Friday, August 10, 2007

Vive la Différence

[posted by Callimachus]

François Clemenceau reviews De la Culture en Amérique by Frederic Martel, a book making some waves in France these days. "In France," Clemenceau writes, "Martel has pitched the equivalent of a bombshell into the cultural fishbowl ..." That "bombshell" probably is a scatological euphemism.

Essentially, the book shatters a taboo in up-ending the widespread French assumption that in America “culture” is reserved for a happy few (generally rich) cultivated people while the rest of the country has a steady diet of no culture or cartoonish low-brow pop culture. Martel contests this picture of what happens in America, painstakingly documenting a situation in which key living cultural experiences and values are fostered in the U.S. system to reach a vast public throughout a very culturally diverse nation. In cataloguing the myriad of ways that culture reaches audiences and rewards creators in the United States, Frédéric Martel, 40, a former French cultural attaché in Boston, carefully demonstrates how this American approach brings “culture” to a wide public, including marginal groups of the population who are often excluded from mainstream experience. And Martel constantly underscores how American culture flourishes without ever having to depend on government help and without ever becoming vulnerable to the vagaries and bureaucratic distortions of a state-administered system.

It's amazing what you European types can notice about us when you actually spend some time in the United States -- and I don't mean "New York City."

An unspoken message has been carefully planted by Martel in his work: that key features of the American approach would be easy for France to adopt in a way that made the French system more adaptable and perhaps more sustainable.

Working with an eye to the idea of transplanting American techniques to France, Martel describes in detail – thanks to hundreds of interviews – the mainstays of the institutional landscape in the United States. Starting with the history of private patronage and endowments, Martel carefully catalogues public-private partnerships between museums and corporate sponsors. He describes how cultural policies in the United States are totally decentralized thanks to local cooperation between cities and private foundations. He dwells on the theme of how Americans learn about the arts, as performers and as public, from early childhood right through university, from institutions of learning that function on their own without any direction, from a single cultural arbiter laying down a monolithic vision from the top.

Which explains the de Tocqueville echo in the title. I'm not sure it would work, though. I don't want France to imitate America. I live among the Amish, and I rather like the idea of having parallel active responses to contemporary realities.