Benjamin R Barber: Cultural diplomacy doesn't change how countries do business

Share
Related Topics

When presidents and prime ministers worry about what kind of art to hang on their walls – Barack Obama has hung African-American paintings but also opted for some fairly esoteric modern works – we get a sense of the power politics attaches to the arts.

But just how political is art? Or should it be? I ask this in the week the British Council marks 75 years of bringing UK culture to the world – and the world's culture to the UK. When the council tours the arts overseas, as it did by taking Bridget Riley behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia in 1971 and more recently sending Gregory Burke's Black Watch, a searing play about the Scottish Black Watch regiment's tour in Iraq, to New York – we can hardly help but ask what role the arts should play or are playing here?

The trouble with cultural diplomacy – don't get me wrong, I like cultural diplomacy – is that it is redundant. Culture is diplomacy. Why? Because the medium in which the arts swim is not really words or deeds but imagination. Which is to say, cultural diplomacy cannot pretend to change how countries do business and probably should not even try. When asked whether his novels contained a message, Nabakov replied in terms cultural diplomats should emulate: "No, I am not a postman".

Sending the Boston Symphony Orchestra to North Korea can no more alter North Korea's position on nuclear weapons than sending Black Watch to New York changed President Bush's position on American engagement in the Iraq war. So while the British Council did both the right thing and the brave thing in exporting Black Watch, it did not do this as an endorsement of official policy. It did so knowing that the values of art need to be allowed to speak on their own terms.

The truth is that democracy needs the art more than the art needs democracy. We need it to exhibit our freedom, to provoke our imagination, to contradict our narcissism, and to redeem our otherness. It belongs at the centre of democracy – and can even embellish diplomacy – but neither as the voice of the patriot nor as the cry of the protester, but at best as the emblem of what democrats aspire to be. That is more than enough.

Taken from a lecture to mark the 75th anniversary of the British Council; www.britishcouncil.org; www.benjaminbarber.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior SQL DBA (SQL Server 2012, T-SQL, SSIS) London - Finance

£30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior SQL DBA...

C# Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, MVC-4, HTML5) London

£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Web Develop...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ukip leader Farage with former Tory MP Carswell, who has defected to his party  

Could Douglas Carswell be a Trotskyite in disguise?

John Rentoul
Richard Attenborough, who died on 25 August, attends a film premiere  

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

DJ Taylor
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution