Harvard’s own Joseph Nye developed the concept not too long ago, and it was meant to describe the ability to attract and win people over, rather than by coercion, force or even aggressive mass financial rewarding. Soft power uses cultural and artistic appeal, ethical values, and foreign policies in order to convince people to join a particular side or cause. This term is now also used as a tool to change or influence public opinion through less transparent channels, as well as to lobby through powerful political and non-political entities. As Nye said it himself, “credibility is the scarcest resource” in today’s Information Age.
Many of us are still trying to fully grasp the concept of “soft power” altogether, but one of the best examples we could possibly give would be the clumsy rise of China as a cultural ambassador in the 21st century, and the game of back-and-forth that the country plays with freedom of expression against indigenous artists such as Ai WeiWei.
On one hand and more often than one would expect, a representative of CCP’s fifth-generation leadership will pop up somewhere in Europe in an attempt to prove that China very much treasures its contemporary art and cultural openness: that time when President Xi JinPing opened up a museum exhibition in Belgium, or the proud announcement of the German Culture Year in 2012 are just a few examples. But on the other hand, it will be had to forget that other time when China’s most prolific contemporary artist was jailed for six months and continuously harassed by government authorities before and afterwards, for his outspoken artistic endeavours that ultimately ended up painting a not so pretty but realistic picture of his country.
One could easily argue that while China’s rise as an artistic influence via means of soft power is peaceful and not at all intrusive or obtuse enough to remind us of the book burnings from the 1966 Cultural Revolution, it certainly cannot be regarded as graceful. Authorities still have a long way to go before they can truly comprehend the indubitable value present behind the freedom of expression. In the meantime, Ai WeiWei continues to fascinate the world with stories of his life and country through unique works of art that convey powerful messages and influence social opinion. As hard as Xi JinPing tries to shake hands and cut ribbons in an attempt to show that China is, in fact, a blooming artistic community, Ai will constantly be around via other channels of contemporary art to remind us that things aren’t as peachy after all.
While the public sector makes a habit of institutionalising art through commissioning, purchasing and promoting it, it also gives it a strong educational character, using it to impose or maintain certain values and even social trends. Thus validating the art industry as an official form of expression is also recognised as a type of soft power.
Contemporary art has played a key role in the widespread social campaigns against antiquated and bigoted mentalities that continue to somehow shape our society in the 21st century. It mirrors today’s culture and society and it has the power to further shape the minds of younger generations to come – while art collectors and galleries thrive from the business of buying and selling works that typically don’t fit within a specific style or current (the main characteristic of contemporary art, after all, along with its ability to encompass multiple types of materials and mediums), millennials follow it and absorb its underlying messages of tolerance and peace, both equally precious and highly valued today.
Look at Banksy, for example. His stencil-based graffiti art constantly evokes his political activism. The satirical street art and subversive epigrams are now present on walls and bridges in major cities all over the world, and they evoke the very things we’ve all come to love and hate at the same time, as a global society – greed, power, the addiction of drugs, technology, corruption and intolerance to name but a few. Banksy has developed his own way of speaking out against elements that have shaped our current world and the way we live, in an attempt to break us out of a vicious cycle, to open our eyes and to remind us that we, as humanity, can still break away and evolve towards a better society.
His success is phenomenal and yet he doesn’t sell any prints or reproductions of his art. Instead, his auctioneers tend to sell his original art on location, leaving the issue of its removal in the hands of the highest and winning bidder. Banksy’s usually dismal or humorous imagery is often combined with slogans and speaks against war, against capitalism or against the establishment. The world loves a rebellious spirit, and Banksy doesn’t fall short. His art is a pure example of soft power, down to its very core.
Contemporary art now incorporates digital mediums and has managed to blur the line between reality and fiction, with the help of surprising installations displayed in otherwise regular locations i.e. supermarkets, parks and the very streets we walk through every day. And that’s where the soft power stems from: messages and ideas are no longer confined to the walls and glass boxes of museums, they’re out in the open for everyone to see and they speak to more than just art aficionados.
In this day and age, artists are more than just creative entities that surprise and enchant, many of them have strong opinions against the dark side of our society and they’re often regarded as political, social or ecological activists. Contemporary art speaks out against homophobia, against racism and intolerance; it challenges consumerism and it defends the rights of women and children worldwide; it calls out on corrupted politicians and authority figures, and it underlines the tragic outcomes of the capitalism that has come to shape our daily lives. Ultimately, art often ends up saying things that even the mainstream media seems to forget – and the people listen. The people watch and they understand the message.
Contemporary art does not persuade – it draws attention and challenges people to think for themselves. Today, art is not just a tool of creative expression; it is also a powerful social and even political platform that stands up to the establishment. It doesn’t lie, it doesn’t coerce and it doesn’t use aggressive techniques to get people on its side. It’s the very core of the “soft power” concept, and it’s no wonder that more and more countries appeal to its sincere charms in order to open new channels of communication with communities that have otherwise shunned them.