Laura Bush Launches Arts Initiative

At a little heralded press conference held at the White House on Monday, September 25th, 2006, first lady Laura Bush announced the formation of the U.S. State Department’s “Global Cultural Initiative.” With world public opinion of the United States and the Bush administration slumping to dramatic record lows, the initiative is a scheme designed to improve America’s image abroad through a series of cultural exchanges that will include visual art, music, movies and other art forms. Considering that the latest BBC News poll indicates a higher percentage of people world-wide view the U.S. as a bigger threat to world peace than the al-Qaeda terror network – Laura Bush and her Global Cultural Initiative have a lot of work to accomplish.

Laura Bush’s Global Cultural Initiative is no mere pipe-dream, she has influential allies lined up to assist her, and partnerships have already been sealed with the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Film Institute and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Joining Laura Bush at the press conference were several influential members of U.S. arts institutions, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts – Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities – Jack Rakove, founding trustee of the American Film Institute – Jack Valenti, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – Steve Schwarzman, and a host of other distinguished guests. The GCI will supposedly promote better relations between the U.S. and the international community by fostering exchanges of artists, museum directors, teachers, journalists, musicians, dancers, and filmmakers.

The first lady was accompied at the press conference by Karen Hughes, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. To say that Hughes has been savaged by critics would not be an exaggeration – in a 2005 article for The Guardian, Sidney Blumenthal called her “Bin Laden’s little helper” because of her fundamentalist Christian evangelicalism. In 2005 Guy Dinsmore of The Financial Times simply called her the “Minister of Propaganda.” At the press conference Hughes was in top form when clarifying the aims of the Global Cultural Initiative, “Arts and culture can play a vital role in helping achieve our strategic public diplomacy goals.”

Hughes went on to say that “Our final objective is to highlight the differences between most civilized people of all nations and faiths and the violent extremists that we face in the war against terror. As we do so, the value and appreciation we place on art, culture and history stands in marked contrast to the extremist’s destruction of precious treasures from the Golden Mosque of Samarra, Iraq, to the bombing of Buddhas and other cultural icons of Afghanistan.” While it’s certainly true that odious religious fanatics destroyed the archeological treasures mentioned by Hughes, someone needs to tell her that the “appreciation we place on art, culture and history” is looking a little threadbare of late – especially after the U.S. army allowed the pillaging and ransacking of Baghdad’s art museums during the invasion of Iraq. Hughes should be informed about Donny George, the former President of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) in Iraq, who resigned in August of this year over the lack of initiative shown by the U.S. in helping to preserve the art treasures and archaeological sites of that beleaguered and occupied nation – but then, perhaps Hughes already knows.

If the White House were truly interested in improving America’s image abroad, it would pay attention to the findings of its own National Intelligence Estimate, a consensus view of 16 separate U.S. intelligence agencies that includes the CIA. The NIE report concluded that Americans are now in more danger from terrorism because of the U.S. war in Iraq. As George W. Bush continues with his brutal and useless war in that smashed and bleeding country, even as he simultaneously prepares for military assaults against Iran – the likelihood of an improved U.S. image brought about through officially sanctioned cultural exchanges seems next to zero.

In as much as I agree with at least one utterance made by Laura Bush at her press conference – that art is “one of the best ways we can deepen our friendships with the people of all countries”, art and artists should never be used by governments for politically expedient reasons. While it’s clear what the Bush White house hopes to gain through the politicalization of art and the manipulation of the nation’s artists, it’s far less obvious what is to be gained by the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Film Institute and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. That being said, I think artists should launch a Global Cultural Initiative, but one entirely free from government and corporate control and wholly aimed at creating international solidarity against war and fascism – but then, that’s my pipe-dream.

It’s amusing that Laura Bush and Karen Hughes wish to impress the rest of the world with America’s appreciation for art, when in their home state of Texas a 28-year veteran school teacher was fired on Sept. 26th, 2006, for having taken her 89 fifth-grade students on a field trip to the Dallas Museum of Art. The school board of Frisco, Texas, voted to fire Sydney McGee after they received a single letter from an irate parent complaining that their child had been exposed to “nude art.” Goodness knows what set that parent off, it might have been the Greek vase from the 6th century depicting naked warriors in battle, perhaps it was a statue by Auguste Rodin, or maybe a pubescent island girl painted by Paul Gauguin. It’s astonishing to realize that some Americans view art museums as godless dens of iniquity bent on corrupting the nation’s youth, but there you have it. Come to think of it, the Global Cultural Initiative might be a good thing if foreign exchange artists were able to convince our less enlightened citizens that the nude statues found in our nation’s major art museums were great works of art rather than the works of Satan.

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