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Caroline Jaine surveys the extent to which art can be used as a valuable tool in diplomacy, learning from the past and looking at how to incorporate it in the future

Hilary Clinton recently confirmed in Vanity Fair (February 2013) that art is a tool for diplomacy. ‘Art’s value,’ Clinton writes, is that ‘it reaches beyond governments, past the conference rooms and presidential palaces, to help us connect with more people in more places. It is a universal language in our search for common ground, an expression of our shared humanity.’  To celebrate this, Clinton awarded the first biennial US Department of State Medal of Arts earlier this year.

The relationship between art and diplomacy goes back thousands of years. The Byzantines used medieval artistic cultural exchanges to influence their neighbours. In the world of sixth-century Chinese diplomacy, painted portraits offered a visual record of the ambassadors and envoys of the Far East. And for the first recorded European diplomats in northern Italy (during the early Renaissance), art became the currency of status and an early nation-branding exercise.

Painters themselves were often afforded diplomatic status – the access and rapport developed with wealthy commissioners allowed them to bridge gaps between the powerful. Art itself was used to gain favour: King Francis I of France, for example, received portraits by Raphael as ‘diplomatic gifts’ from the Pope.  More mysteriously, the content of many late-Renaissance works – particularly those of Leonardo da Vinci and Jan van Eyck – has been said to conceal secret diplomatic messages of peace.

Indeed, a recent book by Mark Lamster reveals that the culture of artistic secrets extended far beyond the physical pieces of art: Europe’s most famous seventeenth century Flemish painter, Peter Paul Rubens, had a secret double life as a diplomat for Spain. Said to possess charm and tact, Rubens’s commissions to paint military and political leaders often involved trans-European travel.  As Lamster writes, ‘the Spanish Crown, recognising the value of his easy access to figures of power, enlisted him into diplomatic service.’

In today’s world of high-speed internet connections and moving images, this may be considered as something that is less relevant. Yet nowadays the world of art encompasses all – from film, sound installation, performance, sculpture, textiles, and web art activism, through to the skills of a painter and drawer. These are all aspects of our diverse cultural experience, and all aspects that, as Clinton says, can be used as a tool for diplomacy.

Diplomats, however, are often stuck with the black-and-white of words on paper as a means of communication. 
Many foreign ministries stand back and allow their cultural agencies to handle the more creative aspects of diplomacy: the British Council; the Italian Cultural Institute; the London Confucius Institute – to name but a few.  There is space, however, for even difficult foreign policy issues to be tackled through the arts. Presenting a nation’s positive side through images can be more powerful than through words. Diplomats might consider inviting those with creative vision into a problem-solving forum, or empowering the disadvantaged using a visual or creative language they are more comfortable with. Using images rather than words is a trick that the commercial advertising world has long grasped, yet the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is often missed by those in the most crucial positions of influence and diplomacy.  Colour, form and content need not be seen as a dumbing-down of message, but instead as a powerful mechanism for engagement and persuasion.

‘Paintbrush diplomacy’ can be used in celebration – last year, for instance, we witnessed tremendous creative talents in the Olympic Opening Ceremony, as Britain’s nation-branding took world centre stage.  Not all diplomatic displays need be so extravagant, however. Modest projects can also be effective: a visual makeover of an Embassy’s reception area (and the images that hang throughout the building) can say far more about a foreign mission than a newsletter; a participatory art project for children in your host country can involve your public at new levels; and as a cross-cultural tool, fusing the people of nations together, art provides a credible, effective space for excellence in ‘citizen diplomacy’ – a form of people-to-people diplomacy which is rapidly developing in our new connected world.

The Cold War provides the perfect example of how art can play a role as more of a cultural weapon than a diplomatic tool. Abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were allegedly promoted by the CIA in one of America’s many attempts to gain the cultural and ideological edge over the USSR. As well as racing to the moon and for nuclear supremacy, America also battled with ballet dancers and chess players. This clearly shows that there is real space to intelligently explore the influence of art forms on the modern target audiences of today’s diplomats.  These audiences may go far beyond government-to-government relations, as Clinton inferred – art offers us a space outside conference rooms and presidential palaces, where we can celebrate common ground and participate in an expression of our shared human values. 

And if art, like diplomacy, appears to have entered a complex new age, I can recommend a visit to the National Gallery to spend some time with Hans Holbein’s painting, The Ambassadors. Painted on solid oak in 1533 it represents not just a fantastic portrait, but an abundance of potent diplomatic symbolism.