My title connotes a certain unease with the voguish currency the term “cultural diplomacy” enjoys nowadays—unease not with the concept itself, but with the ways in which its deployment has been extended from state to non-state actors and conflated with the broader notion of international cultural relations. The resulting claims now being made on cultural diplomacy’s behalf seem both ambiguous and overstated. The ambiguity resides in attempts to elevate its theory and practice above the level of national interest; the overstatement in the idea that today, cultural diplomacy can help to “manage the international environment” to use Nicholas Cull’s term (2009). Both claims are inadequately supported by the empirical record, I would argue; the first resorts to special pleading and the other to wishful thinking. Public diplomacy “is a term much used but seldom subjected to rigorous analysis,” Cull (2009: 10); ditto, I would argue, as regards cultural diplomacy, a rallying cry adopted under somewhat false premises.
These skeptical views might seem surprising on the part of a former cultural official at UNESCO, who has also been a civil society activist in the arts field. Such an actor would be expected to uphold any discourse that foregrounds culture. So why the heterodox impulse? The explanation lies in my coterminous re-grounding in the critical stances of culturally oriented social sciences’ academic disciplines. Rather than take official cultural policy positions for granted, as a matter simply for rationalization, such perspectives predispose one to seek out the imperatives of ideology and power that drive them, inspired inter alia by the cultural sociology of Pierrre Bourdieu and his school. This analytical perspective posits the existence of an “economy of cultural prestige” or, as James English has it “the various interests at stake for the institutional and individual agents of culture, the games and mechanisms and stratagems by means of which these interests assert themselves, and the ultimate role such cultural assertions of interest play in maintaining or altering the social distribution of power…” (2007: 8-9). The misconceptions of the neophyte may also be to blame, for I have had limited exposure to scholarly studies of cultural diplomacy. I must therefore advance my views somewhat tentatively, although they are based on 35 years of experience, tempered by the ethnographer’s gaze, in the international arena of nation-state position-taking and negotiation in the realm of culture (see bio).
In the pages that follow, therefore, I shall first critique the portmanteau notion cultural diplomacy has become and seek to explain why this semantic proliferation has occurred. Next, I shall explore the reasons why caution may be required and expectations cut to size. The cautionary note is directed at arts practitioners and organizations as well as private-sector actors; the admonitions about expectations apply more to governments. Next, I shall challenge the assumptions governments appear to make about the efficacy of cultural diplomacy. Finally, on the basis of my own direct experience of managing cultural heritage issues at UNESCO, I shall look at a key function of cultural diplomacy that is curiously downplayed in the current proliferation of meanings: the accrual by nation-states of symbolic capital through the placing of their ideas and cultural properties in the global economy of prestige.
The Ever-broader Remit
Richard Arndt has distinguished, rightly in my view, between cultural relations that “grow naturally and organically, without government intervention” and “cultural diplomacy [that] can only be said to take place when formal diplomats, serving national governments, try to shape and channel this natural flow to advance national interests” (Arndt, 2006: xviii). This is clear and unambiguous. But the term has become far more capacious that that, in large part because of the view that public diplomacy may be practiced by a “multi-national corporation, non-governmental organization, international organization, terrorist organization/stateless paramilitary organization or other player on the world stage” (Cull, 2009: 12). What is more, its users now want it to include the entire gamut of contemporary issues in the field of culture. A recent cultural diplomacy conference typically tackles issues ranging as far as the role of artists in social change, international private philanthropy in the arts and cultural rights—an issue internal to national communities if there ever was one.1 I deliberately listed the trope of “intercultural dialogue” first in the above enumeration, for together with the notion of “dialogue of civilizations” this notion has become the favoured overarching trope for all cultural cooperation. One would not quarrel with this ambition in itself. It is surely vital to foster the sorts of intercultural competencies needed to respond to the dual “claims of cultures to retain their variety, and to … meet and intermingle within the context of a new global civilization … through risky dialogues with other cultures than can lead to estrangement and contestation as well as comprehension and mutual learning” (Benhabib 2002: xii-xiv). Or, as Jacques Delors put it, to learn how to live together in “a new spirit which, guided by recognition of our growing interdependence and a common analysis of the risks and challenges of the future, would induce people to implement common projects or to manage the inevitable conflicts in an intelligent and peaceful way” (Delors et al. 1996: 23).
But the forging of such a new intercultural spirit requires processes far more complex and person-to-person based than the panoply of cultural diplomacy can offer. Of course this is where broader definitions serve their purpose. A case in point is Milton Cummings’ often cited belief that cultural diplomacy “refers to the exchange of ideas, information, art and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding” (Cummings, 2003: 1). In point of fact, its true actors are neither nations nor peoples. Governmental agents and envoys are, joining nationalism and internationalism. In this process, these state actors are deeply engaged in the practice of what Raymond Williams called “cultural policy as display.” This may consist either of “national aggrandizement,” or “economic reductionism,” or both (the latter term refers to the justification of cultural investment in terms of economic and employment pay-offs). For the first, historical precedents abound—the arts patronage of princes, kings and bishops. Also the great exhibitions and world fairs that ran from the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries; these combined both display and commerce, concerned as they were with “promoting national business in a complex interplay with other nations and in the context of trade rivalry” (McGuigan, 2004: 91). So why are these obvious and abiding instrumental purposes of cultural diplomacy so played down, even elided, today? Perhaps it is awkward to explicitly recognize such workings of the “exhibitionary complex” (Bennett, 1995) built into state cultural policy for what they are.
While the logic of the “new” public diplomacy may well be for governments to build alliances with non-state actors in order to engage with much larger publics (Cull, 2009) the question is whether artists and arts organizers are actually interested in singing the government-led tune. The theatre scholar and activist Dragan Klaic suggests not; for him their motivations in working across national boundaries are “about more than promotion,” focussing on purposes such as mutual learning; pooling of resources; co-financing; technical assistance; joint reflection, debate, research and experimentation; and “in its most complex forms, cooperation in the creative processes, the creation of new artistic works” (2007:46).
The failure to recognize that cultural actors do not pursue State interest-driven deliverables seems to signal a disjuncture from reality.
Cull recognizes (2009: 19) that “discomfort with advocacy roles and overt diplomatic objectives have led some Cultural Diplomacy organizations to distance themselves from the term….” On the other hand, they are unlikely to distance themselves equally from the grants available for the sorts of activities listed above. Recourse to grand cultural narratives such as “intercultural dialogue,” or “mutual understanding” makes it easier for them to adopt this stance, just as it makes it easier for governments to advance the national interest cloaked in their mantle. So there is a respondent opportunism at work on the part of cultural actors, even if its mainsprings are different, i.e. artistic, deontological, ethical or axiological rather than interest-driven in the strict sense of the word—although authors such as Cull would have us read the notion more broadly. Yet espousing the cause of cultural diplomacy
is no doubt good strategy, in terms of funding and visibility, even for players who may not want to be in the business of diplomacy at all. Yet this warrants a cautionary appeal to the culture sector not to become a prisoner of a rhetoric developed and propagated by others, in the service of different agendas, to be careful about jumping on to bandwagons opportunistically, so as to position itself on the contemporary policy agenda.21 If cultural activists must make overblown claims, for strategic reasons let’s say, then they ought to be more fully aware of what they are doing and why, in other words deploy a heightened reflexivity about the discourses they adopt.
These noble tropes are the products of contemporary culturalism, in other words the ways in which agency and causality are attributed to culture, as cultural expression and cultural difference are increasingly deployed in the service of political and other causes. Indeed politicians and policy-makers the world over are using the arts and heritage as resources in the service of ends such as economic growth, employment, or social cohesion (Yúdice, 2003). Another major trend is embodied in the special meaning of “cultural diversity” that inspires UNESCO’s 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions). Expenditures on the arts, even more so on the “creative industries,” are now justified not for the value or values those arts themselves, but as investments in “protecting” or “promoting” cultures understood as entire ways of life in the broader social science sense of the term culture. As Philip Schlesinger has observed as regards European Union audiovisual policy, it is not the intrinsic merit of the audiovisual sector that is valued. Rather, and this applies globally, “it has been the assumed impact of the production and consumption of audiovisual culture upon national (and European) culture as a way of life that has been central to the debate… sustaining audiovisual production is commonly conflated with protecting (because it is believed to shape) a whole way of life” (Schlesinger, 2001: 94).
Conversely, as regards governmental stances, the uptake of cultural diplomacy as a new frontier in international relations warrants interrogation as well. Three key questions arise here. Is cultural diplomacy really a form of cooperation that transcends cooperation among elites? Is governmental agency central to achieving the goals of trans- and intercultural interaction to which cultural diplomacy now aspires? Can cultural diplomacy overcome negative national images? In all three cases, it seems that too much is expected of cultural diplomacy today, that it is pressed into service in the name of goods that it cannot deliver.
The first ambitious claim underpinning the boosting of cultural diplomacy is that it transcends cooperation at the elite level as has been practiced for centuries, if not millennia. Yet surely it is not for nothing that Richard Arndt called cultural diplomacy “the first resort of Kings” (Arndt, 2005). Yet some other accounts claim that a world of “static and traditional cultural settings” is being replaced by one “where culture is also a medium between people on a mass scale” (Bound, et al. 2007: 16-17). The same authors also tell us that “many-to-many cultural exchange is now very fast moving and capable of profound effect, both laterally and upwardly, to the extent that cultural diplomacy now directly affects and may even direct the more traditional forms of public diplomacy.”
There are several problems with this claim. First, the exaggerated directive agency attributed to cultural diplomacy. Second, the implied model of a “two-step flow,” which Cull articulates more clearly when he writes, “PD does not always seek its mass audience directly. Often it has cultivated individuals within the target audience who are themselves influential in the wider community” (2009:12). Closer examination would reveal, I suggest, that cultural diplomacy preaches largely to the converted and that it is principally carried out within and across the “high culture” forms— exhibition exchanges, the performing arts of different traditions, etc. To be sure, all these forms have become increasingly more accessible to larger numbers of people, but has “mass” scale really been attained?
Where the latter really comes into play, it seems to me, governmental agency is less likely to be present. As I have observed elsewhere with regard to cultural policy (Isar, 2009), public policy and its impacts are incorrectly assumed to be principal determinants of what we might call the “cultural system.” Clearly, today a range of other forces are at work in shaping the cultural life of any human group, whether on the level of the nation-state, sub-nationally or supra-nationally. The market, or societal dispositions and actions, notably civil society campaigns related to cultural causes and quality of life issues, impact on the cultural system far more deeply than the measures taken by ministries of culture… (this goes without saying in the USA, but it must be remembered that in practically all other countries, culture is a domain of public policy assumed and funded by the State directly, or at least at arms length). At the forefront of India’s contemporary cultural system, for example, stands the popular culture generated and disseminated by Bollywood and other major centres of film production. The policies of the ministries responsible respectively for “culture” and “information” impinge but superficially on this cultural universe. Instead, they support institutions of “high culture,” offer awards and prizes to artists and writers, and…pursue efforts of cultural diplomacy that pale into insignificance compared with the international reach of the film industry. A similar point was made in the European context by Geoff Mulgan and Ken Worpole, who “alerted us long ago to the fact that the cultural policies doing most to shape national cultures were not being framed within bespoke government departments but in the boardrooms of very powerful transnational commercial organisations” (Ahearne, 2009: 144)
The second misapprehension, I would argue, has to do with governmental presumptions as to their power of agency in the cultural arena. Today’s dense border-crossing flows and migrations are taking place increasingly beyond the grasp and control of nation-states. What is virtue in the intergovernmental arena is in other circles the vice of “methodological nationalism,” i.e. the assumption that the nation-state is the right container for culture. Now that the primacy of the nation-state appears past its heyday, the nexus of culture and nation no longer holds. There is a growing awareness of the porosity of boundaries and the fluidity and multiplicity of cultural identities. It is not just that this “cracking open,” as Ien Ang puts it (Ang, 2011, forthcoming), of the nationalist narrative undercuts the homogenizing image of nationhood and national culture. More significantly, one might observe, the purposes of mutual understanding are being achieved far more effectively by direct cultural interactions at the civil society level.
The point that “diasporas are the exemplary communities of the transnational moment” (Tölölyan 1991:3) is already being taken by some cultural diplomacy practitioners, e.g., the statement I heard at a Wilton Park conference on intercultural issues in the late 1990s by the Director of the French Cultural Institute in London to the effect that his job was not to present the culture “of” France but cultural life “in” France—he was alluding to the plurality of national origins of artists living and working in that country. The second point is increasingly recognized too, as when cultural diplomacy advisers recognize that “opportunities for global contact and exchange are proliferating as never before” (Bound et al. 2007: 19). Yet curiously the same authors invoke the challenge of enabling “mass populations to develop the vital skills of cultural literacy – where people are able to understand themselves, and others, and the dynamic relationship between the two.” As argued already, it is not a question of mass populations in the first place.
But more importantly, the informal webs of relations among artists and cultural practitioners and their supporting organizations must surely engender richer interactions than those proposed or facilitated by formal State institutions. For civil society actors are also among the principal agents of phenomena such as transculturality, deterritorialization, hybridity and creolization—all produced by “flows and crossovers between cultures, and the patterns of their intermingling that are produced by the movement of peoples and the restless cultural mixing that now characterizes developed cultural markets” (Bennett, 2001: 19). There is also the accompanying phenomenon of deterritorialization (García Canclini 1995), in other words the loss of the “natural” relation of culture to geographical and social territories. Civil society organizations are among the most active explorers of the emergent zones of culture in which old traditions survive and meld with contemporary novelty, negotiating the various processes just cited. They play a crucial role in facilitating both production and dissemination of a variety of cultural forms. Thus in December 2008 the Dutch NGO HIVOS (Humanist Institute for Co-operation with Developing Countries) and the Open Society Institute (OSI), in cooperation with the Budapest-based Center for the Study of Culture and Society (CSCS) organized on the Bangalore campus of the information society giant INFOSYS, a conference on “Culture and Civil Society Development in Asia.” The conference announcement stated that “networks in the arts and culture sector have created platforms for the interaction of practitioners and mediated between the producer, market and the state.”
The third misapprehension that causes cultural diplomacy to be pressed into heavy duty service beyond its capacities is the conviction that it can effectively overturn deeply negative images of nation-states provoked by their use of the hard power tools of military action and economic domination. The conventional wisdom of cultural activists, scholars and policy-makers alike is that cultural charms can dispel strongly hostile perceptions aroused by the exercise of hard power. But is it reasonable to assume that the perceived depredations of the “Quiet American,” for example, can be so eliminated? The very people who dislike American hard power are probably quite admirative already—if the Pew data is to be believed—of American performing arts; there is no apparent reason why they should change their minds about US foreign policy because they are offered travelling exhibitions, jazz musicians and hip-hop dancers.
Cultural tools were certainly used by the USA to counter Soviet anti-American propaganda during the Cold War or the cultural and media imperialism thesis in both Europe and the global South (Arndt, 2007). But cultural diplomacy rose to salience as a public policy domain in the USA only after the rise of deeply hostile Islamist fundamentalism and in the wake of that arch-culturalist trope, Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, as well as the radical deterioration of the American image in the rest of the world after the two invasions of Iraq. Both the theory and the subsequent reality, I argue, have encouraged a shift away from the reasonable aim of conveying a positive image of a national culture or of boosting the recognition of a national cultural model in the rest of the world. In the emblematic French case, this was the key motivation, with the creation of the Alliance Française, the network of French Cultural Centres and the like in order to combat the hegemony of the English language, formerly linked to British imperial dominion and today to the USA’s global cultural power.
Today, however, a more ambitious goal is sought: the voluntaristic extirpation of negative images. This was no doubt the challenge that faced post-war West Germany, which clearly used the Goethe Institute network and a deliberate policy of exporting German high culture–principally music—to present a different face than that of Nazi Germany. But surely enough people in the rest of the world knew already how wonderful German high culture actually was and how well its musicians could play Bach and Beethoven—nor did the latter remove the taint of Nazism. Moreover, while I can provide no evidence to disprove my disbelief, there is simply no good longitudinal social science research that has compared before and after perceptions and thereby demonstrated the power of cultural diplomacy in this regard. For the moment, then, it remains a stipulation, more a matter of faith than of evidence.
A new avatar of cultural diplomacy is the “cultural foreign policy” of the European Union. The challenge here is not so much to counter a negative image of Europe in the rest of the world (imperial Europe’s past colonialism is superseded by fear of imperial America) as to set itself up as a more appealing alternative. The USA is the elephant in the room… Thus in 2007, the European Commission put forward a “Communication on a European agenda for culture in a globalizing world” (Commission of the European Communities, 2007). Now adopted by the EU institutions and Member States, as well as the civil society organizations that interact with these institutions, this agenda sets out three sets of objectives: to promote cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue; to promote culture as a catalyst for creativity in the framework of the Lisbon Strategy and to promote culture as a vital element in the Union’s international relations. The five sub-objectives of the third objective—the cultural diplomacy dimension— are to: further develop political dialogue in culture and promote cultural exchanges; promote market access for cultural goods and services from developing countries; protect and promote cultural diversity through financial and technical support; ensure that all cooperation programmes and projects take full account of local culture and contribute to increase people’s access to culture and to the means of cultural expression, including people-to-people contacts; and promote the active involvement of the EU in the work of international organisations dealing with culture. What really drives these laudable development-oriented goals is the desire to counter the preponderance in the global cultural economy of the lone superpower. The Communication indeed demonstrates a self-conscious awareness of the cultural diplomacy discourse:
The European Union is not just an economic process or a trading power, it is already widely – and accurately – perceived as an unprecedented and successful social and cultural project. The EU is, and must aspire to become even more, an example of a “soft power” founded on norms and values…which, provided they are upheld and promoted, can be of inspiration for the world of tomorrow.
The difficulty, however, is to arrive at a common platform of “inspiration” for the rest of the world on the part of a continent whose nation-states already have established traditions of cultural diplomacy and/ or are highly aware of their peoples’ wariness about any loss of cultural sovereignty to the supra-national entity. Hence the limited competencies for culture enjoyed by the European Union and which the Communication is designed to help supersede. How can the EU project itself culturally as speaking with one voice, the very notion of “European identity” being an aporia? Formerly, Europe symbolized empire, but today, the paradox Susan Sontag identified is that the new idea of Europe is about retrenchment: “the Europeanization, not of the rest of the world, but… of Europe itself” (cited in Morley and Robbins, 1990:3). Against this backdrop, a number of national cultural centers/institutes have recently formed a non-profit association called European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC). While European artists associations and foundations have articulated the need for a concerted, joined-up European platform that can project an image of a single “cultural Europe,” EUNIC’s mission statement makes no strict mention of this. It contents itself with the following boilerplate formulation: “The purpose of EUNIC is to create effective partnerships and networks between the participating organisations, to improve and promote cultural diversity and understanding between European societies, and to strengthen international dialogue and co-operation with countries outside Europe.”
UNESCO in the Global Economy of Prestige
Any locus of international cultural politics is necessarily also a site for the confrontation of ideas, interests and power-relations with respect to symbolic meanings. Yet UNESCO’s discourse privileges a kind of ideal Kantian internationalism. Phrases in its Constitution such the following could also be construed as a sort of post-War cultural diplomacy urtext at the international organization level: “States Parties … are agreed and determined to develop and to increase the means of communication between their peoples and to employ these means for the purposes of mutual understanding and a truer and more perfect knowledge of each other’s lives.” As the mission was to construct “the defences of peace in the minds of men” the assumption was that culture, in the singular, was a beneficent higher attribute that should be deployed for this purpose. Culture and cultural co-operation were thus means of meeting the overarching peace-building objective. Yet they were not limited to this instrumental role. It was not simply a question of what culture could do for UNESCO. It was also about what UNESCO could do for culture—hence by extension, for the cultures of its Member States, in other words very much in a paradigm of representation.
Abstract issues and causes have of course been championed diversely by Member States for reasons of principle dictated by their respective national value systems and traditions. Yet these positions of principle have also been ways of marking territory and control in ideological and discursive terms, of using institutions to try and make their own meanings of terms both dominant and authoritative. Thus the British anthropologist Susan Wright sat in on the deliberations of a Drafting Committee at the Intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies for Development held in Stockholm in 1998. In the drafting room, “the delegates of the member states were asserting their power to limit definitions of ‘culture for development’ to those compatible with various ‘national cultures’ of nation states” (Wright, 1998:177). Wright also identified the different “ways that ‘culture’ was being linked in a new semantic cluster with ‘creativity,’ ‘diversity,’ ‘development,’ ‘participation’ and ‘freedom’” and the ways in which “differently positioned actors draw on, stretch or challenge an accumulation of meanings of ‘culture’ (and) try to make their meaning ‘stick’” (1998: 175).
A graphic illustration of such positioning was actually provided by the behavior of the US Delegation to the World Conference on Cultural Policies organized by UNESCO in Mexico City in 1982, in the second year of Ronald Reagan’s first term, during which the influence of the arch- conservative right, led by the Heritage Foundation, was to lead the US to leave UNESCO. In Mexico as well, a conference-drafting group produced an extensive “Mexico City Declaration” containing inter alia the very broad definition of culture that has since become canonical in these circles. The definition reads as follows – note the part I have italicized:
that in its widest sense, culture may now be said to be the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group. It includes not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, values systems, traditions and beliefs…
The inclusion of the words “the fundamental rights of the human being” may appear somewhat incongruous; they were added at the adamant insistence of the US delegation, mindful of the coded significance, in Cold War ideological warfare terms, of the notion of individual human rights, as opposed to collective rights and peace, the code words used by the other side—and which were used to justify say the cause of the Palestinian people or the black majority in Apartheid South Africa, or deployed as counters in the struggle against “cultural imperialism.” Without the italicized words, the United States would not have been a party to the Declaration and hence to the consensus-based decision-making that was the rule in UNESCO at that time.
The above anecdote illustrates one facet of the image-building or “branding” motivations of nation-states as they play out at UNESCO. Even in this setting, where some might expect national postures to be harnessed to the promotion of high internationalist ideals, the imperatives of what Raymond Williams called “cultural policy as display” also dominate. “The public pomp of a particular social order” was Williams’ gloss on the ceremonials of the British Royal Family and the like, which constituted the ritual symbolization of nationhood (Williams, cited in McGuigan, 2004: 61). He carefully distinguished these unacknowledged, even unnoticed purposes, from “cultural policy proper,” which consists of support to the arts, media regulation and the negotiation of national community or identity. “Cultural policy as display” is in fact what drives Member States of UNESCO. To be sure, Cull’s distinction between traditional forms of diplomacy that engage with other state actors and new ones that play the national cultural card with broader audiences in mind is valid too—indeed governments operate on both the two levels in UNESCO. But in both cases, the peace-building ideals of that organization, which should lead its members to cooperate in an unhindered spirit of global conviviality, are trumped by the imperatives of national representation and recognition in the international arena. In this perspective, then, UNESCO is a field with its own rules of negotiation and transaction, possessed, like any other, of its own forms of symbolic capital that Member States deploy.
Beyond the anecdotal, my argument can also be illustrated through the process that has unfolded over the last three decades at UNESCO around the expanding notion of “cultural heritage.” This has been a two-pronged expansion, as a growing number and variety of material traces of past cultural life—structures, sites, artefacts—have entered the term’s embrace, and as the idea of heritage has recently cloned itself, with the recognition of a new double: “intangible heritage.” This development is in large part the result of the workings of a global “economy of cultural prestige,” as different kinds of “heritage” status accorded to their “cultural properties” function as symbolic capital and “the many local markets and local scales of value are bound into ever tighter relations of interdependence” (English, 2005: 259). The earliest UNESCO definitions used the notion of heritage very narrowly, referring not to the entirety of the cultural inheritance, but to material forms only, architectural and monumental. This usage originated from the Euro-American architectural conservation community in the 1950s, then was gradually naturalised in the conceptual arsenal of UNESCO and other international organizations. These same conservation professionals were also the drafters of the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage that established the World Heritage mechanisms that in fact select cultural heritage properties and sites for consecration on the global honour roll that is the World Heritage List. Hence as the World Heritage process gathered momentum in the last decade of the twentieth century, it became increasingly obvious that the List could not but be skewed towards those countries rich in such material traces from their respective pasts. Many countries—mostly in the global South— would not find adequate representation on this geocultural enumeration of the superlative. This realization began to reach the sub-national level too, as both cities and regions within nations sought to gain World Heritage recognition for their distinct branding purposes. They too have tapped into the international economy prestige embodied in the World Heritage mechanisms. They have carried out complex processes of economic and political negotiation and transaction with their respective national or federal governments in order to obtain international recognition for local cultural goods—a classic procedure of the glocalization process.
Precisely because governments—again at multiple levels within nation-states—are increasingly “sensitive to the value of publicly asserting the value of their [distinctive] cultures in various forums that bestow and reflect international prestige” (Kurin, 2004: 68) calls for action on the intangible front, made as early as 1972, when the World Heritage Convention was adopted, and renewed fitfully thereafter, developed momentum in the late 1990s. By this time far more than national or local pride were at stake, for questions of culture and cultural identity had become a global issue, voicing rising concerns about the impacts of globalisation and the belief that cultures were now being corroded far more strongly than they ever had been before. Thus the new century saw the emergence of a new cause in international cultural politics, the combat for “cultural diversity,” a revamped articulation of the “cultural exception” movement that sought to exempt cultural goods and services from international free trade rules. For this newer avatar of cultural militancy, the alliance with the “intangible heritage”campwasbothnaturalandadvantageous. Theelectionofasenior Japanese diplomat to be UNESCO Director-General in 1999 reinforced the already accumulated momentum, as he brought with him his society’s awareness of the intangible as well as his government’s determination to invest in globalising that sensibility, in other words to place Japan’s own practice at the forefront of the global economy of prestige. Together, these factors propelled the negotiations that culminated in the adoption in 2003 of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.
In cultural conservation terms the cause is amply justified. It is glossed by UNESCO in terms that brook no contestation: “cultural heritage is not limited to material manifestations, such as monuments and objects… This notion also encompasses living expressions and the traditions that countless groups and communities worldwide have inherited from their ancestors and transmit to their descendants, in most cases orally” Yet at the same time, like the prizes and awards analyzed by James English, the national “properties” inscribed as either “World” or “intangible” heritage are also institutional agents of what he calls “capital intraconversion”: the symbolic charge they contain negotiates transactions between cultural and economic, or cultural and political capital.
By Yudhishthir Raj Isar
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Yudhishthir (Raj) Isar is Professor of Cultural Policy Studies at The American University of Paris and Maître de Conférence at Sciences Po, Paris. He is the co-founder of The Cultures and Globalization Series of publications. From 2004-08, he served as President of the international association Culture Action Europe. Previously, he served as Executive Secretary of the World Commission on Culture and Development and Director of the International Fund for the Promotion of Culture at UNESCO. From 1986-87 he was the first Executive Director of The Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
1 Topics discussed at the ‘Cultures in Conflict/Culture on the Move’ conference co- organized in Paris in November 2008 by the Aspen Institute and The American University of Paris as the first ‘Aspen Cultural Diplomacy Forum.’
2 I have written elsewhere of the creative industries hype and the traps it represents for cultural actors whose activity is not ‘industry’ (Anheier and Isar, 2008).