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What is Cultural Diplomacy and Why Does it Matter?

Tue, 28 Feb 2017

Kevin Cherney

When I first started working with SFU Public Square, I wasn’t exactly sure what cultural diplomacy was. The term seemed familiar but distant; perhaps I was tested on it in a first-year political science class. In any case, it didn’t resonate with me. Once I started reading about it, I realized that even though I didn’t know the term, I was familiar with the concept. The more I read, the more I began to feel tension over the pros and cons of the practice.

Cultural diplomacy is the promotion of one country’s culture to another in an attempt to foster cooperation and goodwill. In theory, it allows citizens of two disparate cultures to find common ground with one another. A film like the Academy Award-nominated The Salesman (dir: Asghar Farhadi, 2016) can work to lessen the perceived cultural differences between Canada and Iran. If cultural diplomacy does indeed promote greater cultural understanding of marginalized groups, I’m all for it. But what does a government-sponsored international tour for artworks by the Group of Seven tell the rest of the world about Canada? What should we tell the world about Canada?

Supporters of cultural diplomacy might insist that sending Group of Seven exhibits to China can be a boon to Canadian tourism and increase awareness of Canadian art and some of the issues contained therein. But, as anyone with an understanding of Canada’s colonialist roots can tell you, the stories we tell are most often those of the dominant group. The Group of Seven is certainly talented and well known, but is its depictions of life in Canada applicable today? The group is, after all, comprised of white men, and we know that Canada is a vast, multicultural country. We also know that there are women in the arts, too. By sending this style of art abroad, could we be reinforcing the notion that Canada is a predominantly white nation with European sensibilities? Our Canadian cultural identity is slippery enough as is; outsiders know that we’re definitely not Americans, but we still seem to be characterized as Molson-swilling, hockey playing, Royal Canadian Mounted Stereotypes. If cultural diplomacy can indeed correct some of these stereotypes, then what aspects of Canadian culture should be promoted, and whose issues should be represented? What kind of responsibility does the government have when engaging in cultural diplomacy? How can we mitigate the erasure of traditionally marginalized voices without appropriating and trivializing their art?

As you can tell, I find myself conflicted; on one hand, art for cultural diplomacy seems to be a valuable tool for promoting cultural understanding. On the other hand, whose culture is it that needs understanding? Even if we are able to come to some sort of consensus on the above questions, some critics of cultural diplomacy may still take issue with government politicizing art. After all, cultural diplomacy functions as a sort of ‘soft power’; that is to say that rather than military or economic power, cultural power functions as a tool for imperialism. Should art be politicized in this way? Or is all art inherently political? The questions keep piling up. Perhaps some of the speakers at Culture/Diplomacy on March 1st can help me begin to answer them.

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