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Smackdown: Diplomacy and the Arts

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Latin pop superstar Juanes is set to perform in Havana this Sunday. And, the New York Philharmonic is considering the Cuban government's invitation to perform there later his year. Today: a Soundcheck Smackdown on the effectiveness and appropriateness of music as a diplomatic tool. Guests include cultural commentator and blogger Lee Rosenbaum and Nick Gillespie, editor in chief of and

Tell us: Should music and the arts be involved in international diplomacy? When does it work? When doesn't it?


Nick Gillespie and Lee Rosenbaum

Comments [19]

John Ferguson from Houston

There are a handful of small but very active performing arts organizations in the US devoting themselves full time to cultural engagement and diplomacy. Since 1993, my organization, American Voices, focuses on countries emerging from isolation and conflct. Since 2007 we have brought US specialists in jazz, children's theater, classical music, Musical Theater and, yes, Hip Hop, to Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan among the 100+ other nations we have visited. It might be interesting for those engaged in this debate to see how thousands of aspiring young musicians, actors and dancers are reached and assisted in achieving their goals in very practical ways in countries considered no-go areas or

Sep. 15 2009 11:06 PM
Kristin from Greenpoint

Mr Gillespie is far off base. I'd have to write a dissertation here to point out all the reasons why but one point I'd like to make is against his central thesis, which seems to be that somehow exchange that comes through 'natural' avenues, seemingly defined by Gillespie as the magical avenue of the marketplace, is "good" and exchange that is funded, arranged, allowed, or in any way sanctioned by governments is bad. Taking Gillespie's citing of MTV programing that makes its way onto television sets in the Middle East as a positive example of 'good' exchange that came down the magic marketplace avenue vs. the NY Philharmonic's appearance in North Korea as an example of 'bad' somehow not truly free and natural exchange because it is marred by public funding, governmental permission, etc. etc. I say this:
-Is there no distinction between MTV and the New York Philharmonic? There is certainly a difference between the exchange of cultural ephemera geared towards selling products and that centered on individual, cultural and community expression isn't there? I for one think there is. (There is of course cross-over between commercial art and individual expression but in fairness there is some distinction as well.)
-The notion that the humanizing of the 'other' and the personal exchange between individuals that can result from cultural exchange is somehow undercut by public or governmental sanctioning or funding is disproven by both common sense and human experience. Elzbieta's experience in communist Poland and the example of the audience reaction in N. Korea are just two examples of this actuality.
-The boogie man of the anti-freedom force of all government investment in and public funding of arts and cultural exchange is a sad, tired ill-conceived argument that truly needs to be replaced by conservatives with something that can hold up to a bit more scrutiny and common sense.

Well that's this artists reaction. Thanks!

Sep. 15 2009 03:41 PM
Ted in Atlanta from Design dept.

First of all Mr.Gillespie, doesn't look like you made many friends! We prefer The Obama "Administration" to "regime", by the way. All artists and administrations clearly realize the power of music's influence... look at the U.S. attempts to deport John Lennon, and the solo efforts to influence politically by the Clash (Joe Strummer, being the son of a diplomat, clearly knew this) Billy Bragg, Dylan, Guthrie, ...a cast of millions. If a lyric is not reflective it's likely plaintive, and after love we quickly get into politics.

But for any artist not communicating lyrically, I suppose it's more about connecting and performing for thirsty ears, and interacting with peers - albeit as ambassadors. My knowledge of symphonic travel red tape is limited, seems like we more needed the cooperation from the host countries to make this work, so I don't see what they have to gain if they are trying to keep U.S. sympathy at bay there; (hmmmm, curious? Maybe this crazy "diplomacy" thing is working...) Also Mr Adujie had a few great comments about Jazz, Mr. Armstrong, Michael Jackson and the permeating influence of American artists sneaking into international lives - and we have to hope that as guests in country or on their digital/analog waves, our artists are sending a positive message as world citizens; for better or worse we are pop cultural leaders to the world and more than ever the repercussions of what we put out there will surely be reflected back at us by the masses of international artists, thereby influencing their cultures. "It's a small world," someone sang...

Sep. 15 2009 03:41 PM
SuzanneNYC from Upper West Side

These concerts are usually free. There are no profits. Only in the US do we subject the arts to free market principles of profit and loss as indication of either worthiness or success.

Sep. 15 2009 02:42 PM
Erik Ledbetter from Washington, DC

I'm Erik Ledbetter of the American Association of Museums, and I am the project manager for the State Department-Museums collaboration program that Lee Rosenbaum criticized on this episode of Soundcheck.

AAM is pleased to see so much attention being paid to our new Museums and Community Collaborations Abroad program. However, when Lee characterizes MCCA as co-opting museums to promote U.S. government foreign policy objectives, we must cheerfully but firmly disagree.

Lee has expressed her worry--bordering on conviction--that the State Department has exerted or someday will exert undue influence on the content of the projects or the selection of the final awards. A complete reading of the program criteria and selection procedures will put such concerns swiftly to rest.

In specific:

• Only US museums, not AAM or the State Department, can make proposals.
• US museums can propose on any subject and with any partner they choose.
• US museums are in total control of the participating staff as well as the format, structure, and content of their projects.
• Department of State does not vet the proposals at any point in the competition cycle.
• Final selection will be made by a peer review panel composed of distinguished US museum professionals with international experience.

We invite Souncheck listeners to learn more about these exciting projects at and judge for themselves. I'll think you'll see exciting projects whose structure exhibits no political agenda of any kind, beyond the basic conviction that US citizens, operating in complete intellectual freedom, are the most effective ambassadors for US culture.

Sep. 15 2009 02:42 PM
thomas from NYC

this is pretty off topic but could people stop pronouncing apartheid 'apar - thighed'? It's 'apar -tate' Just a pet peeve as a south african...

Sep. 15 2009 02:36 PM
JC from union square

WHat about the profits of the concert? Is "Juanes" as an american profit organization giving any revenue to Cuba? How is it controlled?

Sep. 15 2009 02:33 PM
Linda natanagara from ocean, NJ

I LOVE classical music and agree that it is deeply moving and transformative. But on the other hand, has your guest ever been to a "Bruce" concert? There is nothing quite like watching that band play their hearts out for (at least) 3 hours for helping to uplift our humanity and bring us together.

And I don't think it's just a "Jersey" phenomenon.

Great show.

Sep. 15 2009 02:31 PM
Rachel Somerstein from Brooklyn

I'll have to disagree with Mr. Gillespie. TheCIA made fine use of classical music as a tool during the Cold War, to woo Europe's hearts and minds away from communism and toward capitalism. At the 1952 Paris Festival of Masterpieces -- which the CIA underwrote (under the auspices of the Congress for Cultural Freedom) the Boston Symphony Orchestra was one of the headliners.

Sep. 15 2009 02:31 PM
kai from NJ-NYC

Since the vast, vast, vast majority of arts are funded privately, what's the problem with a small bit of publicly funded arts?

If an artist doesn't want to participate in a government funded project, then they don't.

On diplomacy, the fact is that it is carried out in every imaginable sphere: political, economic, and, yes, culture and the arts. If there is a even a sliver of daylight opened brought on by an officially sponsored cultural visit, then that government has achieved a soft, if small, accomplishment. It's cumulative.

Sep. 15 2009 02:30 PM
louis from N. Jersey

The fact that you don't have one Latino panelist here makes me not want to listen. Geo-political implications indeed!

Sep. 15 2009 02:29 PM
César Alvarez from Brooklyn, NY

Your guest Mr. Gillespie is deeply uninformed about the cultural and political situation in Cuba.

1. Cuba's strict regulation of popular music 40 years ago is irrelevant. The exchange of music in all of its form has a powerful impact on Cuban-American relations, and has taken place across many musical boundaries. Popular and Classical forms both have an important place in both of our cultures. The fact is that Cuba values and supports its musical legacy.

2. We can't all travel to Cuba because of America's reactionary embargo not because of Cuba's policy towards the US. In fact Cuba continues to welcome all types of Americans.

3. His ideas about stripping all federal funding for culture is one of the most ill-informed and destructive things I've ever heard on WNYC. This viewpoint betrays a total ignorance of the way culture has developed throughout history. And his proposal that we all seek "private funders" seems to propose a corporate art utopia for reactionaries like him.

4. The equation of North Korean government and the Cuban government in this segment is kind of offensive. They are completely different and so far there has been no recognition of that.

5. Music is subversive and powerful whether a government "approves" of it or not. Music lives in a world beyond the political pettiness of either of our governments.

César Alvarez

Sep. 15 2009 02:27 PM
Andrew from New York

Arts are inherently humanistic and diplomatic and should never be tainted politically or expressed with a cultural pride. Artists should have rights and financial support to travel and show/perform anywhere in the world.

Sep. 15 2009 02:26 PM
Paul I. Adujie from New York, United States

Here below, are the comments I made in 1. February 22, 2008 on the pages of The New York Times.

America is at her best when the focus is on science, technology and the arts… Yes, the arts!

I have always and still hold the view that winning hearts and minds worldwide is easier and painless through education and cultural exchange.

American music, American movies and American arts generally, have done more to sway the world in favor of American ideals… much more than any atomic, nuclear or chemical weapons!

American Jazz… Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Coltrane… Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis etc endears America to me whereas no cluster bombs or bunker-bursting bomber could intimidate me to respect the USA the way American arts, ingenuity, creativity and talents have.

I say brava brava BRAVO to those who thought-up the idea of “New York Philamonic in Asia” !

I am glad to be a New Yorker as the New York Philamonic embraces the world! East meets West!

What will they think up next? New York Philamonic in Africa is the logical extension…. AND, I do suggest that New York Philamonic start in NIGERIA when it begins its music tour of the African

This is globalization that unites they world; it is the sorts that most people can actually like!


Most sincerely,
Paul I. Adujie
New York, United States

Sep. 15 2009 02:25 PM
patrick brennan from NYC

From an artist's point of view, Mr. Gillespie's distrust of public funding for the arts is a little silly. Many creative musicians & other artsts, who are more marginal than not in the market here, benefit enormously from European funding when then they perform there. In fact, the American art scene has long been dependent on that funding & travel just to keep going here where there is so little. Something to consider.
As for ambassadorship. Tne art does it on its own

Sep. 15 2009 02:24 PM
SuzanneNYC from Upper West Side

Mr. Gillespie is totally wrong. I spent five years in the late 70s and early 80s working for a cultural exchange program in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the height of the cold war. We sent high school, college nad community groups to perform free concerts. Don't underestimate the power of music to reach people on a real and human level. It allowed our groups to achieve a level of closeness with the people that would never happenend under other circumstances.

Sep. 15 2009 02:23 PM
Paul I. Adujie from New York, United States

Music, the arts, cultural exchanges are all essential in international relationships.

It is particularly so in today's globalized world of more and more inter-relationship and interconnectedness.

I think that the arts have endeared America to the world more than precision weapons or so-called smart-weapons...

American arts and culture... of Jazz Music... and Sesame Street... Michael Jackson has more profound effects in changing hearts and minds worldwide... than all the atom bombs America has.

Most sincerely,
Paul I. Adujie
New York, United States

Sep. 15 2009 02:20 PM
Tom from Upper West Side

The NY Philharmonic in Cuba? Can it be all about the corporate logos?

Sep. 15 2009 02:17 PM
Soundcheck producer Joel Meyer from WNYC

What do you think about what Lee Rosenbaum and Nick Gillespie have to say about "cultural diplomacy"? Should the New York Philharmonic go to Havana, Cuba? What happens to art and music when it gets paired with foreign policy and international relations?

Sep. 15 2009 02:16 PM

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