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France’s Ideological Anti-Americanism

December 27, 2006

The New York Times‘ Alan Riding recently reviewed a book by Frederic Martel, a Frenchman, that describes and analyzes the differences between France and America’s cultural scenes. Martel found “a certain ideological anti-Americanism” behind the work of post-World War II French critics. Here are some excerpts from Riding’s review:

– “The French have been variously surprised, dismayed, irritated and outraged by the power of American 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.”
– “In Culture in America, a 622-page tome weighty with information, [Frederic Martel] challenges the conventional view [in Paris] that (French) culture financed and organized by the government is entirely good and that (American) culture shaped by market forces is necessarily bad.”
– The “book deals only with creativity and arts financing in the United States. But perhaps surprisingly, given the mixture of fear and disdain that American culture stirs among many French intellectuals, [Martel’s] approach is not polemical. He neither defends nor attacks the United States; he simply describes the American way of culture. ‘The idea is to see how a ‘counter-model’ works. . . . 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 first half of [the book] . . . is built around a question that puzzles some French: Why doesn’t the United States have a Culture Ministry? One traditional answer is that culture ministries threaten artistic freedom. Yet Mr. 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 D. Roosevelt; through the Kennedy White House’s embrace of artists; and in the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965.”
– “Mr. Martel then tracks the so-called culture wars, beginning with the cancellation 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 $125 million for 2006, is roughly what the French government gave the Paris National Opera this year.”
– “What really intrigues Mr. Martel is how American culture flourishes despite the indifference or hostility of major government institutions. And that leads him to the crucial role played by nonprofit foundations, philanthropists, corporate sponsors, universities and community organizations, which in practice do receive indirect government support in the form of tax incentives. ‘If the Culture Ministry is nowhere to be found,’ he writes, ‘cultural life is everywhere.'”
– “Mr. Martel also sees inconsistencies — actually, he prefers the word hypocrisy — in the French position. ‘Americans defend cultural diversity at home and deny it abroad,’ he said, ‘while France defends cultural diversity around the world and refuses it at home.’ And it is here that he most wants France to learn from the United States. ‘What really annoys me is the way our cultural elite uses ideology to protect its privileges,’ he said. ‘It says that our culture defines a certain idea of France, that the alternative is Americanization. But it’s really only defending itself against the popular classes. We cannot have 10 percent of our population stemming from immigration and deny them their culture.'”

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This looks to be a fascinating book (apparently not yet available in the U.S.), and there’s more to the NYT review. Do check out the latter. – TL

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