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, for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has crafted the new approach to U.S. foreign policy around what she dubs “smart power.”
Cultural diplomacy is, of course, a good thing. So, too, is winning hearts and minds over to the American ideals of democracy, individual rights, and free market enterprise—indeed, such ideals are woven into the very fabric of our lives as Americans. We identify with them, and they make us proud.
It is doubtful whether the typical American would identity with any of these 15 artists, nine of whom live and work in New York City and most of whom were formed at such academic meccas of the art establishment 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—it’s just questionable how representative of America and American art in general such a group of artists can be. Then there’s the apparent problem of trying to be avant-garde and yet well ensconced in the postmodern art establishment.
The Bronx Museum of the Arts, moreover, was granted the authority by State to select the lucky 15 winners from more than 900 applicants. Entrusting such a diplomatically delicate choice to this edgy establishment is puzzling. The museum’s reputation, in fact, is “based primarily on provocative shows of contemporary art.” Indeed, one of its past exhibits on police violence even drew sharp criticism from Mayor Rudy Giuliani and law enforcement organizations.
But this 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, and education. While this all may be fine and good, it’s not clear just what kind of message our brave artists are intent on conveying. Are they, as cultural diplomats, 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” promised by Maura Pally, a senior official in State’s Educational and Cultural Affairs bureau, the entity responsible for this program.
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 universally understood and appreciated 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 universal appeal to this day.
Will we one day say anything similar of the smART Power 15?
The artistic milieu has its own culture, one whose innovative attempts to portray meaning often necessarily break with tradition. But if these 15 artists are to represent us, they should be more than merely good at what they do: As Americans, they should do honor to our commonly held values and principles as well. 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’s hope it delivers.