The Curation of National Memory

2018-00-00 widgets.001Key concept: the gradual morphing of high culture into entertainment. To that could be added the descent of entertainment into gibberish — the fate of popular culture. Nowhere in the article on the reformation of the French Ministry of Culture that follows, is there any mention that theoretical science — natural philosophy — is also high culture and therefore to be preserved and transmitted; or that scientists and mathematicians such as Poincaré and Pasteur were as much intellectuals as, say, Sartre or Mallarmé. But that would be to return to the lost battles of the early ’60s, in which the novelist-scientist C. P. Snow endured the contempt of the Cambridge literary critic, F. R. Leavis, for his suggestion that ignorance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics was just that: ignorance.

Another key concept is that of the “curation of national memory”. How quaint this must sound to the modern European mind, pickled as it is in progressivist theorising and its louche festivals. Finally, the interviewed authors seem tacitly to approve of France’s first place in the global league-table of tourist destinations. Mass tourism has become a problem of hydraulics: how to pump an average of 35,000 “visitors” a day through Notre Dame de Paris without so many insolent boots destroying the fabric of history. Conversely, how to make available to the earnest student such treasures as those of the Louvre, without the risk of his being crushed. Mass tourism is the dynamic form of static multiculturalism, and numerically far the greater.

The Ministry of Culture Ought To Preserve and Transmit

First published 19th April 2017 in Le Figaro as:
Le ministére de la Culture devrait préserver et transmettre

By Eugénie Bastié

FIGAROVOX INTERVIEW : Emmanuel Pénicaut and Charles Personnaz have published Saving the rue de Valois? — fifteen propositions for reforming the Ministry of Culture by refocusing it on the defence of heritage and French national memory.

Emmanuel Pénicaut is chief curator of heritage, and Charles Personnaz is a civil administrator. They have published Sauver la rue de Valois? Relancer la politique culturelle (Saving the rue de Valois? Reviving cultural politics. Lemieux), fifteen propositions for reconstructing the Ministry of Culture.

FIGAROVOX | Created in 1959 by André Malraux, the Ministry of Culture has had 22 representatives. It seems as though we have gone from a “transcendent” vision of culture (the masterpieces) to the “entertainment” model (festivals). What is the major difference between Malraux’s original conception and what it has turned into? Can you put a date on the change?

Charles PERSONNAZ and Emmanuel PENICAUT | Both Jack Lang and André Malraux had a global, transcendental vision of Culture, and the will to extend it to all sections of society: Malraux’s “Centres for Youth and Culture” [Maisons des jeunes et de la Culture] show that he did not limit his vision to “rendering accessible the finest works of humanity”, and Jack Lang is also the minister responsible for the Journées du patrimoine¹. Lang explored and widened the path set by Malraux, securing much higher funding (the famous “doubling of the budget for Culture” in 1981), and benefiting from a Left-consensus that favoured a more social posture, including in the cultural domain.

“The crisis that has marked the cultural sector is due, not so much to one man in particular, but to the attitude of a generation hard hit by intellectual relativism and the crisis of Western values.”

The crisis that has marked the cultural sector is due, not so much to one man in particular, but to the attitude of a generation hard hit by intellectual relativism and the crisis of Western values. Publicly vaunting the place of France in global culture was still easy in the 1960s. It became taboo during the ’80s, and this state of mind has become entrenched in the mentality of those who take decisions affecting Culture.

We often harp on the wastage for which this Ministry is responsible, notably in relation to the subventions paid to the entertainment industry, and to their conditions of employment. Is the problem of the rue de Valois simply a question of funding? You argue for a restructuring of the Ministry. What form would that take?

Contrary to the well-oiled corporatist argument, the problem of the rue de Valois is not just a question of money. As Aurélie Filipetti² justly reminded us, the Ministry holds no monopoly on Culture. There was a culture in France before 1959, and the workings of culture, individual and collective, owe nothing to the Ministry for their existence. That’s why this Ministry is above all a Ministry for advocacy, a Ministry that hails loud and clear the idea of French culture, and of the culture in France. Refusing to do this is to restrict oneself to being just a cash-box for subsidies, which is what the Ministry has often become. Regarding the entertainment industry, even if it’s necessary to correct certain abuses, on the whole it’s a system that works.

Within this framework, we propose that the Ministry relinquish the sectors that are weighing it down — particularly by reflecting on the positioning of some cultural sectors (public audiovisual, digital, support for the Press), which could for example be picked up by the Ministry of the Economy, with the rue de Valois remaining guarantor of the cultural quality of the content — and on the other hand acquire some prerogatives that it presently lacks, notably a genuine right to influence French cultural policy overseas, responsibilities towards French-speaking countries abroad, as well as control of all state museums and archives. In the internal organisation of the Ministry, more responsibility should devolve upon the grand institutions of culture (the Louvre, the National Library of France, the Paris Opera, the Comédie Française, the Philharmonia,  the Centre for National Monuments) in order to increase their national and international influence, and reduce the number of agencies through coherent regrouping, that is, by merging institutions.

You emphasise that the two essential missions of the Ministry ought to be to “preserve” and “transmit”. In concrete terms, for this to happen, what are the necessary reforms? Are you saying that the state should drop the performing arts and the cultural industry in order to concentrate on heritage?

To “preserve” what constitutes our culture and to “transmit” it to future generations seem to us to be the Ministry’s two fundamental missions. In effect, the state should bear responsibility for the preservation of France’s very rich heritage, built and otherwise, for the training of heritage curators, and for the advanced teaching of the arts (music, dance, fine arts): these are the princely domains that require strong and sustained investment, and for which only the state can foot the bill. On the other hand, we believe that the role of the state is not to direct artistic creation, such supervision ending inexorably in suffocation. Since, as was affirmed by the final law on culture of François Hollande’s five-year term, “artistic creation is free” […], this freedom must be expressed in concrete terms. We believe that the best gift we can make to local communities – primarily communes and regions – is to leave them free to encourage and support the performing arts according to local preferences.

“To “preserve” what constitutes our culture and to “transmit” it to future generations seem to us to be the Ministry’s two fundamental missions.”

This is the acid test, faithful to locality, by which the creativity of the French will find a way to rediscover its energy. The experience of an over-subsidised world of the performing arts, composed of structures arbitrarily plonked onto the local scene, has exposed its limits. In forty years, no enquiry has been able to show that the “cultural democratisation” so vaunted by successive ministers, had progressed; and from another point of view, it is rare for a contemporary French artist to enjoy a following abroad: we must therefore acknowledge a partial failure of cultural policy as practised up to this day, illustrated notably by such structures as the FRAC³. Artistic creation does not arise from subventions, but more from the existence of a humus conducive to creativity. Today, it is the local communities and certain private individuals who have the ambition. They should be allowed to act: let us transfer responsibility and funding from the state to this sector.

Unlike the situation that was allowed to develop in the 1960s and ’70s, France is no longer a cultural desert, except in some residual aspects. Most towns are endowed with concert halls, libraries and theatres, and have no need for the state to develop programmes of quality. Forty years after decentralisation, it is time to take our conception of cultural policy to a new level.

In an earlier book, L’histoire de France ne passera pas! [The history of France is done for!], you detailed the background to an intellectual and political failure, that of the project Maison de l’histoire de France, launched by Nicolas Sarkozy, then abandoned in 2012 by François Hollande, who preferred to inaugurate a Museum of Immigration. In your opinion, ought the Ministry of Culture be charged with curating memory and forging a “national identity”?

It’s fashionable in the world of art and culture, as in the universities, to heap contempt on whatever might appear to defend or promote French identity. This French paradox is deeply embedded in their mentality, and has ended in a complete separation of the cultural responsibilities guaranteed by the rue de Valois as inheritor of the State Secretariat for Fine Arts from commemorative activities, which have been picked up by the Ministry of Defence. The result of this is, as it relates to Defence, a truncated memory that is limited to that of modern conflicts; and on the side of Culture, a refusal to treat culture and the arts from a single national perspective, which is automatically associated with a jingoistic and cramped outlook. It seems to us that to entrust the rue de Valois with the expression of the memory and history of the country, would help to reposition the Ministry at the heart of the state and nation, to enrich national commemorations by invoking the contribution of artists to the building of our country, and to take into account that other dimension of Culture, which is history.

“It’s fashionable in the world of art and culture, as in the universities, to heap contempt on whatever might appear to defend or promote French identity.”

Emmanuel Macron has maintained that “French culture doesn’t exist” Ought the role of the Ministry of Culture be to preserve French culture, or to promote art in general?

There is truly only one candidate at a French presidential election who would dare to utter such a proposition! There is a French culture, just as there is French history: they are what brought France into being. To affirm it is quite simply to recognise one’s identity, to know where one comes from in order to know better where one’s going. That this French culture is fed by numerous influences, and that it is marked by a wish for universality, is also obvious. The verb “to preserve” is not in opposition to the verb “to promote”: without the law on historic monuments, France would not be the world’s premier tourist destination. And to impose a quota for French songs on the air is one way to both preserve and encourage the treasure of musical creation. France has understood this at the European level, where the Ministry of Culture is very often quick to defend the “cultural exception” and related matters. It’s this sort of defence that permits the encouragement of creativity. It’s a pity that these successful efforts, recognised by all the EU partners, are not always in step with the Ministry’s actions inside the national territory.

¹Journées du patrimoine. National days of public access to state offices, monuments, and institutions.

²Aurélie Filipetti. Former socialist Minister of Culture.

³FRAC Fonds régionaux d’art contemporain. Regional collections of contemporary art.