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Should the U.S. State Department Be Using Art As a Diplomatic Tool?

“In my line of work, we often talk about the art of diplomacy as we try to make people’s lives a little better around the world,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton writes in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. “But, in fact, art is also a tool of diplomacy.” Since starting a visual arts program in 1953, the more than 200 U.S. Embassies and Consulates around the world have featured American artists on their walls. Clinton’s article, however, accompanies the first (biennial) awarding of U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts. Cai Guo-Qiang, Jeff Koons, Shahzia Sikander, Kiki Smith, and Carrie Mae Weems received medals as representatives of the 4,000 American and International artists in the program whose art, as Clinton says, “reaches beyond governments, past the conference rooms and presidential palaces, to help us connect with more people in more places” and serves as “a universal language in our search for common ground, an expression of our shared humanity.” Those honorees range from the safe to the not so safe in terms of diplomacy both home and abroad. Undoubtedly, the question the more risky choices will raise is whether the U.S. State Department should be using art as a diplomatic tool.

President John F. Kennedy finally formalized the program at the U.S. Department of State in 1963, but the program’s roots reach back to the hottest days of the Cold War. Always wanting to one-up the Russians and present a more appealing alternative to Communism, the U.S. Government bought in early on the wave of Abstract Expressionism (although, to be honest, some scholars do not buy that connection).  Only in America, the argument ran, could Jackson Pollock drip away in total freedom. Part of the art of using art in the larger art of diplomacy is knowing your message and finding the art and artists to transmit it to the world visually. To argue that the U.S. State Department chose these artists without some larger purpose seems naïve.

Of the bunch, Jeff Koons, for all his mixed reputation as a “true” artist, seems the safest pick. Koons could be the poster child for capitalism, so perhaps they chose him to represent the idea that the business of America diplomacy is business. I don’t know if these artists were vetted by congress in any way (or if they will after the fact), but I’d be fascinated to see what some of the more conservative members of the House would say to Koons’ 1989 Made in Heaven series featuring him and then-wife and porn star Ilona Staller in sexually explicit positions.

Although born in China, Cai Guo-Qiang works primarily out of New York City now. With his highly entertaining pyrotechnic art works featuring gunpowder, the artist knows how to put on a show. But is his selection a way of showing a U.S. willingness to reach out to China itself? Just last October, Guo-Qiang received the Praemium Imperiale as the first Chinese national Laureate artist, perhaps the logical next step after serving as the Director of Visual and Special Effects for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Would Ai Weiwei have been a bolder choice? Of course, but this is a diplomacy we’re talking about here.

Pakistani-American artist Shahzia Sikander focuses on the nature of Islam in her work, especially the role of women such as herself practicing the Muslim faith. Sikander mixes the mythic past with her personal story as a modern Muslim woman to create fascinating works ranging from miniature paintings in the Persian tradition to large-scale installation art and animated videos. Clearly, Sikander’s role is part of the outreach program of U.S. diplomacy to the Middle East both in the sense of connecting with the people of that region as well as in educating Americans that Islam is not a religion of misogyny and terrorism.

Women artists Kiki Smith and Carrie Mae Weems round out the group with their own takes on feminism, particularly the global issue of violence against women. Smith loves to use the female body itself as a metaphor for social ills as well as their potential solutions, an idea that translates well across cultures. Weems photographs depict the lingering effects of racism in America, particularly against African-Americans. Neither Smith nor Weems shy away from the political spotlight directed on artistic activism, which makes them both brave choices.

But the artist I would have loved to have seen on this list, as much as I admire and respect Weems, is African-American artist Kara Walker. Walker sticks in my mind right now because of the controversy over her large-scale 2010 drawing The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos (shown above). A private collector loaned the drawing last year to the Newark Public Library, where library workers were so shocked by its content that they covered it with a cloth. The whirlwind of scenes from the history of American race relations included graphic scenes of violence from the days of slavery (most controversially, an image showing an African-American slave forced to perform a sexual act on her white master) all the way up to a tiny vision of President Barack Obama. Only recently was the cover removed and the drawing displayed again. Walker’s been a one-woman national dialogue on race for years now, so this latest episode only reaffirms her commitment to stirring the pot and making people uncomfortable.

Do these choices for medalists support the U.S. State Department’s using art as another diplomatic tool? Koons, Guo-Qiang, and Sikander serve clear practical purposes. Smith and Weems also serve important, more idealistic purposes. But the choice of someone such as Walker would have sent a clear message at home and abroad that America was finally willing to address its original sin of slavery and all its lingering effects. Admitting weakness can be a strength—honesty as the best diplomatic policy. The days of diplomacy presenting American art as an alternative to Communism are over. Today may be the day for diplomacy to present American art as an alternative to an American imperialism that admits no wrong.

[Image: Kara Walker. The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos, 2010. Graphite and pastel on 6-by-9½-foot paper.]

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