January 29, 2013
The political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term “smart power” to refer to an international diplomatic approach that balances and appreciates the use of military or economic might with more benevolent relationship building. The term rose to prominence when Hillary Clinton used it thirteen times in her 2009 Secretary of State confirmation hearing. “Smart power,” she explained, “requires reaching out to both friends and adversaries to bolster old alliances and to forge new ones.”1 During Clinton’s tenure, the United States’s smart-power approach has encompassed tactics ranging from a commitment to distributing one hundred million clean and efficient cookstoves throughout the developing world to the execution of hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan alone, killing thousands, including nearly one hundred children.
One of the softer, even idealistic, sides of this approach is the cleverly titled smARTpower program. In collaboration with the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs so far has sent fifteen American artists abroad for up to forty-five days with the objective of creating community art projects with local partners. The first cohort was deployed across the globe from Nepal to Nigeria in 2012. Selected participants included the installation artist Pepón Osorio, the painter Rochelle Feinstein, the social-practice artist Caroline Woolard, and several others, running the gamut of art practitioners across the United States from recent graduates to established professionals.
The mid-career Bronx artist Art Jones was selected to travel to Karachi, Pakistan, to work with Vasl, a nonprofit art space. Jones, who made a name for himself with his audiovisual mixing, exhibited in the infamous 1993 Whitney Biennial and has worked with both MTV and the New York City Department of Health, among others. His multimedia work is experimental, fun, and often grounded in genres outside the visual arts, such as hip-hop. At first glance, Jones is not exactly the kind of artist one might expect to pique the interests of diplomatic bureaucrats; the Department of State does have the final say on all artists selected to participate.
Jones’s project for smARTpower was Selector International (2012), a series of classes and workshops that culminated in the creation of mobile audiovisual installations. The workshops taught sound editing, interview techniques, and DJ skills to twelve attendees, who locally sourced the sounds and images for the project. Though the workshop size was limited, the resulting work was presented at Port Grand, an open-air entertainment complex on the Karachi waterfront, and engaged the general public.
One striking image from the September 2012 nighttime demonstration shows the crowd lit by the neon glow of the homemade multimedia carts: a man in shorts and what appears to be a Heineken T-shirt, a young woman with a bobbed haircut and short sleeves, and, in the background, a woman wearing a traditional abaya and niqab.
Elizabeth Grady, the program manager for smARTpower, has said that Vasl was most interested in Jones’s proposal because, in Pakistan, “there are few opportunities for celebration and public arts engagement, because of the security situation.”2 But for Jones, the project is not only about public celebration. The use of popular culture and music can be a deeply political tool, especially in a theocratic and conservative nation such as Pakistan. “I feel like this kind of social activity can explore or raise a number of concerns, topics, issues, and interests,” he told the journalist Anika Anand. “I want to produce an interesting set of spontaneous social events.”3
Jones’s fellow smARTpower participant Xaviera Simmons is one of the emerging artists in the program, but she was by no means plucked from obscurity: she is a recent graduate of the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program and has worked with the Museum of Modern Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. For her project, Simmons traveled to Colombo, Sri Lanka, to work with Theertha, a Sri Lankan artist collective. The project, This Is Not Just A Dinner/Portraiture Sessions (2012), truly embodied the spirit of smARTpower. During Simmons’s Sri Lankan stay, she and Theertha hosted a series of dinners, lectures, workshops, and video portraiture sessions. Simmons interacted with local communities and traveled far from the capital to Galle, Nuwara Eliya, and Polonnaruwa, working closely with more than two hundred students.
Simmons used these discussions as springboards for considering how individuals express their identities through various artistic mediums. For the child participants in particular, this served as valuable arts education, with all the benefits such instruction is known to provide. But what is important to the smARTpower mission is not the brief support of Sri Lankan arts education but rather Simmons’s role as an ambassador, which was demonstrated by her active and genuine interaction with participants. By listening to the local community members, asking questions, and attempting to learn about their lives, politics, and emotions, she did what no predator drone can do: she made connections. After Simmons left the island, the measure of the project’s success would be the dozens or even hundreds of Sri Lankans who had experienced a meaningful relationship with at least one American.
As currently conceived, smARTpower seems to avoid being a top-down, one-way channel of American cultural distribution. If this were ever to change, the program would become deeply flawed and likely counterproductive. Both the current and future U.S. administrations must trust in the program and respect its autonomy. There’s a frighteningly fine line between propaganda and cultural diplomacy, and hubris often makes large, awkward strides.
The ideas underlying the program’s pilot project have potential. But the initiative’s two-year budget of one million dollars is less than 0.002% of the Department of State’s fifty-billion-dollar annual budget. Should the federal government decide to renew funding for smARTpower, it must consider a more committed investment, not just in the program but also in the thinking that ostensibly guides it. The success of the smart-power approach depends not on throwing art at a preexisting diplomatic strategy but on re-envisioning how the other 99.998% of the State Department’s budget is spent. It only takes one drone attack to instantly undo all of an artist’s hard work.
1. "Transcript of Hilary Clinton's Confirmation Hearing," accessed January 17, 2013, http://www.cfr.org/us-election-2008/transcript-hillary-clintons-confirmation-hearing/p18225.
2. Anika Anand, "Bronx Artist Will Be U.S. Cultural Ambassador," accessed January 23, 2013,