Is culture reduced to a time schedule ?

by Bernard Faivre d’Arcier, former director of the Festival d’Avignon and former director of Theater and Performances at the Ministry of Culture and Communication

Every ten years, the Ministry of Culture publishes an extensive statistical report entitled, “French cultural practices”. Last October, the research branch of the Ministry published its decadal report emphasizing that these statistics should be analyzed in light of the current “digital era” in which we find ourselves. Le Monde discussed this report in an article titled “The Internet alters French cultural decisions”. However, the article concluded on a judgment value directed toward the Ministry of Culture, affirming that the current state of cultural practices is a reflection of “an institutional failing, with overemphasis placed on the Beaux-Arts; the Ministry has fallen back onto a shrinking culture. Policies in the cultural sector have not succeeded in widening audiences, in redressing inequalities, and in responding to digital innovations”.

It is almost as if one declared that the editorial press had failed in its fundamental role of transmitting information. The democratization of newspaper readership has not been accomplished. In addition, newspapers have not adapted to new technologies. As such, it appears that eliminating the financial assistance to newspapers provided by the Ministry of Culture and Communication may be tangible. However, thankfully, no subscriber to Le Monde would accept such an outcome…

It is in this fashion that the interpretation of public intervention in the cultural sector as useless, inefficient, and archaic is slowly but surely being spread, including amongst reputable newspapers. In other words, Malraux’s dream conceived some fifty years ago with the establishment of the Ministry of Culture, has waned with time, leaving but expiring and bureaucratic cultural institutions that serve only a minority of aging consumers. It has been for some time that right wing ideology has spread the idea that cultural action is outdated. Even amongst the most highly placed State officials it is believed that the history of the Ministry of Culture resembles that of the “lost generation”.

Let us first note that it is paradoxical to assert that the Ministry has fallen back on a shrinking culture. On the contrary, more than twenty years ago, Jack Lang was reproached for having an overly ambitious vision of public intervention, which deliberately strayed from a Ministry of fine arts (Beaux-Arts) and turned to fashion, graffiti, rap, gastronomy. It is true that these past ten years, the Ministry of Culture has allowed local governments to take the reigns from a tired centralized government.

It is also true that these local governments are no longer the only players in French cultural policy. Cultural industries and new technologies have appeared more efficient in transmitting musical and audiovisual productions.

However, one cannot force interpretations of cultural democratization onto this study. The report only analyzes cultural consumptions; it simply concludes what we already suspected: the use of Internet diminishes television viewership; movie streaming is detrimental to movie theater attendance, which comes with a cost; music of all genres, save classical music, has spread to all ears. Nonetheless, keeping track of the time dedicated to craftwork, cooking, playing video games or knitting does not constitute a serious reflection on the state of cultural democratization. It is then described how French cultural practices are divided between “time budgets” and “financial budgets”. The content of these practices remains unknown.

Nevertheless, measuring the transmission of culture requires qualitative analyses rather than quantitative ones. If we speak of reading and readership, we must know specifically what we are studying. However, reports on consumption do not distinguish novel readership from poetry readership, from cookbook or arts and crafts readership. In a similar fashion, time spent surfing the net is not distinguished from time spent searching for documentaries, cultural tourism, YouTube videos, blogs, or even porn. If we wanted to measure cultural democratization, we would have to imagine an entirely different set of indicators that would take into account the structure of cultural service offerings, their availability across regions, the elasticity of demand with regard to price, the level of education, of family structures, etc. In no given circumstance is the quantitative analysis of cultural consumption can be considered a measure of democratization (is online video gaming a form of cultural consumption?).

It is the inherent failing of our consumer society to assimilate democracy to viewership. In this light, any practice that attains a certain targeted “viewership” is considered democratic. We know well that any TV series that does not reach a minimum viewership is systematically eliminated from diffusion. As such, we can bid adieu to literature, poetry, classical music, film and theater (that is not a stand-up comedian performance). This is how surveys have perverted the political thought process. We are no longer sensitive to Malraux’s discourse, but rather to the reasoning of a sales manager. That being said, the Minister of Culture has no place to play the role of a supermarket manager. To provide the Minister with quantitative goals, as do certain evaluation sheets introduced by the RGPP (General Revision of Public Policies), is to confuse the content with its container, the survey and votes, and to thus adopt deliberately a mass culture that is but a reflection of mass media.

Such reasoning is countered by art history and its teachings. If the goal was to measure the importance of art by evaluating the number of visitors of the first Impressionist exhibits; the importance of psychoanalysis by studying the number of Freud readers during his lifetime; the significance of theater based on the number of Beckett audience members in the 1950s; the significance of music based on the amplitude of applause at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées after the “Rite of Spring”; the cinematic and artistic legacy of Dreyer after his first film, the world would have bypassed art, and its cultural foundation would have been reduced to penny novels, vaudeville, and barrack-room comedies. It is essential to extricate the history of art from the debate regarding cultural democratization, particularly if such a study is solely concerned with its immediate results.

Going to the theater is not necessarily as easy as watching a soccer game on TV. It is a voluntary act that requires time, money, and energy. As such, how could we compare a theater outing to playing video games? The “cultural product” (despite this potential oxymoron) is not a typical consumer good; the European Union and UNESCO agree on this point. We can also recall that it is the French nation that allowed other States to establish such a relationship with art and the work of art. It is for this reason that we cannot analyze cultural practices as we would study consumption of comestible or domestic goods, for the former are irreducible in comparison. Such a misinterpretation is reminiscent of political leaders’ archaic impulse to post “shows” online to increase “viewership”, and thus respond to the nation’s need for cultural development. Doing so neglects the simple fact that you cannot add or subtract the number of viewers or the number of audience members, in which case we would no longer require performance venues. However, the dramatic emotions felt during a live performance cannot be reproduced on a screen. It is one thing to see a Pina Bausch piece on stage, it is another to watch its rendition on a screen, and it is yet another to compare a produced film to a porno or the televised transmission of an athletic event. In a similar fashion, such confusion would eliminate irrevocably such TV channels as ARTE, whose viewership does not exceed 2-3%, in favor of reality TV. Thankfully, History has unraveled in the opposite manner.

Who is capable of extracting the brilliant history of cultural action in our nation – which also prompts reflection on our cultural identity – in such surveys on cultural industries? Where are the fascinated gazes admiring the Royal de Luxe “Giants”, where are the long lines during the Day of Cultural Heritage, the hordes of Festival goers, the performance venues, the museums, the monuments that make of our nation a primary cultural destination? And most importantly, where are the French cultural and artistic influences, the history of Jean Vilar and Antoine Vitez, of André Malreaux and Jack Lang, of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan, of the Pompidou Centre and of Lille 2004? The balance sheets of cultural activities led by regions and the State must be completed, but curiously, no one is concerned with this.

[Read the full paper in french]

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