Connecting the arts to peace-building

Presentation made at the Salzburg Global Seminar 532: Conflict transformation through culture: peace-building and the arts

In dealing with the theme of conflict, culture and connecting the arts to peace-building, I would like to make the counter-intuitive case for art that provokes conflict.

We live in a world characterized by two essential faultlines: inequality and culture; inequality in the distribution of material wealth, political power and the military means to assert and defend these on the one hand; and, on the other, culture – values, belief systems and world views and the audio-visual and media means to project and assert these.  Conflicts with their roots in the maldistribution of wealth and power, often find their expression in the cultural sphere, so that culture is both a site of, and a contributor to struggle, though not necessarily its primary cause.

On the occasion of the USA rejoining UNESCO after 9/11 subsequent to a long absence, Laura Bush suggested that UNESCO “can now help to achieve peace by spreading the values that will defeat terror and lead to a better and safer world”.  The obvious questions arising from this declaration are: Which values?  Whose interests would this “peace” serve?  Who sets the peace agenda?  Who suffers in securing such “peace”?

Brown University’s “Cost of Wars Project” estimates that in the ten years after 9/11 in which 3000 Americans tragically lost their lives, 225 000 people were killed as a result of “the war on terror”, with at least $3,2 trillion spent on the war in that time.  What “values” does this suggest?  That the life of one American is more valuable than 70 Pakistanis, Iraqis, Afghans? That there is greater moral rectitude in obscene expenditure on war to deal with the symptoms of inequality, rather than on its causes?

With the rapid growth of neo-liberal economics at the World Trade Organisation in the 90s, “cultural diversity” was advocated by countries like France, Canada and Australia to protect their share of the global audio-visual market, and to counter America’s cultural hegemony.  9/11 reshaped the narrative about conflict, now viewed as the clash of civilizations, as cultural conflicts.  Accordingly, “cultural diversity” which affirmed difference, made way for “intercultural dialogue” and “cultural diplomacy” to facilitate “common values to defeat terror”.  In short, the economic and security interests of wealthy nations shape much of the international cultural agenda and discourse.

If this is true, then to pursue peace without addressing the fundamental and structural inequities that are the base of conflict, is to perpetuate such inequities and injustices, and to serve minority interests.  It is against this background that I would argue for art that is provocative, challenging and disturbing as it challenges unjust status quos, and presents alternative visions that could result in more sustainable peace.

I work within the “culture and development” paradigm that, historically, was premised on the notion that the culture of the intended beneficiaries could be a facilitator, but mostly a hindrance to development.  There is seldom the acknowledgement that “development” most often emanating from global north paradigms, is itself an act of culture, premised as it is on particular values, beliefs and worldviews and potentially rupturing – for better or worse (who decides?) – the culture of the supposed beneficiaries of development. Nor is there generally a recognition that development serves particular geo-political, security or economic interests.

Similarly, the pursuit of peace is not just a political act, it is an act of culture to capture hearts and minds.  Temporary peace may be forced through bombs, bullets and drones, but ultimately, peace that is based on fear, is unsustainable for there will come a time when a tipping point is reached, and fear no longer serves as a deterrent.  For decades, the dictatorships of North Africa served the geo-political, security and economic interests of wealthy nations, a project characterized by repressive peace in which the human rights and freedoms of the citizens of those countries, were expendable.  Until the so-called Arab Spring unleashed a sudden concern for democracy, a system that itself is based on cultural values affirming individualism over communalism.

And yet, democratic values are made meaningless when two democracies can invade a country despite an overwhelming UN vote to the contrary, when another country can exercise its veto and annex part of another country, when countries withdraw from UNESCO after a democratic vote to recognize Palestine as a full member, or when people decide to vote in governments that are less favoured by western democracies, such as Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood, which are then undermined by those democracies.  Whose values, whose idea of democracy, whose interests inform our pursuit of peace?  Do we really share values, worldviews and beliefs related to peace and democracy, when we do not talk about or agree on justice?

“The white actors are speaking more than the black actors” suggested an audience member in the Truth in Translation movie made about the play that reflected on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.  South Africa has long been a microcosm of the global world order, the apartheid era resonating with the colonial period in which a mainly white minority was privileged through the exploitation of the black majority, bolstered by a repressive military machine. Post-1994, the South African elite has expanded to coopt a few more, but the structures of inequity remain, leading to the building up of social tensions that are unsustainable in the medium term.  And so it is globally: wealthy nations and their co-opted national elites in the global south; more than the 1% targeted by the Occupy Movement, but nevertheless a minority, with these structural inequities manifested in conflicts in many regions, conflicts that will be exacerbated by growing environmental degradation, climate change and the impact of these on increasing numbers of desperate people on the underside of history.  In such a world, who speaks?  Who leads?  Who sets the peace-making agenda?  In whose interests?  Whose cultural dominance – including whose language – prevails?  What roles do the arts play – consciously or unconsciously – in serving hegemonic interests?   Where is the line between genuinely seeking to address post-conflict situations through art, and using soft power to co-opt the parties involved?  Context is everything.  A piece of orchestral music enjoyed for its own sake in Vienna, would be associated with elitism in South Africa with its high Gini-coefficient while the same piece played by an orchestra from Afghanistan in Washington, may place a target on their backs as agents of western cultural imperialism.

So, what is to be done?  There is no global social justice and arts movement, no global peace, justice and culture formation that could intervene either rapidly in conflict zones with symbolic acts, or over an extended period with appropriate artistic interventions in the manner of, for example, Greenpeace.  Perhaps there is a space for such a formation, but under the leadership of those from conflict and post-conflict zones.  For it might just be that in the counterintuitive surrender of power that is the natural preserve of those blessed with resource and cultural dominance, that solutions for sustainable peace may be devised and realised.

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About mikevangraan

Mike van Graan is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. He is a playwright, and most recently served as the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute. He was the founding Secretary General of Arterial Network, a civil society network of artists, activists and creative enterprises engaged in the African creative sector and its contribution to human rights, democracy and development on the continent. Currently, he also serves as a Technical Expert to UNESCO on the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
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