- The Question of Cultural Diplomacy:Acting Ethically
"When people ask me, why are you interested in politics, I always answer, because I'm an artist. Whatever affects the lives of human beings, ecological, economic, political, social, cultural, or psychological, is within my province as a writer. I am not in art because of politics; I am in politics because of my artistic calling."—Ngũgĩwa Thiong'o (1998, 5)
The symbiotic relationship between art and politics is especially vivid in the work of cultural diplomacy. As a US-based theatre practitioner, I have been invited to use arts-based projects in diplomatic contexts abroad to:
• encourage self-expression, leadership training, and community-building in high poverty and crime areas;
• build bridges between youth at risk from a marginalized and persecuted ethnic group and their peers from the majoritarian population;
• substitute for diplomatic relations in a country where the United States' foreign policy estranged it from the local national government; and
• work with youth in a renegade region controlled by organized crime that has strained relations with the national government of that country.
Sometimes working at the intersection of art and politics provides healthy alternatives and opportunities for communities; sometimes the results are potentially quite unhealthy and exploitative—of the art, the people, and the people doing the art.
It is crucial in cultural diplomacy, as it is with cultural exchange, to consider the ethics embodied in the content and structure of the work. Through my association in recent years with two organizations, Theatre Without Borders (TWB) and DNAWORKS, I have participated in an in-depth inquiry into the ethos of cultural exchange and diplomacy. The former, TWB, is an "informal, volunteer, virtual community that shares information and builds connections between individuals and institutions interested in international theatre exchange" ("About TWB"). Founded in 2005 by theatre artists Deb Brevoort, Erik Ehn, Catherine Filloux, and Roberta Levitow, TWB values transparency and partnerships and is concerned with the process of exchange, art-making, and governmental policy. Most importantly, TWB is open to anyone who wants to join.
Also in 2005, dancer, educator, and community activist Adam McKinney and I cofounded DNAWORKS, which is an arts and service organization dedicated to dialogue and healing. We use theatre, dance, and visual arts to catalyze community dialogue around issues that are important to the participants. Our work is funded either by local cultural organizations that invite us to their regions or through US embassies and consulates abroad. [End Page 109]
In this essay, I will share the mission and philosophies of these organizations, and how these ideas have been applied to actual projects.
I have been deeply influenced by the community-building theories of Paulo Freire, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, and bell hooks. What these theorists have in common is a commitment to liberation in education and leadership, which has provided a crucial framework for my work on TWB's steering committee and as co-director of DNAWORKS. Both organizations share a fundamental belief that the ethics and efficacy of a given project are embedded in the structure of the work itself. Therefore doing cultural work calls for a reflective "practice"—a moment-to-moment awareness of the complex dynamics at play, a kind of continuous radar sweeping the room.
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1985), Freire describes this ongoing examination as a process of "conscientization," or coming into consciousness, the core of critical pedagogy. Reflecting on ways to dismantle hierarchies, he also advocates a community-based strategy of problem-posing and group learning, rather than a single-voiced, expert-driven approach. In keeping with these principles I have asked colleagues to lend their voices to this essay, with the objective that it will serve as a community forum for discussing the ethical questions posed by the practice of cultural diplomacy.
The Politics of Cultural Exchange and Cultural Diplomacy
An ongoing conversation in TWB is the move away from the notion of fixed "best practices," toward recommending a more fluid application of what works in each individual situation—often now referred to as "better practices." We hope to shift the thinking that there is a discrete or stable approach to the...