Europe & Me – An interview with Mark Donfried about “The Language of Arts and Music” conference in 2011

Europe and Me (Online Magazine) - March 14th, 2011; Director and Founder of the ICD, Mark Dornfried speaks about the ICD and why Berlin is the best place to be operated from, as well as the role of Cultural Diplomacy for the European project.
  March 14th, 2011

Interview with Mark C. Donfried

Europe and Me (Online Magazine) – March 14th, 2011

At the end of the academy “The Language of Arts and Music”, held at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin from 14th till 20th of February 2011, E&M managed to get an few precious minutes with ICD founder and organiser Mark C. Donfried for an interview. Donfried’s speaking pace is breathtaking, and throughout the conversation with E&M it becomes understandable why: the smart-looking, passionate cultural diplomat is under constant pressure from conference attendees, speakers, and VIPs for whom he has to politely interrupt the interview more than once.

E&M: Mr. Donfried, you originally come from America. Why did the ICD choose to be based in Berlin?

MD: I think there are three reasons to answer your question. The first reason is history: Berlin has been a divided city and is now transformed into a bridge city, between east and west, and then you have the Turkish Diaspora… The dramatic and in many ways negative history Berlin has lived through has proved to be positive nowadays.

The second reason: culture-wise Berlin is a Mecca. It is a cheap city and therefore attracts artists. And risks are taken in Berlin that would never been taken in Paris or New York. If you go to Paris or London as an artist you are a new kid on the block, and you have to start from zero to establish yourself. In Berlin that’s what we all do.

The third reason is Germany. For a long time Germany, for quite logical reasons, had a particular attitude towards soft power. Hard power after World War II was unthinkable for Germany at all, and soft power had to react and adapt to the discredited connotation of propaganda, which is how the Third Reich had used it. Therefore a very modern concept of cultural diplomacy emerged in Germany that is ideal for the ICD to have as an environment. Don’t forget that the German Foreign Office has a larger budget for culture than for foreign policy in the narrow sense.

E&M: Does cultural diplomacy and your choice of Berlin have anything to do with Europe?

MD: Well, I would say not directly. I do think that Europe is a fascinating example of multilateral cultural diplomacy. Most cultural diplomacy existing is unilateral, you know: push French culture etc. The Alliance française vigilating that the French language remains pure of foreign words. Or the Deutsche Welle, whose explicit mandate it is to show more of the good things than the bad things about Germany abroad, without being mutual in any way. Within this group of Europe this does not really make sense any more.

Then think of Erasmus, that’s the opposite approach, it just allows people to exchange and to decide for themselves. And I think this is a good thing, because we live in an interdependent world. Ultimately we have to think more globally. And our global interactions should be based on mutual understanding and trust. Now how do I get trust, real trust? Maybe just by not only showing the good sides of my country, maybe precisely by not hiding the not-so-good sides, and by empowering every single person to shape his or her own opinion.

So I think Europe is a great example of modern cultural diplomacy that has shifted from the goal of persuasion towards the concept of facilitating access. Apart from that it is good for Europe to get to know itself. However, I think that cultural diplomacy is needed more outside Europe, where conflicts and lack of exchange and understanding are a lot more virulent.

E&M: A lot of speakers at this conference supported the idea that it should be by means of culture that a European identity emerges and cohesion within the EU is strengthened. What role do you see for cultural diplomacy with regards to the European project?

MD: I do think that cultural diplomacy is a very powerful and useful tool, but one should not overestimate its applicability. I think in the process of Europe growing together culture would be one third of the picture, others being academics, politics, economy. The EU for the most part is an economic union, that’s how it started. Now it is becoming more and more political, in 2008 it almost got a constitution. I think in general cultural diplomacy is one tool within a toolkit. Soft power will only work if hard power also exists. And there may be some cases where only hard power can be the solution.

‘Europe… The idea of a fresh, crispy mixed salad, where the different ingredients stay as they are, but add a rich and contrastive bouquet…’

E&M: Can merely facilitating access and exchange help in clarifying a European identity at all, or doesn’t it rather dissolve any notion of identity?

MD: I think yes and no. How many Germans would be able to say what German identity is? My idea about identity is related to the structure of an onion: from the outside it may look obvious, but once you cut it and delve into the deeper layers, one overlaps with the next. I think an intercultural dialogue makes things less clear and more clear at the same time. Plus my vision of inter- or multiculturalism – in Europe and in the world – is not the metaphor of the famous “melting pot”, where all the differences are boiled down to a grey-brown sauce. I prefer the idea of a fresh, crispy mixed salad, where the different ingredients stay as they are, but add to a rich and contrastive bouquet altogether.

E&M: What about you yourself, the onion of your own identity?

MD: By origin and by passport I am an American. But I have lived in Germany for ten years, so there is definitely a German layer. My son has American-German citizenship, I have been in Tunisia, there’s a lot of different music I like, I have an Apple computer…

E&M: Is there a Europen onion-slice in your identity?

MD: Yes, if you want… why not?

E&M: Thanks, Mr. Donfried, for the interview!

Christian Diemer reported for E&M as one of about 60 selected international participants attending the academy “Arts as Cultural Diplomacy” at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (ICD) in Berlin this February.