The Value of Arts and Culture and Their Potential in Transatlantic Relations: Propaganda or Value Based Exchange?
How can art and culture get the societal recognition of their importance and their function as tool for international - and transatlantic relations?
The context of the Marshall Memorial Fellowhsip is an excellent base for discussion and development of culture (or we could also talk about culture and creative industries). The dialogue between professionals from different sectors is just what is needed to advance, co-create and spread knowledge about the sectors impact.
The value of art & culture – and art based on values
Culture has the potential to channel many global issues as immigration, climate change, public policy and many other topics. The arts are an intelligent means of communication as they can make people feel. Art talks to your heart as much as to your head. The feeling anchors the understanding.
Paul Smith, director at the British Council in Washington, DC was one of the people I spoke to during my fellowship about values and cultural relations. Among other things, he told me about the tragic incident in Baghdad when a suicide bomber had attacked the British Council. The extremists apparently had understood the power of what art and culture can convey.
In general in our societies, culture is not enough valued. There are many different reasons. 1) The arts often mean self-reflection, which can be uncomfortable for some; 2) Culture sectors are still lacking in the tools, language and transparency for demonstrating their value; 3) unarguable is the fact that people need their basic needs fulfilled first: food, accommodation, health, education; 4) there are prejudices about the creative industries standing in opposition to other sectors instead of realizing the beneficial potentiality of their integration.
In the U.S. I explored some local initiatives, including bottom up initiatives and community development. In Pittsburgh, the Buhl Foundation commits to a longterm plan of twenty years to reboot and rebuild one of the city’s poorest communities – together with the citizens, based on their needs. Artistic elements are also used, like co-creation of works in the public spaces and concerts for the inhabitants.
In San Antonio’s west side lower income communities, arts engagement is a tool for keeping young people off the streets; the center ‘San Anton’ co-creates murals across the neighborhood with local artists. ‘Mujeres para los artes’ engages women of different ages in handcraft and arts creation as a means for well-being. The organization ‘Say SI’ shows that the arts creation they engage youth in is an excellent means for succeeding school graduation.
The European and American creative industries could exchange on many topics given the different development of the continents. As an example, Americans possibly have been more compelled to look at the economic value of the arts in the funding system, due to the local basic societal values — financial prosperity and independence.
In Europe, however, due to the anchor of the art history for millenniums, art is more self-valued — arts for art's sake. Thus, the public sector is a natural (even if fragile) contributor.
Cultural relations or cultural diplomacy?
There are many different ways of working with arts and culture in terms of international relations. Many good examples of value-based projects exist. These projects are aiming to change misleading perceptions or deepen comprehension for other cultures (rather than representative projects aiming to promote ones country and its cultural scene). An example is Culture in Conflict, a project lead by the British Council, exploring and mapping how arts can be of help in pre-, mid- and post-conflict situations.
Such projects can be run by NGOs on a people-to-people basis. Thus, the arts and culture in international relations can be more democratic and accessible — if not to all, at least to a greater number.
I would like to see a transatlantic culture and creative industry coalition, an exchange between individual experts, advocacy organizations, universities and NGOs. The exchange should both be structural and artistic and be initiated for a longer period of time.
Johanna Suo, a Fall 2015 European Marshall Memorial Fellow, is a Partner at TAG bxl – The Accessible Gallery and Pan-European Coordinator and Founding Member of European Cultural Parliament Youth Network in Belgium.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.