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Time of Austerity Is No Time to Cut Enrichment of Culture

In an age when the “bailout” has become common currency for industries in distress, Azar Nafisi wants to know “who is going to bail out imagination and thought.” The Iranian-born author of the international bestseller “Reading Lolita in Tehran” told an audience gathered for the Aspen Institute’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum that the present economic crisis is actually a mere symptom of a broader “crisis of vision.” “How much attention are we paying to the attitude, the perception, the passion that makes this country move forward?” she asked, arguing that it’s crucial for the United States to have a national conversation on what significance we attach to literature, art and culture. For Nafisi and for the other participants in the daylong symposium, hosted by the Phillips Collection on Oct. 4, art is much more than an addendum, an afterthought, in a functioning society. Rather, it is fundamental, elemental, indispensable. Dorothy Kosinski, director of the Phillips Collection, opened the event, noting that Duncan Phillips, who founded the museum in the 1920s, believed strongly in the “salubrious role of art in society.” He was convinced that art could help individuals overcome disadvantages, she said, thereby increasing the chances for peace, both nationally and internationally. Though a conference on cultural diplomacy in Washington, D.C., might be expected to focus solely on the international, governmental aspect, the varied professional backgrounds of the participants made for a wide-ranging series of talks. In addition to Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan and Egyptian Ambassador Sameh Shoukry and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, speakers included painters, architects, educators and members of Congress, among others. Dana Gioia — a poet, literary critic and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts who now directs the Harman-Eisner Program in the Arts at the Aspen Institute — said the forum was intended to “focus on what America can do better to use art and culture as a way of communicating with the rest of the world, understanding it better, and not in the narrow, governmental sense, but in a broader sense, involving the arts community, the media and private institutions.” Because the bulk of relations between countries takes place at the interpersonal level, knowledge and respect of other cultures is a perquisite for positive intergovernmental relations, according to Jim Leach, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a former longtime congressman from Iowa. Government involvement is of course essential in contexts such as arms control negotiations, Leach pointed out, but sustained good relations with other countries would be impossible without cultural respect. “If you think of the big picture,” he said, “government is a part of culture, not vice versa.” Without respect for culture, there can be no respect between governments. Jim Moran, Democratic representative from Virginia’s 8th Congressional District, agreed that cultural knowledge and awareness were essential for harmonious international relations. But he underscored that cultural programs were also needed for strengthening American society itself at a time of enormous challenges. People increasingly distrust government, whether in Afghanistan or Alabama, Moran told the audience. In such a world, he said, the arts provide the most likely vehicle for reaching people. The congressman recalled the story of three women, “refugees from oppression” who had immigrated to Arlington, Va., and developed a classical Russian theater for at-risk youth. Hispanic children who had been having trouble in school were soon acting out Russian plays. The effect was transformational, he said. “And if we can do it here, we can do it all over the world. And it sure will make us a more secure world. But even more than our self interest, it’s the right thing to do.” Many of the speakers corroborated the power of the arts to shape relations within and between societies. Eric Fischl, a leading American painter and sculptor, described his project “America: Now and Here,” which will bring visual and performing arts to communities across the United States starting next spring. Since 9/11, America has “spun off its center,” Fischl said. His traveling project is meant to engage people in a creative dialogue everywhere it goes, with the aim of healing deep divisions in the process. Renowned architect Elizabeth Diller, whose work includes a redesign of the Lincoln Center in New York and a “bubble” planned for the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, said that while state support for the arts in Europe had for many years guaranteed their flourishing there, the trend lately has been toward a more private approach, as in the United States. “In our culture, we think of art as a kind of extra, a kind of excess,” she said, “you can only do it when you have the resources to do it, and in hard times it’s the first thing to be cut. I truly disagree with that. I believe that this is as important … as the air we breathe and the water we drink.” Wherever it manifests, be it in U.S. missions abroad (see related story) or the many foreign embassies in Washington, cultural diplomacy is central to her concept of statecraft, said former U.S. Secretary of State Albright. “Because it’s the way that we present ourselves, and the way that we learn to respect other countries. And that, after all, is what foreign policy and diplomacy are about.”

About the Author

Jacob Comenetz is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.