29A Vane Attempt

"Don't Need a Weatherman To Tell Which Way the Wind Blows" 

A Series of Innocuous Blogs for Vainglorious Edification.

Soul of the New World
March 5, 2008

On February 26th the New York Philharmonic orchestra performed a feat of cultural diplomacy that may change the way bitter enemies view each other.  The performance took place in North Korea’s Mansudae Art Theatre in the nation’s capital city of Pyongyang.  Not far away, in another part of town, a huge billboard depicting a North Korean fist crushing an American soldier illustrated the two sides’ political antipathy.  North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Il is seen by the West as a loose canon renegade unwelcome in the global community partly because of nuclear arms.   But the invitation came from North Korea and with the encouragement of Washington was accepted by Lorin Maazel the Philharmonic’s music director.   What followed was something close to modern day magic, and a reminder of the under-employed power to transcend political conflict called... art.

The Phil committed to playing a program starting with each nation’s national anthem, Dvorak’s Symphony Number Nine, popularly known as “The New World Symphony,” George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and the beloved Korean folk song “Arirang.”  Master classes with exceptional North Korean students were given the following day.  By most reports the concert was received with great warmth, a long standing ovation and even musicians’ tears.  Was this just showmanship masking the underlying animosity of two utterly different societies?  Should we remain wary of cultural diplomacy, viewing it as the tinkering of two propaganda machines working to outdo each other?  It is easy to take this tack and there are some who have done just that.  But diplomacy is the work of removing the appearance of differences between peoples.  Where language fails and political pressures cause further distancing, the common embrace of music, dance and live performance brings people together.  North Korea, albeit dominated by a totalitarian dictator, is populated by human beings.  And music, speaking to the heart and not the mind, invokes the truth that there is absolutely no difference between the hearts of men - only in how we perceive them.

In 1892 Antonin Dvorak, recently arrived in New York from his Czech homeland, began work on his ninth symphony, subtitled “From the New World.”  It is widely considered a seminal work of American music, reflective of the multi-cultural influences that made the nation the world‘s first melting pot.   In a 1955 lecture, (found in his book, The Infinite Variety of Music) Leonard Bernstein examined each of the symphony’s themes, and traced their origin to French, Scottish, German, Chinese and Czech sources.   Dvorak himself claimed that he wrote the piece “in the spirit” of Native American music without using actual quotations.  Regardless, its inclusion in the precedent setting concert in Pyongyang carried the influences of an entire world of music into the heart of North Korea.  And the willingness of the North Korean diplomats and cultural ambassadors to sit together with their Western counterparts demonstrates the ability of the arts to do what fifty years of saber rattling has not. 

All too often the arts and the budgets needed to support them are the first to be dismissed in times of financial hardship.  There are far more important expenditures that must be maintained and the arts are simply outweighed by social programs, defense and infrastructure.  But if we were to look to the arts as an extension of foreign policy, and fund them  as a function of Foreign Affairs - we might reap new rewards.  A cultural breakthrough that spurs diplomacy that demilitarizes a conflict and reduces the cost of armed commitments is worth its weight in gold, and human lives.  Clearly not all conflicts can be addressed by cultural diplomacy, but many can.  And rather than view the arts as the superficial indulgence of a non-pragmatic elite, we view them as an investment in global diplomacy - we might rediscover some of the meaning in Dvorak’s Symphony From the New World.  A single two day visit by a hundred and six musicians to the center of a nation we deeply distrust, may yield the beginnings of a stand down order that would otherwise never be issued.  That is the result of one important idea: that art speaks to the soul of all people, where no other language can.