Sat, Dec 30, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Can France learn about culture from the US?

French author Frederic Martel's latest book explores US culture, but aims to spark a debate back home


Since World War II the French have been variously surprised, dismayed, irritated and outraged by the power of US culture and its effect on France and the world. Their only consolation has been the conviction that French culture is superior to anything that Walt Disney or Hollywood can offer.

What France's cultural elites have rarely done, however, is examine how both serious and pop culture actually work in the US. Rather, in the view of Frederic Martel, a Frenchman and author of a recently released book on the topic, they have preferred to hide behind "a certain ideological anti-Americanism."

Now Martel, 39, a former French cultural attache in Boston, has set out to change this. In Culture in America, a 622-page tome weighty with information, he challenges the conventional view here that French culture financed and organized by the government is entirely good and that US culture shaped by market forces is necessarily bad.

"My first idea was to compare France and the United States," he recalled, "but when I arrived in America, I realized things were much more complicated. The United States is a continent, and you can't compare a continent with a small country or a decentralized country with one that is highly centralized."

As a result this book deals only with creativity and arts financing in the US. But perhaps surprisingly, given the mixture of fear and disdain that US culture stirs among many French intellectuals, his approach is not polemical. He neither defends nor attacks the US. He simply describes the US way of cultural life.

"The idea is to see how a `counter-model' works," he explained over tea in a Paris hotel. "If the aim is to fight American cultural `imperialism,' we need to know it from the inside. If we want to modernize our own system, which needs new resources, it is useful to see how things can function without huge public investment."

The media's response to Culture in America suggests there is room for debate. One weekly, L'Express, said the book offered food for thought. Another, Le Nouvel Observateur, compared it favorably to Bernard-Henri Levy's recent overview, American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, noting that Martel provides facts rather than impressions.

Reviewing the book in Le Monde, Michel Guerrin and Emmanuel de Roux also said its strength lay in its emphasis on investigation over opinion. And another article in Le Monde took the US cultural statistics collected by Martel and compared them with similar figures for France. Its unexpected conclusion was that measured per capita the cultural infrastructures in the two countries were roughly similar.

The first half of Culture in America -- the title echoes Tocqueville's own Democracy in America -- is built around a question that puzzles some French: Why doesn't the US have a Culture Ministry?

One traditional answer is that culture ministries threaten artistic freedom. Yet Martel demonstrates that Washington does in fact have a record of cultural activism: through the Works Progress Administration, with its theater, writers and art projects, under president Franklin Roosevelt; through president John F. Kennedy's embracing of artists; and in the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965.

Martel then tracks the so-called culture wars, beginning with the cancelation of a Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington in 1989 over concerns about its explicit content, which led to Congressional campaigning against the National Endowment for the Arts. Even today the endowment's budget is far below mid-1980s levels and, at just under US$125 million for this year, is roughly what the French government gave the Paris National Opera this year.

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