National Security, Cultural Diplomacy and Art
"I felt that America was having an identity crises,” said Eric Fischl, the American painter who sat on stage at The Phillips Collections' theater last October. September 11th wasn’t just a seminal act of terrorism, he said, but a catalyst that fractured the American psyche as the Twin Towers fell.
“The country,” Fischl noted, “is more and more polarized, more and more tribal.”
After the 2001 jet attacks, Fischl began inviting a number of renowned fine artists – Chuck Close, Jeff Koons, Sally Mann and many others – to digest the terrorism. But then he broadened the project’s scope to respond to the nation’s decade-long psychotic break.
Ten years, two wars, a pair of economic meltdowns, one black president, TARP, health care reform, Abu Ghraib, and a bunch of madcap Tea Partiers later Fischl has put together an oddly curated response to America’s crumbling. AMERICA NOW AND HERE – a traveling caravan of 150 artworks, writers, actors, and musicians set to crisscross the nation in April 2011 – hopes that viewers might respond creatively to the national crises—tricky stuff, given the political landmines.
“Did you demand from the artists that they adhere to a certain iconography? I noticed the American flag,” asked Dorothy Kosinski, director of The Phillips Collection, during The Aspen Institute’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum hosted at the museum along with New York University's John Brademas Center.
A work from Fischl's show – a slide of a Jasper Johns’ American flag painted on a field of canary yellow – floated behind them.
“Could you be accused or misconstrued as something patriotic?” she asked.
“First of all you don’t go to the great artists and say, ‘do this’ and ‘it’s got to be like this, this, this, and this,’” Fischl deadpanned. “‘And please put a lot of green in it’”
The art didn’t have to focus on September 11’s tragedy, or have a particular thematic, international or otherwise.
A “crap shoot,” Fischl admitted, but one that provided a meditation on the idea of America as home.
It’s not surprising that Fischl’s Q&A with Kosinski during Aspen’s forum drew easy applause from the easy crowd. A number statespersons – including former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Congressman Jim Moran (D. Virginia) – as well as two former National Endowment for the Arts chairmen, literati, and a New York University president emeritus had gathered to champion cultural diplomacy. Fischl's AMERICA NOW AND HERE was both a response to international terrorism, and, if lucky, an ideal act of cultural diplomacy sparking dialogue across a divided nation.
But it struck me that Kosinski’s question hinted at a dilemma for artists. Cultural diplomacy – out of fashion since the end of the Cold War – is now again a national security necessity given the Neomedieval state of the world. In fact, an advisory committee to the State Department reported back in 2005 that, “cultural diplomacy can enhance our national security in subtle, wide-ranging, and sustainable ways. Indeed history may record that America’s cultural riches played no less a role than military action in shaping our international leadership, including the war on terror. For the values embedded in our artistic and intellectual traditions form a bulwark against the forces of darkness. (Emphasis added)”
Released just as Baghdad was being blown to bits by Sunni insurgents in 2005, the report’s language is a bit Bush “evildoers” era, granted. But the critical question for the artist is: can cultural diplomacy really forestall the “forces of darkness”?
The answer may be yes.
At least the military seems to think so. And more to the awkward point, according to Congressman Moran who sits on the House Defense Subcommittee, the Pentagon might ostensibly pay the bill.
"The political reality is the only way to get money for cultural diplomacy,” Moran told me after speaking at the forum, “is to do it within Defense so people think it enhances their national security.”
How did we get to this strange land, where it's necessary to blur the line between art and Defense to forestall the, uh, dark side of the force?
Before Iraq’s “surge”, before the diplomacy (and money) of the Sunni “Awakening” top brass in the Pentagon realized their kick-down-the-door approach had been a pretty dumb idea. Lately, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, has been shepherding “sort-of/kind-of” talks between the Taliban and Afghan government. If it seems like Petraeus suddenly gets it, actually he’s likely always gotten it; diplomacy, cultural or otherwise, is the only way out of Afghanistan.
"This is the way you end insurgencies." General Petraeus said last September.
Indeed, the RAND Corporation, a leading military think tank, reported in 2008 that a majority of insurgencies ended politically, i.e. diplomatically. I think you can bet Petraeus read it. Here’s the money quote:
“Of the 648 groups that were active at some point between 1968 and 2006,” RAND noted in "How Terrorists Groups End“ a total of 268 ended during that period.” Half were eliminated by local police and intelligence agencies (40 percent), the report says, and the other half by “political accommodation with their government” (43 percent).”
That means that 83 percent of all insurgent groups ended either through policing or diplomatic negotiation. When warfare was key to ending conflict, RAND said that insurgents were actually more successful (10 percent) then a government’s military (7 percent).
In other words, a think tank uniquely created to advise the military was telling the Pentagon– in the middle of fighting a war – that its ham-fisted strategy was a losing hand against an insurgency. That’s telling.
How to fix that? In Afghanistan, diplomacy and a new kind of cultural diplomacy are intertwining. During the Cold War, cultural diplomacy was mostly a tony affair with art shows, music, and ballet to exhibit America’s democratic ideal overseas. The State Department’s Fulbright program favored academic rigor to promote cross-cultural conversations. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, cultural diplomacy has shifted away from its elitist foundation to facilitate diplomatic breakthroughs in the village. Listening, not just exhibiting, is critical to winning the hearts and minds of Pushtun tribal elders who prefer guns to jazz or ballet. And not only are Army field commanders listening to Afghans but also to writers.
For example, in 2009 the Army brass turned to Greg Mortenson, a former mountaineer and author of "Three Cups of Tea", to act as an intermediary between the Army and tribal elders in Kabul. Mortenson’s story was on the lips of nearly every speaker at the Aspen forum. For those somehow not familiar with the story: after falling from a K2 in Pakistan 1993, a Pushtun tribe nursed Mortenson back to health. He vowed to return to build a school, and he did. Later, as executive director of the East Asia Institute, Mortenson had already built numerous schools in Afghanistan by the time an officer’s wife sent “Three Cups of Tea” to her husband, Lt. Colonel Christopher D. Kolenda. Kolenda promptly invited Mortenson to build a school on the Pakistan boarder.
Within a year, Mortenson was meeting with General Stanley A. McChrystal, then the commander of American forces in Afghanistan, and being read by General Patraeus The New York Times noted last September. Mortenson, who doesn't believe a military solution is possible in Afghanistan, has built 130 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan and brokered three-dozen meetings with Kabul elders.
That's a nitty-gritty kind of cultural diplomacy.
“I never expected it,” Mortenson told the Times.
But the pertinent question for artists is whether the Army as a whole sincerely gets cultural diplomacy and has ingrained it into doctrine. Here it gets weirdly comforting. Shortly after State’s 2005 committee report, the task of wrapping the U.S. Army’s head around cultural diplomacy more broadly was handed to Colonel Simon P. Wolsey, a soldier unlike any in the Army’s chain of command.
That’s because he’s a British officer.
Colonel Wolsey, tapped by the army in 2006 to lead the Pentagon’s Stability Operations Division, was, in fact, the first foreign national of rank in U.S. history (his successor was also a Brit). Wolsey was tasked to spread the mantra of nation building, counterinsurgency and diplomacy across the United States Army. He earned that honor after Pentagon generals read his Army War College 2005 master’s thesis "Winning the ‘War of Ideas’ in the Global War on Terrorism."
The sincerity of Wolsey’s assessment impressed the brass, Wolsey's liaison told me. While American democratic ideals and products may fascinate people worldwide, Wolsey then wrote, its pornography, crime, drugs, arrogance, self-indulgence, and hypocritical notions of Globalization (really Americanization) are repellent. President George W. Bush’s insistence that “they” hate us for our democracy was, Wolsey wrote in so many tactful words, exactly wrong.
So what was exactly right?
A veteran of the 1990s Bosnian peacekeeping intervention, Wolsey concluded that cultural diplomacy was the only way the U.S. might win back world opinion and moderate Muslims after Iraq’s invasion. Wolsey’s thesis recommended a nonpartisan communications committee to “coordinate a coherent and credible campaign across all elements” of the US government and a dovetailing foreign policy that was “not hypocritical” but “transparent and fair” to win the war of ideas.
The committee would be informed by a think-tank that worked diplomatically with cultural engagement as its foundation.
“Such a center should bring together the best creative thinkers and brains from a wide variety of professions,” Wolsey’s wrote, adding. “The private sector, entertainment, business, Hollywood, advertising consultants, polling organizations, the media, academics, diplomats, economists, lawyers, financiers, historians, artists, NGOs, and such like, as well as the military, all have an important part to play in such an organization. It should be culturally aware, imaginative, [and] open minded.”
Reading Wolsey’s thesis, it’s easy to appreciate its value to the Pentagon. Certainly the forum’s speakers would champion the center’s creation. But what about the artist who might want to sign on as a cultural ambassador? Politics has a way of devouring art with propaganda. And given the invasion of Iraq, working with the Pentagon might open an artist to charges of imperial collaboration.
Azar Nafisi, author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran”, and more recently, “Things I’ve been Silent About” spoke at the Aspen/Phillips Collection forum. She would agree. In 2003 and again in 2006, Nafisi was opportunistically accused of having neoconservative notions of the kind that justified Iraq’s invasion. She also had to defend herself from, as she then put it, “guilt by association” for acknowledging historian and accused Orientalist, Bernard Lewis, – known for his battles with Edward Said – in her memoir about teaching Western novels to students in Iran.
During the Aspen forum, Nafisi lamented a “crises of vision” in the United States. But even as she called for cultural diplomacy here and abroad, she denounced the political tendency to declare a culture – for instance the so-called “Muslim World” – either wholly good without reservation or wholly evil without a doubt.
“This reductionism of good and evil that exists on the Right and the Left, and exists among the elite not just in this country but globally,” Nafisi said on stage, “that attitude is what we should fight against.”
Later, even with all the national security complications, Nafisi nonetheless encouraged artists to "take the plunge” and become, she told me, cultural ambassadors. She insisted that art and literature was about challenging one’s notions and taking risks.
“Those who give you formulas about how a critic, how a writer, how an artist should think, they’re not really thinkers,” she said excitedly. “Because thinking is wild.”
That’s true—art should render and critique society with evenhanded passion. But what if only Defense has the deep pockets to fund cultural diplomacy worldwide? Tied to military purse strings, would Colonel Wolsey’s apparent sincerity comfort the haters, much less the doubters? Doubtful. After all, the Central Intelligence Agency has a history of secretly funding art during the Cold War to establish the cultural dominance of America's abstract expressionism, for instance planting the story that made Jackson Pollock famous in Life Magazine. That's disquieting. And even without military ties, how might international critics respond to a vigorously American cultural diplomacy?
Here Kosinski’s question comes, for me, full circle—how might Fischl’s AMERICA NOW AND HERE be received here or abroad the Phillip’s director asked? While hoping the caravan would provoke an earnest response on military bases, colleges, and inner cities Fischl acknowledged that some might see a nationalism, or even undue fascism, despite its small town ‘p’ patriotism.
“And if this show were to go abroad,” Fischl finally granted without apology or illusion, “the criticism would be towards cultural imperialism."
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