Does French 'exception culturelle' produce exceptional culture?
By Alberto Mingardi
Is television the new agriculture? Upon strong pressure on the part of the French, the “audiovisual” industry will be kept out of the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) negotiations. Simon Kuper had an interesting article on the FT, providing a reasonable defense of French “exception culturelle”.
The exception culturelle hasn’t blocked American cultural products. Nor does it aim to. A recent official French report rightly says the policy doesn’t express “a defensive conception of culture”.
Rather, the French exception should be understood more positively: as safeguarding a niche for some French cultural products. France accepts that most global movies and TV shows will be in English. The exception culturelle simply aims to make sure that French culture gets funding, too. The invisible hand of the market won’t do that.
The argument sounds sensible. Hollywood competition makes French (and, at large, European) cultural products basically niche products. The globalized world speaks English and that so to say “reinforces” American dominance. As more resources flow to Hollywood as a result of its stronghold over a wider and wider potential market, the French movie industry is the Asterix village to the Roman empire of movies. Shouldn’t they be helped a little bit?
There are a variety of issues that the “exception culturelle” argument calls into question. For example, one may wonder if it is “fair” to tax smartphones and tablets to finance arts – a policy that entails a form of redistribution from the young to the old. But first and foremost, I have two problems with exception culturelle.
First, if something should have a truly transnational dimension, that is culture. That was certainly true before the emergence of nation states – the “res publica litteratorum” was a virtual space, unimpeded by national borders. But to a certain extent it is true nowadays, too. Culture provides for bridges among people. This applies to high culture, and to pop culture too. Does this mean that we are all more “Americanized” than in the past? Certainly American pop icons are highly successful. But is this endangering our identities? If French and American teenagers do “speak Twilight” to each other, is this in any sense “diminishing” for the first? This argument seems to imply that, absent American TV series, a French teen ager would spend her days listening to Debussy or watching Ionesco’s plays. Admittedly, a rather bold assumption.
Second, can we really assume that subsidizing cultural products that could not find enough customers to repay their cost does not affect the very way in which cultural products are produced? If a movie sails the sea of the market, it is customers that decree its success. Technological progress and change in the distribution system are shaking the certanties of publishers, music giants, and film producers everywhere. That is to say, the variables of success are not, nowadays, easily mastered by anyone. Subsides do not guarantee us quality products, but they allow producers to be spared at least some of this swirly change. Would that help in fostering an environment that allows for newer ideas to flourish, as we expect from high culture? Or will it create just a sort of dependency from subsidies? In short, is that a sensible long-term policy, for the sake of protecting the niche of French cultural product?