Broken Language, a Crippled
Debate, and the Gift of Art
Art in the Service of Public Diplomacy and Civic Education
The U.S. has a long and deep tradition of mobilizing the arts in the service of democracy. One well-known example is the Federal Art Project, which put thousands of artists of all kinds back to work during the Great Depression (1929-1941). Another example stems from America’s involvement in World War II (1941-1945), when the government used posters, documentaries, movies, radio broadcasts, and other communications devices to recruit troops, build morale, and instruct its citizens.
In terms of Middle East affairs, the arts have not been effectively mobilized by modern American administrations to advance public diplomacy and civic education. The focus has been almost exclusively on controversial television and radio programming such as El-Arabiya and Radio Sawa — a one-way flow of content that provides little opportunity for exchange between U.S. citizens and the people of the Middle East.
In October 2003, the U.S. State Department’s Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World issued a report which concluded that the country’s “entire system of public diplomacy requires broad and deep transformation.” According to the report, the government’s efforts to influence the way the citizens of the Arab and Muslim world think of the U.S. is in serious trouble and “spin and manipulative public relations and propaganda are not the answer” (Source: “Changes in U.S. Diplomacy Sought,” Washington Post, October 2, 2003.) It can be argued that spin and manipulation are equally ineffective in the domestic arena.
Artist: Mohammed Melehi (Morocco)
Art may be what is needed. There is a solid arts tradition in American, Israeli, Arab, and Muslim societies; each has developed iconographies and styles that while unique to their own traditions and contexts, easily translate across cultures. Art, in essence, is a common language all cultures share. Art is valuable as a public diplomacy tool because it opens dialogue.
Art also absorbs criticism and dissension. People in disagreement can point to the work, not at each other. This reduces the tendency of discussions degenerating into personal attacks. When discussing political art, there are often at least some points of agreement on aesthetics, format, style, etc. This is useful, because when antagonists are able to be on the same side for some points, it makes it possible for them to imagine that there could be other areas of agreement. Art adds while politics subtracts.
One can only have an opinion about art. Therefore, everyone’s perspective is equally valid, as far as art is concerned. This neutrality opens up a path to discuss the ideas behind the art, which may or may not be valid but at least have been made amenable to discussion through the creative process.
Art also has the potential to reinvigorate contemporary Middle East studies.
This subject is often stultifyingly dull with its endless onslaught of
facts, dates, events, and biographical data, as if real scholarship were
made of such dry bits of information. By definition, what artists do is
synthesize time and space and clarify the thoughts of the people in those
moments. It is possible to introduce American audiences to the complex
world of Middle East history through a study of such captured moments,
with all the freight and awkwardness of academic discourse removed in
the interest of introductory education.
Next Section: An Invitation to a New Democratic Discussion
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