Photo Courtesy of guccio@文房具社.

Fireworks going off over the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium in Beijing, China.

On the evening of August 8, 2008, I sat in the Bird’s Nest in Beijing with 91,000 other spectators and a television audience in the billions, watching China tell its story through the arts. Sure enough, after the final firework exploded over the Bird’s Nest, China had accomplished its goal: prove that, through discipline and creativity, it had become a formidable player on the world stage.

After winning its bid to host the Olympics, China stirred with excitement as it crafted the image it would project to the world. Nationalism was palpable among school children, taxi drivers, government officials, and Olympic volunteers. The games may have been about athleticism, but the prelude, the Opening Ceremonies, was about artistry and the Chinese identity. A blank traditional scroll unfurled on the ground and dancers used their bodies to paint the scroll as they danced. Performers danced on a large globe suspended in the middle of a dark Bird’s Nest giving the illusion of being in outer space.

Photo Courtesy of guccio@文房具社.

Dancers performing on a globe suspended in the Bird’s Nest.

Leaders in Beijing knew that their creative abilities were being tried along with their ability to pull off an event of this scale and importance. They spared no expense in making it what many critics hailed as the most spectacular opening ceremony to date.

Nation-building and image-building

All countries engage in what political scientists call “nation-” and “image-” building. Nation-building (not to be confused with state-building) is the internal process of creating a shared identity among citizens through policy and the allocation of public funds. Its external counterpart, image-building, deals with shaping outsiders’ perceptions of a country. The arts often factor into these endeavors: domestically, they affirm a sense of shared culture and enrich social life, while through their export, they help communicate a nation’s identity and may serve as a benchmark for international competitiveness. As countries develop, it is thought, investments in image-building can yield both economic and diplomatic returns.

As the globe’s richest and most heavily armed nation, the United States is in a unique position relative to the rest of the world. Looking at examples beyond our borders shows how other countries handle limited budgets, growing or diminishing international stature, and the desire to be competitive. The four countries compared here—Korea, China, Cambodia, and Brazil—are in different phases of development and provide an important contrast to the industrialized European nations to which cultural policy in the United States is so often compared.

In each of these cases, we will examine the importance of the arts to nation-building efforts, as evidenced by public spending; the degree to which the arts are included in nation-building as an explicit or implicit response to America’s perceived cultural dominance; the degree to which the arts are included in a country’s concept of international competitiveness; and the status of the arts as part of an image-building strategy. Looking at examples such as these can offer fresh insights into the arts’ role in creating a national identity and projecting an image of vitality to the outside world.


Historically, China’s cultural sphere spanned the Asian continent. Today, however, it sees its influence in danger of being eclipsed by that of its neighbors—and of the West. China’s investment in the arts is a safeguard against the perceived infiltration of American culture, an attempt for its cultural products to carry more economic weight and status within the region, and a natural extension of its ascendance as a global economic force.

As a relative newcomer on the international stage, China believes that a strong arts sector can help put it on equal footing with developed countries. In recent years, officials have valued culture’s role in “the competition of…national strength.” In 2011, a comprehensive plan for cultural reform was unveiled. China already spends significantly on culture. In 2012, China spent 54.054 billion yuan, or 9.3% of its national budget, on culture, sports, and media. Teasing out the amount for the arts is challenging given China’s notoriously opaque budgets, but if we assume one-third of that 54 billion goes to culture, China’s financial support would be the equivalent of nearly $3 billion in US dollars.

This spending is driven in large part by a reaction against encroaching foreign values. The Chinese consume more American than Chinese cultural products. This trend, and the accompanying values shift, is so alarming to Chinese officials that they counter it with increased spending on theater, television, and radio and regulations restricting foreign programming. In 2006, China’s contribution to the global cultural market trailed that of its smaller neighbors. Japan and Korea made up 13% of the global market for cultural products including literature, popular culture, and games, while the rest of Asia, including China, made up only 6%.

Whatever funding China dedicates to the arts risks being seen by people in more open governments more as a political maneuver than an earnest attempt at moving the arts forward. Financial investments remain undercut by China’s most contentious policy: censorship. From things as trite as blacklisting Lady Gaga and as pedantic as pixelating Michelangelo’s David-Apollo’s privates, to filmmakers and writers being restricted to the point that it forces mediocrity, China tries to keep a tight rein on the ideologies communicated through cultural products. Works of modern dance require approval from a member of the party before they can be performed for the public, and certain topics such as the infamous 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown remain taboo.


Once upon a time, South Korea’s national investment in the arts was a response to the United States’ cultural dominance. After the Korean War, arts policy in South Korea prioritized fostering national identity by highlighting the uniquely Korean aspects of culture. Article 9 of the Korean Constitution declares “states have an obligation to put forth effort in bequeathing and developing traditional culture and creatively enhancing national culture.” In 1973, Korea’s first five-year cultural plans stipulated new funding for culture, 70% of which was allocated for folk arts and traditional culture. Subsequent government administrations drafted their own national cultural plans, and by the 1980s the arts were more broadly included in goals to promote the excellence of the arts and foster contemporary art. By the 1990s, the advent of democracy shifted the focus to cultural welfare, where the arts are used to address social issues and enhance the nonmaterial aspects of life. Recently, however, its motives have changed. The government now looks to the arts to promote soft power, national image building, and economic growth.

Today, Korea has a strong arts infrastructure—arts agencies, university arts programs, performing arts companies, and festivals— that has surprisingly little visibility outside the region. In 2010, Korea’s central government spent approximately 5.7 percent — $56 per capita — on culture through its Ministry of Culture, about a quarter of which went specifically to the arts. The local government spends twice as much. In recent years, arts and culture in Korea is the one category of spending to enjoy an increasing proportion of government budget allocations, a trend mirrored in few other national budgets.

Korea also has a robust set of policies that support the arts -112 in all. These policies cover public art, the promotion of museums, arts education, tax incentives for businesses and individuals, and artist welfare issues. The country’s largest state-funded arts council and funding agency, Arts Council Korea (ARKO), was mandated as part of the Culture and Arts Promotion Act in 1973. The Public Art Promotion Act requires new large construction projects to allocate 1% of their total costs to public art. Corporations can claim higher exemptions for allocating money to cultural services.

With the rising popularity of Korean television, music, and movies abroad, the government has sought to capitalize on their profitability. South Korea’s overseas shipment of cultural goods came to $4.6 billion in 2012. Comparing cultural exports is a regular practice within East Asia, each country hoping to outdo each other and establish its own world-class arts, entertainment, and creative industries. While Korea enjoys relative success in exporting its cultural products within the region, and there is growing interest among the Korean diaspora abroad in cultural products and traditional culture, it also continues to work on spreading its influence to the States and beyond.


Brazil has experienced rapid development in recent years. Like China, it has enjoyed growing economic power and attention on the international stage, but unlike China, its arts policies are not a reaction against the perceived threat of US cultural influence. In one way its motivations seem closer to Korea’s: attaining peer status among developed countries. It also has an increasing demand to keep up with its citizens’ purchasing power, as interest in consuming culture and the arts grows.

Because it’s not possible to unite all Brazilians behind a shared ethnic identity, a strategy used in more homogeneous countries like Korea or Japan, the government must take a more active role in creating a sense of shared identity based on other factors. It seems fitting then that following the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, Brazil has allocated funds to promoting social cohesion through the arts and culture.

In 2007, direct funding from the Ministry of Culture accounted for only 0.7% of the national budget, or approximately $420 million USD. But what Brazil’s government lacks in direct funding for the arts it makes up for through a series of innovative policies, including tax incentives. The Social Service of Commerce (SESC), among other things, is Brazil’s leading private financer of the arts. The SESC’s budget for programs in Sao Paulo alone is roughly equivalent to the NEA’s yearly budget. The organization’s funds are tied to a 1.5% payroll tax on companies that is virtually unopposed by policymakers and companies. In addition, the so-called Rouanet Law has allowed corporations to divert their owed taxes to finance cultural activities since 1991 and now drives about $630 million towards the sector annually. In January 2013, the government began offering small annual stipends for each citizen to use on “cultural expenses.” Employers foot the bulk of the money that funds the stipend, with individuals supplying the remaining 10% through their paycheck.

Brazil enacted a ten-year cultural plan in 2010, which lays out strategies and priorities for Brazil’s cultural development. The top priority includes using culture and the arts to help bolster Brazil’s image abroad. One of the others is a series of bills promoting culture and cultural exports, such as a plan to work with trade organizations in hopes of becoming one of the world’s top 20 cultural exporters.


Until relatively recently, Cambodia held prominent cultural status within mainland Southeast Asia, and many artists traveled there to train in their craft. But today, the arts struggle for rehabilitation and revival. When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, intellectuals and artists were targeted for purging. While 25% of the population that died during that period, an astounding 90% of museum workers, professors, performing and visual artists, and writers were killed, forcing the closure of many institutions. Many of the artists that survived subsequently sought to return Khmer arts to their former glory. When things finally stabilized, protection for the arts—both its institutions and practitioners—was written into the new 1993 constitution. However, funding for them did not always follow.

Robert Turnbull describes the situation in the book Expressions of Cambodia: The Politics of Tradition, Identity and Change: “While the Cambodian establishment frequently alludes to Cambodian classical arts being the ‘soul of the nation,’ it has been largely unwilling to develop performance culture in ways that are sustainable or give artists under its charge reason for optimism.” Government funding for performing arts, for example, is on average just 0.25% of the national budget.

Faced with limited government assistance, arts organizations often rely on foreign individuals and foreign-backed NGOs for financial support to rebuild a national identity and improve Cambodia’s image abroad through the arts. Cambodian Living Arts, one of the most active arts organizations, exists in part to “facilitate the transformation of Cambodia through the arts” and specifically, “to create an understanding of what it means to be Cambodian and to create a sense of unity and shared culture.” Amrita, Cambodia’s premier contemporary dance and performing arts organization, seeks “new life for Cambodia’s ancient artistic heritage” in part through networking internationally both to raise the status of Cambodian arts overseas and to find donors.

American influence in Cambodian culture has only recently become an issue, in part because of how reliant the arts are on funding from foreign sources. Cambodian artists and arts administrators are investigating ways to become more self-sustaining. Artists and performers, rather than waiting for acknowledgment from the government of their value, are thus demonstrating initiative in ensuring the arts don’t get neglected while the government focuses on other important development issues.

Bringing It Home

Ironically, the United States, whose arts infrastructure is envied around the world, devotes hardly any government support to the arts at the federal level compared with other nations. Even if you look beyond the National Endowment of the Arts and include appropriations to entities like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Portrait Gallery, the US still spends less than one one-tenth of one percent of its budget on arts and culture – orders of magnitude lower than some of the countries covered here. Even Cambodia’s investment in arts and culture dwarfs our own – on a relative basis, anyway.

While government support for the National Endowment for the Arts in particular has declined in recent decades, the truth is that Washington has never played a central role in the shaping of the arts ecosystem nationally. In part this is because of the decentralized nature of government arts funding: a recent NEA analysis shows that state and local funding for arts and culture outweighs federal support by a factor of nearly 5 to 1. And of course, the strong history of private giving in this country makes up for the lack of centralized support to no small degree.

So how has the United States been able to achieve such cultural dominance with so little government support? Certainly, the country’s economic and military might, developed largely without the help of state-supported museums and symphonies, are contributing factors. But it’s hard to ignore the role that the for-profit cultural industries, Hollywood in particular, have played in spreading American identity and influence abroad. US cultural exports in 2011 reached almost $40 billion, with over half coming from the motion picture industry.

Indeed, our examples here confirm that the private sector can have an energizing influence on the arts even when governments have limited capacity to invest directly. In Brazil, the government supports the arts through tax benefits that incentivize private investment; in Cambodia artists and arts administrators have taken the situation into their own hands and been active where the government has been silent.

In this light, the efforts of China and, to a lesser extent, Korea to explicitly build national power and identity through government investment in culture represent a fascinating natural experiment. Every year, the World Economic Forum ranks countries by international competitiveness. Twelve “pillars” including infrastructure, macroeconomic environment, higher education and training, financial market development, market size, and technological innovation determine a country’s rank. Each pillar matters, but each affects countries in different ways. According to the report, economies fall either squarely into one of three stages of development or are “transitional,” falling between them. The first development stage consists of economies like Cambodia driven by unskilled labor and natural resources, with low wages, and only the most basic commodities. Here, competitiveness depends on the strength of institutions, infrastructure, public health, primary education, and a stable macroeconomic environment. China is at the second stage representing “efficiency-driven” economies that thrive on manufacturing. Competitiveness at this stage hinges on higher education and training, an efficient goods market, mature labor and financial markets, technological readiness, and large domestic or international markets. Brazil is in transition between the second and third “innovation-driven” stage, where economies become more competitive by improving business sophistication and through technological innovation. South Korea and the US both fall into this third category, but interestingly, the US’s rank has been declining over the past several years. Will America’s cavalier attitude toward nation-building prove shortsighted in the end? Only time will tell.

  • I have never visited South Korea, but I have transited through Seoul airport about 4 times. If the airport is any indication of their overall support of culture and arts, I can believe it is very strong.

    At least twice I have seen a chamber music group performing on one of the concourses. Every time I have been there I have seen people dressed in period costumes walking between Korea Cultural stations which are a combination of interactive visitor information center and museum store. Those dressed in costume do a little presentation/scene of sorts, pose for pictures with people and then move to the next station.

    Yeah, there is a commerical/touristy element to it, but you don’t see that sort of thing in US airports. Hawaii airports don’t have greeters with lei anymore outside of some company or person making arrangements for specific visitors.

    After my second transit through Seoul when I realized the costumed people weren’t a fluke, now I actively watch for them as I pass through the airport. I have never really visited the country, but I have a good impression of it from the airport.

  • Gibarian

    Limiting this discussion to performing arts, you have to look at tax breaks as a form of government finance: the lost income tax revenue of charitable deductions and on nonprofit arts property. Adding in commercial media (a strong US export industry), film and television production credits are common. You also forgot to consider protective tariffs on media imports and sales tax exemptions for entertainment.

    There is no actual category for arts and culture public charity status in the US tax code. They must be educational or literary. Arts that do not fulfill an educational or literary function should not be tax-exempt – something equity activists seem to forget. Unless you get a handout, you are oppressed.

    Regarding Nationalism and Arts, considering Nazi attendance at Bayreuth, we should get out of this fiction the arts are inherently ennobling. Many artistic traditions, especially in traditional village cultures, are a means to enforce one’s place in a clan. Every totem pole has a low man.