in Opinion | 11 NOV 04
Featured in
Issue 87

Soft Machine

Even ‘hawks’ have begun to doubt that exerting ‘hard power’ – sheer military and economic strength – is enough. Cultural persuasion, or ‘soft power’, is the new buzzword

in Opinion | 11 NOV 04

‘Next to torture, art persuades most.’
George Bernard Shaw

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) enjoys status not only as a creative masterpiece but as one that rests solidly on the high moral ground, articulating our response to the horror of war and tyranny. Yet in practical terms the painting achieved nothing. During a visit to the artist’s studio in occupied Paris, a Nazi officer paused before Guernica and asked Picasso: ‘Did you do this?’, to which the artist replied, ‘No, you did’. The officer left, completely impervious to what could be called – to use a term coined a decade ago by Joseph Nye, Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard – the picture’s ‘soft power’: its intent to persuade others to adopt certain values and ideals without resorting to ‘hard power’, the projection of military force or economic strength.

While those directly involved in higher education, the arts, entertainment and cultural policy have been influential in shaping global affairs, it is often governments and monarchs rather than artists who have shown the greatest appreciation of soft power. Louis-Philippe, the principal beneficiary of the 1830 French July Revolution, knew enough about its potential to find a place for Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1831) in an underground store for the 18 years of the July monarchy. In 1950 the Central Intelligence Agency recognized the force of soft power when they obtained the film rights to George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), producing it as an anti-Communist movie that would ‘win hearts and minds’.

Respect for soft power has not diminished. After the Taliban government in Afghanistan fell three years ago, the Foreign Minister of India arrived in Kabul to hail the new government with tapes of Bollywood movies to distribute throughout the city. And Chris Patten, the European commissioner for external affairs, has urged that soft power should not be underestimated: ‘Is China’, he wondered, ‘more likely to change because of the size of America’s defence budget or the superiority of America’s great universities, magnets for international scholarship?’ Recently the Financial Times stated that ‘to win the peace [in Iraq] the US will have to show as much skill in exercising soft power as it has in using hard power to win the war’.

In a world defined by an information culture, where power is increasingly vested in knowledge economies, where no single state can rule by hard power alone now that terrorism has turned into privatized warfare, soft power has literally transformed the way in which global affairs are evaluated and conducted. Indeed, the ascendancy of soft power seems transparent to everyone except the cultural denizens who actually produce and arbitrate it. This was evident during the 2003 World Economic Forum at Davos, in the session on ‘Art and Diplomacy in a Time of Crisis’. The general blithering of the panel is summarized on the forum’s website: ‘The freewheeling discussion could be said to recall a Jackson Pollock painting: scattered yet colourful, intriguing and insightful. Consensus seemed to be reached on one point: art deserves – and artists should strive – to take a more central role in politics and diplomacy.’ The panel was in other words at a loss to formulate a coherent role for soft power.

In 2002 over seven billion people saw Hollywood movies, an acknowledgment that popular culture is the most visible expression of soft power. Setting aside films such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), mass entertainment is often seen as a formulaic, homogenizing force: vapid materialism combined with gratuitous displays of sex and violence. Joseph Nye, however, writes that popular culture ‘portrays American values that are open, mobile, individualistic, anti-establishment, pluralistic, voluntaristic, populist and free’. Ben Wattenberg concurs: ‘It is that content, whether reflected favourably or unfavourably, that brings people to the box office. That content is more powerful than politics or economics.’ And while Iran’s President resents this kind of American power, saying that ‘the new world order and globalization that certain powers are trying to make us accept, in which the culture of the entire world is ignored, looks like a kind of neo-colonialism’, it cannot be said that promoting ideals such as individuality and dissidence, sincerity and upward mobility (including for women), represents mere American imperialism. Smuggled-in Hollywood movies can appear more forward-looking and inspirational in terms of realpolitik to teenagers in Tehran than to their counterparts sitting in multiplexes along American strip malls.

In 1974, in his book Great Western Salt Works, Jack Burnham envisioned future cultural conditions: ‘in the automated state, power resides less in the control of the traditional symbols of wealth than in information.’ Standing armies, blocks of gold and Old Master paintings, Burnham predicted, would wane as projections of power and influence, undermined by confidence in the information culture to distribute knowledge, and thus influence, on a global scale. Burnham’s message was that art needs to open up to related disciplines, to be anticipatory rather than hermeneutic, to employ new technologies and traditional artistic practices in strategic collaborations in order to sustain a meaningful relevance. And why? Burnham’s answer still stings: ‘Situated between aggressive electronic media and two hundred years of industrial vandalism, the long held idea that a tiny output of art objects could somehow beautify or even significantly modify the environment was naive.’
The art world has so far failed to negotiate a role for itself with real traction within the information culture or to renovate its shared interests with entertainment. This growing ambiguity with regard to its influence generates uncertainties about its continued relevance. Could it be true that the art world will be left on the other side of the widening gap between developed and developing disciplines, a gap that mirrors the growing disparity between developed and developing countries, where there are, on the one hand, those who influence world affairs by exploiting soft power and, on the other, those who still struggle to exert influence within the global information culture?