L’Exception Culturelle Française

Being in Paris has been a reminder of how great it is to be in a very active theatre town, or perhaps I should say performance town. “Theatre town” is probably too limited a term, perhaps too American a term, for capturing the sense of enthusiasm and experimentation that someone like me feels upon encountering an artworld with public resources. In France, an ethic of support has propelled l’exception culturelle française, a domain of public financial support that has kept French cultural life (along with baguettes, fromage, and wine) relatively accessible and relatively innovative. Compared to the United States (where corn is the closest thing we have to a subsidized national product, though banks and automobiles periodically join that list), the artistic variety seems absolutely incredible.

But again, all is relative. Compared to Germany, France’s cultural subsidy is actually small—and, under the latest round of Sarkozysmes, will soon be smaller. It has been ironic in fact to be here, enjoying the fruits of a publicly-oriented world while watching the process of privatization chipping away at that world in so many ways. While I’m usually suspicious of any reference to high culture or to nationalist exceptionalisms, Sarkozy’s complete lack of interest in l’exception culturelle in favor of the unexceptional culture industry makes me acknowledge the happier effects of nationalized arts programs: “Don’t do it!” I feel like shouting. “Really, just look at how impossible it is to make anything artful in the United States unless you have the backing of Disney or Prada!”

Of course, me shouting would be completely insignificant, and there is in fact already an awful lot of shouting in France. The tradition of the protest—or manifestation—is a performance form that also seems importantly “French” and that many refuse to give up. This is something else that makes Paris a performance town, for manifestations happen constantly here, including ones that protest plans to cut unemployment benefits to artists (les intermittents du spectacle) and those that are reorganizing the French public television system into one that manages to be both privatized AND controlled by the republic (the latest provision has Sarkozy getting to appoint the director himself). Newspapers and protesters cannot decide whether Sarkozy is more like Putin, more like Berlusconi, or more like Napolean, but in any event, cultural life in France is in the process of changing. Meanwhile, the old manifestation protest persists but does not actually seem to do any good. Manifestations and strikes—les grèves–are planned by students or public school teachers or sans papier immigrants or train operators or culture workers with lots of warning, helping to make sure that they proceed as calm civic rights rather than as the more violent forms associated with 2006.

But the problem is that the civility of the rite means that no one feels terribly inconvenienced; the superficial aesthetic of the strike persists but its deep structures and infrastructural consequences —i.e. the cessation of work, the disruption of commerce, the absence of service— are not felt with the same intensity. Citizens come to expect the strikes and protests, planning ahead of time alternate metro routes or pathways on the street; the minister of education recently rolled his eyes at the “rituelle de novembre” of his teachers, using “ritual’s” association with the emptiness of habit and routine as itself a reason to disregard their claims. The other day, I saw ten large gendarme trucks making their way very, very slowly down Rue Monge, the site of our marchés and daily excursions. They were quiet and seemed deliberately staggered, never changing the distance between them as they moved down the street. I later realized that they were paving the way for a group of university students protesting the latest cuts to higher education, but I had thought it was a cortège.

I’ve also started writing about some of the individual shows that I’ve seen. I’ve dated the posts to when I actually went to the show. You can find all the theatre related posts by clicking here.

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