Though the concept certainly predates his analysis, Joseph Nye’s work on soft power has opened a stream of claims regarding the exercise of power outside of the formal channels of governance. As globalisation has distributed economic benefits around the world more broadly, emerging economies are stepping up to express their role as actors in the global sphere.
Two approaches are observed – one more organised and controlled in China and another more spontaneous in India, sponsored by individuals and corporations.
Ambitious projects such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative aim to remake global trade with a central position for the country. While China is shoring up its sphere of influence through economic partnerships, its leaders launched a five-year plan to build 3,500 museums in five years; they completed this in three years in 2012 and have added hundreds every year since. There is a hint of civic largesse, but China is also signaling its cultural centrality, aiming to demonstrate the enduring edifice of Chinese civilization and the authority it confers on the Chinese people and state to rule over an ever-widening domain.
Government support is one of several means through which art can transform into soft power. India, among rising global economies, can make similar claims to global centrality and a case for global significance as a producer of culture. Because India does not have the same state resources devoted to cultural institutions as China does, museums have not played a central role. Nonetheless, one private initiative has sought to put Delhi on the art world map. The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art is built around the private collection of a single individual with the goal of leaving large impact. This institution’s scope has been to engage with a wider variety of Indian contemporary art than any other museum. Thanks to the funding of touring exhibitions and catalogues, this museum has provided a broader spectrum of South Asian contemporary art than can be seen in most Western museums. KNMA has also commissioned new works to promote the capacity of contemporary South Asian art. One caveat of this institution and others discussed here: KNMA is not overtly national in its character, but seeks to promote South Asia art more broadly. Bucking the trend of tempestuous national politics between India and Pakistan, KNMA works with artists on both sides of the border as well as from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In this sense, one might categorise this as an expression of regional soft power, offering a pan-South Asian vision of cultural development.
In the era of globalisation, the museum may no longer be the primary site for encounters with contemporary art, replaced by the biennial and the art fair. These two forms of festival, offering cultural riches to cosmopolitan elite and local inhabitants for a limited time, have proliferated due to their comparable flexibility. India arrived late to the biennial party, initiating its first, the Kochi Muziris Biennial, in 2012. Notably, artists acting as organisers and curators advanced this initiative, and selected artists have run the biennial since. The idea came from Mumbai-based artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, both from Kerala state, who conceived an exhibition venue far from the commercial capitals of India. Their aim was primarily to provide a new platform for contemporary art in India and do so where it might have an impact on the local population. Access to art is provided in a variety of formats as contemporary artists present murals, public art projects, performances, architectural installations and other works. This biennial has attracted the attention of the art world and local government, but has not transmitted the same kind of cultural authority as more publicised biennials such as the Dhaka Art Summit and the Shanghai Biennial. Nevertheless, the artist-run Kochi Muzriis Biennial has credibility in the art world because it does not aim for commercial promotion.
On another tack
The India Art Fair, held annually in Delhi, is another story. Its focus is commercial and self-promotional and, in recent years, the fair has become notable for hosting more visitors than any other art fair in the world, including an impressive 1,28,000 visitors in 2013. Founded in 2009 by Neha Kirpal, the fair has grown considerably, receiving international acclaim. Its traditional focus on Modern Indian Art has helped build the value of paintings of leading Indian artists such as MF Husain and Tyeb Mehta to more than $1 million. Such valuations serve as a marker of the relative significance of these artists to the global culture and establish a metric for art produced in India. More importantly perhaps, the fair lures art enthusiasts – who happen to be business and cultural leaders – to India to see the most recent contributions by India, and South Asia more broadly, to the domain of global culture. The fair, like the biennial and the museum, argues for the depth and vibrancy of India’s culture in a global market. As proof of success, the fair attracted interest of MCH group, the largest producer of art fairs internationally and owner of the Art Basel brand, which bought a majority share in 2017. Several changes resulted, including a new director, but what has not changed is promotion of Indian civilization and culture among the global elite. The question remains, can a multinational corporation be counted on to promote India’s national image abroad?
Of course, there is a long history of the use of art as soft power, and it makes sense to apply some recent examples to this new situation. The Cold War was a standoff of hard power – nuclear weapons buildup to achieve mutual assured destruction – but actual battle lines were drawn through a series of proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union and efforts to win over newly independent post-colonial nations to capitalist or socialist ideologies. The US side deployed visual art to promote freedom of the American way of life. Artists in communist countries were expected to produce propaganda for the cause of the state, dubbed Socialist Realism by Western art historians, while American artists were free to experiment with whatever techniques they could conceive, leading to the development of Abstract Expressionism. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning or Mark Rothko generated abstract painting with such little regard for external realities that it seemed they were creating something entirely new. The art history notion of progressive development in the arts helped the US government make the case that American painting was avant garde, ahead of its time and leading in a competition to achieve cultural superiority. By the 1960s, the US had not only taken the position of the world’s most powerful state and economy, it was also the capital of culture.
So we might look to Asia as a site of competition, not only with American political and cultural dominance, but also between two rising powers. China may not see itself in deliberate soft power competition with India over art, but the government’s support of art swings both ways. For many years, Chinese artists produced Socialist Realism as a government-sanctioned form of painting. Art schools there still train painters in these techniques. Needless to say, the current generation of globally recognised Chinese contemporary artists do not follow this line. The most famous, Ai Weiwei, left the country, and the government destroyed his studio. The Communist Party’s goal of controlling national imagery can conflict with Chinese artists’ success in international venues. On the Indian side, the state does not see this form of soft power as worthy of investment, focusing arts expenditures on cultural heritage for the most part, but has produced a group of elites who seek to promote the image of India and South Asia as an incipient leader in the broader domain of global cultural production.
John Zarobell is associate professor and chair of International Studies at the University of San Francisco. Formerly, he was assistant curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and associate curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He is the author of Empire of Landscape and Art and the Global Economy.
This article first appeared on Yale Global Online.