Friday, February 19, 2010

Culture, diplomacy, and ...Khachaturian

Tonight, I was joined by two lovely friends for an experience I'm sure I will cherish for a long time: I finally saw Aram Khachaturian's "Spartacus" performed live by Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet, at the Kennedy Center. I admired Khachaturian's work since I was at elementary school (all those hours spent practicing the "fortepiano"...); and later, as I explored classical music a little further, I came to the conclusion that the Armenian-Soviet composer was certainly one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century (not that I'm biased, of course!).

In a Washington Post review, Sarah Kaufman wrote: "Ballet lovers, Russophiles and fans of the bright, unsubtle pageantry in Aram Khachaturian's music would do well to catch any performance before the run closes on Sunday." Since I'm all of the above, despite the cost, the temptation was too strong to resist. So I simply didn't.

The Choreography was done by Yuri Grigorovich, who had choreographed the very first performance in 1968, while the performers were simply wonderful. I had seen Grigorovich's co-production in Yerevan last summer, but it was certainly no match for the Bolshoi. I had goose-bumps throughout the entire 2.5-hour performance, and yet the all-time favorite "Adagio" still managed to surpass all expectations. Indescribable.

At the same time, sitting next to Laura, I couldn't help but think of the cultural diplomacy involved, since we had been discussing it for a while. Firstly, it is noteworthy that the performance was organized as a part of the "Focus on Russia" initiative, sponsored by the HRH Foundation. This two-year initiative is meant to help the American public re-discover the Russian culture, and will involve various events and activities, including ballet, music, and theater. Although there is no official support from the Russian Embassy noted anywhere, the Russian Cultural Center is encouraging enthusiasts to attend.

Secondly, I was happy to see that despite the cost, the hall was almost entirely full, and there was a significant proportion of young people in the audience. I am sure that every person there was impressed and walked away with positive emotions, which would logically bring along positive emotions towards "Russian-ness" as well (even if not Russia itself). Nevertheless, that is still a major component of public and cultural diplomacy, since in a longer term, it enhances a country's appeal and soft power.

Then, the question arises: why make it so prohibitively exclusive? Why should the faith in a "person of culture" (or what Russians would appropriately call "kul'turniy chelovek") be increasingly worn away, while attention focuses away as Britney's new single hits the charts, or Paris Hilton comes up with a new scandal? And why is such a great channel of PD not getting more attention and prominence?

Any government that engages in PD runs the risk of its programs backfiring, since the "audience" might perceive it as propaganda, especially when the message or the mode of communication is too blunt. Products of "high" culture, however, are more likely to be positively received, since they are usually not perceived as "propagandist," even when supported by their government.

Do we need separation between pop culture and "high" culture? Absolutely. And the latter is more valuable as a tool, since it is more likely to be perceived as having an "intrinsic value" (as well as the obvious "acquired" one) and since the associations that the audience makes are more likely to be positive. Pop culture, although lighter and seemingly more appealing, is very culture- and time-specific, and in that sense, can be less successful, especially in societies that feel threatened by "cultural encroachment." High culture is prestigious and is said to "enrich" the person without necessarily becoming a part of their everyday life. This is not to say that it can afford being culturally insensitive (for example, such a ballet performance in a deeply Muslim society would certainly backfire), but it can rely on its high value for acceptance and understanding.

And yet, there are various forms, kinds, and styles of culture and arts that can be appropriate and welcome in various societies for various reasons. If properly chosen and delivered, culture can provide a strong people-to-people connection, which currently constitutes one of the foundations of PD. It can have underlying themes - such as freedom in the case of "Spartacus" - which, when thus communicated, might be much more willingly accepted, than when repeated time and again as a line in a certain "national patriotic" song.  (By the way, there had been some worry over the Communist Party's acceptance of the "Spartacus" when it came out in 1968, precisely because of the underlying message and the extent of openness involved.)

Since values, especially those that are to be communicated across cultures, are supposed to be more about themes rather than specific or concrete ideas, such cultural approach can be much more promising in the longer run. That is why, although high culture should not be transformed into a mass culture, it should be actively supported (including support by the government in cases where private donations run short) and promoted through various educational programs and subsidized events (that would be more accessible to a wider public). After all, this is one of the very first spheres where acceptance and understanding can be easily achieved, so why not use it as a platform for dialogue more often?

[Stage photos from The State Academic Bolshoi Theater of Russia.]

UPDATE: a personal pic!



  1. I am awed and amazed that you fired this off before bed. I crashed the second I got home, while visions of gladiators danced in my head.

    Fabulous blog -- but I'd expected to see some mention of embassies and governments on the Kennedy Center's financial supporters. I think it's interesting that the Center, which supports so many of these cultural programs, is in turn supported by donations from other countries, which reminds me that I've been meaning to blog about the importance of networking to PD efforts.

  2. Wonderful piece...! Why not to forward this to Ministry of Culture or to the Prime Minister at once??? A really excellent piece of advice for those who are the decision makers ... (bayc asoghin lsogh e petq... ka artyoq?)

  3. Laura, I simply couldn't go to sleep with all this in my head. Had to pour it out, you know.. ;)
    As for the Kennedy Center's financial matters, as well as those of Russian cultural diplomacy, I'm pretty sure there's still a lot of time and many more opportunities ahead. And well, perhaps we start researching the matter together? :)

    Mom - thanks for the comment :D i don't think i'm ready to propose something substantial, YET... and then, just as you said, who would ever listen to anth of this sort back there?

  4. Awesome... Really interesting piece both with regard to the music/ballet part and its relevance for PD.
    As regards high culture, I am not so sure that it is not perceived as a threat. Encounter of cultures is a very complicated process. But here I am on unfamiliar turf. Still, I guess when nations/ethnic groups feel vulnerable, even high culture can be construed as cultural imperialism. I am not going into multiple ramifications.
    Secondly, the semantical broadening occurred with regard to the term "culture". Historically, it was used to denote what we now see as "high" culture. I think that broadening of meaning did a disservice to the concept of culture. From that perspective "pop" or "mass" culture would be seen as an oxymoron.
    Thirdly, while music, ballet, painting, etc. are easier (at least seemingly easier) for comprehension in other cultures because there is no language barrier, still it requires a lot of background knowledge (and sometimes expertise) to be able to adequately "decode" the message and the content and, more importantly, to be affected by High culture and to be able to derive aesthetic and intellectual pleasure from that encounter. (Much can be said here also of catharsis..).
    Finally, while "person of culture" can indeed sometimes be equated with "kul'turniy chelovek", what you actually mean is designated in the Russian tradition as "интеллигентный chelovek" (or simply "интеллигент") because the former is seen as "well-mannered", polite, delicate person, etc., whereas "интеллигент" is, besides, a person who appreciates, transmits and creates (high) culture.
    Finally, Khachaturian's "Gayaneh" and especially "Masquerade" are also good.

  5. wow... :) so, where should I begin my response...?
    - I do agree with you, but I didn't mean high culture is NOT perceived as a threat, and although its value is in many ways "acquired" too, I still do believe it has an "intrinsic" value that can be appreciated across cultures. Certainly, the perception, appreciation, and the extent of acceptance will be relative, but much less "risky" in that sense than popular culture.
    - As for the terms, seems like I got confused in my understanding of some of them. Perhaps it's the language thing, since I got so many different connotations in the three different languages all mixed up in my head :) But then, the same can refer to the term 'culture' in the first place, since despite its Russian meaning, in English it does indeed seems to be much more broad and inclusive in its everyday usage.
    - And well, I already mentioned I'm a big Khachaturian fan, and although I'm still to see the "Masquerade", THE waltz, as you know, is one of my all-time favorites!