As the relationship between arts and politics continues to be challenged even further with the rise of populist agendas, Toni Attard calls for global empathy in cultural relations. 

In January 2019 Brazil’s President Bolsonaro dissolved the Culture Ministry. In March 2018 Trump wanted to slash budgets leading to the elimination of the National Endowment of the Arts.  In August 2017 the heads of Edinburgh’s main festivals wrote to Boris Johnson warning of “long-term damage” to the UK following a decision to end the work of the British Council in the developed world. In February 2019, Italy’s Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini questioned via tweet whether the song of the San Remo winner was Italian because Mahmood is of Sardinian-Egyptian heritage, born and raised in Italy.

Populism and nationalism are becoming dominant political global narratives with right-wing activists often citing culture and identity as the motivation for their policies. The same public institutions, including UNESCO, created in the aftermath of the second world war to address similar challenges are today being threatened because global powers are undermining what is really needed to create global empathy. Short term measures to feed this propaganda often leave millions of people without their basic rights. Building walls, closing borders and propagating nationalistic rhetoric have never left a long-term positive impact on humanity.  An attack on culture is an attack on our humanity. Ultimately, an attack on another culture is an attack on our own culture, because no culture can exist without ‘the other.’

Numerous governments and international organisations such as the European Union and the United Nations often acknowledge the value of cultural relations in fostering dialogue between people. The treaties, initiatives and programmes in cultural relations continue to have a remarkable impact on communities across the globe, however we cannot underestimate the undercurrents and warning signs that continue to threaten their existence.

Culture relations between countries should aspire towards the intrinsic value of culture with a focus on genuine reciprocity and mutual understanding. Culture is more than just an instrumental tool for international relations that can foster trade. It is a unique way in which people come together and are empowered to empathise and share with others – something we desperately need to combat the challenges of radicalisation and fundamentalism. In addition, belonging is not limited exclusively to ties with one’s native country or community but to a broader world view that transforms differences into opportunities for shared knowledge and eventually co-creation. The preferred path to develop a more open approach is through an open dialogue with the various stakeholders that truly engages and mobilises citizens, artists and cultural professionals, civil society, cultural institutes and public institutions. Through effective cultural and foreign policies that prioritise the role of culture in external relations we can embrace an open dialogue in cultural relations, supported by multilateral programmes that provide effective tools to facilitate this process.

At national level, policies in the two domains of culture and international relations must converge to ensure that a coherent policy framework is in place to enable the required synergies. Cultural relations, as a process that brings people together, and cultural diplomacy as a tool for soft power are complex policy terms that will lead to very different policy outcomes. This will effectively lead to specific governance structures that will champion and define what is understood as cooperation between stakeholders.

Until governments and international organisations figure out how to navigate this ever-changing political and cultural landscape, we rely on the activism and creativity of artists and organisations across the globe. We call on them to continue pushing boundaries and dismantling walls, helping us reflect on what it means to be human. If one song can start a conversation imagine what millions of songs, plays, exhibitions, films, dances and stories co-created and shared with others can do to transform minds and hearts.

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