Culture House Daily

France’s cultural excess is immoral (but I still love it)

21 February 2014

For a committed, if unsuccessful, capitalist, I enjoy French culture an embarrassing amount – every last state-funded drop of it. Give me five-act operas with cast lists the size of a small Chinese city, give me obscenely expensive works of public art, give me inhumane concrete estates, give me unintelligible modernist music and I’ll be drooling with pleasure all night. In fact, I’m seeing a five-act French opera with a cast list the size of a small Chinese city tonight in Bordeaux. That’s the kind of disgusting thing I like to do.

In my defence, I am aware that what I am doing is immoral and what is being created should be consigned to hell. Fencing off this much tax revenue for works of art that will be enjoyed by the handful of people who can be bothered to sit through it is not funny or clever.

If art ever has to think about morality, it should at least think about costs. Each generation has a duty to package their moments of beauty in ways that don’t bankrupt succeeding generations. The French seem to take pride in exceeding each previous generation’s excesses. It’s unsustainable and unnecessary. As Kurt Schwitters taught us, you can do a lot with cardboard. That said, excess can be great, too.

French cultural excess – top five moments:

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1. Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens (1856 – 58): an opera so unwieldy and bloated, it can only be brilliant. You watch this, I’ll sail to Troy. We’ll see who finishes first. (Me.)

2. Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927): five and a half hour explosion of cinematic energy and French propaganda. Originally meant to be the first of six films, but Gance ran out of money. It ends with the invasion of Italy, still a few years off Napoleon becoming emperor.

Abel Gance’s Napoleon from SilentRobert on Vimeo.

3. Dani Karavan’s Axe Majeur (1980): only the French would give up half a city to a piece of public art. It took thirty years and six French culture ministers to complete this 3km sculpture.

Dani Karavan's Axe Majeur in Cergy-Pontoise outside Paris Photo: Nicolas Thibaut

Dani Karavan’s Axe Majeur in Cergy-Pontoise outside Paris Photo: Nicolas Thibaut

4. Ricardo Bofill’s Antigone District, Montepellier (1980s): no one does postmodern excess quite like Ricardo Bofill. The 36 hectare project was one of the largest single developments in French history.

Montpellier's Antigone District by Ricardo Bofill. Photo: Patrick EOCHE/ Getty Images

Montpellier’s Antigone District by Ricardo Bofill. Photo: Patrick EOCHE/ Getty Images

5. Monumenta, Grand Palais: an ongoing series in which the world’s biggest artists get to take over one of the grandest architectural spaces in Paris. The name says it all really.

Monumenta 2011 by Anish Kapoor. Photo: Lemouton Stephane/ABACA/Press Association Images

Monumenta 2011 by Anish Kapoor. Photo: Lemouton Stephane/ABACA/Press Association Images

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Show comments
  • Frank

    All done by second rate politicians looking to create a legacy, be much cheaper to follow the British approach and make them Lord of Pontoise (dreadful area). Looking on the bright side, the Pompidou Centre will probably fall down in 20 years.
    We have the ghastly South Bank Centre and the Dome to remind us of our political follies.

    • crosscop

      “the Pompidou Centre will probably fall down in 20 years.”
      And Notre Dame will probably be a mosque.

      • Frank

        Possibly, the French do however have a tendency to snap when under acute pressure (eg the exports of Roma) and I can see them taking much tougher policies than most countries.

  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    The French do big open public spaces. In Britain we are scared of the plebs potentially rising to an ‘occasion’. Odd how this word in French is ambiguous and covers what a me me me centric Britain fancies most.

    • La Fold

      Nothing to do with France being a fair bit bigger than Britain then?

      • Jambo25

        Probably more to do with better weather.

      • Two Bob

        Just a bit…..

    • Two Bob

      Probably because France is a big open country….

      • BarkingAtTreehuggers

        Where is the our Wenceslas Square?
        Where is ourTiananmen Square?
        Where is out Tahrir Square?
        Where is our Independence from Yanukovych Square?

        The sad truth is that even if we wanted to, there are no large public squares to gather in Britain. Here, we built on them. Britain never had a Haussmann, Britain had Nash.

        Even in the US they used leafy Zuccotti Park (!) because anywhere else protesters would have been sitting ducks for the Lee Harvey types.
        Well, anyway — you know what I am trying to say.

  • alexander

    Pretentious middle class cultural bulls**t is the same whether in France or Britain. Thanks for confirming this.

  • La Fold

    The thing that amzes me about the French is their love of all things Oirish, like the Pogues (lead singing from Coventry) and Oirish folk bands playing one stringed mandolins and washboards like a skiffle band thats been drinking Domestos.

  • Major_Eyeswater

    You’re kidding right? Vain, wasteful and brutalising, all of it.

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