France ain’t ready for reform

Appropriately enough for Boxing Day, the NY Times today featured a review from its cultural Man in Europe, Alan Riding, on former French cultural attache Frédéric Martel’s combative new book “Culture in America.” Riding quotes Martel saying:

“What really annoys me is the way [the French] cultural elite uses ideology to protect its privileges. It says that our culture defines a certain idea of France, that the alternative is Americanization. But it’s really only defending itself against the popular classes. We cannot have 10 percent of our population stemming from immigration and deny them their culture….we don’t need a minister defining culture. We need thousands of people defining culture. Power should flow bottom-up, not top-down. That’s the debate I want to provoke in the new year.”

I agree with Martel that France’s contemporary scene has suffered radically from the sclerotic effects of its centralized museum system and the dominance of the Frac. And the people hurt most are probably French artists. If you stack up France vs Germany (or even Switzerland) on the international scene, it’s sad how few French “stars” transcend their country’s art scene. Not surprisingly, neither the hottest ConArt gallery in Paris, Emmanuel Perrotin, nor Kammel Mennour, his closest rival, shows a great many French artists (although Mennour’s rising star Adel Abdessemed is from the former French colony of Algeria and addresses France’s immigration issues head on, which must make Martel happy.)

But there’s a term for those “thousands of people defining culture” which Martel proposes: Serious collectors. Which, the last time I checked, were still sorely lacking in France – aside from Francois Pinault (whose collection resides in Venice), his rival Bernard Arnault, and whichever Belgians and suisse romands happen to be coming through Paris.

Martel says he’s expecting a furor in France over his book, and he’s probably right. But I fear that even if he wins his verbal debates, the French cultural elite’s inertia and arrogance make his notion a lost cause.

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