The ‘Fine Art’ of Diplomacy

March 13, 2008

By John Bavoso 

13 March, 2008: Last October I wrote a piece detailing the impact that a South African play was having in its attempts to heal post-conflict areas around the globe. While this project was lauded for its unique and innovative approach to unifying conflict-torn regions around the world, more often than not the intersection of Fine Art and international politics and diplomacy is vastly overlooked. While the old cliché about music being the world’s universal language may be a bit simplistic, one should not underestimate the power that artistic expressions can have in bridging political divides and overcoming cultural differences in ways that even the most skilled diplomats often cannot.

While the diplomatic power of the Arts may often go unnoticed the majority of the time by those in the diplomatic community, occasionally an event comes along which makes even the most hardened of political strategists sit up and take notice. Earlier this month, the New York Philharmonic made news with its landmark visit to North Korea. During its two day stay in the communist state the NY Phil offered tutorials and musical lessons, were treated to exclusive performances of traditional North Korean dance and song, and ended its trip with a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s New World symphony and George Gershwin’s An American in Paris. While the visit of America’s oldest orchestra to North Korea is certainly a major event in musical history and the group’s own director denies any motivations for the event beyond the artistic, the press and political pundits have been more focused on the potential political implications of music-as-diplomacy.

American orchestras have a long history of playing-and being well-received-in countries whose diplomatic ties to the United States could at best be described as “strained.” In 1956, during the Cold War, the Boston Symphony Orchestra toured the Soviet Union; the NY Philharmonic played in Peru in 1958 when American politicians were not popular; and the Philadelphia Orchestra visited China in 1973, making its members some of the first Americans to enter the country following the Communist Revolution. While it was clear that American musicians were more readily accepted and welcomed than their governmental counterparts, did these instances of cultural exchange have any lasting positive impact on diplomatic relations between the United States and the receiving countries?

Many commentators have pointed out that the NY Phil’s performance in Pyongyang was hardly a free and open cultural exchange. The members of the orchestra were not allowed to mingle with ordinary citizens or travel without a North Korean guide and Kim Jong Il backed out of attending the performance at the last minute. And while the concert was aired on television, the state-run newspaper conspicuously avoided mentioning the visit at all.

(http://www.slate.com/id/2180464/) Christopher Hitchens, columnist for Vanity Fair and Slate has been very critical of the Pyongyang regime and the United States’ policy of diplomacy. He says this of the humanitarian crisis in the isolated country:

“North Korea is, in fact, a slave state in the true meaning of the word. Everybody within its borders is forced to toil in famine conditions for the members of a dynastic crime family. When runaway slaves are caught, fleeing across frozen rivers to the grim and inhospitable border provinces of China, they have been known to be led back in coffles, with wire threaded through their noses or collarbones, before being handed over to the punishment system.”  (http://www.slate.com/id/2183541/)

Even the Administration’s Human Rights Envoy Jay Lefkowitz has been critical of diplomacy. As Hitchens explained, Lefkowitz has said during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that “The State Department’s insistence on ‘diplomacy,’ had yielded nothing but another round of stalling and obfuscation from Pyongyang on the weapons issue. It was time, he concluded, that the United States ‘should consider a new approach’ to this longstanding impasse.”

But while this historic cultural exchange may not have brought about an immediate end to hostilities between the United States and North Korea or an end to human suffering in North Korea, there was some impact-of both a symbolic and long-term nature. The opening of the concert provided an interesting embodiment of the aims and strengths inherent in using music as a diplomatic tool. Lorin Maazel, the NY Philharmonic’s musical director who speaks seven languages but does not know Korean, refused to use a translator for his opening remarks. Instead he composed a brief orchestral piece to be played during his speech, which reflected musically the emotions he was conveying verbally. It was a poetic example of the music succeeding where language can fail.

In an example of popular music following on the heels of classical, it has been reported in the international media that Eric Clapton has also been invited to perform in Pyongyang, making him the first Western rock star to receive such an honor. While even the guitar skills of Clapton may not be enough to settle disputes between the international community and North Korea over nuclear, political, and humanitarian issues, it hopefully represents the beginning of a process. As Maazel said in a recent interview, “we may have been instrumental in opening a little door.” The hope is that with each subsequent cultural exchange the door will open a little more, until it’s wide enough for diplomats to walk right through.


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