French vs. American Culture


From the always wonderful The Week magazine, a heartening summary of an argument made by French columnist Eric Le Boucher in Le Monde. (In The Week style, the internal quotes are from the original article that they are summarizing):

[The French] system, "which rests largely on public subsidizing of the arts and on massive unemployment insurance for artists," seemed intrinsically superior—even morally superior. Yet a new French study of the American culture industry says this caricature of the U.S. as McHollywood is way off the mark. The U.S. has 2 million people professionally employed as artists. Not only is that figure nearly three times the number employed as police in the U.S., but it's also proportionately much larger than the artist population in France. Even more surprising, to French sensibilities, is "the diversity of the American art scene." Spurred by competition and lacking the complacency that government funding imparts, American artists have created independent theaters, studios, writing workshops, and alternative dance groups, even in small towns. The result is not a cultural scene ruled by money but one that is "profoundly democratic."

For the full summary, see here and scroll down to the bottom. America's varied and vital art scene, both high and popular–one of many things to be thankful for this holiday weekend.

NEXT: Grabbed by the Purity Balls

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  1. Bullshit alert? Jello Biafra’s given name is Eric Boucher.

  2. Spurred by competition and lacking the complacency that government funding imparts, American artists have created independent theaters, studios, writing workshops, and alternative dance groups, even in small towns.

    Yes indeed, there is art outside Hollywood and New York City. I live in a small Texas town in a county of about 40,000 people, and we have three different live theater companies, not counting those at schools and the university.

  3. french cinema will never be equaled by us. first, they call movies “cinema,” which seems ever so intellectual. second, they have marguerite duras. third, they have absolutely perfected the two hour understated exploration of the innermost angst suffered by pretty 14 year olds who smoke.

    then there’s french rap music. because of their local content laws, it’s impossible to listen to french radio without being subjected to this. as lame as the idea of french rap might seem, the reality is far worse.

    then there’s french sculpture. my favorite is a huge statue of a paper clip along the highway leading into lyon. i wonder how much the french taxpayers got soaked for that one…

  4. News item: American culture is better than the French think it is, and is, in fact, better than French culture.

    In other news: Experts say oceans go up and down with the tide. Also, water is wet.

  5. Mad Max, your comment had me laughing to tears.

  6. French art must suck. Why else would the artists all be unemployed.

  7. Actually, societies where artists must produce popular art do produce more vibrant, stimulating, envelope-pushing and dynamic art. It’s essentially a fallout of artists having to earn a living instead of depending on a patron to subsidize them.

    I found the following lecture series from art historian Paul Cantor on the History of Culture (from an Economic Perspective) particularly illuminating. It also changed me into a more tolerant man when it comes to art.

    Just copy and and paste the following into a text file, save it with the extension ‘.m3u’ and open it with your favorite media player.

  8. I can’t speak for all French cinema, but the best movie that has come out in this century is French: Le Fabuleux destin d’Am?lie Poulain, aka Am?lie.

  9. that does not speak well for the movies of this century.

  10. I agree that the unsubsidized cinemas are definitely more vibrant cinemas–I mean, America, Hong Kong, and Japan all on average produce far more entertaining movies than the state-supported Euro cinemas. Then again the European cinemas have produced what are generally considered to be both important and influential films. Maybe the culture industry parallels the science industry in terms of there being a divide between for-profit science and state-subsidized science: there’s a divide between for-profit culture and state-subsidized culture, and they influence and feed off each other but they have different aims. If that makes any sense at all.

  11. And this is news how?

  12. The French are undone by their reputation. They had their moment. They gave us Escoffier and some great art. Post 19th century, it’s just a laid-back country that’s nice to visit.

  13. Justin Slotman,

    It makes sense. I guess some anecdotal evidence for that is Tarantino dedicating Resevoir Dogs” to Godard.

    The French system seems to allow for movies that couldn’t get made in the U.S. Which is why to my knowledge there has never been a movie produced in the U.S. like Est-ouest. Whether that makes the overall French film (getting into in the art scene in general would be an even thornier issue) better or worse than that in the U.S. well, seems rather subjective (based on the content of the art itself that is). Of course in per capita artist terms it does seem that the American way of doing things is better.

    On the diversity issue, this in many ways depends on how you define art, artists, etc. To be honest, there is a lot of local art done by amatuers and the like in France that the discussion above probably doesn’t include.

  14. There is an annoying irony about an artist who spends their days railing against society’s conformist squares, styles themselves an anarchist, and then goes and picks up their govt. handout of the square’s hard earned money at the end of the day.

  15. Those last two paragraphs were not supposed to be italicized. *shrug*

  16. Dave,

    Isn’t that one of the roles of government? To make us all hypocrites?

  17. Despite all this I still love Heavy Metal magazine. Moebius is the shiznit.

  18. Well I don’t know… but I tend to prefer for entertainment value french or mainland china movies compared to american movies….

    American movies tend for 80 % of them to always be the same old cliche movies with the same typical happy ending and scenario so that the mass can watch the movie without thinking or being disturbed (I did say 80% because some of the american movies out there are amazing)….

    In the french movie scene, the percentage of innovative work seem higher…. ( and a nice plus side is that movie theaters showing art movies from all over the world are cheap and easy to access)

    And don’t get me started on japanese movies, of course there are some amazing movies there and they get known outside of japan rightly so… But a lot of japanese movies are not really good…

    Now of course this is just a subjective point of view and I guess some people could have the complete opposite point of view and favour the american system….

    Now I wonder how a country could try to get the best of both worlds…..

  19. I’m always first in line to kick Frenchy when he’s down, but do Americans need yet another reason to feel smug?

  20. DavidS,

    Well, there is always something ironic in Americans complaining about the smugness of any other culture.

  21. At least it’s not government subsidized smugness.

  22. Well, it’s to be expected, isn’t it? Every Frenchman who’s worth a damn has already emigrated to the USA.

  23. Byronic,

    In many instances it is. Shit smugness is part of what is at the heart of the war in Iraq.


    I’ll have to find the original article and see if it mentions dozens of “squatter” art venues in Paris. I mean, I guess if you compare “official” French art with that in the U.S. the U.S. might be more diverse, but that doesn’t take into account all the underground, “squatter,” etc. art going on in France.

  24. At least it’s not government subsidized smugness.

    Uh, quite often it is. See, there’s this government giveaway program for artists here in the US called the National Endowment for the Arts, which in the past funded masterpieces such as Serrano’s Piss Christ and soft-core porn “performance artist” Annie Sprinkle.

    This LBJ-inspired program just survived 12 years of heartless Republican budget cuts intact and bigger than it was in 1994, so it looks like many of our “edgy counterculturalists” will continue to rail against conformity while cashing their fat government checks for the forseeable future.

  25. Alas, our concern with what the French think and this obssessive comparing of our “culture” with theirs smacks of a major inferiority complex. We should enjoy the benfits of our model (and suffer its defects) without evangelizing others and patting ourselves on the back about its merits and superiority. I’ve lived in France, and it’s a wonderful place with great art. So is the U.S. But the two cultures are profoundly different. Vive la difference!

  26. Speaking of government subsidies, Milton Friedman’s TV series “Free to Choose” appeared on PBS.

  27. Here’s a whole bunch of useless crap that the NEA funded in 2006. I’ll bet a lot of it was highly French-influenced.

    Just look at this nonsense, for example :

    Morehead State University
    Morehead, KY
    To support the touring exhibition Slow Time: The Works of Charley and Noah Kinney, with accompanying catalogue and education programs. The exhibition will examine the work of the late Kinney brothers, self-taught artists and musicians from Appalachia

    That sure doesn’t sound like “American artists have created independent theaters, studios, writing workshops, and alternative dance groups, even in small towns” to me. To the contrary, it fairly reeks of Camembert and mime sweat.

  28. When it comes to the arts, the French are history. Other than a blush of cinematic jinn in the 60’s, what have they offered to the world, post- World War Two? Subsidizing the arts is like subsidizing anything else . . . it makes everyone a taker, or in this case, an artist, and thus demeans and diminishes the brilliance of the individual genius that must, by necessity, flourish in a free realm.

  29. These conversations invariably turn into my country is better than yours displays, and tiresome claims about how the “old country” is in deep decline. I doubt any of us is qualified to make such broad claims.

  30. “These conversations invariably turn into my country is better than yours displays, and tiresome claims about how the “old country” is in deep decline. I doubt any of us is qualified to make such broad claims.”

    I agree, I also think the US is much better in this regard…

  31. Funny thing is: many right-wing political types who argue against subsidizing the arts have no such qualms about subsidizing agriculture and other pet projects. It’s easy to dump on the French; the Iowans and Kansans: not so easy.

  32. What’s weird is how people can view culture as a zero sum game; as if cool things that happen in Europe somehow hurt the U.S (or vice versa).

  33. ed

    I believe that is because France has zero electoral votes.

    But I’m a totally equal opportunity dumper. Got anyone you want dumped on?

  34. Its true. I was on tour with my band last month and we played with this french group in NY, And they gave us the low down on how the government subsidizes artists %100. My economically retarded band mates ate it up like gold. All I could think was, ‘god, your scene must suck’. Anyway, I know several people in Austin mutherfuckin Tejas who are doing well, from spoon to the Black Angels. Anyway, most of the best bands in this town you will never hear of cause the competition is so stiff, and thats what makes it good. Anyway, Im wasted, and I have a cobbler in the oven. A solid fuck off to all of you. I luv ya

  35. I have always suspected that Americans who are very hostile to French culture flunked French in high school. The big pushers of English only laws probably flunked Spanish. I’m pretty sure that many libertarians who despise the “nanny state” rely heavily on their parents for economic survival. Raging anti-gay fundamentalist preachers turn out to be gay. It’s a strange world.

  36. Also…damn, they’re calling me for turkey.

  37. Steveintheknow:

    The scenes where there is a lot of competition are always the shittiest scenes. Don’t get me wrong, Austin was great, but jeez, that was 10 years ago. Still hanging on to the past glories of SXSW? NYC (my scene) is just gross.

    What do you get when there is too much competition? Lots of jumping on bandwagons. My advice? Subsidize your own art.

  38. When it comes to the arts, the French are history. Other than a blush of cinematic jinn in the 60’s, what have they offered to the world, post- World War Two?

    Truffaut and Godard, right off the top of my head.

  39. “When it comes to the arts, the French are history. Other than a blush of cinematic jinn in the 60’s, what have they offered to the world, post- World War Two?”

    “Truffaut and Godard, right off the top of my head.”

    Put Jean Cocteau at the top of that list.

  40. I think the point of the article is more about whether subsidies are useful and effective not whether the USA is better than France.

  41. Isaac Bertram,

    Does that really matter? 😉

  42. I’m not really sure how this relates to French vs. American cinema, but here goes.

    The French consider Jerry Lewis a comedic genius, The Americans consider Jerry Lewis a buffoon. No accounting for tastes, is there? This indicates that “ART” has always been, and will remain subjective.

    If we concede that the art scenes in both cultures are of comparable worth, then taxpayer subsidies for the arts are, at best, a waste of the peoples hard earned dollars/francs.

  43. The French consider Jerry Lewis a comedic genius…

    Not really. There was a sub-set of a generation of French people who liked him a lot, but that was a generation or two ago. These days your average French teenager is more likely to listen to Outkast than anything.

  44. BTW, if you are inclined, there are French radio stations which are broadcast on-line; they often have a lot of American or British content (especially those dedicated to pop music).

  45. I’ll bet more PBS viewers than reality TV afficianados know who Milton Friedman was. Most of Friedman’s income came from tax sources, by the way. The completely privatized society right-wing libertarians waste their time dreaming about would be a cultural wasteland. On the upside, few would notice.

  46. I’ll bet more PBS viewers than reality TV afficianados know who Milton Friedman was.

    Most of those people would know who Milton Friedman was without PBS.

    Most of Friedman’s income came from tax sources, by the way.

    Considering that he spent most of his life at the University of Chicago and the Hoover Institution (both of which are private) I find that doubtful.

  47. Richard, most of American society already is privatized, the art world included. As much as we complain about stuff like the NEA, I would bet that they comprise only a tiny slice of what we could broadly consider “culture”. You might want to consider that in your “wasteland” thinking.

  48. Other than a blush of cinematic jinn in the 60’s, what have they offered to the world, post- World War Two?

    Truffaut and Godard, right off the top of my head.

    Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” came out in 1959, and Godard’s “Breathless” came out in 1960, so I would regard them both as part of 1960’s French cinema and encompassed in the original comment.

  49. The completely privatized society right-wing libertarians waste their time dreaming about would be a cultural wasteland.


    The American music scene is about as privatized as it gets, and it is insanely rich and diverse.

  50. I think the vigor of American music and is part of the reason that so many countries subsidize their arts, in the belief that they are incapable of competing.

    While the size of the American internal market does give an advantage to American artists in terms of a greater degree of promotion and accessibility, it is also a great opportunity to the outsider with quality work to present.

    Unfortunately, countries like mine [Canada] tend to see the American vigor and power as a threat instead of an opportunity. I wish we had more Cirque du Soliel’s and fewer Margaret Atwoods.

  51. “The American music scene is about as privatized as it gets, and it is insanely rich and diverse.”

    Very true, but it also reflects the overall divide between rich and poor. The difference, and the thing that gets under my skin, is that success has very little to do with music, and very much to do with a tight, cute ass. This is great for fashion, magazines and fishing shows, but it’s not awesome for music. Few major industries are able to effectively market crap like the music biz. Still, on an underground level and a pure diversity level, we’ve got the world (except maybe Japan) licked. If we’re talking about art, rather than pop sales, our system seems to have worked.

  52. Is science part of the culture?

    Master List of Federally Funded Research and Development Centers
    [Last updated: February 2005]

  53. Lamar

    Disagree. I’m a confirmed classical/baroque fan and consider C&W, rap, christian music, etc to be crap. However, I recognize the vigor in these popular forms and know that some of it is highly creative, even though it don’t appeal to me in the slightest.

    [Apologies if I have misinterpreted your point.]

  54. R.C. Dean,

    I’ll repeat my point; it highly likely that neither you nor anyone else here has the requisite knowledge to say what the French art scene is like. I suspect that it is far more diverse than a lot of Americans are inclined to admit.


    The heart of the genre known as “World Music” is in Paris as far as I know.

  55. Anyway, again we get back to the zero sum game approach to culture.

  56. R.C. Dean,

    If you really are interested in French art, well, Google is just a few clicks away.

  57. Aresen,
    You have a point, and I think I even admitted as much in my earlier post.

    By the way, part of the problem in other countries, at least I had this experience in Spain, is that decent musical equipment can cost 10x as much overseas. This doesn’t account for other forms of art, and probably has something to do with governments protecting their own musical instrument markets. The effect is that nobody can own a Gibson or even Epiphone Les Paul.

  58. Lamar

    I hope you’re not implying “a tight, cute ass” isn’t art! 😉

  59. Whatever, Zeno.

    I was just pointing out that to most folks, Godard and Truffaut are the very definition of ’60s French cinema, so offering them up as counterexamples to the claim that ’60s cinema is about all splash French culture has made in the last 50 years doesn’t really get you very far.

  60. R.C. Dean,

    I think Luc Besson fits your criteria then. I know a certain portion of the American male population thinks that The Professional is one of the greatest action films of all time. Or they think it is second to Nikita. I personally love The Fifth Element.

  61. R.C. Dean,

    And I guess Jean-Pierre Jeunet might also be what you are looking for. I mean, movies like Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children are pretty kick ass. Alien IV wasn’t that great, but he had no control over the script as far as I know.

  62. Compare American TV cop shows with their British or French counterparts. American productions are adolescent drivel. Maybe American taste is just puerile. On the other hand, the market seems to pander to and reinforce the worst taste. I hope I don’t sound like a snob.

    1. Richard, you are pretentious.

  63. And while we’re dissing government funding, let’s not forget that the Internet was originally a tax-funded government project.

  64. Compare American TV cop shows with their British or French counterparts.

    There is private media in those countries and that is who is making more and more of those critically aclaimed shows.

    I hope I don’t sound like a snob.

    No, actually you just sound like someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

  65. Actually, Isaac, I know a lot more about French TV and cinema than you do.

    As animation producers, buyers and distributors gather in Cannes for MIPCOM this week, Christopher Panzner, exec. producer, animation for Teva, sheds some light on the unique French system for producing animation.

    There is virtually no animated film or television program made in France that doesn’t benefit from government subsidies in one form or another. While it’s difficult for unsubsidized producers from other countries to understand this phenomenon (and just as difficult for those that do to understand the French system), the system works, works well and has for some time.

    The typical sources of funding from France are the TV sale, CNC, cable/satellite, video/DVD, distributor (ROW) minimum guarantee, regional subsidies and pre-sales. Films would include theatrical distribution and, possibly, a SOFICA. Cumulative funding from France can amount to anywhere from 30-35% government subsidies, making French co-production partners particularly attractive.

    The French Touch
    If you think about the current state of “art” and “state of the art,” the new math favors the auteur approach and new media models. With big studios laying people off in record numbers and industry veterans bemoaning the so-called end of 2D, the French system favors the unique vision, fresh approaches, new media and “la boutique.” There is no greater testament to this statement than the recent release of Sylvain Chomet’s groundbreaking masterpiece, Les Triplettes de Belleville. It’s only the end of 2D as we know it (and story-telling, storyboarding, layout and possibly the entire process including financing.) The French are re-thinking it all from the ground up. And it makes economic sense.

    A typical European budget for a 26×22 series is in the US$6-8 million range ($10,500-12,000/minute) and $6-10 million range for an average 80-min feature. Series, however, are actually getting cheaper to produce, due mainly to technological innovation. Films are getting more expensive but sources of financing are multiplying.

    One of the biggest advantages of 3D or Flash (not to mention stop-motion, cut-outs, mixed media, etc.) is that animation can be done entirely in-house. An added advantage of the French subsidies system is that if a significant amount of work is done in France on a series, for example, the CNC will contribute 25% more. Combining French funding with resources in Canada, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Ireland, Scandinavia, etc. can bring the entirety of the budget to a technologically innovative program. The rest is a question of alchemy: the worksplit and spending requirements. The general rule of thumb dictates that the amount raised in a territory must be spent there.

    A pre-requisite for a series obtaining CNC funding, however, is that a broadcaster must be on board. Once this is in place, the aid is automatic. A French TV station is not a pre-requisite to receiving CNC aid for a feature, which is automatic for established film producers, but a TV sale is essential to the overall French funding.

    An example of the growing interest in feature production is the recently announced creation of a SOFICA in the city of Angoul?me (Magelis). Essentially devoted to feature films (60% live-action and 40% animation), 8 million Euros (US$9 million) will be divided over a minimum of 12 projects per year with a ceiling of 800,000 Euros (US$900,000) per project.

    Interest in feature film financing is on the rise throughout Europe. There are conditions, specific to each country, for benefiting from the various resources but it is simply a question of finding the best fit. The French model is very complementary, but there are also conditions that have to be taken into consideration.

    One of the conditions of working with France, and a source of anxiety for foreign producers of film and television, are “droits d’auteur.” Authors of virtually anything drawn or written or scored have substantial rights in France. For producers who think that artists having control is their worst nightmare, it’s less about control than the “French Touch”: attention-grabbing graphics, visionary storytelling and an artistic collective devoted to creating something unique, original, international and commercially successful but where key talent shares in the success. (Am?lie was number 8 at the American box office!)

    The French system encourages not only creativity but subsidizes just about everything from development to distribution. That’s part of the reason why France is the third-largest producer of animation in the world, after the United States and Japan, a little-known fact.

  66. Well, Richard, you certainly do seem to know a lot more about French TV and cinema than I do. But then I never actually claimed to know anything about French TV and cinema at all. It was some of the other assertions you have made on this thread that I was referring to.

    What I do know is a fair number of ordinary french people, a few are even related to me. They are just as uncouth, uncultured, rude and bigoted as any American. In some cases even more so.

    The fact that French elites have suckered the government into spending the money of regular taxpayers on shit they don’t want is no skin of my nose.

    By the way, I happen to agree that American TV is crap. But then from what I can tell so is most of what is made just about anywhere in the world, with or without subsidy or local content rules. Hence I watch very little of it.

    And furthermore I am glad government subsidies are not any higher in this country than they already are, because if they were the result would be even more crap.

  67. Richard seems to know what he’s talking about, even if he has some opposing views.

    Did you know that crap like U-571 and Bridget Jones’ Diary are Studio Canal productions? In addition, they own films such as Terminator 2 and Basic Instinct? They recently did the overly thinker-esque (smugtion movie?)
    Babel? Then there are always The Professional, Amelie, and a bunch of other films as shitty as or slightly less stinky than many American films. I guess my point in all this is that the French are just as eager to cash in on crap as good old Hollywood Americans are. Just because there is little inspiring in French art doesn’t mean that American films don’t suck just as much. Caveat: We do films better, and in more abundance. All I ask is that we don’t knee-jerk discount a country that makes more films than most. I think we hate the French because they are too damn much like US. Sure, their government is more paternalistic, and that probably hinders their output. But jeez, they still do a lot of good shit and bad shit and highly mediocre shit. Looking at movies today, what more can you ask for?

  68. it is silly to think that anyone here is in touch with contemporary art in either country.
    art that is really doing something different is understood by very few people within very tight circles.
    the rest of us, afficionados, critics and appreciaters just don’t get it or, more likely, don’t see this art at all.
    in the case of france: people in charge of granting funding for art probably will not grant funding for stuff that they just don’t get.
    in the case of the U.S.: market it however you want, the public will not respond to art that they just don’t get.
    so what is really being compared here is not two international art scenes, but on one hand art as accepted by a gov’t collective; and on the other hand, art made succesful by the acceptance of a populace under the influence of a heavy bombardment of advertising.
    …it’s like comparing a plastic apple with a plastic orange. it’s mute!

  69. haha…it’s also moot!!!

  70. eric,

    There is a lot of truth in what you are saying. If one were to have judged French art 1860 by what went on the government sponsored art shows it would have seemed quite, well, unchanging. That would have of course missed the revolution in art that was just starting and would eventually revolutionize the art world – French impressionism.

  71. Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison once said “90% of science fiction is crap. Of course 90% of everything is crap.” Anyone disagree?

  72. Well, 100% of crap is crap, so I guess I disagree. Absolutely loved The Deathbird Stories, though.

  73. J sub D, you thinking of Theodore Sturgeon who said (something similar to) that, not Harlan Ellison.

  74. I know that I care much more about American animation and movies than I care about French.

    Heck, I can’t even name a single French animation produced in the last ten years that I liked. But I could name countless American.

    The German movie/animation sector is also subsidized and there are very few good movies that we produce. It has been getting better in the last few years but I don’t think it correlates with the funding received trough subsidies.

    You could argue that subsidies are necessary to support niche culture – but in Germany even big movies often get government funding – seems to be the same for France. There is no benefit to that.

  75. Eugene, I stand corrected.

  76. Well, 100% of crap is crap, so I guess I disagree.

    I’ve read, don’t remember where, that 25% (by weight) of crap is actually e. coli bacteria. Useles info, I know. But I found it interesting.

  77. L’exception culturelle am?ricaine, par Eric Le Boucher refers to research by Fr?d?ric Martel, from his forthcoming book, De la culture en Am?rique.

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