle reflection” on the role of the arts in international affairs, and stressing that we would try to “s’elever de la politique malgré tout” – to rise above politics, despite everything.
This, perhaps, was easy to do, considering that we were sitting in a plush auditorium among comfortable, distinguished company.
Here, in any case, are some of salient points made by various speakers. (I must stress that I did find this an educational experience: otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this.)
A concern frequently expressed, not only by the Canadians on the panels but even a Japanese diplomat, is that despite a few major coups on the international stage in the last number of years, the general perception of Canada around the world is still that of a country lacking in cultural sophistication. The popular image is that we have plenty of natural beauty and resources, produce lots of hockey players, but continue to club our seals. Canada’s cultural diversity and urban character are relatively unrepresented and unknown. A lot of this is due to a lack of promotion of Canadian culture abroad. Unfavourable comparisons were made to other middle powers – France, Germany, and Britain – that spend a lot more per capita on international communications, cultural centres in foreign lands, representation at festivals, etc. than Canada.
A number of commentators stressed, of course, that cultural representation abroad is a kind of “soft power”, a sharing of our values, dreams and experiences that peels away prejudices and heals divisions between nations and peoples. Even if our art challenges common assumptions or is sharply critical of our society, that goes to show that Canada champions one of its core values, freedom of expression. The dissemination of our culture abroad redounds to our benefit not only in terms of international respect, but cultural tourism. (We need only think of all the Japanese tourists flocking to see the site of Anne of Green Gables. I hope someday I can come up with a better example. As a side note – this is my note, not one made during the conference – even the film Borat, a film of low jokes about Kazakhstan, has apparently resulted in a multi-fold increase in tourism to that country.)
One commentator – a marketing manager for the Stratford Festival whose name I failed to note -- suggested that ideally, if we were truly committed to enhancing our international “brand image”, we would create an independent entity along the lines of the Canada Council, but entirely devoted to the promotion of Canadian culture abroad. This would include enhanced budgets for touring, in order to “push our arts” around the world. To have the kind of muscle needed to do the job properly, he figured 150 million dollars per year would be suitable. As he put it, “Do it big or stay in bed.” If such an agency could be supported by an endowment, to make it impervious to the vagaries of changing government policy, so much the better. At the present time, international cultural promotion is a “poor stepchild of (the Ministries of) Foreign Affairs and Heritage”: this arms-length relationship creates a credibility gap. It also feeds an inferiority complex among artists: aren’t we worth being validated outside our country? Wouldn’t it be great to be told a little more often that we are outstanding, and to be so treated? Of course, such a commitment would imply greatly increased financial support for culture inside the country as well.
A commentator from Quebec pointed out that la belle province has fared better, perhaps, through its cultural promotions than other provinces. The international success of Cirque du Soleil has put forth a strong image of imagination, expertise, style and excellent management all at once; so, too, the films of Denys Arcand. A rather minimal provincial arts promotion budget –some 8 million dollars annually, all told – goes a long way, especially considering how little artists actually demand for their work. Left begging, however, was the question of whether artists should be content to receive so little.
Other notable contributions were made by the likes of former Foreign Affairs (and recently, Defence) Minister Bill Graham and Communications Minister Marcel Masse.
Bill Graham reasserted his statement, made while he was Foreign Affairs minister, that culture, following peace and security and economic development, was the “third pillar” of foreign diplomacy. He openly admitted that his own government did not do enough for the arts, although of course, the present government is “far worse” in ignoring that third pillar entirely. He praised the former Gov. General Adrienne Clarkson’s insistence that her foreign visits be accompanied by a cultural entourage, even though it was so roundly deprecated in the press for its “extravagance”, arguing that it impressed upon some important leaders that Canada, culturally speaking, is indeed a major player on the world stage.
Marcel Masse was actually refreshing in how he spoke about Canadian culture in terms that have been quite absent from discussions over at least the last two decades: how we Canadians are both awash in American culture and yet need to distinguish ourselves from it, how we need to express and export our distinct sensibility, etc. While Americans have a particular genius for marrying culture and the private sector, Canada clearly has to go another way. At the same time, he stressed, it is disturbing how rarely cultural questions are debated in parliament: cultural questions are simply not on the minds of our political decision makers.
Many other things were said, some of the most stimulating and insightful by artists on the panels and question period. I shall never forget, for instance, famed dancer/choreographer Judith Marcuse’s dance/pantomime expressing isolation and communication, or her inspired presentation afterwards. What I came away with from the conference was a heightened sense of the international ramifications of my own work, however small a poetry audience might be – how it can bring people together beyond the national sphere, and put a human face on the nation. Art is an important way to share who we are, in all our passions and particularity. As Judith Marcuse put it, a culture that doesn’t share its stories “gets sick.” And as Guilloaume Sirois in one of the background reports for this conference writes, “Whether they like it or not, artists and culture professionals carry the national flag abroad.” At the same time, modern medias present new opportunities to do some informal “cultural diplomacy” of one’s own: I need only think of various online reviews I’ve published in, YouTube, or for that matter, this blog.