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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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