What can art do for diplomacy?
Updated: Jul 29, 2020
This post is written by Megan Dixon, a guest blogger and art graduate with an affinity for international affairs (see more of her autobiography below).
What can art do for Diplomacy? Quite a bit actually, and the history of its use in foreign affairs—from the ancient practice of gift giving to the establishment of the Arts in Embassies program during the Cold War—has an impressive track record. The acceptance of art as an instrument of so-called soft power lies in its ability to communicate across cultures and play a beneficial role in relationship building.
I learned this early on from my Oma (grandma, in German). She was a quirky collector and always had a story to match the paintings, antique cartoons, and mid-century gumball machines that decorated her home. Despite our 60-year age difference, we bonded over our common interest in visually interesting objects and their respective biographies. I was able to learn aspects of my Oma’s personality without needing to ask (she earned an impressive amount of treasures through card games…)
Just as art allowed me to better understand my Oma, many nations today are supporting museums to promote cultural ideas and values abroad to pursue strategic geopolitical interests. An excellent example of this is the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. On the one hand, the museum partnership gives France the opportunity to strengthen its political presence and influence in the Middle East.
On the other hand, the use of the Louvre brand allows the UAE to promote its capital as a tolerant and global city. The universal artwork on view is curated to “focus on what unites us: the stories of human creativity.” This cultural interaction continues backstage as well. In order for exhibitions to succeed, local museum workers and stakeholders must work closely with those in France to solve logistic issues of artifact loans and other business concerns.
Art also challenges us to review our past and relationships with other nations. The Humboldt Forum, which is currently under construction in Berlin and set to open in late 2020, was initially conceived after the fall of the Berlin Wall as part of a series of political efforts to rebrand Berlin as a modern, cosmopolitan capital city. But the €600-million-euro project has also been the site of a stream of international debate (just because it’s art doesn’t mean it can’t be controversial).
Much of the Forum’s criticism is tied to international debates in the museum world on art repatriation. Many, both in Berlin and elsewhere, question the legitimacy of the state’s ownership of artifacts collected during Germany’s colonial era. In response, curators and political figures such as the German cultural minister expanded the scope of provenance research in order to identify artifacts for repatriation. Befitting its name, the Forum has become a site of international dialogue and negotiation—before it has even opened its doors.
These are just two examples of how art and culture are used to influence world affairs today. But, as the following images show, these cases draw from a long and diverse history of aligning art, culture, and diplomacy to foster relationships through means of creative expression.
The Dutch East India Company (VOC) routinely gifted swords, such as the pictured swords below, and assorted mechanical novelties to the Kandyan court in Sri Lanka as part of a broader strategy to secure trading concessions.
Sword and scabbard (Sinhalese: kasthane) 18th century, Siri Lanka.
The ruler of the medieval Armenian kingdom of Vaspurakan valued the robe he received from a Baghdad official so much that he wore it in his self-portrait on the façade of his church.
In response to rising tensions between the Republic of Venice and the Ottoman empire, the Venetian artist Gentile Bellini was sent as an emissary to the court of Sultan Mehmet II in Istanbul. Bellini participated in in a vibrant exchange of culture and ideas at the Ottoman court. He succeeded in gaining the favor of the Sultan, who dubbed him the greatest painter to have ever lived.
Portrait of Sultan Mehmet II by Gentile Bellini, 1480
This 2,700 year old drinking vessel known as a “rhyton” was looted from Iran and then seized by U. S. customs in 2003 while being smuggled from Iran to the United States. A decade later, the United States returned the rhyton to Iran as a diplomatic gesture, this time in effect de-escalating tensions between the two countries.
Louis Armstrong toured Africa for the State Department from 1960–1961, performing in twenty-seven cities. He is greeted in this photo by Congolese cultural affairs director, the playwright Albert Mongita.
Exterior and interior views of the architecture of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, which combines French design with Arabic heritage.
Visualization of the Humboldt Forum Atrium by architect Franco Stella (2019)
As part of an Art in Embassies project, American artist Donna Rhae Marder conducted student workshops in Paraguay at the Fundación Tobatí, a community foundation of local artisans (2019).
Megan received her Master's degree in Architectural History from Tufts University. She researched architectural sociology and the geopolitical context of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Megan is currently exploring opportunities in International Affairs. She spends her free time reading and biking around Boston, and talking her Grandmother through the intricacies of Zoom.