Sunday, November 26, 2006

America's Vibrant Culture.

I was told as a joke once that “In America, you can only find culture in yogurt”. [an obviouspun on the definition of the word ‘culture’ which is also, asin French, "the cultivation of microorganisms" which is what yogurt is of course].

However stupid or funny this joke may be, it reflects what many Europeans think of American culture. Of course, that has to do with the type of culture America sometimes export – the cheap fast-food chain or the big Hollywood blockbuster.

This is a particularly sensitive subject in France, where the national identity is closely related to certain forms of local culture(s), hence the “exception culturel” which basically says that cultural products should be treated differently than other goods.
Usually, the
US is the boogeyman of those who defend their national cultures (which they oppose to the "MacDo culture", the icon of US imperialism). Of course, the international negotiations on free trade in which United States has always been against the concept of "cultural exception" does not help America’s image among the defenders of local cultures in Europe and in France.

However, there is a rich and vibrant culture in the US and it is a pity that very few people outside America are aware of it. A new book by a Frenchman, “De la culture en Amérique” (On culture in the USA) breaks the clichés of an uncultured America. I haven’t read the book yet and I have ordered it but his views seem quite polemical.

The author, Frédéric Martel, is a former cultural attaché at the French Embassy in Washington and used to be an advisor on cultural policy to former (socialist) Prime Minister Michel Rocard.

In an interview (here in French) he gave to L'hedbo, the magazine of the French socialist party, he said a few unconventional things. Strangely he begins his interview in a typical French fashion, by saying that he’s been studying the American system in order to "better fight American cultural imperialism while letting our own system evolve. But then he also says that the American system could inspire French politicians in many ways and he makes some more controversial if not shocking points. Here are some extracts (translated by Jerome-a-Paris on Euro Tribune):

There is not one single source of financing [of culture in the US], but multiple of both private and public sources, via tax deductions on donations. It ends up that there is as much public money per person as in France, and a lot more of private money. Contrary to what one might think, US culture is not under-financed.


We are completely ignorant about the cultural policies of this country. For instance, the USA has twice as many artists as France, proportionally.

In a recent article on this book, Le Monde gives a few more details:

There are 2 million American artists who are « professionals hired by private and non-profit organizations alike. There are three times as many artists as police forces, and their number continues to rise : 0.56 million in 1965, 1 million in 1980 and 1.6 in 1990.

However, as Le Monde notices, more American artists are also unemployed (as much as 35%) which means that most of them have a second job.

  • According to Martel, the key element is the decentralized organization of culture funding. Yet, I do not think that it’s even fair to compare, and I fail to see how decentralized public funding is necessarily better for France. It makes sense in a large country like the US but I’m not sure it is what is needed the most in Europe. Neither system guarantees a fair distribution of the public resources anyway.
  • His other point is that there is a lot more of private money, and for sure, there are loads of Philanthropic Foundations, pressure groups, universities, communities or private individuals in the US who, with the help of tax-breaks and subsidies, give huge sums of money to art. This is not the case in France because it is so foreign to the French traditional view of culture - funded by the King, then by the Republic.

However, things are beginning to change. The restoration of the Chateau de Versailles was, for instance, partly funded by private corporations (here in French). With tax-breaks and other incentives, the government may be able to incite the private sector to be more involved. But that will not compensate for public funding.

The French system may need to adapt but it probably needs to find its own way, in accordance with its "local culture".
(more on this book after I read it)

NOTE: if you ever get a chance to do to Washington D.C. you’ll have a first hand experience of a museum complex funded by the American government (but also by its endowment, contributions, and profits from its shops). And all those museums are FREE. You can choose to donate of course, but it’s essentially free.
A couple years ago, I had a chance to see an Arthur Miller play in
Minnesota and I had the opportunity to see how vibrant the local culture is in this somewhat provincial city. (see this site)


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