From Milan to Missouri
BY EMILY BENSON
Cultural Diplomacy and the Transatlantic Relationship
The flat fields grow closer as your plane descends to its landing. You disembark into a brutalist node, a decidedly alien structure in the heart of corn and cattle country. This airport in Kansas City, Missouri is a gateway not only to America’s heartland but to the old masters of Europe, countless European-Americans like abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, and the long-standing imprint of Europe in faraway places once home to lonely caravans of settlers in covered wagons heading west.
Today, new pressures on our post-war global system raise new questions about the future standard-setting ability of the transatlantic bloc. But if transatlantic geo-strategy seems inconsistent and unable to set new standards these days, look no further than the transatlantic art world for reassurance about the resilience of transatlantic friendship.
Throughout history, art has been an integral tool of soft power deployed by creative diplomats. In many ways, the transatlantic art relationship was born out of foreign policy. However, other key drivers of this rich history have been personal and public passions on both sides of the Atlantic. To this day, the ink of European influence permeates all levels of the United States, from obvious metropolises like New York to unlikely underdog cities between the two coasts. Together, governments, institutions, and citizens on both sides of the Atlantic can play a transformative role in ensuring the continuation of a rich arts tradition, while simultaneously promoting the endurance of democratic principles.
Feats of Transatlantic Cultural Diplomacy
The European-American art relationship, like a contemporary woven textile, is an ode to an intricate and intertwined history that spans countries and centuries. When the Dutch settled New York City in 1624 (then “New Amsterdam”), they planted the seeds for coming generations of American infatuation with European art, architecture, and design that would influence central aspects of the U.S., informing the design of opera houses, museums, and other crown jewels of a budding American cultural identity.
Founding Father and President Thomas Jefferson relied on Roman architecture to inform his plans for Virginia’s capital, in the city of Richmond. Pierre L’Enfant, a Parisian by birth, planned the U.S. capital, creating the grid that still underpins urban Washington, including famous roundabouts such as Logan Circle and Dupont Circle. While he receives the bulk of the credit for his plans, they were actually carried out by the surveyor Andrew Ellicott, an American by birth, underscoring that the very capital of the United States was built on transatlantic partnership.
In 1962, Jackie Kennedy convinced French cultural minister Andre Malraux to loan the Mona Lisa to the U.S. In doing so, she successfully completed one of the most impressive feats of cultural diplomacy in modern history, despite massive public opposition—including riots—in France. While Parisians displayed their disaccord, 500,000 thousand visitors viewed the painting in D.C.’s National Gallery, and over a million visitors saw it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This exhibition simultaneously increased American interest in European art, while reaffirming the solidity of the ongoing French-American partnership.
Early trade, economic, and diplomatic relationships made obvious the American reliance on Europe for design cues. At times, cultivating a transatlantic art relationship was an express tenant of U.S. foreign policy. Post-World War II, the U.S. funded jazz festivals in places like West Germany, and throughout the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency funded modern and abstractionist artists—specifically those critical of capitalism and the cultural status quo—as a way of promoting freedom of expression and Americanism abroad. As The New Yorker writes, the CIA targeted “left-wing intellectuals and avant-garde writers and artists who might still have some attachment, sincere, sentimental, or opportunistic, to Communism and the Soviet Union,” with a message that it was “possible to be left-wing, avant-garde, and anti-Communist.” In other words, arts funding became a central aspect of the U.S. recognition that soft power was an ally of immeasurable importance in the battle against communism.
Citizen Diplomacy: Masters in the Heartland
Deep in “flyover” country, areas typically passed over by diplomats and politicians seeking to maximize efficiency in bigger cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, the European art legacy lives on. Kansas City serves as an interesting example of both the institution-to-institution and people-to-people connections that bridge the European and American art worlds.
Kansas City is home to one of the twelve Caravaggio paintings in the U.S., an impressive feat for a city of only 600,000. Its chef d’oevre, John the Baptist, completed in 1598 and largely regarded as one of Caravaggio’s best works, was loaned to Milan’s Palazzo Reale for one of the most impressive Caravaggio retrospectives in recent history. Palazzo Reale also looked across the Atlantic in 2017 when it showcased over one hundred Keith Haring pieces, a reminder that even in art capitals like Italy, the American school at time reigns supreme, especially when it comes to confronting topics such as the AIDS crisis, mass consumerism, or war—key themes of Haring’s work.
Kansas City is also fortunate to receive exhibits that no other American cities do. In 2017, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art opened Through the Eyes of Picasso, a major retrospective that detailed the influence of African art on the Spanish painter’s life. The exhibit featured works by Picasso that belong to the Louvre’s permanent collection in Paris and to the Picasso family’s personal collection. Many of the works had never before traveled to the U.S. In the fall of 2018, the museum hosted a major exhibit on Napoleon, also celebrated for its assemblage of rare art. Museum workers breezed around the installation, complete with replicated palace walls and floors, to spritz guests with true-to-the-nose versions of Napoleon and Josephine’s personal colognes, a necessity from an age in which bathing was not highly regarded.
A more contemporary Kansas City connection to Europe is the museum’s permanent function as a prop in an infinite game of badminton: Dutch artist couple Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen decided to re-interpret the museum’s core building, constructed in 1933, as a shuttlecock net. The museum’s expansive lawns are now home to the world’s largest shuttlecocks, which enliven the stately and Trumanesque building.
In addition to the overtly strong relationships between American and European museums, Kansas City’s private collectors have bolstered the presence of Europe in the Midwest. In 2015, Marion and Henry Bloch, of tax giant H&R Block, donated twenty-nine impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces from their private collection, including Cezanne’s Mont Sainte Victoire, Gauguin’s Faaturuma, Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines, and Van Gogh’s Olive Trees. Other donated works include those by Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Matisse, and Seurat—enviable even for a French collection. The Nelson-Atkins is also home to the country’s largest collection of works by British Sculptor Henry Moore.
Transatlantic Standard-setting: Democratic Norms in Art Markets
Museums also can—and often do—play a determining role in standard-setting inside the art world, and in political affairs more broadly. One very tangible example of the foreign policy effects of museums is the hard line against authoritarianism that several have recently taken. In the fall of 2018, the Met and the Brooklyn Museum refused to accept Saudi money following the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a stark warning that human rights violators have no place in the art world.
Museums are also increasingly turning down large grants and other financing from corporations like Purdue Pharma and its owners, the Sackler family, which is embroiled in lawsuits relating to its role in the U.S. opioid crisis. The Sackler family amassed an admittedly stunning collection, which now fills the Freer-Sackler Gallery in D.C. Fresh allegations of involvement in the opioid crisis have led to art powerhouses, such as the Met, the Guggenheim, and London’s Portrait Gallery refusing to accept Sackler money.
Museums across the Atlantic have also undertaken sweeping policies to improve the legitimacy of the art trade itself. One area in which collaboration is playing a more central role is money laundering. Because contemporary and modern art typically fetch the highest prices, money laundering tends to be concentrated in that marketplace, and often implicates the likes of Russian oligarchs, who buy and sell art as a way to gain reentry into the U.S. and European financial systems after being blacklisted.
Art Basel, equal parts institution and art fair, descends on cities like Miami and Hong Kong each year. ItArt Basel has laid out a series of transparency guidelines for selling and acquiring art, all of which it codifies in the Art Basel Art Market Principles and Best Practices. Such standards are meant to curb illicit activities such as money laundering and are a significant step in the right direction toward supporting the rule of law in the sanctions and financial crimes domain. A series of high-profile investigations indicate a growing trend toward transparency in the art world, itself largely a result of transatlantic collaboration.
Reinforcing Public Diplomacy
Critics of abstract expressionism have often viewed the works of artists like Jackson Pollock or Cy Twombly as messy, and, perhaps above all, frivolous. In today’s constant news cycle, it is perhaps easy to regard art as a nonessential luxury in a world riddled with instability. In reality, from dance productions in Belarus to art connoisseurs in Bloomington, art continues to carry forth ideals fundamental and inherent to democracy. Art conveys messages of freedom of expression, the dangers of climate change, and the importance of gender equality. When faced with uncertainty, the transatlantic relationship can count on art as a medium for transatlantic diplomacy, democracy, and dialogue.
Art is not only an asset in the toolkit for rote diplomacy, but it is integral to successful public diplomacy. What is important about cities like Kansas City is that they often serve as art hubs for entire regions. Tourists throughout the heartland visit cities like Kansas City to be awed by a collection the likes of which are typically housed in palazzos or museums in Europe. In other words, cities like Kansas City serve as windows to Europe, enticing swaths of Americans to rethink their stance on transatlanticism. If bang for your buck is a primary consideration for your soft power agenda, look no further than the Midwestern plains.
Whether perusing the booths at Art Basel, getting lost in Haring’s genius in Milan, or seeking refuge from the Midwestern sun under the shade of a giant shuttlecock, we should all pause for a moment to thank the arts—present, past, and future—for serving as diplomats during turmoil, and as friends during peace.