An Artist’s Ethical Guide to Cultural Diplomacy

Plus, a resource list.

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Louis Armstrong plays for his wife in front of the Sphinx by the pyramids in Giza, 1961. Photo: Flickr user, Photo Tractatus.

While we Americans live in increasingly insular socio-political bubbles, we also get caught in the thickets of an ever-active news cycle actuated by the Trump administration. It can be increasingly difficult to remember that there is a vast world out there.

Places and populations beyond this country (inclusive of these contiguous 48 states; Hawaii and Alaska; Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands in the Caribbean; plus Guam, Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa in the Pacific Ocean) have news of their own. Do we even care to learn from them, or care about them?

As the US learns how to function under its second celebrity-turned-president, 11 to 15 other countries currently have female heads of state. The incumbent Nepalese president, Bidhya Devi Bhandari, is the first woman to lead that land, and was elected to her second term in March. Places like Russia, Egypt and Bangladesh knew their recent outcome before the first ballots were ever cast, or not cast. Azerbaijan, Montenegro, Venezuela and Columbia are holding presidential elections in April and May; Mali, Georgia and Ireland are planning to decide their leaders later this year. Pakistan, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Finland and Armenia already chose their heads of state in 2018. The power play in the Maldives is playing out like must-see TV. Important lessons on (in)stability, (anti)corruption, collusion, voter turnout and mandatory voting, and election violence (prevention) around the world are available to be learned.

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Once we pay attention and learn from other countries, then we can talk about engagement. Of the 195 countries in the world today, all but Bhutan and North Korea (and Iran?) have diplomatic relations with the US. America engages with the nations of the world through three tracks of diplomacy:

1: State-to-state (cease-fires and treaties);
2: Institution-to-institution and leader-to-leader (academic, religious, NGOs and other civil society actors);
3: People-to-people (community and grassroots).

Cultural diplomacy is often considered Track 3; sometimes the arts are included in Track 2. No matter the track, we should inspect motivations before looking to best practices; the evolution of cultural diplomacy itself illustrates this point. The spread of national cultural practices and products mostly began as part of colonization, sometimes naively destructive but almost always an act of cultural violence. Then, during the Cold War, artists were held up around the world as trophies in a competition for global dominance. Then, as trade between nations picked up and international conglomerates spread their influence, diplomats used the commoditization of the arts to enhance the bottom lines for American interests. Developing from a shift in strategy for the Department of State following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, much recent activity in cultural diplomacy has focused more on engagement. Artists win hearts and minds, contribute to peace and counter radicalization.

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Motivation is a key ethical question for nations but it also rings true for individuals. I wrote about my advice for international travel last year based on an assumption about this artist impulse, but I never dived into the idea of ethics. The first inquiry an artist should ask of themselves is: “Why do I want to work across cultures and borders?”

From my own experiences and study, I have developed four different categories of motivation:

  1. Some artists, including those on state-sponsored trips, travel internationally for political reasons or to help bolster national interests. For example, arts programs that increase peace contribute to regional stability which, in turn, could prevent war and open new markets for cultural products. These artists help inform and influence foreign publics, strengthen strategic relationships, and more.
  2. Some artists travel internationally for artistic and professional reasons. They are eager to find novel sources of inspiration, discover new ways of working, learn from different cultural traditions and mentors, and exchange creative ideas with people whose worldview differs in order to push the content of their work. Often they travel because simply want to expand their audiences and income sources.
  3. Some artists travel internationally for humanitarian or spiritual reasons. They seek to connect with others on this shared planet. They aim to foster trust and mutual understanding, strengthening peace and well-being. They increase the capacity for positive change without a formal political agenda.
  4. Many artists never travel internationally but, rather, they cross the borders within and between their own towns or cities. These domestic cultural diplomats reach in as much as they reach out. They shine a light on our divisions, similarities and differences.

If an artist is traveling across borders with the first mentioned motivations, they might want to consider the implications of serving their country in this role. An artist should understand the perspective of an American diplomat. Jill Staggs, Program Officer, Cultural Programs Division at the State Department, explained during the National Dance Education Organization 2016 Conference:

An important objective for our staff in Washington and for our colleagues in the 294 U.S. embassies and missions around the world is to illustrate and explain the culture and context out of which our policies arise. The official document that provides us with the mandate, ability and authority to conduct arts and cultural exchange programs is the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961, also referred to as the Mutual Education and Cultural Exchange Act.

The Fulbright-Hays Act that Staggs referred to was established with the following, beautiful purpose:

to enable the Government of the United States to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange;

to strengthen the ties which unite us with other nations by demonstrating the educational and cultural interests, developments, and achievements of the people of the United States and other nations, and the contributions being made toward a peaceful and more fruitful life for people throughout the world;

and to assist in the development of friendly, sympathetic, and peaceful relations between the United States and the other countries of the world.

This other excerpt from the Act highlights the type of cultural diplomacy work that can, and should, be funded:

…[this act] authorizes the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to provide, by grant, contract or otherwise, support to the following types of cultural programs: Visits and tours abroad by creative and performing artists from the United States; representation by American artists and performers in international artistic other cultural festivals, as well as participation by groups and individuals from abroad in similar tours and festivals in the United States.

While this language may seem proscribed, many modern diplomats approach this work with creativity and an eye toward relevance and impact. Yet they have limits. The Fulbright-Hays Act also details the required nature of cultural diplomacy efforts:

All programs shall maintain their nonpolitical character and shall be balanced and representative of the diversity of American political, social and cultural life. They shall meet the highest standards of artistic achievement.

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This phenomena is not just an issue for government-sponsored programs. An artist traveling on private funds would similarly have restrictions as described by the supporters of the work. Although the First Amendment stands strong, program context and guidelines can definitely censor an artist. An artist will find more freedom is some countries and programs over others, so it is important to choose wisely.

No matter an artist’s motivation to cross borders and their financial sponsor(s), they must hold keen awareness of their responsibility and of their privilege. Any artist who interacts with another culture (be that official or unofficial) facilitates cultural exchange. They are automatically considered a representative of the place from which they came. Upon arrival, they may be introduced as the “expert,” that is why it is crucial that the artist flip the narrative and establish themselves as a “partner with a unique but equal contribution” early on in the process.

While the arts are important, and while American artists and works are exemplary, we are not saviors. It is more important than ever that we value others, learn from others, collaborate with others, and check our own feelings of importance. Remember, first do no harm. Second, hear people out. Third, live out loud for art and culture is a human right.

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Resources for Artists:

Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights: The seven bureaus and offices reporting to this Under Secretary of State advance the security of the American people by assisting countries around the world to build more democratic, secure, stable, and just societies.

Cultural Dance Diplomacy Toolkit by Battery Dance

Exchange Programs: The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs offers a number of fully-funded international programs. Many of these opportunities are posted with little notice so check regularly.

Embassies and Consulates: Opportunities through their Cultural Envoy programs, Information Resource Centers and other possibilities for direct partnership.

Fulbright Scholar Program and Fulbright Student Program: Well-known source of opportunities for educational and cultural exchange.

EducationUSA: a State Department network of over 425 international student advising centers in more than 175 countries.

Grants.gov: Exactly as advertised.

UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC): UN agency that says it “aims to improve understanding and cooperation among nations and peoples across cultures and to reduce polarization at local and global levels. It helps develop more inclusive societies, in which diversity is experienced as an asset.”

United States Institute of Peace (USIP): Self-described as “America’s nonpartisan institute to promote national security and global stability by reducing violent conflicts abroad.”

“The Question of Cultural Diplomacy: Acting Ethically” by Daniel Banks.

“US Public Diplomacy: A Theoretical Treatise” by Fouad Izadi for The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society.

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Shawn Lent
Shawn Lent moves this world as both a program manager and a social practice dance artist, with experience from a field in Bosnia to a children’s cancer hospital in revolutionary Egypt. She is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar and UNAOC International Fellow, and has spoken at the University of Maryland, Universal Exposition Milan, TEDx Shibin El Kom, Sandbox Industries, and Commencement for Millikin University. From 2013-2015, Shawn served as the EducationUSA Egypt Coordinator for AMIDEAST and the U.S. Department of State. In 2013, her blog post "Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?," went viral. Shawn holds a Masters in Arts Management from Columbia College Chicago and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Youth Arts Development from Goldsmith's College.