“Art at its apogee – Culture at its perigee ? : when the failure of cultural decentralization fuels the failure of cultural democratization”
by Claude Patriat, professor in Political Science at Université de Bourgogne
Claude Patriat, political science professor at the Université de Bourgogne, contends that the 21st century represents the zeitgeist of cultural diffusion and transmission. With the aid of marketing strategies, culture is widely produced and shared, across a variety of platforms and media. Given this creative boom, is culture not experiencing its apogee? Patriat defends that the current reality of cultural affairs is more shaded than it appears: culture is not at its apogee, but has instead reached its perigee – a term designating a celestial body’s smallest distance from the Earth. In essence, culture is not at its peak, but rather at its most rudimentary point. Patriat thus raises the following paradox: though the universal expansion of culture might indicate a high point for cultural practices and production, it is precisely this breadth that has impeded on the development of cultural depth.
Patriat defends that this paradox undermines the engrained French tradition of State intervention in cultural affairs, which is at the origin of a patriotically defended exception française, qualifying the unique nature of French arts and culture. State intervention in these matters, known as “cultural action”, has been an essential motor in transmitting culture to a larger and more diverse French population, thus fulfilling the fundamental tenet of cultural democratization. High culture (culture légitime, or culture cultivée) and culture for the masses interact through such endeavors led by public authorities. However, as culture becomes a widely diffused good, such political intervention is devalued.
Indeed, as culture transcends borders, the symbolic nature of a Nation’s territory and of a State’s support in cultural matters within this territory is bypassed. The French State has sought to justify its intervention by prioritizing the well being of its citizens for the sake of a unified Nation. This unity, institutionalized during the French Revolution, takes into account regional differences; French unity thus encompassed cultural diversity. That being said, as globalization and the construction of the European Union became pressing realities, local French territories began criticizing State intervention for fear of losing their regional particularities. France as a Nation is now referenced as a land of multiple “territories”.
The decentralization movement launched in the 1980s by the Defferre laws encouraged the emancipation of local territories (collectivités territoriales), also allowing for autonomous management and funding of artistic and cultural endeavors. Though the State initially welcomed this change, because it relieved regional dependence on centralized funds, the movement did not favor cultural democratization: culture made by everyone and everywhere, but not culture made for everyone. Cultural production and diversification grew favorably over the years, yet an external assessment of these actions cannot only rely on quantifiable data. Patriat argues that despite these efforts, mass cultural production undermines territorial diversity and ultimately leads to the “deterritorialization” of the State’s cultural action. He defends that the ample growth of cultural supply often occurs to the detriment of local populations’ demands. In essence, the more traction gained by the decentralization movement, the less cultivated culture and culture for the masses are put into effective dialogue. Cultural democratization is unfulfilled by cultural decentralization initiatives.
Patriat ends his presentation by outlining the five factors that he contends contribute to further distancing of the centralized French government from regional authorities. Firstly, Patriat attributes this divide to a poor distribution of tasks amongst regional, public authorities. Indeed, a dissonance exists between subsidies allotted to smaller and more local organizations (which foster the French republican spirit in regional municipalities) and those granted to larger projects and cultural institutions in provincial cities. The second factor he identifies is the consolidation of a long-standing rupture between cultural and socio-cultural endeavors, the latter considered the art of the people.
Patriat then outlines the third factor: he insists that more consequential funding for “cultivated culture” projects leads to a reorientation and perversion of cultural action endeavors in the public sector, progressively shifting away from a cultural policy agenda. Culture is used by public authorities as a stimulus for the economy rather than as a force for social cohesion. Consequentially, culture becomes depoliticized. This fourth explanation claims that culture is no longer a fundamentally social practice. Finally, Patriat asserts that culture and local territories are in less direct contact as the Internet becomes a screen between the two. The web fuels the deterritorialization movement and distorts the universal conception of culture: in the 21st century, culture is not what is common to all, but what can encompass all activities in a phagocytic manner. Cultural diversity specific to each French region is at stake, warns Patriat.
In this light, the decentralization movement seems to be a catalyst for the failure of sustainable cultural democratization initiatives. Patriat concludes: the conversation between the different symbolic territories covered by art and the tangible cultural specificity of each French territory remains sallow.