Do We Need A Cultural Foreign Policy?

The historical archives of Sarajevo, attacked and burned on Feb. 6, 2014 (via

This month in Bosnia-Herzegovina citizens protested government paralysis in every major city in the country, in some places leading to destruction of municipal government buildings. In Sarajevo, somebody took advantage of the chaos and burned the city archives – a terrible echo of the war of the 1990s, when the beautiful National and University Library was shelled by federal Yugoslav gunners and gutted, destroying the entire collection.

This event is particularly poignant given the recent release of “The Monuments Men,” the George Clooney film about an odd clutch of Allied soldiers tasked with saving art looted from across Europe by Adolph Hitler. Such an action may seem superfluous in the middle of the titanic struggle with fascism in Europe and nationalism in Asia, with literally millions of lives in the balance. Indeed, as the movie and the book by Robert Edsel make clear, the treasure hunt was seen by some as a distraction from Allied war aims. But Lt. George Stokes, Clooney’s character, understood the stakes all too well. “If you destroy a people’s history, it’s as if they never existed,” he says. “That’s what Hitler wants.”

Unfortunately, as events in Sarajevo demonstrate, the world’s cultural patrimony faces an array of threats less immediate but all the more dire and insidious for it. And we lack a coherent, coordinated ability to respond to threats to art and culture that measures up to the achievement of the monuments men.

The Sarajevo Haggadah (Wikimedia Commons)

Today the Sarajevo Haggadah – the oldest Hebrew codex in the Balkans – sits in the National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina which has been closed for a year, unprotected. The Bosnian national parliament cannot agree on its status as a federal institution and refused to fund it. The Balkan Wars, both world wars and the wars of the former Yugoslavia could not shut down the museum, which until last winter had remained open for 125 years. This is only part of the reason why Bosnians are protesting.

Without funding and support, professional curators and preservationists cannot ttend to their collections and artifacts. Climate goes uncontrolled. Collections are left unguarded and unmonitored. An entire nation’s patrimony is at risk. And Bosnia is not alone in Europe. Due to the financial crisis, the governments of Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania cut funding and closed many or parts of their national museums and galleries. Their collections, too, were threatened.

Direct threats remain as well. When the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, they ripped out a part of the Afghan nation. When Ansar Dine extremists destroyed the mausoleums of Sufi Muslim saints in Timbuktu, they assaulted an ancient center of Islamic history and Malian identity. It is difficult to justify intervention on behalf of works of art, but it is impossible to say we won’t help restore them the way the Stare Most was rebuilt after it was destroyed more than 20 years ago in Mostar, Bosnia.

But the United States today has no means, no unified institution and no philosophy – in short, no foreign cultural policy – to do what the monuments men did 70 years ago: to advocate on behalf of, preserve and, if necessary, rescue endangered art and culture around the world. What we have now in the United States is a hodge-podge of various agencies, bodies and private foundations – the Smithsonian Institution and National Gallery of Art, the State Department, USAID – each pursuing its own, limited projects without coordination, direction or support to match the need.

Some of these projects are important and noble. For example, the Smithsonian moved rapidly after the 2010 earthquake leveled Port-á-Prince to rescue Haitian art. The Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation provides flexible funding to U.S. embassies to support museums and galleries. But programs like these are small-bore or one-off. The Ambassadors Fund amounts to little more than $5 million per year for the entire world and only a fraction goes to securing the art works themselves.

In my recent book, I proposed creating a public-private entity called the U.S. Arts Restoration Trust to coordinate government and private resources for the advocacy of art and culture around the world. USART would need to work with the State Department, because execution of these projects would by necessity be enabled through American embassies which have permanent personnel on the ground. And it would need to work with private foundations and galleries with the financial resources and technical know-how to help preserve and restore art in foreign countries.

USART would represent, too, an ideological argument in our particular American approach to promoting art and culture. Culture in the United States is not entirely cut loose in the free market, but it is far more so than the rest of the world. American galleries and museums depend on philanthropy, particularly in contrast to their European or Asian counterparts. While the Smithsonian receives some federal funding, most municipal galleries and museums rely on local foundations and corporate charities. More precisely, we have a far deeper and longer history of philanthropy to draw on. When the European arts community was hit by the financial crisis, it was largely a recession of state support, and they had nowhere else to look for funding. As a result, their collections and personnel suffered.

The Ma’il Qur’an, British Library (via

While traveling abroad I saw the Ma’il Qur’an at the British Library, one of the oldest copies of this sacred text in the world. The importance of a library for preserving a codex becomes clear when you hear what senior conservator David Jacobs told the Arab News about the Ma’il Qur’an. “The problem with that particular manuscript is pigments that are quite friable and flaky, so obviously it needs care and attention and constant monitoring of its condition.” That kind of monitoring is no longer available to the Sarajevo Haggadah and possibly countless other irreplaceable texts and art pieces around the world.

When viewing treasures saved by the monuments men or preserved in the British Library, it is impossible to imagine them not existing. But that is because they survived and are protected to this hour. Rescuing threatened art was a mission we assumed 70 years ago and it is a duty we should take even more seriously today.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (r), Lt.Gen. George Patton (c) and Gen. Omar Bradley (l), inspect art looted by the Nazis (NARA via DeutscheWelle).


“Politic Need Cries”


Anser Dine forces destroy one of the shrines of a Sufi saint in Timbuktu, northern Mali, July 2, 2012 (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via Al Jazeera)

The destruction and desecration of the ancient mausolea of Sufi saints in Timbuktu by Ansar Dine forces occupying northern Mali was a peculiar evocation of a song, but an apt one. Many observers have rightly compared the irreversible dismantling of these UNESCO World Heritage sites to the Taliban’s 2001 destruction of the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which now seem to foreshadow al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States. The intolerant vein attacking  this diverse community of believers has claimed another part of its rich heritage and we are all poorer for it.

But for those living in Mali this represents something far more real and ominous. The country is gripped by a political crisis and Anser Dine, like its al Qaeda and Taliban kith, have taken advantage of the authority vacuum. A military coup in March overthrew the weak if democratically elected government in Bamako, which effectively limited the state’s writ across this vast country.  Touareg rebels, having agitated for independence for decades, seized the opportunity to seize autonomy in the north.  So did Anser Dine, which quickly overran the Touareg. Refugees have been flowing south from Timbuktu since.

Amadou and Mariam

Malian duo Amadou and Mariam

The country’s plight brought to mind a song written by the Malian group Amadou and Mariam , who sing mostly  in Bambara and French, with occasional English and Spanish.  Today based in France, the blind duo have a global following, singing subtle and occasionally socially conservative songs about life in Mali. But “Politic Amagni,” (“Politics is not good”) released on Dimanche a Bamako (Sunday in Bamako) in 2005, has particular resonance for Mali today.  The song lyrics could just as easily express the apprehensions of everyday people to the realities, machinations, and chaos of political change now wracking the country:

Politics requires blood, tears
Ignorance, lies
Lives and votes
This is why, my friend, it is evidence
Politics is violence
Politics is not good
Politics is not good
Politicians, listen to us
Politicians, when doing politics
Remove from it theft and corruption
Remove from it lies and hollow words
Remove from it conflicts and crimes
Politicians, listen to us
We do not want demagogy
We do not want corruption
We do not want exactions
We want honest men
We want upright men
We want happiness for everybody
We want peace for everybody
Politicians, listen to us …

(Original lyrics are in Bambara, French and English. English translation provided by Nonesuch Records.  Hear the original song and read the complete original lyrics here.)

When I originally heard this song (I was turned on to Amadou and Mariam by a friend who served with the Peace Corps in Mali), my initial feeling was dismay.  I don’t want anyone to believe that “politic needs blood” or that “politic is violence”. But for those caught between forces beyond their control, that’s very often their daily reality.  To watch refugees fleeing the advance of M23 rebels in eastern Congo, seeking the protection of UN peacekeepers and government troops in Goma, is to know what that means. Politics means political violence in places like Sudan,, Syria, and Afghanistan.  Politic need cries, indeed.

This is another understanding of politics, a political heuristic for much of the planet where institutional, democratic political changes are unknown and people fear a politics that  upends the known world and leaves chaos in its wake.

It doesn’t appear that Amadou and Mariam, as individuals, have taken a dramatic political position on the dismantlement of their country, encouraging instead support of the World Food Program for refugees fleeing fighting in the north.  (Neither, apparently, has Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who did much to publicize the extraordinary Islamic literary and religious heritage resident in Timbuktu.) I’m sympathetic to the complexity of their situation.  But part of politics is taking a stand, particularly if you are influential, to change the situation.

An example of this is the courageous stand recently taken by women in Afghanistan, who publicly protested the execution by the Taliban of a 22-year-old woman accused (erroneously, as if that should make any difference) of adultery.  Instead of the usual Western denunciations we are used to, this was a public, political demonstration of local women against a horrible and unaccountable crime.  And it is part of the coalescing of political power against their former rulers and bodes well for the future of their country.

“Politicians, listen to us…”