Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Presenting American culture "over there": an ICA analysis

Note: For a brief period (1978-1982), the United States Information Agency (USIA, 1953-1999) was renamed/reorganized as the International Communication Agency.

From the newly-published papers newly by the Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State


Attachment: Proposal Prepared in the Associate Directorate for Programs, International Communication Agency, Washington, undated

FROM: Memorandum From the Associate Director for Programs, International Communication Agency (Schneidman) to the Director (Reinhardt) Washington, July 13, 1979 [bottom of document]


Arts America


The reasons for integrated and coordinated programming on the arts in America on a world-wide basis are compelling.

This year’s Country Plans suggest some very basic and deeply held foreign perceptions of our society and the forces that motivate it. Too many abroad see our strengths as limited to the technological, the scientific, the managerial. Too many see us as crass and consumately materialistic, out for the fast buck and little moved by humanist or spiritual values.

The natural concomitant of these perceptions (and perhaps the inevitable result of the sweep of our economic and political influence) is the accusation of cultural imperialism. We are too often seen as blind to the traditions and vigor of other cultures—a powerful member of the world community that lacks even the most rudimentary understanding of the needs and strengths of its neighbors. Ours is the newest culture, an “up-start” that lacks the civilizing values of history and tradition.

Whatever the reasons for these perceptions of American life and culture, the problem for us is fundamental: they form a canted and even dangerous context for international communication in a world of inevitable and increasingly intractable political and economic conflicts. A nation whose basic goals are peace and a fuller life for all must be perceived as having a human face, as understanding and appreciating the achievements of others, if it is to gain the participation of others in pursuit of its goals.

The arts speak to these perceptions directly, in a language which transcends cultural difference; just as “the Eroica”6 reaches the souls of Nigerians and Brazilians as well as Germans, the constructions of Louise Nevelson are as aesthetically moving to Filipinos and Greeks as they are to Americans. With the simplicity and integrity born of the [Page 504]fact that the arts constitute our vision of ourselves for ourselves, they proclaim to the rest of the world that we are significantly more complex than popular stereotypes would have us:

—We value tradition but are not bound to it; we push the limits of the past to the future.

—We are materialistic and enchanted with technology; and we are consumed with questions of value, ethics, aesthetics;

—We are fiercely individual and competitive; and we value the group, the community, the collective good;

—We have the best of hopes and the worst of fears for the future of mankind;

—We are energetic and activist, as well as contemplative; elitist as well as populist; sacred as well as profane; and a thousand other things, all at once.

Thus are the arts more than the sum of their simple components. They are the “human face” of this nation. They are proof that we are a vital, individualist, free and questioning people engaged in the search for improvement in man’s nature as well as his condition. They are witness to the United States as a society deserving respect and, importantly, trust.

All of this does not imply that American arts themselves—or some parts of them—are not appreciated and admired by many overseas. To the contrary, studies reveal that those who have had access to the best of American arts (this usually means the most “sophisticated” of the urban populations of the “first world”), very much respect them.

But there are two important points to be made in this context. The first is that the number of foreigners who have had access to our arts is very small. Most of the world (and even most of the much smaller world of USICA publics) has not had access to our very expensive best. Most of the world has been the “beneficiary”, through the revolution in mass communications, of American culture through our routine and often shoddy film and television products. They have been denied our best—both because of its prohibitive cost, and because they have permitted our worst to dominate their vision—not recognizing that their own impulses have attracted our Kojaks and Angels,7 even as they abhor them.

More importantly, whether or not our arts are admired as arts, their commercial distribution cannot exploit their larger dimension. It is not enough to simply display our arts, in the hope that they will [Page 505]somehow achieve the communication that they so powerfully portend. It is certainly not enough to continue in the ad hoc and episodic fashion that has heretofore characterized our activities in this area. Without in any way trying to mold or control what the arts say about the United States, we must utilize the full range of the Agency’s assets to provide a continuous and integrated explanation of them and of the society that gives them birth—a kind of sociological, almost scholarly backdrop against which the truths of Tharp and Cage and Spielberg and Price and Nevelson and Mamet and a thousand others can be seen abroad. And understood.

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