Pride and prejudice of the national cultural institute: cultural diplomacy/cultural intimacy

Giorgiana Zachia writes about the role given to contemporary art at national cultural institutes in the perspective of cultural intimacy.

Pride and prejudice of the national cultural institute: cultural diplomacy/cultural intimacy

Videograms of a Revolution, Harun Farocki

Videograms of a Revolution, Harun Farocki

A national cultural institute, in a traditional perspective, is a lot about pride, and quite a lot about prejudice. Pride in the sense that the basic idea with the institutes is to exhibit the nation’s best and most authentic cultural products – distinguished writers, finest art, best design etc. Prejudice in the form of expectations among the public in the countries where they are active, meaning that a visit to a particular national cultural institute is likely to produce an impression that this or that nation indeed has some unique and essential qualities. This traditional perspective of the cultural institutes is still valid but it has been accompanied by a more flexible praxis in relation to changes in our contemporary world. There is not so much self-reflexivity going on though, with regards to the role of the institutes and to the idea of national culture in the first place.

In their roughly 150 year history, the national cultural institutes have built up a tradition in which the culture launched abroad is usually an untarnished and positivistic one, which excludes elements of embarrassment or open to polemic. In general, the strategy has been to focus on the promotion of personalities and products of high culture. For the first cultural institutes established in the late 19th century and early 20th century, according to cultural studies scholar Gregory Paschalidis, this was in consistency with the dominant humanistic cultural ideal and how these institutes apprehended their mission as landmarks of national cultural excellence (1).

Since the end of the Cold War the world context surrounding national cultural institutes has changed dramatically: increased interconnectedness, national borders not so clear-cut anymore, for example. Nations which don’t necessarily have political power have established networks of cultural institutes, while old institutes also increased their networks exponentially. Representatives of the large European (former colonizing) countries who led the development were followed by newcomers, ambitious to comply with the established model and keen to project an image of their nation as a culturally advanced one. Their scopes embraced three basic strategies: cultural nationalism, cultural propaganda, or cultural diplomacy. In today’s neoliberal society all these can coexist and they can also shift within the same national network depending on the agenda of the national state for the respective region where it is active. Part of the game is to prove oneself worthy as equal partner on the international arena and competitive on the global market. This flexible and, in a sense, nation-branding activity comprises an additional and post-Cold War strategy that Paschalidis calls cultural capitalism. Thus the national cultural institute has consolidated its status as a normalized structure of national representation, one of several instruments in the current system of international and intercultural relations.

It seems to me that this historical background of the institutes is fairly easy to comprehend – the different cultural strategies surrounding the activity (nationalism, propaganda, diplomacy and capitalism) steer the outcome and put some pressure on the staff to comply with old standards while adjusting their programs in relation to a changing world-order. But it also seems that these strategies or trajectories are somewhat oriented towards a general political-economic understanding and tend to limit the possibility to think about the institutes in terms of more intimate matters. My own experience from five years of working with contemporary art at the Romanian Cultural Institute of Stockholm (RCIS) tells me that in order for national cultural representation to make sense today, a substantial degree of self-reflexivity needs to permeate these strategies.

Between 2006 and 2011 RCIS had a contemporary art program with an unusual focus for a national cultural institute. We exhibited testimonies on video about life in the political prisons of communist Romania up to 1964; images of the infamous People’s House of Bucharest (currently the Palace of Parliament of Romania); screenings of archive film of the Revolution of December 1989 and drawings of pioneers sniffing glue. These were presented in conjunction with paintings of Sweden’s million program architecture in the ‘60s and ‘70s and video works about labor conditions in various parts of the world or posters documenting the rise of London’s architecture of the ‘80s.

What were these images doing in an institute for promoting a particular nation’s culture? What did Pablo Bronstein’s drawings of the rise of PoMo architecture in London had to do with Romania? How were Viktor Rosdahl’s detailed paintings of the dismantling of Sweden’s welfare state connected to Romanian culture? How did Stefan Constantinescu’s Archive of Pain, involving painstaking interviews with former political prisoners of communism, or Ciprian Muresan’s lithographs of pioneers sniffing glue, improve the image of Romania? In short, what was there to be proud of here, and for whom?

Maybe these are just the questions of a prejudiced mind when it comes to national cultural institutes, a mind still influenced by the age-old standards and expectations. Yet they touch upon the complex nature of the institutes, and, I would argue, they call for conceptual tools beyond the traditional ones.

The Romanian Cultural Institute in Stockholm officially opened in November 2006. Like other institutes across the world, it depended on the Romanian Foreign Ministry for covering rents, salaries and other administrative costs, and on the Romanian Cultural Institute for funding the cultural projects. I was appointed deputy director and I started thinking about the basic question of how it was possible to work with contemporary art in the particular context of a national cultural institute. How does one combine the particular institutional practice with the questioning, contemplation, and problematization that define contemporary art today? There is no straight answer to this question, but during my five years at RCIS I could work with contemporary art in ways that anyhow experimented with the standards that had historically evolved and been consolidated up to that point.

National institutes are certainly in the business of exporting cultural products from one country to the other. Yet they also function as sites of production of culture at the meeting point between cultures as well. They are not simply passive mediators of positive images of a particular nation, but also active analysts of culture in the making. My colleagues and I chose to see the role of RCIS as not only displaying artistic and other cultural production meant to reproduce and reinforce that which is already known about Romania, but also contributing to the creation of new synergies at the meeting point between especially Swedish and Romanian culture. With the art program of RCIS we contributed to a larger ongoing discussion about the function and role of national cultural institutes, and more generally about national representation through culture.

One way of addressing national cultural representation other than the traditional ways (nationalism, propaganda and diplomacy) is through the concept cultural intimacy, coined by anthropologist Michael Herzfeld (2). It has become a useful tool in illuminating how states present themselves internationally and how they understand themselves domestically. A basic definition of the concept reads as follows: “cultural intimacy expresses those aspects of a cultural identity that are considered a source of international criticism for the state, but are nevertheless used to provide insiders with a sense of national comfort, understanding, and self-reflexive, ontological security” (3). The concept is theoretically intricate and wide enough to cover several levels of social life and groups, but one idea seems central to me, and useful in relation to the cultural institutes: things that people, cultures or nations have reason to feel embarrassed about, or that make them feel ashamed, may be the very glue that makes them feel that they belong together in the first place. Following Herzfeld, elements of embarrassment should thus be included, not excluded, when exploring and trying to understand the fundaments of certain communities or cultures, such as a national one.

Contrary to the dominant practices mentioned above, in working with contemporary art at the institute I wanted to scratch the surface of intimacy not only with regards to Romania but in terms of the relationship between East and West. Using the framing of the institute my colleagues and I took the chance to go beyond the images of rueful self-recognition projected by both Romania and Sweden and, instead, explore those instances where national identity is cast and how they make sense in the globalized world we live in. We collaborated with artists and curators whose practice focused on exploring the conditions of life in Sweden and Romania, and elsewhere if necessary. In this process of getting Sweden intimate with Romania and vice versa, we took the chance to reflect on the role of national cultural institutes today which owe their birth to cultural nationalism, but derive their life energy from a more market-driven version of it.

Nowadays we are well aware that nations are social constructions or imagined communities, in the need to be created over and over again, through banal flag-waving, constitutional revision, or through various kinds of international channels where the identities of nations are differentiated in contradistinction to one another. The national cultural institute plays one part in this general performance of the nation, and it has done so by mostly presenting a polished and artificial version, and in this way – ironically – disclosing the very artificiality of the whole project. As a distinct and successful form of collective unit the nation is not likely to disappear in the near future. Yet other collectivities are continuously formed across national borders, and new alliances, bonds, and identities created as the world turns increasingly intertwined.

During the years at RCIS I found contemporary art to be one of the most appropriate instances to materialize an exploration of these relationships. Contemporary art employs a multitude and variation of media and techniques, it has the power to communicate thoughts and feelings through a physical medium, and it can address both large and complex questions but also banal issues in a vast array of domains and it doesn’t necessarily require translation. A self-reflexive national cultural institute, willing to deal not only with that which can trigger pride, but also with that which can provoke embarrassment and controversy, is a good place to explore cultural processes involved in all of them.

(1) Gregory Paschalidis, “Exporting national culture: histories of Cultural Institutes abroad”, International Journal of Cultural Policy, Vol. 15, No. 3, August 2009, 275–289.

(2)Michael Herzfeld, Cultural Intimacy Social Poetics in the Nation-State, Routledge, 1997.

(3) Jelena Subotic and Ayse Zarakol, “Cultural intimacy in International Relations,” European Journal of International Relations, 0(0) 1 –24, 2012.

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