France, endowed with the most subsidized cultural policy in the world and despite the announcement in September of a 2 billion euro stimulus plan however deemed insufficient, made at the end of the year choices of crisis management absurd for culture, by favoring other economic sectors. The sector has thus fallen into deep disarray, both economically and symbolically, destructively, and can no longer fulfill its function. Decryption of this disturbing debacle in the country of cultural exception.
Culture, largely forgotten by the government
First stage of this debacle: during the first confinement, from March to May, the cultivation sector is forgotten in speeches French officials while Netflix action soars on Wall Street and that the Steam video game platform exceeds 20 million players connected simultaneously, due to the dramatic increase in their traffic.
The physical cultural offer, which is based on real experience, had to lower the curtain: museums, monuments, libraries, theaters, concert halls, cinemas, bookstores, festivals, filming … Bitterness of actors in the sector that a recovery plan in May soothes relatively. Second stage: at the end of October, at the start of the second confinement, while announcing new aid, the executive makes a distinction between products that he decrees as essential or not on the basis of a logic that turns out to be problematic and unreadable.
The activities of the cultural sector are designated as non-priority, even futile. The closing of bookstores in November caused a scandal and hurt the whole sector. Third step: against all expectations, and while the actors have prepared to reopen with reinforced health protocols, all cultural places remain closed for the holidays.
The cultural sector, stricken and incredulous
This is too much, while businesses, transport and shops are places of mixing of populations exposed to the virus. Sector revolt who feels despised and manifested by many pleas since this announcement of December 10, already launched during the first confinement. The live performance challenges the closure of its rooms before the Council of State.
The president of the metropolis of Lyon wants reopen its museums. The opposition to the government supports this large-scale movement. Former ministers of culture speak out. Audiences are confused. A demonstration is organized on December 15 in the Bastille and elsewhere in France. Roselyne Bachelot, the current Minister of Culture who fought to defend the sector is no longer audible, “Better to be defended by the Minister of the Economy”, asserts Nathanaël Karmitz.
Several arguments are advanced: health, economic, symbolic. Theaters, cinemas, museums, libraries are undoubtedly the safest public places with well-established health protocols during the summer and convincing, hence their incomprehension.
In July 2020, the Studies Department of the Ministry of Culture announces a drop in activity ranging from 36% for museums to 72% for live shows, and undoubtedly much more today. Despite the strong level of public support for the sector, which makes France this cultural exception, budget deficits are significant and the most fragile players are suffering greatly: many small independent companies threatened with bankruptcy, closings of galleries, theaters, etc. companies, collectives, cinemas, festivals, end of intermittence for lack of contracts, artists and precarious workers, depressed art school students. In addition, visual communication without government consultation with this review clause of January 7 greatly hinders the strategic planning of cultural places.
Finally, the societal and symbolic argument is undoubtedly the strongest.
If “Culture is France”, then where is culture during this crisis? Its economic virtues (2.3% of GDP without counting its strong indirect impact on other creative industries such as tourism and luxury), but also its social, anthropological, psychological and philosophical benefits are strangely denied.
A reductionist view of consumption
The government’s perspective of an essential / non-essential goods dichotomy reveals a strong disconnect with the key factors of economic success and conceptualizations of post-modern “consumer societies”. The observation is disturbing for an executive who played from his youth of the “start-up nation” to signify his acculturation to the liberal codes inseparable from the commercial fact.
Baudrillard’s now classic work sure The consumer society has, however, warned for a long time about the reductionism of a purely economic reading of consumer goods. The interpretive turn at the international level in consumer behavior, and its sequel Consumer Culture Theory have deciphered consumption as the mirror of everyday life for decades. “To consume is to exist socially” wrote Baudrillard. And one Internet user noted with humor that “in any case, deconfinement is a commercial celebration”. It should be noted in passing that if the museums remain closed until further notice, a good number of museum shops are authorized to open …
Behind consumption, it is the identity construction of individuals that is at play, their social affiliation and many existential, critical and playful values from the perspective of Floch, beyond transactional or functional economic logic. Baudrillard thus insists on “sign consumption”, that is to say a system of complex interpretations which underlie it. In other words, the consumption and culture are linked. The consumer is also cultural. Culture is also an object of consumption.
The first confinement saw the consecration of the consumption of basic foodstuffs for a “homemade” pleasure diet but also of “home culture”, mainly benefiting the digital products of the American cultural industries, called global. Competition was already fierce between the physical and digital cultural offerings, even if the two modes of access to culture are often complementary. Crisis management is knocking out the physical offer, even with online distribution, but mainly free.
Conversely, the major platforms of the content industries offering a paid virtual offer have taken advantage of the crisis to develop their position on the market: Disney +, Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV, Ubisoft, Google Art, etc. -independent forms have also emerged. Methods of consuming culture have strengthened, such as streaming, big winner of the crisis.
Instead of drawing consequences, the government continues to apply an outdated reading of the hierarchy of needs of Maslow’s pyramid, which we know is insufficient, a criticism deemed admissible by the author, who added the need to transcendence or aesthetic.
Closing places of culture for such a long time amounts for the government to deem transcendence by aesthetics non-essential or to limit it to the most commercial forms of pop culture, even if the actors of non-profit culture try to avoid adapt by distributing their content online, but without an ad hoc business model.
The government is perfectly disconnected from both the way citizens navigate in so-called consumer societies aestheticized and how the offers are also designed, in post-modern and phenomenological design. Consumption in its complexity has itself become a cultural factor and the actors of culture are inseparable from the market system where they offer a form of existential reflection not found elsewhere. The extent of the revolt is measured by this blind spot of the government, missing this economy of beauty or aesthetic capitalism.
A poor cultural exception
If the cultural sector, in France, remains the most financially supported in the world by the State, including at the heart of this crisis, the crisis of meaning currently induced has led several actors in the sector to speak reversal of cultural exception. To devalue culture in the name of public health and the economy is absurd even though it is intertwined in the two fields.
This ill-inspired binarism between essential and non-essential goods as a lever for crisis management crystallizes problematic dichotomies: functionalism versus existentialism, through consumption which makes culture appear futile and dangerous and denies its strong social and economic value; dichotomy of body and mind in a vision of health which does not recognize the meaning of well-being defined by the WHO and the role played by culture in containing major psychological consequences.
And above all, what about the identity and cultural reputation of France as a marker of universality, republican cement and excellence? Other enlightened governments have made other choices in Europe. The indignation of many citizens in the face of this debacle, including those who do not go to museums, theaters, concerts or movies, shows how much culture is essential for exist together in France.
This op-ed was originally published on The Conversation.
See also on The HuffPost: The letter from Lucie, a 21-year-old student to Macron to reopen the universities