From the Archives: Why Should We Export Culture?

A white circle with intersecting white lines on a rusty background.
Cover of the Winter 1962 issue of Art in America, featuring an artwork by David Smith.

Looking back on the 110-year history of Art in America, the editors have unearthed some surprises, like this article written for the Winter 1962 issue by Edward R. Murrow, who had left his career in broadcast journalism to become director of the United States Information Agency (which was folded into the US Department of State in 1999). His thoughts on the benefits of promoting American culture abroad—at a time when the world was far less globalized—reflect a postwar drive to bolster America’s image on the international stage, particularly as a strategy to combat the Soviet Union’s influence. Murrow wrote the piece on the occasion of a USIA-sponsored traveling exhibition of works from the corporate collection of S.C. Johnson & Son, lnc., then most notable for its wax products. The company would donate the 102 works to the Smithsonian Institution in 1969 following the exhibition’s stops in Europe, Japan, South America, and Canada.

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IN THE YEARS since World War II the United States Government has sent abroad a great variety of missions: massive technical and economic assistance to war-ravaged lands, aid to the hungry and homeless, military support to help keep the peace, financial help, and now the Alliance for Progress and Peace Corps for developing nations. All these have given testimony to this nation’s willing­ness to share its abundance and strength with others who seek to live in freedom and dignity.

Such actions, directed primarily to the economic and physical well-being and safety of other peoples, tell others something about us. So do the private businessmen, tourists and other Americans abroad.

Five well-dresses people sit on chairs on a patio facing the scene in front of them that resembles a field and small hills.
Edward Hopper, People in the Sun, 1960, oil on canvas, 40⅜ by 60⅜ inches.

But we cannot afford to be known abroad as being any less than we are. Nor can we ignore the minds and hearts and spirits of others. So a task hardly less important than that of physical aid is the exporting of information and ideas arising daily in the United States and, from time to time, the fruits of our intellectual and cultural life. The music of a Benny Goodman or a Leonard Bernstein, the paintings of a Wyeth or a Wilde, the dramatic impact of a Williams or O’Neill—these, too, tell much about us, that the United States is wealthy not only in its financial resources but also in its art, its music, its literature, drama and film.

Our culture provides a deep reflection of American life. To understand us, one must know what we do, think, feel, enjoy, ap­preciate and respect away from the demands of our daily jobs.

Think of your own life; you might have a neighbor whose dia­logue is limited to a simple “hello” when passing. You know the color and structure of his house, whether he is loud or quiet, how he tends his home and yard. You are neighbors and strangers both. You think him cold and aloof. Then someone breaks the barrier. Conversation flows. You discover he loves animals, or is concerned with the school problem, or collects matchbooks. And thereafter you say to others: “Oh, he’s a pretty nice guy when you get to know him.” Original impressions and judgments had been formed from in­complete sources of knowledge. The outside view of the neighbor’s house and passing encounters had not revealed what he was really like. A truer understanding came only with fuller knowledge.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Only One, 1959, oil on canvas, 36 by 30⅛ inches.

That such misunderstandings can occur so easily here in our own country serves to emphasize the problem we have in trying to increase the understanding of us among men throughout the world, a vital effort in a dangerous time when men are capable of so much destruction. Differences in languages, political systems, social cus­toms, religious heritages and economic accomplishments all make it more difficult for men and women of different countries to know and understand us. The danger constantly exists that judgments of us, which might seriously affect us, will be made from incom­plete sources of knowledge (or from deliberate distortions of the truth promulgated by those hostile to our way of life). We need every tool we have to avoid this danger.

Let me illustrate. Our fighting men, in the cause of peace, long have been abroad; but we are not a militaristic nation. The effi­ciency of our business methods is known; but we are not a cold­hearted people. Tourists sometimes spend large sums; never seen are the years of work and good citizenship during which the travel money was accumulated. In our efforts to have others know and understand us, we do not deny our military strength, our business acumen, our wealth. They are part of us and we are proud of them because they serve their purposes.

A wooded scene with the downward limbs of a tree in the foreground, a person leaning against the tree drawing on a piece of paper, and a body of water visible beyond.
Peter Blume, Banyan Tree, 1961, oil on canvas, 28¼ by 36¼ inches.

But there is more to us and this, too, must be seen. Cultural ex­pressions—our art, music, theatre, literature—frequently capture the heart and soul of America in ways that can be understood most readily by persons in other lands, whose own cultures have sur­vived, developed and flourished over many centuries. The painter conveys the feeling with the fact. The musician, the playwright expose the emotional forces at work in people.

Life, even in the most desirable political and economic environ­ment, is not a straight line of happiness. We have our joys and sorrows, our spiritual and physical conflict and contentment, our successes and failures, hopes and disillusionments. We rely on the artist to record human experiences, in the context of the times.

It is this record that we in Government seek to send to the people of other countries, along with our business skills, economic help and military assistance. For such experiences are universal, and they are the stuff of a true common bond of understanding among all peoples.


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