Monday, August 15, 2016

Soft power: the arts of diplomacy

Richard Watts, "Soft power: the arts of diplomacy,"

Cultural diplomacy helps advance Australian influence and fund global arts engagement but it also places political pressure on artists.

Soft power: the arts of diplomacy
Art can build bridges between nations – but who pays for their construction? Image via
In the late 1980s, and in a series of subsequent publications, US political scientist Joseph Nye articulated the ability of nation-states to win allies and gain influence by non-violent means instead of through military force and economic might. What he called ‘soft power’ – the ability to co-opt people rather than coerce them – has today become the common practice of governments everywhere, as well as NGOs and other organisations.
To quote Nye’s 2011 book The Future of Power, a nation’s ‘political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when others see them as legitimate and having moral authority)’ are two of the three main platforms through which soft power is expressed. The third – and perhaps the most insidious – is through art and culture.
Long before Nye defined soft power, art was being used as a valuable political tool, with artists co-opted by the political elite as early as the Renaissance. More recently, during the Cold War, the CIA’s Propaganda Assets Inventory promoted the work of modern artists including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko as evidence of the intellectual freedoms enjoyed by American citizens.
Today, art is one of many weapons utilised by governments – including our own – in the battle for political influence.
In its Public Diplomacy Strategy 2014-16, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) notes that culture and the arts are one of many ‘public diplomacy initiatives’ employed to strengthen Australia's influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
‘Culture provides a unique and critical forum for fostering mutual understanding and relationship-building. Cultural diplomacy has a vital role to play in international relations. Alliances are just as likely to be forged along the lines of cultural understanding as they are on economic or geographic ones,’ the DFAT guidelines on cultural diplomacy state.
One of the things that frustrated the Federal Government about the Australia Council was their dogged refusal to concede that cultural diplomacy was in any way part of our international traffic in the performing arts​.
DFAT identifies priority countries and encourages cooperation ​in art and culture as a means of enhancing links. Australia has signed memoranda of understanding on arts and culture with India and Singapore and is renewing its commitment to a cultural agreement with China. The Government also released the report of the Australia-Germany Advisory Group which proposes enhanced cultural links between Australia and Germany.​
A spokesperson for the Department of Communications and the Arts told ArtsHub DCA worked closely with DFAT to 'ensure that support for international arts and cultural activities is consistent and integrated across government'. 
'The international and cultural diplomacy stream in Catalyst – Australian Arts and Culture Fund is one of many programs that contribute to the Government’s cultural diplomacy goals. It enables arts organisations and their artists to gain professional development experience, establish and develop new international networks and markets for artistic work,' the spokesperson said.


Polyglot Theatre has been part of Australia's diplomatic efforts for several years. Its work in Indonesia has been cited by DFAT as an example of soft diplomacy.
‘There was a point where Australia’s whole relationship with Indonesia was not that great and we were still over there doing a project and I remember the tweet coming out, and going “Oh okay, they’ve named it!” recalled Artistic Director Sue Giles.
‘It kind of reinforced what we already know, because we all know that as artists we’re not breaking down things, we’re building things. And as soon as you start building a bridge you can’t help but make the relationships better.'​
This year Polyglot took part in the Australian Government’s principal cultural diplomacy initiative, the Australia Now Festival in Brazil, DFAT’s Country of Focus for 2016.​
‘I reckon the bridging nature of arts projects between individuals and organisations is undeniably a positive thing between countries, and I think it really does help the way that people see us and the way that we see others – and that sort of cultural and conversation exchange can’t help but make things better,’ said Giles.


Giles warned arts organisations could not work with an agenda that was 'too obvious'.
‘It’s a really hard one. Because all the time we’re on the ground we’re dealing with real people doing real things, but small, you know? It’s little. It’s not like we’re going in and changing from the top down, we’re changing from the grassroots up. Yes, we’re making the picture of Australia more complex I think … but it’s interesting, because ultimately it’s a question of doing somebody’s bidding. That’s the extreme of that relationship, what it could like, isn’t it?’

Joseph Mitchell, Artistic Director of Adelaide’s OzAsia Festival, told ArtsHub he had never received any pressure to program work for political purposes.
‘And if I did, I would have probably ignored it, suppressed it or likely just conveniently forgotten about it. I do however, think there is a place for cultural diplomacy – arts and culture are highly valued in Asian cultures and in Australia, it’s clear that the Government has recognised that there is value in engaging with the arts to build relationships,’ Mitchell said. 
‘At OzAsia Festival, our principal focus is to present contemporary arts programming from Asia and also to support Australian-Asian artistic collaborations.  If other stakeholders such as the government are able to leverage our festival to build Australian connections into Asia, I’m pleased that the Festival is able to make a contribution in that way, but at the same time, we are autonomous in our artistic program decisions.’
Darwin Festival Artistic Director Andrew Ross, whose career includes working for the Indonesian Government at a time when the decision was made to promote contemporary rather than traditional Indonesian culture aboard, believes that the exercise of soft power is of particular importance in Australia.
‘I know one of the things that frustrated the Federal Government about the Australia Council was their dogged refusal to concede that cultural diplomacy was in any way part of our international traffic in the performing arts – and I think that’s one of the things that led to the international grants that were part of the Catalyst program. And I think to be fair it’s something the Australia Council have not been very good at,’ said Ross.


Ross said foreign governments were heavily evolved in supporting touring of work from their country.
‘I think every festival that’s presenting international work seeks to get support from the place of origin – and traditionally organisations like the British Council, the cultural agency of the French Government, likewise with the Goethe-Institut, the Belgians and various others, including New Zealand – very actively supported their work touring.'
He said this did not generally create political issues.  ‘I’m not aware of a situation where a festival or a presenter, certainly not one where I’ve been involved in, has found a conflict between what you choose to present and what you can get support for. Sometimes you just fail to get the support. Sometimes you succeed in getting it,’ he said.
The difficult funding environment in the arts pushes artists to increasing reliance on foreign affairs funding.  Mitchell said he has noticed an increasing number of instances where overseas festivals have begun to insist that they cannot cover airfares and freight for invited artists but will cover fees, accommodation and production support if the artist can get themselves to the city in question.
‘This growing trend does mean that artists who are invited to international festivals abroad are going to be more reliant on home government support to cover travel and this does add a potential layer of government scrutiny towards the suitability of an Australian work abroad, based on the priorities of the Public Diplomacy Strategy,’ said Mitchell.
‘But looking at the list of recent successful funding recipients in DFAT’s Australian Cultural Diplomacy Grants Program, I think there is an excellent mix of Australian artists being supported under this program including Black Arm Band, Circa, Ilbijerri and William Yang to name a few.’
Programming international work necessarily requires a festival director to be cognisant of diplomatic contexts, explains Melbourne Festival’s Jonathan Holloway.
‘There are interesting balances. Say for example when working with the Middle East and the desire to put on some of the great artists in the world who are Israeli, and also the desire to show Palestinian work. Or screening the films of Jafar Panahi, the dissident Iranian filmmaker. I think if you censor yourself to not do one in order to accept the other, that’s not a good thing.
‘There is an old joke that the difference between a mad dog and an artist is that a mad dog doesn’t bite the hand that feeds it. I think the arts have a huge degree of freedom; festivals also have a huge degree of freedom and also the ability to make strong political statements.
‘But at the same time, a lot of the time what we’re doing is seeking to understand and seeking to collaborate between the two and also build links with other organisations – I think when it comes to the Middle East, when it comes to China, and many other countries, obviously there are many issues that you have to tread around – but you have to tread with confidence,’ Holloway told ArtsHub.


Adept at dealing with different levels of government, Holloway – whose inaugural program for the Melbourne Festival has just been launched – said he believes that the artists he knows ‘are representing the people and the ideas and stories and energy of Australia, not the Australian Government’.
‘I know virtually no artist who makes work to represent the Government. And even in the state of Victoria, where the state government is tremendously supportive of the arts, that is a side issue to what the art is – the art is making work about Australia and Australians and our stories and the land and modern society. So I don’t feel that the festival and my diplomacy, whether hard or soft, actually is about the Australian Government. I think it is about Australia and Australian artists and Australian stories. So I think that art rarely represents governments – I think it represents a body of people or indeed a part of the body of people,’ Holloway said.
While generally positive about her experiences of soft power and Australia’s cultural diplomacy programs, Polyglot’s Sue Giles has one or two concerns about the experience of presenting at Australia now 2016 in Sao Paulo.
‘It felt like a missed opportunity,’ she said. ‘But then … our opportunities are not necessarily the government’s opportunities. I guess it felt like there was an enormous amount of effort getting Australians over there and we could have made a lot more of it.’
While the government’s focus was squarely on Brazil, Giles believes that with clearer lines of communication and perhaps a little additional support, Polyglot and other companies invited to present at Australia now 2016 – including Circus Oz, Gravity & Other Myths, Black Arm Band and Sydney Dance Company – could have used their time in Sao Paulo to build additional opportunities in other South American countries.
‘But I guess that’s an interesting part of the equation – we’re not necessarily brought on as partners within the conversations between countries. We’re kind of a tool more than anything else. So do we want to be tools? … And there’s the glory of going, “Yes, let’s get to Brazil, how fascinating and how extraordinary and what a great thing that we’re all going over there,” and then as soon as you get there you go “Why can’t we do more here?” Because a lot of the stuff we met with, if we’d known a little bit more about where we were going and what we were going to do we could have offered more for the communities we were working with, and that was kind of disappointing,’ Giles said.
‘If the arts is being part of this partnership to kind of enhance what Australia has to offer or whatever, then it would be really good if we were given that chance to expand on that experience, you know? Nobody wants to be just the tool – you want to have some kind of collaborative approach. And I understand that would be complex but it could be really, really exciting as well.’
Darwin Festival
4-21 August 2016
Melbourne Festival
6-23 October 2016
OzAsia Festival
17 September – 2 October 2016
Polyglot Theatre


Richard Watts is ArtsHub's national performing arts editor and Deputy Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArtson community radio station Three Triple R. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the boards of La Mama Theatre and the journal Going Down Swinging; he is also a member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, and a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts

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