The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a gala event held in New York, meant to raise funds to bring a Chinese panda to the city. A foreign country’s hospitality toward a panda, it seems, is regarded as a significant symbol of cross-cultural relations. Regarding such panda diplomacy, a Chinese diplomat remarked that the cultural exchange program, which has been in existence since the Tang Dynasty, is critical “especially for ordinary people, not politicians or diplomats, to understand that people with different systems can still work together on lots of things.”
Meanwhile, across the pond the Russian-born pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy called upon British musicians to maintain artistic relationships with Europe, despite any potential barriers imposed by Brexit. “After all, music is not just an exercise in making sounds,” he told The Guardian. “It is a reflection of our spiritual endeavors.”
Each case illustrates a different approach undertaken to dissolve borders. Both exemplify “soft power,” a term coined by Harvard University professor Joseph Nye in the 1990s. In Nye’s words:
“The basic concept of power is the ability to influence others to get them to do what you want. There are three major ways to do that: one is to threaten them with sticks; the second is to pay them with carrots; the third is to attract them or co-opt them, so that they want what you want. If you can get others to be attracted, to want what you want, it costs you much less in carrots and sticks.”
Our present political climate speaks in sticks and carrots. The sticks are getting heavier and the carrots are becoming shinier. The lexicon is weaponized words, the by-products of the new (post-Nye) world order: 9/11, the rise of ISIS, blood and soil nationalism, globalization, climate change, and, closer to home, the self-styled miscalculated patriotism of the present U.S. administration.
As soon as the new administration was installed, the call to soft diplomacy was reawakened, resulting in acts that rang loudly throughout the cultural community. A fresh solidarity among artists found voice in emergency forums, performance happenings, and concerts. In New York, the Park Avenue Armory collaborated with the Aspen Institute Arts Program, convening “Culture in a Changing America” as part of the series “Interrogations of Form.” The 2017 Whitney Biennial swung its curatorial hinge toward social realism. National Sawdust spoke to “challenging times” with concerts and discussions. The talks allowed artists to breathe the same air, while performances affirmed an important if bordering on clichéd message of the arts as a symbol of shared values and co-operation.
We know these values. We are all visitors to the same echo chamber. The challenge is now upon us to reinvigorate, re-imagine, re-define Nye’s tenets and methods of soft diplomacy through cultural dialogue – not simply because we need to address the new order in relevant ways, but primarily because the issues of our times are compromising the essential qualities of our daily bread, our daily conversations, our daily lives. We need to refine soft diplomacy through cultural measures that convert.
As a cultural diplomat and curator who has worked with governments across the globe in the mission of creating platforms of shared understanding and connections through music and song, I have received many gracious post-performance handshakes in appreciation of my singing the Chinese National Anthem in the mother tongue, or commissioning a performance that brings together an indigenous Australian didgeridoo artist with a Korean Pansori singer. But what happens next?
I remind myself that my act of cultural diplomacy has created (perhaps) a symbol of harmony, offered a transaction of appreciation, broken down a wall, or fashioned a metaphor.
I consider the notion of the symbol, and investigate what my artistic gesture has generated. I contemplate what philosopher Joseph Campbell proposes: “that a symbol is an energy evoking and directing agent.” My artistic self concurs with Campbell when he says “that all the great and little symbolical systems of the past functioned simultaneously on three levels: the corporeal of waking consciousness, the spiritual of dream, and the ineffable of the absolutely unknowable.”
And then my practical side speaks to my dreaming self, asking whether the ineffable and the unknowable results of symbolism can convert to change. Can the act of soft diplomacy through cultural practice impact policy, or affect the constituency of daily life? What are the ripples and resonances of my symbolic offering?
I take my lead from projects that bear testimony to affecting change. I am aware that at this critical juncture we are constantly distracted by reportage of the aberrant political times, and that the global table of issues appear to recess to the further horizons. The world currently has 25 million refugees. In a single minute, 24 people are displaced from their homes. In the same minute, a woman is murdered in the name of “honor killings,” just one among the thousand women killed every year. Such concerns flood my ability to contribute effectively.
So, in hopes of recalibrating our communal thinking, I offer 10 new precepts of soft diplomacy:
> Thou shalt be diligent to one’s craft, and dedicate oneself to the toil of your daily practice, so that your message is articulated in its most glorious setting.
> Thou shalt consider the way that your act of cultural diplomacy reflects the political and cultural factors that shape individual and collective subjectivities.
> Thou shalt illustrate your work beyond conventional, temporal, cultural, and geographic boundaries, so that its resonance speaks to the future.
> Thou shalt be diligent to a specific cause of interest and activation, and take inspiration from those who have gone before you.
> Thou shalt consider the setting of your artistic expression, so that the message might achieve fresh echoes in new communities and discoveries.
> Thou shalt not work alone, but instead collaborate in your artistic expression with agencies and institutions, which are change agents, platforms of engagement, and spearheads of policy change.
> Thou shalt understand that resonances of your quiet act will ripple long after you have expressed it.
> Thou shalt create arts for arts’ sake, understanding that an offer of beauty in its myriad form inspires balance, fairness, connection, and reflection.
> Thou shalt offer the message that art is politics.
> Thou shalt savor humor and grace, humility and hospitality in your message.
As an opera singer, writer, cultural commentator and curator Xenia Hanusiak contributes to the stage, the page, and the intervals in between. She holds a PhD in Literature and several degrees in classical music. Her works for the stage include the play Ward B, Un_labelled (Boosey & Hawkes/Young Peoples’ Chorus of New York City); the libretto A thousand doors, a thousand windows (Melbourne International Arts Festival, Singapore Arts Festival, Venice Biennale); Earth Songs (Homart Korean Theatre); and the dramatic monologue The MsTaken Identity (Adelaide Festival of Arts/Australian String Quartet). www.xeniahanusiak.com