Listen, there is no way around it. In the article that follows I’m going to be forced to wield sweeping generalisations, peddle the occasional racial stereotype, and generally piss off the people of my adopted home. However. It needs to be done. It’s like one of those difficult talks that normally take place in the kitchen and are basically painful for one party.
Home truths might be what we are dealing with here. I would also like to say that this is not a negative article and I don’t want anyone to get needlessly defensive about its contents, indeed, this type of quick to offend pride might be one of the problems and I suggest that this is indicative that deep deep down in your hearts you know that there is a kernal of truth in what is being said. It is time to face that kernal, look to the positives and move forward.
Caveat in place here we go.
Paris, and France in general, is not a significant cultural centre. The rest of the world does not look to Paris for it’s cultural, and specifically artistic, cues. It is most definitely not ‘the centre of the cultural world’. It doesn’t have the frantic internationalism of London, or the raw energy of Berlin. In the world it can’t compete with New York, Tokyo, Shanghai. It is what it is, which is in fact something of a backwater. It is urbane, luxurious, conservative and staid. It is the place where tourists of the world come to take pictures. Perhaps a ridiculous thing to say, particularly in terms of art. The city is full of museums and galleries; as well as the Louvre, Orsay, Pompidou, Palais de Tokyo et al, you also, in areas like the Marais, have what seems to be a ridiculously dense collection of commercial galleries, including a few big hitters. In FIAC you have an International Art fair. What more do you want?
And it is in this question that we start to approach the centre of what I’m getting at. Two things.
Firstly a truly international outlook, a permeability and openness to things that are not French.
Secondly, the energy and conditions that generate great art.
Dealing with them in order. In one way you can see this as a historical hangover. At one point France undoubtedly filled this position as a world leader in art and culutre and almost all things, but we are now talking about a couple of hundred years ago. Rather like the British somehow believing that because they once had a huge empire they are now still a major world power (I am british), the French still cling to this belief. However, instead of manifesting itself in loutish behaviour on holiday it seems to have brought about a retreat, a narcissitic self-examination and denial whereby only things that are French and in France are of any importance. And don’t get me wrong, there are many great things about France, but nowadays a mentality limited and defined by national borders seems archaic, an inability to see value in things that come from elsewhere, to appreciate and understand things that are not French, seems very, well. . . small minded. And kind of stubborn and ignorant. Particularly when we are talking about a world so completely cosmopolitan and international as contemporary art.
By way of an example. On the FIAC press release under the rubric of the Grand Palais, i.e. the main fair, is this text.
“FIAC 2012 will bring together around 180 galleries from 24 countries at the Grand Palais. France will be represented by 61 galleries (or 34% of the exhibitors), followed by the United-States (30 galleries), Germany (24 galleries), Italy (12 galleries), Belgium (14 galleries), the United Kingdom (9 galleries), and Switzerland (6 galleries). Galleries from Denmark, Poland, Romania and the United Arab Emirates will be present for the first time.”
Here is the equivelant text from Frieze in london
“Frieze London will see a total of 175 exhibitors from 35 countries making it the most international edition of Frieze London; confirming its position as one of the world’s leading contemporary art events with participants from territories including Argentina, China, Columbia, Hungary, India, Korea and South Africa.”
“Art Basel features nearly 300 leading galleries from North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa.”
The point being who cares what percentage of exhibitors are French? The answer is only the French. Sure it indicates that it might be the place to come and specificaly buy French art, but one imagines the international art collector would be aware of this. It also seems to bracket it is as a smaller, less significant fair.
There is also the perenial problem, language. Unfortunately the language of the world is not French. It is English. And I know that this makes it particularly difficult to stomach if you are French. However, if you want to get on in the world it is necessary and I’m just going to say it straight, this means that all gallery press releases, and websites need to be written in English as well as French. If you don’t you instantly appear limited, if it helps don’t think of it as being for the English, it is just the lingua franca (oh the irony of this term).
And the problem runs deeper, as Hervé Loevenbruck mentioned while talking about these problems in last year’s Artprice Annual Review FIAC special, there is institutional scepticism as well
“There is also a permanent uncertainty about France’s political leaders’ attitude to the Contemporary art market, which has become an area of primary importance in terms of international cultural recognition.”
An uncertainty that has only just lead, last year, to the relaxing of certain laws concerning the conditions of sale for artwork, which had previously kept a lot of the market away.
So there we have it, point number one. In order to lead the world you need to embrace the world. Look back at the statement from Art Basel, what this very quickly says is ‘the whole world is here’. Everybody. And do the Swiss care what percentage of artists or galleries are Swiss? No, probably not. Do they have the biggest international art fair in the world that has transformed a city of about 150,000 people into a world hub for contemporary art? Yes.
Second point. Do you know one of the things I miss living in Paris? I miss those type of vernissage where you find yourself holding a tin of lager in some scruffy space in a run down part of town, surrounded by a crowd that seems to be about ninety percent art students and about seventy percent drunk and wild. It was a staple and reassuring part of my life in both London and Berlin. Sure, the work is rarely mind blowing, and it can seem a long way from the art fairs and the art market, but that is the point, it isn’t.
Artists develop in a milieu, networks and groups, peer comparison and assessment all help to nurture and develop their work. They help generate artist. And here again Paris has a problem, and we can give that problem a name, and that name is space.
What are the struggles for an emerging artist? They need to be able to live, they need to be able to work, they need to be able to show. What makes these things possible is an availability of cheap space and this is one thing singularly lacking in Paris. And one need not say much more than this, you need only look to Berlin to see the effect this can have on the artistic life of a city, despite all the ensuing issues around gentrification. The cost of living and base line economic pressures of living in Paris, and even, to an extent, in Isle-de-France simply removes the possibility of emerging artists living and working in the area. Instead they move to Berlin. While maybe not immediately obvious as to how important this element of the art world is, putting my social life to oneside, none of the major centres of art don’t have this kind of scene. I might put forward that it’s from this type of environment that new things happen.
There is also a more subtle point to be made connected to this because Paris isn’t actually short of art spaces; community arts, arts courses, art therapy and this type of thing are, in comparison with other countries, pretty well funded in France. But of course this does not make artists. It points to another problem, I’m really straying into conjecture, that relates to space. As I mentioned the French are incredibly proud of their artistic heritage, it is part of their national identity and it makes it really difficult to be an artist in France today, not only because you perhaps feel this weight of history but also because you are so assimilated into society, you are kind of feted. The problem is that this acts as a constriction, there is no room afforded for the outsider, that space can’t be found somehow, the outsider here is perversely such a cliched and accepted figure as to be itself subverted out of existence. It is, after all, the country where punk never happened.
But enough. The point of this article, as I believe I mentioned, and all of these kind of ‘painful truth’ talks, is that they have a positive effect and this is no exception. The reason why these issues are important is that things are changing, as I mentioned, there have been changes in the law, things are opening up and the market is beginning to expand. It feels like right now, in this moment, there is the possibility that Paris might begin to attract some international attention, but a lot matters on the impression it leaves. There are some new galleries opening up on the fringe of the established areas, there are a couple of artist run spaces, and a generation of young artists coming through, many of whom are spending time in either London or Berlin. The challenge however is to see if these things will be of interest to the world, or only France. In the words of Han Nefkens
“Of course, the obvious contenders come up when thinking of contemporary art; London, New York, Berlin. . . perhaps Paris.”
 I’m quoting here from a piece of literature associated with the current exhibition at the Hotel de Ville called “Paris seen in Hollywood”. It’s kind of interesting but at the same time incredibly self-congratulatory and reinforces the cultural stereotypes as to what Paris is that are half of the problem.
 Even in an art world that seems populated by a terrifyingly high number of bi-, tri-, and quatro- lingual people. I will also add that I do speak French so this isn’t a purely personnal complaint.
[first published 16/10/12 @ http://www.artslant.com/par/articles/show/32334]