Paris frets over its backwater standing

By Catherine Field

One hundred years ago, Paris was the world's cultural colossus. Strolling along its boulevards, you stood a chance of bumping into Picasso, Rodin, Matisse, Proust, Debussy, Ravel or Monet.

You may have glimpsed the philosopher Henri Bergson, the actress Sarah Bernhardt or the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev.

In a cafe, you could have rubbed shoulders with Georges Braque, Jean Cocteau, Ezra Pound, Edith Wharton or Henry James - any of the scores of established or budding stars, French or foreign, who came to Paris to bathe in its magic.

Today, to France's worry, Paris is no longer the place to be. To the rest of the world, the city - for all its beauty - has become a backwater in many cultural areas. Its temples to the arts - the Pompidou Centre, the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay, the Opera, the Comedie Francaise and so on - are indeed filled.

But the worshippers these days are consumers, not creators. They are mainly foreign tourists who come to see the eternal Mona Lisa, post-modern American artists, the French Impressionists and Moliere. The city chemistry that produced rawness, dynamism, change and challenge seems absent.

"Paris, and France, are definitely having an identity crisis," says Christophe Boicos, a gallery owner and art professor for several American universities.

"They have been living off their 19th- and 20th-century heritage for a long time. At the opening of the 21st century, they need to redefine themselves."

Artists looking for the buzz go to London or Berlin, or further afield to New York, rather than Paris, says German art historian Wilfried Rogasch. "Paris is in stagnation. Talented people from around the world go to Paris. But they don't go there for stimulation, they go to see Paris."

Auction houses in Paris account for only 8 per cent of all public sales of contemporary art, says Alain Quemin, a professor of the sociology of art at the Institut Universitaire de France.

According to the German magazine Capital, the top 10 of the world's most widely exposed artists has four Germans but no one from France.

In the 1950s and 60s, the Paris literary scene dazzled the world with writers and philosophers of the calibre of Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus.

France still turns out hundreds of novels each year, but few are chosen for translation abroad. With the exception of Yasmina Reza, those French authors who are known outside France, such as Michel Houellebecq, are big on melancholy and cynicism, and this does not travel well.

In visual arts, Quemin laments how French contemporary artists have slid down the world league since the 1950s, when Paris was the centre of the world. He ranks New York as the top dog in this field, followed by Berlin and London.

"Who could have believed that one day, only one living French artist would be visible at the MoMA [Museum of Modern Art] in New York _ Jacques Villegle, who is more than 80 years old today? And that only two would be on display in the most important contemporary art institution in London, the Tate Modern?" asks Quemin.

French commentator and author Anne-Elisabeth Moutet reels off the areas where Paris is a second string. "For theatre, London is the place. In terms of opera, it is Covent Garden, and Berlin has much more opera than Paris. As for literature, nothing terribly interesting has been printed in French fiction for decades. I haven't read anything contemporary for years that gives me pleasure."

The mediocrity of French novels, says Moutet, results from "the dead hand of uniformity, of conformism" and a preening elite.

"It's easy to get published in Paris. We have a class who say nice things about one another, and we have a deeply corrupt literary prize system where major publishing houses give prizes to writers of those publishing houses. They accept mediocre stuff, so people keep getting published."

French cinema, which produces around 200 movies a year, can claim to have European leadership, though. Some French films have been worldwide hits, such as this year's Oscar-winning La Mome, Amelie Poulain, A Very Long Engagement and The Fifth Element. Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil and Emmanuelle Beart have joined internationally recognised evergreens such as Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu.

Other bright spots are in architecture, where Paris has world-famous names such as Jean Nouvel, who was awarded a Pritzker Prize, the Nobel of the profession.

The city remains in the lead in choreography and contemporary dance and, of course, in fashion and food, if these are accepted as arts.

The notion of decline is not new to France, but when the question is about culture, it touches a deep nerve. In November, there was anguished debate when the American magazine Time published in its European edition an essay entitled "The Death of French Culture".

It said France had produced nothing of note since the 60s, the era of the New Wave cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, and the nouveau roman (the new novel), led by Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Defenders of France's arts arose defiantly to rebut the piece, but many of the points hit home, prompting a search for deficiencies.

Some have pointed the finger at France's stilted education system. Others accuse the white bobos (bourgeois bohemians) of Paris of being an enclosed tribe, blinkered to the potential of young immigrants.

Then there are the critics of the lavish art subsidies, which at 1.5 per cent of GDP are more than twice those of Germany's and triple that of Britain's. These handouts encourage artists to be co-opted by the system, rather than rebel against it, and anchor them to an easy life in the home market rather than prompt them to seek success abroad, they argue.

Rogasch points to a protectionist reflex. Paris' top culture houses and cultural bureaucracy recruit among French ranks.

London and Berlin do not have such complexes, and the arrival of a top foreign conductor or museum or gallery director creates a cosmopolitan feel to those cities.

It also creates a benchmark of excellence, drawing in other talented people from around the world who want to work with the star.

"You can't get a museum curator in France other than a French one. There would be an outcry if there was a foreigner running the Louvre," said Rogasch.

He points out that back in 1998 the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin sought to hire Britain's Neil MacGregor, one of the world's top historians on Prussia, to run its museum (MacGregor was eventually lured to the British Museum).

A less visible issue is property. Berlin has a wealth of old factories and Communist-era buildings, which comprise a vital ingredient to its on-the-edge feel and provide cheap, convertible studios for artists and galleries.

Housing in Berlin is cheap, and it was also the case in London, which drew on its stock of decaying Victorian terrace homes and docklands warehouses to boost its status as a cultural hub in the 1990s.

Cheap property makes it a lot easier for poor artists to live in a city, enabling them to mix with others and swap ideas. In Paris, though, the city has so gentrified that even a tiny flat can be too costly for struggling talent.

Critics of the "decline" theory say French culture is being judged by shallow stereotypes. Writing in the left-leaning Nouvel Observateur, commentator Didier Jacob said the American view of France could be boiled down to a simple mathematical formula: "De Gaulle + Sartre + the baguette + Sophie Marceau's breasts = French culture. Whereas, as we all know, it is infinitely richer."

Defenders of France's subsidy system say the support helps protect and nurture French art at home, rather than let it be swamped by Americana, enabling a varied cultural scene. "This contested quality apparently makes it difficult to 'package' the art scene into an easily marketed `school' or movement," said Olga Smith, a specialist on French art at Cambridge University.

"With less pressure to offer a 'brand' of art ... in France, there seems to be scope and [financial] freedom for greater experimentation."

Smith picks on pop art that placed London in the centre of the world artistic stage in the 1990s as an example of a media-savvy "marketing phenomenon".

"Young British Artists" such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin shocked with works such as a shark in formaldehyde and a tent surrounded by rubbish. At an exhibition at the Tate Britain in London, lone runners hurtle through the gallery every 30 seconds as part of an art work on physicality.

Christophe Boicos agrees that the fashion for pop-art extremes and kitsch casts Paris in a dull light, but argues that it is useful for the world to have an arena that eschews trendiness.

"I think France still remains a rich cultural source, also in some ways an alternative to Anglo-American culture that might develop or flourish in a different way. It won't adapt as London or New York does, it will resist that, but it may do things differently."

Boicos also says the methods used for gauging cultural success are doomed to change. In Europe, the notion of a national culture is fading, with national borders. And the rise of the internet is enabling artists to collaborate in ways no one even suspected a decade ago.

- NZ Herald

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