A constructive take on the U.S.-French "culture wars".

AuthorClemenceau, Francois
PositionBook review

A Constructive Take on the U.S.-French "Culture Wars" De la Culture en Amerique (On Culture in America) By Frederic Martel, Editions Gallimard, 2006, 613 pages.

This book has become a highly topical must-read among cognoscenti of the French-American relationship, especially anyone who pays attention to the special dimension of "cultural politics" in which the U.S. free-market approach contrasts with France's tradition of state-run arts and culture. At a time of generational transition in France, Martel's excursion on American culture with a view to influencing France--his title "On Culture in America" harkens back to Tocqueville's "On Democracy in America"--has been respectfully noticed in American circles. The reception was more wary in France, where it has triggered a mixture of admiration for the author's reporting and some controversy about the author's message.

In his book--and it's a big one in every sense--Martel has done the equivalent of heaving a boulder into the pond of cultural affairs; the waves seem bound to ripple on, quietly for the moment but perhaps with a bigger splash as events play out. Initially, the reaction has been respectful of his work and guarded about its implications. But the questions and pressure for reforms raised in Martel's book seem likely to gain traction under the new government of President Nicolas Sarkozy and perhaps even trigger some re-examination of French cultural dogmas among the Socialist-left.

Essentially, the book shatters a taboo in up-ending the widespread French assumption that in America "culture" is re served for a happy few (generally rich) cultivated people while the rest of the country has a steady diet of no culture or cartoonish low-brow pop culture. Martel contests this picture of what happens in America, painstakingly documenting a situation in which key living cultural experiences and values are fostered in the U.S. system to reach a vast public throughout a very culturally diverse nation. In cataloguing the myriad of ways that culture reaches audiences and rewards creators in the United States, Frederic Martel, 40, a former French cultural attache in Boston, carefully demonstrates how this American approach brings "culture" to a wide public, including marginal groups of the population who are often excluded from mainstream experience. And Martel constantly underscores how American culture flourishes without ever having to depend on government help and without ever becoming...

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