I nodded in agreement as His Excellency András Simonyi, former Ambassador of Hungary to the USA, declared that “the West has failed in Egypt and Tunisia because they never wielded their soft power.” Indeed, much of this past week’s conference entitled The Language of Art and Music,
held at the immaculate, spacious, and modern offices of the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy
(ICD) in Berlin’s posh Kurfürstendamm district, involved interesting and distinguished guests preaching to the choir. And yet, the audience at each session of the conference mainly comprised outstanding, dedicated young people who are tomorrow’s leaders. Attending this conference and appreciating the value of cultural diplomacy will enable them to more effectively conduct international relations when they are the one’s holding the world’s reins of power.
Of all the speakers, Amb. Simonyi was one of the most charismatic and effective advocates for cultural diplomacy, which he employed brilliantly during his tenure in Washington by making a guest appearance as a rock guitarist on the Colbert Report. For many Americans, this was their first introduction to Hungary, and his office was deluged with e-mails from Colbert Report fans who said they had never heard of Hungary and were now planning to vacation there. Even President Bush asked him, “How’s the band?” As Amb. Simonyi self-deprecatingly indicated, it’s amazing any time the President of the United States asks the Hungarian Ambassador a question about anything.
Dr. Timothy Emlyn Jones, Dean of the Burren College of Art in Ireland, also did a brilliant job describing the political power of art through many mind-bending metaphors and examples. He cited the scene in Wim Wenders’ film “Wings of Desire” in which two angels are conversing in the no-man’s-land between the inner and outer sections of the Berlin Wall. He says that the guards can’t see them because they are invisible. If we don’t accept dualities or binary ways of seeing the world, what else could we see? He also amusingly pointed out that everyone thinks ghosts can pass through walls, whether or not they believe in ghosts. Art is the same way in its ability to pass through walls regardless of the tiresome binary question of whether we believe it can or not.
Yet such idealism was rightly tempered with reality. Dr. Jones reminded us that one man’s cultural diplomacy is another man’s cultural imperialism. Colin Tweedy, Chief Executive of Arts and Business UK, observed that the British Museum, with its many artifacts forcibly removed from countries where they would be national treasures, is a monument to theft and power.
Amb. Simonyi was asked if rock-and-roll would have been as effective in helping bring down the Iron Curtain in Hungary if the genre had been a state-promoted effort of the US government. He replied that when Bruce Springsteen had such a seismic impact in Hungary, he had come under the auspices of Amnesty International. “Government involvement should not degenerate into propaganda,” Amb. Simonyi declared.
Indeed, many speakers concurred that government involvement in cultural diplomacy or even just in culture can be problematic. Dr. Jones cited the Irish government promotion of such titans of Irish culture as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, who were at one time or another banned in Ireland. Beckett had to leave his native land and so is regarded as French in France. Many made reference to the complicated relationship between jazz and official US cultural diplomacy during the Cold War, when Uncle Sam sent great black musicians on tours abroad to represent a country where blacks and whites did not yet enjoy equal rights.
Amb. Simonyi recalled one of the most chilling instances of the co-mingling of art and politics. A film from Berlin at the end of World War II shows Joseph Goebbels shaking the hand of Wilhelm Furtwangler after the great conductor led the Berlin Symphony in Beethoven’s Fifth. Amb. Simonyi spotted that for a brief second after the handshake, it is possible to see Furtwangler reach into his pocket for a handkerchief, with which he then wipes off his hand.
The way many artists had to wipe the shame of collaboration with the Nazis off their hands reminds all of us to be wary of the too-close marriage of art and politics. His Excellency Karl-Erik Normann, former Swedish Ambassador and Secretary-General of the European Cultural Parliament, told us: “You are not automatically good because you are in the arts.”
Such nuance was not always sufficiently present when the topic turned to multiculturalism, which could fill many ICD conferences on its own. ICD director Mark Donfried casually observed that the French government handled the headscarf issue well because the various religious symbols that it banned were equal. In truth, many Muslim women believe that they must wear the hijab, but few if any Christians believe that wearing a large cross is essential to their being religious.
Erna Hennicot-Schoepges asserted that “in Europe we succeeded in tearing down our borders but we still have them in our heads.” As a Member of the European Parliament and former Minister of Culture and Religious Affairs of Luxembourg, it is understandable that she would be a staunch supporter of the new European order, but many of us feel that tearing down those borders was not such a great idea in the first place. The Hon. Dr. Rocco Buttiglione, Vice President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, former Italian Minister of Culture, and former Italian Minister of European Politics, better captured my personal ambivalence : “One problem of multiculturalism is that it tries to sever culture from space.” He formulated a brilliant metaphor: “A house without walls is as ineffective as a house without doors or windows. We must have the same attitude towards multiculturalism.”
To represent practitioners of musical diplomacy, Mark Donfried invited my friend John Ferguson, Founder and Director of American Voices
, and myself in my capacity as Founder and Director of Cultures in Harmony
. John presented American Voices’ fantastic work in Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, Syria, Thailand, and elsewhere, correctly noting that “we cannot Facebook and Twitter our way to better relations. Nothing replaces face-to-face interaction.” He shares my belief that good projects must be recreated annually, which contrasts sharply with the State Department preference for funding something once and then moving on, in order to showcase a variety of American cultural media.
He also offered some unusual and revealing anecdotes. “Where in the world?” was a great photo segment in which we had to guess where the photos came from, the point being that culture connects us so thoroughly that it can be hard to hold on to old stereotypes. At a time when Syria is generally distancing itself from the US, the Syrian Minister of Culture requested the expansion of the American Voices YES Academy there, proving the value of cultural engagement. CNN declined a story about their Iraq project, with the producer saying: “We want to show car bombs.” This shows that perhaps most of our diplomatic work should be focused at the American media, which perpetuates the stereotypes our engagement efforts work so assiduously to challenge.
On a panel discussion about graffiti, I discussed my friend Adil Omar
, the most famous rapper in Pakistan. I noted the irony of the “F*** ADIL OMAR” graffiti that has become prevalent in big cities, since presumably the graffiti artist is condemning Adil’s decision to rap in English, yet is writing the graffito in English. I suggested that perhaps seemingly senseless, vulgar, empty graffiti may emerge if there is no political space for other, more important debate. For instance, the graffito wrongly attacking my friend Adil may be a plea for less Western influence (represented by English) in Pakistan. I also noted that the infamous crosshairs map propagated by Sarah Palin is another example of political art that emerge from marginalized extremists, particularly given that it would have been perfectly acceptable to employ another visual to highlight the congressional districts the artist wanted to emphasize. For instance, districts in which the artist hoped the incumbent would be defeated could have been circled.
The highlight of my own lecture, “The Role Music Should Play In America’s Cultural Diplomacy in Tunisia, Egypt, and Pakistan,” was undoubtedly the three games with which I began it. First, I played a rhythm and then asked the audience to clap it back to me. Second, a volunteer invented a rhythm to which I responded on my violin. Third, I said, “Now, I would like all of you to leave the room. I’ll invite Mark Donfried to the stage, teach him how to play violin, and when you come back in fifteen minutes, he will be able to play Paganini’s 24th Caprice, one of the most difficult pieces for the instrument. OK, I’m joking, you don’t really have to leave. This third kind of dialogue is what the US government has been doing in Muslim majority countries for years.” The audience burst into laughter and applause.
The audience also enjoyed the recommendations I had solicited from the friends of Cultures in Harmony in those three countries: decentralize, go to rural areas, engage with the people, stay far away from politics. As a Tunisian kanun player and medical student noted: “Don’t come now to give us lessons in democracy; we were doing it while you were supporting Ben Ali.”
John and I united in a concert focusing on four areas in which the fields of music and diplomacy intersect: the Muslim world in general, Iran in particular, Eastern Europe, and musical representation of the United States. For the first section, I played “Fantazy El Mansora,” by the Egyptian composer Attia Sharara, and my own arrangement of the Afghan folk song “Bia ke Birim ba Mazar” and the Sindhi folk song “Mor Tor Tillay Rana,” basing the latter arrangement on the exuberant version
by Abida Parveen.
For the second section, the beautiful and extraordinary Iranian pianist, composer, and flutist of poetic sensitivity, Nazanin Piri-Niri, joined in. With her on flute, we played a couple Iranian pieces, one of which was by her. She played two of her lovely solo piano pieces, and then John and I did the last movement of Henry Cowell’s “Homage to Iran,” which the American composer created after a Rockefeller grant enabled him to study the music of that country, and which was premiered in the Shah’s Palace in Tehran on July 3, 1959.
For the third section, I spoke of the different ways composers behind the Iron Curtain protested against enforced proletarian ideals. The Lithuanian composer Vytautas Barkauskas twisted folk elements into a dark statement in his solo violin Partita from 1967, and Arvo Pärt pursued a subtly religious inspiration in his hypnotic Fratres from 1980.
I introduced the final section by noting that both John and I represent American culture through its music. John did a brilliant job with Zez Confrey’s aptly named “Dizzy Fingers” before he and I played “Mother and Child” by the great African-American composer William Grant Still, then closed the concert with three Gershwin numbers from “Porgy and Bess.”
One of my favorite speakers was the noted film critic Meenakshi Shedde, who gave a stunning, hilarious, and charismatic lecture about Bollywood’s global impact without any notes, and as though she were effortlessly chatting with a friend. Her lecture persuaded me that I haven’t seen enough Bollywood films, though that may not necessarily have been her point. Indeed, her tremendous personal presence was a reminder that the best diplomacy is a function of personality.
She was also one of many instances in which the conference reflected that it was scheduled at the same time as the Berlinale. I saw some extraordinary and devastating films and also learned much from the lecture about Wajda’s film
about the massacre of Polish soldiers at Katyn by the Soviets during World War II. The final scene, in which bulldozers slowly shovel earth over the Polish corpses while the terrifying music of Penderecki screeches and grates in the background, had an impact at once shocking and cathartic.
Mohammed Reza Farzad also made a film about a massacre: the September 8, 1978 killing of protesters by the forces of the Shah of Iran. He focuses the viewer's attention on the people killed as individuals, making it impossible to view them as statistics. Voiceover ruminations speculatively comparing specific victims in faded, grainy footage of the killings to photos of happy Iranians in daily life accomplish this feat, made difficult by the paucity of detailed information about who those individuals actually were.
“Tales of the Defeated,” an Israeli short documentary by Yael Reuveny, movingly dealt with her discovery that her grandmother’s brother had not actually died in World War Two but had converted away from Judaism and settled right outside the concentration camp where he had been interred. That he married the sister-in-law of a Wehrmacht soldier was to her unthinkable, and a particularly powerful scene shows her struggling to control her emotions when the giggly and gregarious widow of that soldier shows her the family album containing her husband and the filmmaker’s grandfather, men who were mortal enemies in 1944 but friends by 1950.
Yet the most personally affecting film screening for me was our group attendance at an official screening at the Berlinale of the new film by acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou
. “Under the Hawthorn Tree” reminded me of an earlier moment in the conference in which Dr. Jones cited Rillke’s poem about a sculpture of Apollo in which Rillke concludes that the message of the sculpture is that “You must change your life.” Dr. Jones then said that, “A passive engagement with art will change nothing.” The goodness and purity of Zhang Yimou’s male protagonist in this romantic story of doomed love have led me to conduct a re-examination of my own life more thorough than what any lecture could have prompted.
The power of art to speak to the profound and the mundane also emerged through the conference's various local and social connections to Berlin; indeed, it’s hard to imagine a better city in which Mark Donfried could have placed the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, given that Berlin was for so long a city divided by an actual wall, parts of which are now covered with actual art. Yet somehow the high-flying metaphors about art soaring over walls, and experiences such as the Zhang Yimou film, remain more powerful than striding quickly past outdoor art painted on a remnant of the wall at the East Side Gallery, given that the extreme cold prevented much artistic enjoyment of the experience.
Also, my attempt to enjoy the Checkpoint Charlie museum became rather surreal when just I was about to buy my ticket, the ticket taker took a phone call and said, “Mr. Hasselhoff, it’s for you.” Suddenly I noted a camera crew, and the Baywatch star David Hasselhoff
emerged to be filmed receiving a call at the museum’s ticket desk. After he gave me his autograph, he said in his overgrown surfer’s patois, “Yeah, man, this museum is really important, the widow of the founder is like a friend of mine, and we’re gonna do a concert to save the museum. This is important stuff, man.”
Quiet, delightful dinners at exquisite restaurants with friends old and new offered a better way to enjoy Berlin.
As I told Mark Donfried, I really enjoyed the entire experience of the conference, though I expressed the hope that future events at ICD can do more to engage Berlin’s vibrant world music communities as well as the ethnic constituencies most relevant to its mission. The German Turkish community has turned out for conferences at ICD specifically about Turkish issues, but I would have enjoyed seeing them turn out for the intriguing talks by Dr. Tomur Atagok, Professor and Dean of the Art and Design Faculty at Yildiz University in Turkey.
Mr. Tweedy summarized the spirit of the conference when he said, “When we understand each other better through art, we understand each other better through politics.” Yet perhaps the best aspect of the conference was the humility and nuance frequently offered by its speakers. All diplomats, from foreign ministers to citizen diplomats engaging populations through the arts, must remember the wise words of Amb. Simonyi: “It’s important as we discuss all this to know that we don’t have the answers.”
Let us continue to pose the questions and keep the dialogue going, creating the climate for that mutual understanding and respect towards which we all aspire.