Sunday, 13 January 2013

France should understand that there is a difference between culture and cultural heritage

Marseille, taken by me, probably whilst drinking a beer on a terrace in the Vieux Port
It would seem that the 'Marseille 2013' European Capital of Culture event and its organising committee are currently the object of bitter criticism. Not that anything could ever go smoothly in this volatile and cosmopolitan city of course.

The problem seems to be that in the run-up to the festival the city solicited proposals for cultural projects, some of which the city refused, and three refusals in particular have enraged those who submitted or supported them.

The first concerns Marseille native Marcel Petit, a famous ballet dancer, choreographer and founder of ther Marseille National Ballet who died in 2011 at the age of 87. A project in his honour was supported by Edmonde Charles-Roux, a member of the Resistance in World War Two, the daughter of a shipping magnate and the wife of Gaston Defferre, another member of the Resistance who went on to become Mayor of Marseille. He died in 1986.

Then there was the project elaborated by Marseille author and actor Philippe Caubère in honour of the poet and author André Saurès, another son of Marseille. He died in 1950. Caubère's project was also refused.

Lastly, photographer and historical photo-documentalist Antoine Agoudjian, a specialist on Armenia (he has Armenian origins) saw his idea for a project for the festival's Euro-Meditteranean workshops refused. He is bitterly angry at the decision.

I was of course sorry to read that these proposals had been refused - after all, nobody likes to see their proposals refused in any sphere of activity - but although the anger of those who worked so hard to develop their projects is understandable, I consider nevertheless that the festival committee made the right decision in each case, and here's why.

The European Capital of Culture's entry on Wikipedian sums up the event's raison d'être quite well;
Preparing a European Capital of Culture can be an opportunity for the city to generate considerable cultural, social and economic benefits and it can help foster urban regeneration, change the city's image and raise its visibility and profile on an international scale.
The key to that description is in the second half of the sentence, which puts the accent on the fact that the event can be a springboard to the future development of a city. This was put in more precise terms in a review of a 2011 book titled 'European Cultural Capital Report 3, edited by Robert Palmer, Greg Richars and Diane Dodd. The reviewer wrote that;
Bob Palmer looked back over the 25 years of ECOCs comparing it to a growing child which was conceived with a kiss between the late Greek Minister for Culture, Merlina Mercouri and French Minister of Culture, Jacques Lang. The analogy proved to give a good overview of how the ambitions and demands of the ECOC have changed over the years.
In summary, the first five years saw capital cities being awarded recognition for their importance as already established cultural capitals. Whereas from 1990, when Glasgow won the title, there was already the idea that the title could help create cultural cities - and thus the award became a torch for cities to hold for one year in recognition of their aims. Later in the proceedings, Bob Scott suggested that receiving the ECOC title was like earning a ‘scholarship’ in order to go forth and do great things.
And it is precisely that forward-looking approach which has allowed the event to survive, as it was in danger of being ossified at the beginning by its backwards-looking stance.

Nobody would deny respect to Marcel Petit, a man who introduced the word 'ballet' into the vocabulary and culture of the people of Marseille. But he died many years ago and his work is now a legacy. André Suarès was also a great man, and his books and poems were full to the brim of mature reflections upon grandeur, the quest for one's inner self and an insatiable interest for the wider and more pragmatic issues of this world. But again, he too is a part of France's proud past and although he too deserves a place in France's collective memory his work would have been out of place here. Photographer Antoine Agoudjian, at 51 years of age, is thankfully still of this world, but should he really be surprised that the committee of a modern-minded celebration of culture would prefer a younger phototographer - Kathryn Cook - who has a more contemporary and possibly more objective approach to historical events, to deal with Armenia, the history of which which she knows well?

France has always had a tendency to conflate culture and cultural heritage, and this episode demonstrates that very well. As do French university literature faculties, which are only now waking up to the fact that the old rule which meant that 'if an author is still alive he cannot be a great author' is no longer applicable. And it was also this tendency to hark back to past glories which resulted in France submitting a disastrously poor video to support its candidature for the 2012 Olympic Games. That video, full as it was of dusty and pompous references to past glories and images of fine old buildings, contained relatively few images of younger people. London's submission was much more contemporary on the other hand, it centred upon the vitality of Britain and the world's youth, and that is why the French video was largely believed to have put the Olympics committee off the idea of choosing France.

'Culture' is a fairly vague term which, in terms of countries, encompasses the globality of a country's "socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought", whereas "cultural heritage' is its legacy, a legacy of its past.

France's cultural heritage is incalculable in its scope, and it has inspired literally billions of people over the years and all over the world. But that does not give it an automatic right to sit down at the table of a modern celebration of culture today. There are times when highlighting cultural heritage is appropriate and there are times when it should make way for the modern world.

It is a real shame that the French approach to culture seems to consist of clinging onto the outdated notion that pride of place should be given to the past at the very moment when its current cultural output is getting so little support from French cultural authorities and so few opportunities to showcase itself in major events.

These events are all too often hijacked by dinosaurs of the past and their present defenders who barge noisily in and throw their airy and grandiloquent weight around in an attempt to hog the limelight at the expense of those young creators who also need their opportunity to shine.


  1. I hope some french people fluent in english can read your blog. Do you know, for example if there were criticisms in France (by french people) about the video that was submitted by "has been" France for the Olympics? Too often, I read articles of a France that has lost its glory. Oh, they can hold on to it, but it doesn't mean it still has it! Like in the US, the level of education is declining and we all know that the strength of its population comes from a solid education. It is a powerful weapon after all! Unless, education is not primordial as it is easier to manipulate an uneducated mass.
    (By the way, I rediscovered Charlie Chaplin. I loved "Modern time". He was brilliant and I didn't know he had been banned in the US. "Limelight was my favorite movie).

    1. "Do you know, for example if there were criticisms in France (by french people) about the video that was submitted by "has been" France for the Olympics?"

      Hi Nadege, and that's a very pertinent question, because I didn't discuss reaction to the video in France at the time in this entry. Perhaps I should have, so thanks, and I'll do it here.

      I might have given the impression that I was just 'French-bashing' as a foreigner (and, even worse a crime, an Englishman!) but there was a certain amount of acknowledgement by some of France's more enlightened modern-minded journalists and press commentators that the video was ridiculously pompous. In fact I even remember reading one headline which went something like 'France hands the Olympics to Britain on a golden platter.'

      The same goes for other aspects of life in France. Again, I might sometimes give the impression that I'm French-bashing but there are many French observers, writers, journalists and others who share my views on subjects which I have written about on this blog, which include political corruption, the outdated concept of 'laïcité', 'cumul des madats', the élites who run the country, the appallingly bad efforts to integrate immigrants and others.

      There are quite a few people here who recognise the fundamental and structural reasons for the problems France faces, but they are, for the moment, heavily outnumbered. Still, little by little......

      Oh and Chaplin! An absolute genius. He was one of the first ideological rebels of western cinema, which is why although I too love Limelight, Modern Time has to be my number one. I read once that he was one of Coluche's heros and even though Coluche was never going to be the next Chaplin it was easy to see why he thought that.

  2. I am checking your blog again as I am sending your link to a friend (American who lives in France).
    I don't think you are french bashing at all. In your postings and comments, I feel a bit of nostalgia for my old France that was welcoming to strangers, more open to new ideas... (if that was really the case because I am not so sure anymore). I see comments from english natives who now live in France or just have a second home in France and I just skip their comments or stopped reading their blogs because they are not very interesting nor clever and are "comparers". But you are different.
    I sent a Facebook private message to an American woman who lives in France. She wrote that she was tired of english people bashing France but there is an Englishman who never stops bashing the US. Charlie Chaplin would have a field day about all those finger pointing : "I am better than you, No I AM better". What do you think : sound or no sound? Should it be all about the finger or like in "the dictator" arguing in the hairdresser chair who goes higher and higher to the ceiling?
    I don't know if you know this but the Olympics were not a huge success in the US. I watched the first 5 mn and turned off. NBC is notorious for turning the Olympics into a soap opera... Only US champs were shown on TV
    apparently. If a category didn't have an american athlete, it was not shown at all.

    1. You don't know how much pleasure and support your comment just gave me. Thanks. I know there are a lot of 'Francophile' blogs on the Internet, and I visit them with pleasure. After all, I too like so much about this country and its people, and I too like a good recipe for a Boeuf Bourgignon. But I can't be like them, for better or for worse.

      My take is that I live here, and although I love this country I, just like French people have to pay (substantial in my case, as a single man with no children and a relatively high income and a self-employed fiscal regime)income and local taxes and I too am affected by government decisions and other direct influences on my life, so not only do I have the right to discuss them and, where necessary, criticise them, but I have the obligation to as a participating member of French society.

      I'm not asking for national voting rights (ridiculous idea) but just to lend my voice to a debate, a voice which finds many echoes in those of French people who, like myself, would like France to resolve the current moral, existential and real-world dilemmas which confront it...

      'Qui aime bien châtie bien'?

      As you quite rightly and eloquently ask, "What do you think : sound or no sound? Should it be all about the finger or like in "the dictator" arguing in the hairdresser chair who goes higher and higher to the ceiling?"

      Perfectly put.....

  3. I have been in the US since 1978 and I still have my french accent. When baby Bush was in power, I was so angry that I was very generous about my opinion against him. People thought I was anti-American, which is not the case at all but I was trying to make people see the horrible "sacrilege" committed : water boarding, invading a country (Iraq)... I took a lot of flak and few times walked with my tail between my legs. I was just trying to educate people but one cannot educate someone who doesn't want to be . Such is your case for France, trying to educate, participate, but people don't want to accept you or your ideas, your criticisms.
    Mon adresse a est lanadege
    Just didn't want to write it in full. It might be on my blog though.

    1. Hi Nadege, how's things? Yes, what you relate there is what all of us who live in other countries experience if we happen to be given to expressing opinions on current affairs. I was even told once "if you don't like France then you should go back to England." Ah, water off a duck's back. Rançon de la gloire?

  4. I enjoyed your post and the comments. You are totally correct about France and the French attitude, but it has been like that for years. I studied foreign cultures for my work and saw that culture moves at a glacial pace. It will take a long time for France to modernize their outlook – their thinking that the gloire that was France is enough to stop everyone in their tracks from now on.
    I have been living in the US for many years and have seen much of the same thing. They believe that their culture is the best in the world and it is not easy to show them that many mistakes have been made. Many believe that to criticize your country is to be unpatriotic. I believe that if you love your country you should know its weaknesses and try to correct them.

    1. Hi Vagabonde and I'm glad you enjoyed the read. It's true that France is slow to change its ways, but the one thing that persuades them to do so above all others is the M word - Money.

      Wine and gastronomy are just two of many French industries which, because of their past tendency to sit back on their laurels and wait for the orders and world awards to pour in, ended up in dire trouble because of foreign competition. They have realised the danger now and have had to change their ways. Both are marketed in a more aggressive and competitive manner these days, and major efforts are being made to improve quality, particularly that of wine, most of which, apart from the more expensive bottles and grands crus, was almost undrinkable 20 years ago.

      As the French often say themselves 'France does modernise itself, but it just does it 20 years after everyone else.'