December 9th, 2007


Time magazine declares French culture dead

Something is happening in France but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr Jones? To the right is the crappy picture Time magazine saw fit to print with their November 21st article The Death of French Culture. Yes, that is a Frenchman with a beret, goatee and easel getting run down midway through painting "The Death of Marat" by a pink 1960s Cadillac marked "Hollywood". And yes, the binaries in the illustration are crashingly clichéd and massively outdated: here we have Europe versus America, with Europe representing moribundity and America vitality. Here's the "new" medium of cinema running down the old medium of painting, and here's brash commercial culture sweeping aside stuffy 19th century salon academicism.

Veteran Time reporter Don Morrison begins his article with a completely ridiculous question. "Quick," the old man asks his American audience, "name a French pop star who isn't Johnny Hallyday". Wow, haven't heard that name in a while! Okay, let's play. How about Daft Punk, Time magazine? You could have started an admittedly totally different article by talking about how the best new Anglosphere bands (MGMT, Klaxons, Hot Chip) are only now getting round to making the kind of harder, better, faster, stronger sounds the Parisian duo -- along with peers like Phoenix and Cassius -- set the basic template for ten years ago. But that's not your agenda, is it?

Let's hear Morrison lay out his thesis -- an argument stinging and polemical enough to have warranted three pages of indignant ripostes in Le Figaro last week. "Once admired for the dominating excellence of its writers, artists and musicians," he writes, "France today is a wilting power in the global cultural marketplace. Only a handful of the season's new novels will find a publisher outside France. Fewer than a dozen make it to the U.S. in a typical year... Only about 1 in 5 French films gets exported to the U.S."

Now wait just one cottonpicking moment! Let's put that the other way around, shall we? The French film industry produces 200 titles a year (compared with only about 120 in the UK). It's a picture of vigour. So the US only manages to distribute five of them. The French publishing industry produced 727 novels last year. Americans got to read fewer than 12 of them. Describing this as a failure of France is back-to-front. Surely it's the American culture industry which isn't exactly in the pink of health? 30% of all fiction sold in France is translated from English, but 0.0000001% of books sold in America originated in France. Someone isn't a good listener, and it's not the French.

One major problem with Time's analysis of the French cultural scene is that it confuses "relevance" with "recognition in America". Calling this a French problem is like telling the world it mumbles when you're deaf. Another is Time's right wing political stance. Basically, Morrison wants badly to prove that cultural protectionism, exceptionalism and subsidy don't work. "The French government spends 1.5% of GDP supporting a wide array of cultural and recreational activities (vs. only 0.7% for Germany, 0.5% for the U.K. and 0.3% for the U.S.)," the article tells us. "The government provides special tax breaks for freelance workers in the performing arts. Painters and sculptors [sic!] can get subsidized studio space." Time doesn't seem to approve of this, and sees it as all part of France's "decline" (pumping more money in, getting less American-pleasing art out). But subsidy is behind the success of all sorts of commercial French culture -- stuff like innovative recycling fashion label Andrea Crews, who work out of La Generale, the trendy, city-subsidised art factory that recently moved from central Paris out to Sevres.

Time wants the private sector more involved and cultural institutions given more autonomy. Time likes Sarkozy. "If the private sector got more involved and cultural institutions got more autonomy, France could undergo a major artistic revival," the magazine preaches. "Sarkozy's appointment of Christine Albanel as Culture Minister looks like a vote for individual initiative: as director of Versailles, she has cultivated private donations and partnerships with businesses." Groan! As Toog put it succinctly when Sarkozy was elected, "it looks like we just got a French version of an ideology even the Anglo-Saxon world is already sick of". "The Louvre has gone one step further by effectively licensing its name to offshoots in Atlanta and Abu Dhabi." Oh for fuck's sake, is that what you call "progress", Mr Jones?

Mr Morrison, though, is a man with a mission. He wants to shrink down the state and set art free through free enterprise. He likes what Sarkozy is doing, but it's not enough; the old man from Time wants to climb into the French skull and change the way French people see, think and feel. "A more difficult task will be to change French thinking. Though it is perilous to generalize about 60 million people [be my guest, Time!], there is a strain in the national mind-set that distrusts commercial success. Opinion polls show that more young French aspire to government jobs than to careers in business. [The horror!] "Americans think that if artists are successful, they must be good," says Quemin. "We think that if they're successful, they're too commercial. Success is considered bad taste."

Time magazine knows that this is an error. And so it draws its judgements about the success of artists not from the art press, but from a magazine called Capital. "In an annual calculation by the German magazine Capital, the U.S. and Germany each have four of the world's 10 most widely exposed artists; France has none." Well, I was just at the Venice Biennale, where the Americans were represented by a dead Cuban and the French pavilion (Sophie Calle) was the most entertaining and universally appealing of all the national pavilions. But, while it does appear true that Paris isn't quite the world art capital it was in the 1940s (and we know it took CIA money to help New York claim its crown), French artists are doing very well just now. The most influential artist of the last century, in terms of what young artists of all nationalities are doing now, is undoubtedly Marcel Duchamp. Paris' contemporary art spaces, the Beaubourg, the Musee d'Art Moderne and the Palais de Tokyo, show a vigour, vitality and suss that make most American art institutions look senile. French artists like Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno pioneered what french curator Nicolas Bourriaud dubbed "relational aesthetics" before the turn of the century; it took until 2006 for American critic Jerry Saltz to explain to his readers in the Village Voice what it was and why it was everywhere. It also took until 2005 (seventeen years!) for the Anglo academic world -- still caught up in PC and post-structuralism -- to translate Alain Badiou's "Being and Event", a book that will no doubt be determining the academic orthodoxies of American humanities departments in about 2020.

Time thinks that national character -- some sort of innate stubbornness -- plays its part in holding France back. The nouvel roman is still making contemporary French literature "suffer" from "introspection", thinks Morrison, and "one of the few contemporary French writers widely published abroad, Michel Houellebecq, is known chiefly for misogyny, misanthropy and an obsession with sex". Gee, well, Time, it happens: isn't the man considered the most eminent living American novelist also the author of Portnoy's Compaint?

The fact that Time's illustration for this attack on France's culture shows an old American artform triumphing over an even older one (Hollywood running over a figurative painter) says it all really -- and of course there's no mention at all of the world of interactive media. American kids are playing video games from French companies like Vivendi, Ubisoft and Infogrames. Watch out, old Hollywood in your old gas-guzzling early 1960s American car! (Are there still American cars? There are still French ones. But they're dead if they don't sell in America, right?)

If Time wants commercial culture, France has it. A store like Colette managed to redefine what a store could be -- and there's still nothing like it in New York. A magazine like Purple changed the face of fashion coverage forever. Time calls France "a nation whose long quest for glory has honed a fine appreciation for the art of borrowing". If anything, the reality is the other way round: Paris is the lab, New York just copies, and sooner or later Madonna calls in a Frenchman to revive her flagging career.

It takes a lot for me to agree with pompous windbag Bernard Henri-Levy, but I think he nailed this article in yesterday's Guardian, calling the Time tirade "this bizarre text, which the more I think about it, seems less and less a survey of France and more and more a savage reflection of the state of American culture itself. Because what really strikes one is the nervousness of the tone. It is this desire to prove too much which inevitably, as Nietzsche said, exhausts truth. It is the whiff of anxiety and, perhaps, of anguish, which emerges from this article. As if it contains an ultimate message, but a secret one, and in code."

"Come on!" continues the usually effusively pro-American Levy, "Let's get to the point! My feeling is that this article would not speak of the decline of French culture if it did not also speak of the fate of all dominant cultures, which at one time or another are condemned to watch their dominance decline. This article speaks truly of America and of what will happen to it on that day when the increasing power of Spanish, Chinese, or perhaps other Asian languages ensure that Anglo-American will no longer be the language of the formula and of universal translation. France as metaphor for America. Anti-French hostility as a displaced form of panic which dare not speak its name. Classic."