The many reports that have appeared on the failures of American public diplomacy during the Bush years have stressed its limitations in the area of information and educational programs. What some call the third pillar of public diplomacy -- cultural programs -- has, however, been little mentioned.
This is not surprising. As I pointed out, not very originally, in a long essay, "Arts Diplomacy: The Neglected Aspect of Cultural Diplomacy," and in a recent book review on the arts and democracy, Americans are uneasy not only with federal government support for the arts, but with the very notion of "culture" (high culture with a "capital K") itself. Our Puritan roots -- and they are still alive and well -- underscore that overcoming the all-encompassing fear of predestined eternal damnation can be achieved (but not with certitude, which makes us work even harder) through "busy-ness" (business), not the "dangerously" hedonistic pursuit of pleasure (See, of course, Max Weber).
When we Americans do allow ourselves time for lassitude, we do so, as a rule, in a very planned, business-like manner (or totally "drop out" through drugs). Las Vegas, "sin city," is the best example of this pleasureless, high-strung "fun-fun-fun," which has little to do with the dolce far niente, a key -- frivolous "art for art's sake" types would say -- to savoring life in an aesthetic (meaningful?) way.
We Americans are known worldwide for our power to "entertain" (and Hollywood-style entertainment, it could be argued, is essentially about biological "relaxation" -- comparable to a satisfying bowel movement or "pigging-out" on junk food). Mindless blockbuster movies and vulgar pop "music" are among our most profitable exports.
Based on my experience in the Foreign Service (and, needless to say, personal biases), however, I have found that many foreigners, no matter what social class or education, don't understand why our official diplomatic missions show so little interest in presenting "serious" American culture to them (and course "serious" depends on whom you're talking with).
Non-Americans are aware that the U.S. does have splendid orchestras, theaters, museums. (I don't want to suggest, mind you, that America is without culture; I simply want to say that "culture" does not play the central role in American life that it plays in other countries in continental Europe, Asia, and parts of the Middle East. An Italian government official said at a White House conference that her country's Ministry of Culture was as important in Italy as is the Petroleum Ministry in Saudi Arabia. What she said about the Saudis/Italy could apply to the U.S. Let's face it: we'd rather have oil than culture).
Foreigners are struck by how little the world's most powerful nation does -- in an "official" way -- to display its art to interested persons. Interestingly but not surprisingly, when the USG does -- all too rarely -- fund cultural activities overseas, it likes to call them "workshops." That, of course, spares the State Department of being accused of frivolity by Congresspersons claiming to represent the hard-working taxpayer; artists are working, so everything's ok, no money is being wasted. Another favorite Foggy Bottom "cultural" program, by the way, is "arts management" -- and yes, that's very important business. Again, let's get 'em artists working -- i.e., producing as if in a corporation -- right.
During the past eight years, many abroad have considered America hostage to a crude & rude "cowboy president." Bush, despite his Yale and Harvard "education," has been seen as uncivilized (a word all too often used by critics of America, which is far too busy reinventing itself to be "civilized"), not only because of his barbaric, scorched-earth "shock and awe" policies (for which Americans will pay a price for many years) but also, I would suggest, because of the little respect he showed toward the fine arts (in Russia, there was a rumor that Bush, in a St. Petersburg palace, stuck chewing gum underneath the table at which he was sitting).
The favorite form of relaxation for this preppy cheerleader reformed alcoholic is physical rather than aesthetic. He loves exercise (of course, nothing wrong with that), an activity also much favored by his football-crazy Secretary of State (it was reported that a preferred topic of their discussions is sports -- as Americans were dying in Iraq?, some may ask).
Among the many not-so-subliminal "W" messages to the homeland (let us hope that word will disappear from the American language) was the following: "I, your mission-accomplished commander in chief -- while engaging in my 'free time' in communications with the Almighty -- work (and "work out") too hard during the day to listen to music or read a book" (I personally wonder if he's ever really read the Bible, one of the great literary masterpieces). Say a "prayer" and in bed by 10 pm. No nonsense.
Under Bush, the presidency was totally divorced from culture; how many persons in the world associate "Dubya" with an exhibit or concert (or an experimental artistic project on the Internet)? Very few, if any; indeed one of Bush's "pleasures" was to show Saddam Hussein's handgun to White House visitors. In all fairness to the Bushes, First Lady Laura the Librarian showed an interest in books; and a picture of Bush that will always be remembered is his holding a book -- yes, Bush with a book!: The Pet Goat, in front of students at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, on September 11, 2001, as flames ravaged the World Trade Center in New York.
Given that Americans are reluctant to support their culture overseas -- Hey, why should we? We've got Hollywood doing that! Get real! We're in the middle of a hell of a recession! First things first! -- it cannot be expected that public diplomacy will receive the funding to significantly increase its cultural programs overseas under the new administration (but then one never knows; miracles do happen).
Meanwhile, however, instead of waiting for miracles, Americans with an appreciation for the arts -- and such Americans, many of them, do exist -- should encourage the new president, Barack Obama, to make the White House a more culture-friendly place. As was the case during the Kennedy years, the residence of our Chief Executive should be a venue for cultural activities of all types, ranging from concerts to poetry readings, to which foreigners (including, needless to say, visiting heads of state and other official representatives, including in the field of culture) would be invited.
Non-Americans felt that the Kennedys were "one of them" because of the presidential interest in the arts. No reason why the articulate Barack and his elegant spouse cannot show the same interest in the enchanting sides of life while they serve in the White House (and they do not necessarily have to be culture-vultures to do so; after all Ian Fleming was one of JFK's favorite authors).
Bringing culture to the White House would do much to demonstrate to the world that Americans can, indeed, value the arts -- in our own way. True, we'll never have a Ministry of Culture (nor should we), but if our new president (a published author who has a literary bent) takes the arts seriously (and I do not mean solemnly) and shares this appreciation publicly with his fellow citizens and other inhabitants of Mother Earth, it will help show our small planet that the cowboy presidency is indeed over and that after eight xenophobic years we Americans are again trying to connect with the rest humankind -- a humankind defined, in many ways, by its greatest cultural achievements, of infinite variety throughout the world.
And, finally, how about starting off the new administration on the right cultural footing, by having a poet (say the Library of Congress's Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan, who has written about the "idle maunderings poets feed upon") read at the Obama inauguration, just as Robert Frost (ironically, something of a Puritan himself) did when John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency?