Talk at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Transcript of the talk given at the Symposium on J International Cultural Exchange in the Arts, sponsored by the International Council of the Museum, May 12, 1955.

Mr. Colin has been so generous, indeed so expansive in introducing me that he has given me a feeling of, not a split, but a shattered personality. Perhaps I'm expected to speak as a frustrated minor writer or an effete diplomat, a recently neutralized international civil servant, or an untutored devotee of art. It is not, however, from these, but from other points of view that I beg leave to share my thoughts on this occasion.

Firstly, I might look upon myself tonight, if you would permit me, as an Asian who has been fortunate enough to have partaken of some of the culture of other countries. In fact, I might, at once with pride and humility, claim that I would not be half the man I am but for Western culture, the culture that borders the Atlantic, and that in my early youth appeared to me as concentrated in Europe. Secondly, I would like to speak as a person who has been in this country for nearly five years and has begun to feel the dynamics of the world situation as seen from these shores. For as you know, it was given to me in more recent years to abandon the ivory tower of the student and the somewhat monastic cell of the teacher and to venture forth into what is known as the world of affairs. It was my destiny in that capacity to come and take up residence here. There are two things that I felt here very strongly. First, that although to me, who had sat at the feet of many great men outside my own country, the world seemed to be one and indivisible, there was nevertheless a great gap between the centre of Western culture and the vast continent from which I came. There was a vast amount of mutual ignorance. It was not so long ago when it became a habit with me in lecturing on Asian problems to remind the audience that more than half the people of the world lived in that continent. I invariably received the somewhat disturbing reassurance the next day, from some telephone callers at least, that I was right because they had "looked it up." That was the first puzzling sign of the maladjustment in understanding that came my way.

Yet, this seemed to be only the visible part of the iceberg; there was much greater mutual ignorance underneath. One felt almost alarmed to realize this gap between the West and a part of the world which to an Asian seemed to be very important. In fact, to anyone who might have been interested in the world beyond his immediate neighbourhood, this could bring many moments of anxiety and concern - and the fear that the split in the world between Communism and non-Communism might be supplemented and in fact overwhelmed by a much bigger split between Asia and the rest of the world. Of course there was much about America that had to be learned or revised too. In spite of the literacy that one enjoyed and had, in all conscience, used to the best advantage, one remained very hazy about happenings on this side of the Atlantic. How much more handicapped, one felt, would be those millions from my part of the world who did not have the same advantages as I had. A high percentage of those who came to the United States of America as I had, were educated in European universities. On those of us who were educated in that most vocal of cultural activities, (I mean literature - not, alas, mentioned in the context of museums) American literature had made little impact. In British universities, for example, it did not occupy a very prominent position, relegated as it was, in textbooks for instance, to a brief and hurried chapter toward the end. One had to rediscover it, as it were, and also to appraise afresh how one's own fellow countrymen back home would react to it, should it be brought closer to them. One knew for example that hitherto, speaking by and large, the Americans had been regarded as a sort of British isotope, and their variations from the original being considered erratic rather than in the nature of a natural development and not quite elevating as cultural contributions.

But it was not long before one became conscious here of a nation that had come into its own a long time ago, with a language of its own and a culture of its own. This in itself did not necessarily add to its political stature; but in this and other contexts the importance to the world of understanding America also became clear. In one's anxious or wistful moments, one looked around for kindred spirits in this country who would perhaps share these stirrings. Some of us went around like peddlers, obsessed like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner to unfold our tale. I remember how, for quite a while the bee that buzzed in my bonnet insisted that more and more American books should be translated into Eastern languages. I repeated this to the point of boredom, even to people who had never thought of translations or, indeed, of books. Another variation of the same obsession was the idea of exchange of students, thousands of students, between Asia and the United States.

After some seasons of unpopularity I realized that it was only by ill-luck that one had not met the right people. There was a tremendous amount of activity going on in these fields. A large scale exchange of students was in fact taking place between America and the rest of the world. This was an exhilarating discovery. It was heartening to feel that cosmopolitanism which one had been brought up to believe in and live up to, was neither dead nor dying. There were actually hundreds of people in this country who were interested in saving and nourishing it. Some of them perhaps had ulterior motives; ulterior motives, like confidence men, try to attach themselves to all good unsuspecting causes. If no other motives cast their shadow, there is always egotism. But these are the conditions of human existence. One has to make the best of them. But there was much to elate and sustain one's best hopes. Today there are more than a hundred thousand students in the world who are studying abroad, and one may be forgiven for dreaming of many hundreds of thousands of students spreading out into the world in a few years time; not commercial travellers, not troops, but students with their books and satchels perhaps, crossing the seas and vast stretches of land in search of education. I met my friend, Dr. Kenneth Holland - I see him in the audience tonight - who is doing one of, the noblest jobs in this country. He told me that there were as many as between thirty and forty thousand students in other countries who were, invited by American organizations to come here; there were as many as five thousand students from this country studying in foreign lands.

I felt heartened. I had been brought up to think nostalgically of the great era of cosmopolitanism that is part of the history of Muslims in the 8th and 9th centuries, during the days of the great caliphs in Baghdad, when the descendants of the Arabs of the desert took it upon themselves to use their poetic but untravelled language to translate the entire knowledge and learning of the Greeks. To Baghdad of those days came students from various parts of the world to learn and the Arabs themselves roamed the distant seas. Not all of them could have had the intrepid spirit or the romantic experiences of Sindbad the Sailor, but he epitomized their adventurous urge. Rarely that era could return, with a new, a modern, a heightened accent. Today, when there are so many warring factions in the world and we sometimes seem to be on the verge of utter annihilation because of misunderstanding and ignorance, it is heartening to see the beginning of a new cosmopolitanism, and wonderful to see a country like America trying to lead it in this magnificent fashion.

That is what the meaning of this evening's gathering is to me. I think that the brave adventure on which you are seeking to launch will be an important segment of an entire sector of internationalism -and if that word smells of political science -let us call it by my favourite term "cosmopolitanism." I believe that in the learning of new languages, in providing facilities for larger exchange of persons, in creating warmth towards the art of other people and in stimulating understanding not between governments and governments, no matter what the advantages of those exchanges may be, but between people and people, lies the foundation of the new cosmopolitanism that people like me, and there are many like me in various parts of the world, have been seeking.

I do not know what else to tell you. There are so many aspects that one could stress. The two speakers before have from their own special knowledge made many telling points. Mrs. Saarinen gave you the essential details of how certain types of cultural exchanges operate in practice and acute psychological observations on the countries she has recently visited. And Mr. Kennan, of course, speaking with his wide knowledge and his great understanding not only of this but also of other countries has stressed the one point which he as a native could stress, and which from me who am a guest here, would sound impertinent. But if you will grant me the privilege of speaking as one of you, I will make bold to say that the kind of activity over which this Council presides will not only be a means of self-enrichment but also a means of self-assessment. It will be a new experience for other countries but also for America itself, to submit itself and its art both in humility and in pride to the gaze of the world, and to open their hearts to the artists and the critics of other lands, which after all is the most creative and the most affectionate way in which human beings can seek to reach each other's minds. And thus there is a great deal in this country which could carry inspiration abroad, and I think you have the resources and the will to provide the same facilities for people from abroad for the same kind of understanding.

America has built everything that it has ever wanted to build. It has even built a few things it didn't want to build. But this activity will build something which many people in this country have inarticulately but sincerely longed for. I am sure that the inauguration of the International Council will give their longings a face and a form.

Mr. E. M. Forster, a teacher to whom I owe a great deal, in a recent letter said, "What is one to say about oneself? If one says one is an atheist, one is told that that's rather crude. If one says that one is agnostic, one is told that that's rather feeble. If one says that one is a liberal, one is told that cannot be because there are only Tories and Socialists. And if one says that one is a humanist, one is met with well-bred boredom. But humanism," he said, "is best." And I think that the International Council has a chance to bring out the essential humanism of America, which has stout enough moral roots for it to acquire beauty, vitality enough to acquire verve, and enough organizational zeal and competence to acquire effectiveness. And where America speaks for so much, the International Council, I hope, in this way will speak not only for the Americans but also for the family of man.