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A Constructive Take on the U.S.-French “Culture Wars”     Print Email
François Clemenceau

De la Culture en Amérique
By Frederic Martel
Editions Gallimard, 2006, 613 pages

Reviewed by François Clemenceau

This book has become a highly topical must-read among cognoscenti of the French-American relationship, especially anyone who pays attention to the special dimension of “cultural politics” in which the U.S. free-market approach contrasts with France’s tradition of state-run arts and culture. At a time of generational transition in France, Martel’s excursion on American culture with a view to influencing France – his title “On Culture in America” harkens back to Tocqueville’s “On Democracy in America”– has been respectfully noticed in American circles. The reception was more wary in France, where it has triggered a mixture of admiration for the author’s reporting and some controversy about the author’s message.

 

In his book – and it’s a big one in every sense – Martel has done the equivalent of heaving a boulder into the pond of cultural affairs; the waves seem bound to ripple on, quietly for the moment but perhaps with a bigger splash as events play out. Initially, the reaction has been respectful of his work and guarded about its implications. But the questions and pressure for reforms raised in Martel’s book seem likely to gain traction under the new government of President Nicolas Sarkozy and perhaps even trigger some re-examination of French cultural dogmas among the Socialist-left.

 

Essentially, the book shatters a taboo in up-ending the widespread French assumption that in America “culture” is reserved for a happy few (generally rich) cultivated people while the rest of the country has a steady diet of no culture or cartoonish low-brow pop culture. Martel contests this picture of what happens in America, painstakingly documenting a situation in which key living cultural experiences and values are fostered in the U.S. system to reach a vast public throughout a very culturally diverse nation. In cataloguing the myriad of ways that culture reaches audiences and rewards creators in the United States, Frédéric Martel, 40, a former French cultural attaché in Boston, carefully demonstrates how this American approach brings “culture” to a wide public, including marginal groups of the population who are often excluded from mainstream experience. And Martel constantly underscores how American culture flourishes without ever having to depend on government help and without ever becoming vulnerable to the vagaries and bureaucratic distortions of a state-administered system.

An unspoken message has been carefully planted by Martel in his work: that key features of the American approach would be easy for France to adopt in a way that made the French system more adaptable and perhaps more sustainable.

Working with an eye to the idea of transplanting American techniques to France, Martel describes in detail – thanks to hundreds of interviews – the mainstays of the institutional landscape in the United States. Starting with the history of private patronage and endowments, Martel carefully catalogues public-private partnerships between museums and corporate sponsors. He describes how cultural policies in the United States are totally decentralized thanks to local cooperation between cities and private foundations. He dwells on the theme of how Americans learn about the arts, as performers and as public, from early childhood right through university, from institutions of learning that function on their own without any direction, from a single cultural arbiter laying down a monolithic vision from the top.

The book has been widely praised for making his case with factual reporting that was conspicuously free of polemics on a hot-button issue. As the cultural critic of the New York Times, Alan Riding (who is based in Paris), wrote in his review: “what really intrigues Mr. Martel is how American culture flourishes despite the indifference or hostility of major government institutions.” Martel demonstrates, Riding wrote, that in the United States, “if the Culture Ministry is nowhere to be found, cultural life is everywhere.”

In an interview with Riding, Martel, who first visited America to promote his earlier book about the exclusion practiced against homosexuals in France, provided his take on another hot-button issue: multiculturalism. “Americans defend cultural diversity at home and deny it abroad,” he said, “while France defends cultural diversity around the world and refuses it at home.” For Martel, this approach helps explain why minorities often seem better integrated in the United States, where they can pursue their own cultural roots, than in France, where they are expected to conform to the centralized model.

With this vision, it is not surprising that Martel has emerged since his return to France as one of the left-wing intellectuals who has most radically challenged the core values of his political family on the issue of cultural policy. It has been an article of faith among the French left (and often among the right, too) that America pursues a Hollywood-driven “cultural imperialism” that is the international reflection of the “cultural vacuum” that many people associate with Middle America. It is a rarely-challenged assumption that the American “cultural industry” cannot produce works of high quality because of the pressures to generate profits in a mass market.

While Martel’s book challenges these stereotypes, he studiously shuns any direct comparisons between the United States and France and does not even provide funding figures to contrast subsidized cultural investments and spending in France with the flow of money into cultural programs in the United States. As the reviewer in Le Monde newspaper confirmed, “the author avoids head-on confrontation” in a book that is clearly intended to let readers and policy-makers draw their own conclusions. Like Tocqueville, the author is describing a foreign model – and describing it well – for the purpose of jogging people in France to think about what might be emulated and what should be cut. Given his purpose of influencing opinion in France, it is logical that this thick tome has not been published in English, at least not for the time being.

In France, Martel has pitched the equivalent of a bombshell into the cultural fishbowl in Paris and the provinces and started a debate that seems certain to continue in the new situation of a conservative government, self-described as modernizing, and the Socialist-left opposition militants who will look for issues and rear-guard battles to fight as a way of maintaining morale in their ranks. Publicly, the initial reactions have actually been guarded. Leading left-leaning media of the cultural establishment, such as Le Monde newspaper and the weekly Nouvel Observateur, both gave extensive coverage to the main themes in the book, and Martel himself used his website (www.fredericmartel.com), which is produced in English as well as in French, as a platform for launching reform ideas during the presidential election in France on the theme of how to jolt France out of its history of using culture as a form of centralized control to protect the status of the French elite. Many of Martel’s suggestions come directly from his investigations on the ground in the course of doing research for his book: as he explains the merits and success on the American scene of institutions such as endowments and goals such as “outreach” to the excluded, Martel is palpably frustrated – and even jealous – about the difficulties of getting France to change some of its own practices faster.

He ought to be encouraged by the choice of France’s new minister of culture – Christine Aubanel, whose previous functions included a stint at the head of Versailles, the great château, where she led efforts to forge a more dynamic public-private partnership to support this crown jewel in France’s cultural patrimony. Her approach helped consolidate the loyalty of American patrons whose funding has played a crucial role over the years in safeguarding the heirlooms in the Old World (including “Old Europe!”) and adding to their luster for new generations to appreciate.

Passionate as he is about the need for change, Martel does not go in for denigrating the value of France’s achievements in promoting its national culture. In interviews about his book (particularly in American media), he consistently takes the view that France can be rightly proud of what it has done to enhance and promote its cultural legacy and to work at ensuring access to French culture for the widest possible cross-section of the population. At the same time, he constantly stresses his conviction that France needs to “privatize” its state-run system of high culture. What France must do, he says, is shake up the establishment of gate-keepers in the present system of cultural promotion and broaden the representation in the cultural bureaucracy (including those running regional and local programs) to be more inclusive and bring in more voices from ethnic minorities and other social categories that today are out of contact with France’s tradition of culture.

François Clemenceau is the Washington-based correspondent of Europe 1, the French radio network.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 2-3 in the Summer/Fall of 2007.