Oui are most amused

The Politics of Fun
March 22, 1996

At a time when visitors to galleries and museums outnumber the attendance at football matches by 300 per cent and a minister of "fun" has at last been given cabinet status in England, any discussion of government policy towards the arts is extremely timely. But the account in this book of "state intervention in the cultural sphere" in France has a fascination and significance far beyond the merely timely. The lucid play of ideas and the brilliantly staged achievements, when compared with the parallel saga in Britain, make for a tale of two opposed cultures.

In 1964 the theme of the Milan Triennale design exhibition was "the use of leisure". During the jury's discussion of the design awards, the French delegate announced, as a self-evident truth, la civilisation - c'est la France. After a brief diplomatic silence, discussion recommenced. However, from a reading of this book it is now clear that on that occasion, we were hearing not so much a piece of wisdom that the Frenchman had learnt at his mother's knee as a well-rehearsed piece of action culturelle rehearsed at the feet of Andre Malraux, whose ministry of culture had been set up by General de Gaulle in 1959 as an act of resistance against the corruption of franglais and the associated erosion of French Culture that it symbolised.

With the election of Mitterrand in 1981, and his appointment of the flamboyant Jack Lang to head the ministry, a new triumphalist note was sounded, the official viewpoint shifted violently to the left and a dynamic activism was unleashed. The presidential priorities were symbolically signalled on the day of investiture by Mitterrand's dramatically staged triumphal walk to the Pantheon. For Lang, action culturelle was revolutionary; "we are committed to changing life - not just doing better than our predecessors but doing something utterly different". The ministry's budget for the arts was doubled, the spending on municipal libraries was multiplied by 12, and funds for the acquisition of new works of art were increased by 185 per cent. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive..."

But first let us rehearse a little of the theory that underlies the whole story. It was the brainchild of Malraux, mythical figure of the left, but friend of de Gaulle and much given to the same sort of rhetoric fervent des hautes destinees and committed, above all, to bear witness to the grandeur of French culture. He established three lines of attack and these have formed the theoretical basis upon which successive ministers and presidents have erected their own priorities or monuments.

First le patrimoine - the restoration and promotion of the national heritage. This extended beyond the familiar cleaning of the monuments to the safeguarding of whole conservation areas.

Second, the "democratisation" of culture. On this loaded subject theory ran wild. Malraux, who believed that great art could produce instant revelation to all and sundry, was in favour of taking art to the people, - "put a peasant in front of a Miro" or a Delacroix or Chartres. Lang required something more muscular (les animateurs) to get the masses off the TV couch (participation). But then theory became cloudy with debate around the differences between culturel, socio-culturel and tout-culturel, as if the hallowed days of May 1968 still prevailed. However, in physical terms, Malraux's programme did lead to the establishment in the provinces of maisons de la culture as bases for cultural action. Torn between the desire to raise the level of general awareness to the heights of "high culture", and simultaneously to embrace all forms of popular amusement, Lang became trapped in devious ploys. One is reminded of the General's (only?) joke: "How can you run a country that has produced 357 cheeses?"

But conviction was on the wane already. As early as 1983 the intellectuals had begun to drift away. In the running debate the silence of Foucault, Sollers, Levy and Glucksmann was deafening; and we read that by the end of the 1980s the enterprise had become so fascinated by image, enterprise and spectacle that it had lost sight of its social mission and was replaced by the slick glossary of marketing and le look (what would the General have said?).

The third goal was "creation" - aiding artistic innovation. Whatever degree of "creativity" may have been conjured up by les animateurs, the main thrust in this field of activity was with the grands projets. Pompidou started the venture at Beaubourg and gave the whole exercise its special imprimatur of being the personal will of the president (le fait du prince). Giscard followed with the Gare d'Orsay, the Science Museum, the Arche de la Defense and the Arab Institute. Mitterrand's monuments were the most dramatically staged (the Louvre Pyramide, the Opera-Bastille and the Bibliotheque de France but they were also the most contentious in terms of their proclaimed action culturelle.

This is, perhaps, best exemplified by the controversy aroused by the library's programme of contents. The forces of heritage and of democratisation were at loggerheads. The scholars, horrified at the concept of culture as a spectacle (those Beaubourg-like escalators) accused Lang of creating a Disneylang. But cooler heads prevailed. Based on the findings of fifteen review committees, a simple stratification of the two realms was adopted, with the facilities for the general public above and the rare book collections for scholars below.

What is, nevertheless, to be applauded in all these ventures is the unstoppable resolution to see the project through to its full completion. This red-blooded approach was accompanied, understandably, by some derision at the British practice of pulling up any new plant by the roots every 18 months to see if it is still living. But perhaps the difference between the French and British cultural convictions is most eloquently symbolised by the expulsion of the ministry of finance from the Louvre wing to make way for more galleries - and making it pay for the honour. (Try that on the Treasury!)

The book's text matches up well to a fascinating and highly topical subject and the author has covered his ground in considerable depth, providing an important source book covering the furious debate and the energetic activity that it promoted. Because of his thoroughness and the ghastly French predilection for acronyms (he lists 68 but uses even more), he gets a bit stodgy here and there. He has also been ill served by his publishers in le look of the book. If ever a book needed to be stylish - elegant layout, brilliant images (from the Pyramid to the famous pink jacket of Jack Lang) - this was it. Four grey and almost unintelligible images and a laminated cover looking like a cookery book with plastic protection against chicken fat, are not good enough.

But, for one who has, since the first British Library stirrings in 1962, trudged as if knee-deep in treacle through the equivalent British saga, this book has provided considerable enlightenment and occasional moments of righteous envy.

Colin St John Wilson is architect of the British Library, St Pancras.

The Politics of Fun: Cultural Policy and Debate in Contemporary France

Author - David L. Looseley
ISBN - 1 85973 013 2
Publisher - Berg
Price - £34.95
Pages - 9

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