Soft Power

Image by Billy Smith (, used under a Creative Commons license

Image by Billy Smith (, used under a Creative Commons license

Holidays in the Hebrides and the busy beginning of semester have rather limited time for the blog, but I return with a transcription of a position statement I delivered during the last week of the Edinburgh International Festival at the end of August at a discussion panel addressing the question of ‘soft power’ in contemporary Scotland. Chaired by my colleague Charlie Jeffery and including contributions by developmental linguist Antonella Sorace and think-tank consultant John Holden, it took place before last night’s momentous referendum vote, but it seems apposite to post it the day after.

Writing as a cultural historian, a curator and an educator of students entering the cultural sphere as artists, architects, designers, historians, critics, musicians and composers, I’ve three key themes I’d like to draw out in a skeptical, but hopefully positive reflection on soft power and its meanings.

The first is about definitions. I think the soft power/cultural diplomacy debate is strong on metaphors and language that engage with policy, strategy and instrumental aims (primarily economic, certainly political, often in relation to conflict and competition, and generally based within an institutional context – whether that’s the state or arms-length agencies). So the power and diplomacy content comes out loud and clear. The soft and the cultural are, I feel, less well articulated and this leads to two problems.

Firstly, that the hard-line, strategic approach, though wrapped up in soft rhetoric, is easily taken apart by ‘hawks’ because it attempts to speak their language and underestimates cultural complexity and contingency. This is particularly so in times of austerity and conflict when difficult choices have to be made. Back in the spring, journalist Tiffany Jenkins, inspired by the mixed message surrounding engagement with the Sochi Olympics and the UK-Russia year of Culture, but also critical of the aims of the University of Edinburgh’s own new centre for cultural relations wrote an op-ed piece in the Scotsman ‘Cultural Relations cannot replace foreign policy’, which ended ‘Culture is powerful but it is not a good instrument for specific ends. Sometimes you need direct, purposeful power, and soft power just won’t do. Today, especially with foreign policy in such disarray, culture should be anything but diplomatic.’ I don’t agree with her, but you can see that part of the problem lies in the structuralist, instrumentalist understanding of ‘Culture’ that both sides employ.

So secondly, the concept of ‘Culture’ is too important to be co-opted for policy or marketising ends. Culture and the arts are not simply about creating national brands and remaining competitive. What we need is a much more critical, much more questioning, much more informed, much more passionate, much more poetic set of shifting definitions. I believe that that’s what an arts and humanities-based perspective can provide. I cite two visionary statements that fire my belly, but are absent in ‘policy speak’, and which blow Tiffany Jenkins’s narrower view open-wide.

Richard Eyre, whose comments form the foreword to Robert Hewison’s excellent new demolition of the concept of Creative Britain ‘Cultural Capital’:

‘We can justify the arts on the grounds of cost effectiveness, or as tourist attractions, or as investments, or as commodities that can be marketed, exploited and profited from, but the arts should make their own argument. They are a part of our life, our language, our way of seeing; they are a measure of our civilization. The arts tell us truths about ourselves and our feelings and our society that reach parts of us that politics and journalism don’t. They entertain, they give pleasure, they give hope, they ravish the senses, and above all, they help us fit the disparate pieces of the world together; to try and make form out of chaos.’

The second statement is from the much-missed giant of cultural theory, Stuart Hall. Written back in 1999 – it is from his key essay ‘Culture, Community, Nation’:

‘Since cultural diversity is, increasingly the fact of the modern world, and ethnic absolutism a regressive feature of late modernity, the greatest danger now arises from forms of national identity which adopt closed versions of culture and community and refuse to engage with the difficult problems that arise from trying to live with difference. The capacity to live with difference is, in my view, the coming question of the twenty-first century.’

It’s that questioning sense of dealing with difference and complexity that was such a driver in Hall’s work, that I feel is missing from the simplified presentation of ‘Culture’ as a cohesive national ‘product’ in too many government sponsored arguments about culture’s efficacy.

The second theme is about history and memory. Or perhaps historical amnesia would be the better term? For my sense is that ‘soft power’ debates often tend to set themselves in a historical vacuum. They exist in a ‘post’ space: post cold-war, post-modern, post-analogue, post-industrial, post-colonial, post-financial crash, post-9/11. They forget precedents and they forget old stories and continuous narratives which are often the most compelling and stubborn of arguments; and we do ourselves damage if we don’t listen to them. They may appear to be overly romantic, and they may appear to change at a glacial pace, but we need to be able to understand, appreciate and critique them, and we need to be aware of our own complicity in them. Introverted cultures don’t necessarily stagnate. They create depth, they construct the fabric of civilization, they raise standards and they produce both affirmation, opposition and innovation.

I think in essence that’s also what artists and scholars do, at least I think that’s what we train and support them to do at Edinburgh College of Art and the University of Edinburgh. They are much more than ‘the arms-length actors’ that many soft-power policy proposals seem to describe, they’re part of a more dissonant community than that, and a critical continuum that would hopefully rise up against the synthetic construction of shiny new soft-power Jerusalems.

The final theme is about the visual, material, spatial, textual and sonic context for all of this. We’ve heard about the ‘soft power ladder to achieve economic and political effect’, but in proposing such metaphors, strategists seem to be suggesting that the practice of soft power exists in an aesthetic no-mans land. If we’re choosing to climb that ladder at all, we’re doing it in a blind, deaf and mute state. I’ve been thinking about this recently in relation to Basil Spence’s work, the great Indian-born, Edinburgh-raised and Edinburgh College of Art-trained architect of George Square library, Sussex University, Coventry Cathedral, and the art deco garage on Causewayside (and a previous point of reference in this blog). He designed the British Embassy in Rome in the early 1960s, on the site of a previous British Chancery which was destroyed in a terrorist attack in 1946. It was to be a ‘British Palazzo in marble and concrete’ to use Spence’s words, and though an early moment of financial crises delayed its opening until 1971 when some critics attacked its outmoded decorative Modernism, it was a thing of grace, assurance and power – fitted to its environment. The Daily Telegraph reported that ‘there is never any prettiness or indecision, everything is big-boned… there is never the fussy overworked look that bedevils so much English architecture!’ As a material expression of cultural diplomacy before the term was coined, it was a triumph. I was reminded of this on a recent visit to the British Embassy in Seoul, during a British creative industries trade week, where the walls of the vestibule were covered in posters for the British Government’s ‘Britain is Great’ campaign produced by ad agency Mother for the 2012 Olympics and still in service as a promotional aid. Less of a triumph in its tone deaf assertion of greatness, visual and conceptual clichés, poor design values, and complete lack of nuance. Neither soft nor diplomatic, our cultural ambassadors seem to have lost their touch since Spence’s day.

To end on a lighter note: Perhaps, in the service of soft power we need to alight on better national symbols, ones that fuel cultural discourse rather than attempt to contain or direct it. There was a fantastic one on display at the opening ceremony of the Glasgow Commonwealth names, also used by the enlightened Scottish designer’s co-operative Panel for their series of alternative Olympic and Commonweath Games souvenirs (which included a dazzleship football scarf, a ceramic jellymould based on the art deco interior of a Glasgow cocktail bar, an iphone app responding to the architecture and music maps of Glasgow, a keyring fob of a miniature tenement building in gold, and travel blankets rooted in memories of place – again, see my previous post). The one I bring your attention to here though was a series of medals constructed from Tunnocks Tea Cake packaging. Lovingly replicated in the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony where the cake’s transformation into a dance costume caused their sales to rocket worldwide. What better symbol might there be for the question of Scotland in the era of soft power: lanackshire made since 1890, a dependable shortbread base, Italian whip fluffy interior, chocolate coating and glittering foil. Sweet and fulfilling, culturally complex, full of memories. Soft power made material.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *