A Broken Language, a Crippled
Debate, and the Gift of Art

Art in the Service of Public Diplomacy and Civic Education

The U.S. has a long and deep tradition of mobilizing the arts in the service of democracy. One well-known example is the Federal Art Project, which put thousands of artists of all kinds back to work during the Great Depression (1929-1941). Another example stems from America’s involvement in World War II (1941-1945), when the government used posters, documentaries, movies, radio broadcasts, and other communications devices to recruit troops, build morale, and instruct its citizens.

In terms of Middle East affairs, the arts have not been effectively mobilized by modern American administrations to advance public diplomacy and civic education. The focus has been almost exclusively on controversial television and radio programming such as El-Arabiya and Radio Sawa — a one-way flow of content that provides little opportunity for exchange between U.S. citizens and the people of the Middle East.

In October 2003, the U.S. State Department’s Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World issued a report which concluded that the country’s “entire system of public diplomacy requires broad and deep transformation.” According to the report, the government’s efforts to influence the way the citizens of the Arab and Muslim world think of the U.S. is in serious trouble and “spin and manipulative public relations and propaganda are not the answer” (Source: “Changes in U.S. Diplomacy Sought,” Washington Post, October 2, 2003.) It can be argued that spin and manipulation are equally ineffective in the domestic arena.

Al Quds

Artist: Mohammed Melehi (Morocco)

Art may be what is needed. There is a solid arts tradition in American, Israeli, Arab, and Muslim societies; each has developed iconographies and styles that while unique to their own traditions and contexts, easily translate across cultures. Art, in essence, is a common language all cultures share. Art is valuable as a public diplomacy tool because it opens dialogue.

Art also absorbs criticism and dissension. People in disagreement can point to the work, not at each other. This reduces the tendency of discussions degenerating into personal attacks. When discussing political art, there are often at least some points of agreement on aesthetics, format, style, etc. This is useful, because when antagonists are able to be on the same side for some points, it makes it possible for them to imagine that there could be other areas of agreement. Art adds while politics subtracts.

One can only have an opinion about art. Therefore, everyone’s perspective is equally valid, as far as art is concerned. This neutrality opens up a path to discuss the ideas behind the art, which may or may not be valid but at least have been made amenable to discussion through the creative process.

Art also has the potential to reinvigorate contemporary Middle East studies. This subject is often stultifyingly dull with its endless onslaught of facts, dates, events, and biographical data, as if real scholarship were made of such dry bits of information. By definition, what artists do is synthesize time and space and clarify the thoughts of the people in those moments. It is possible to introduce American audiences to the complex world of Middle East history through a study of such captured moments, with all the freight and awkwardness of academic discourse removed in the interest of introductory education.

Why not promote the rational, healthy exchange of views on the Middle East conflict — both domestically and internationally — through a permanent, revolving exhibit of poster art by Arab, Israeli, and American artists? Why not teach this critical history through the medium of posters? In effect, why not launch an Artists’ Call for Democracy? This exhibit has been developed as an experiment in these directions.


Next Section: An Invitation to a New Democratic Discussion

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