by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak
Several years ago I met a young playwright from Montpellier, come to Paris to premiere a piece about Michael Jackson in a small theater on a mythic alley in the shadows of the Montmartre cemetery where Boris Vian once debated the finer points of pataphysics with his neighbor Jacques Prevert, whose “The Dead Leaves” (you know it as “Autumn Leaves”; the French always were more morbid than the Americans) had been introduced by a young singer named Yves Montand in Marcel Carné’s Montmartre-Barbes post-war film fantasia “Les portes de la nuit.” (When the portes — doors — of the Barbes Metro close for the night, the portes of a magical night begin.) We’d gotten off to a bad start because I was annoyed that my roommate had announced he’d be staying with us without asking if this was okay by me, and after I insisted that he smoke his E-cigarette on the balcony. But where we found common ground was in our shared passion for “La Dispute,” a nightly one-hour program on Radio France’s putatively middle-brow station France Culture in which an eclectic and heterogeneous gathering of mostly erudite and culturally literate critics from various newspapers and magazines — including many younger new voices — discussed and debated on average four usually new (if often mainstream) works or exhibitions from a different genre every night: Theater (with the occasional dance concert), film (to which television series were eventually added), the plastic arts, music (including both new releases and operatic productions), and literature (with the occasional graphic novel tossed in). Even if the selection, steered by subject-versatile host Arnaud Laporte, was often too mainstream for my liking — the overblown productions of the Comedie Francaise getting too much attention, the much more diverse, international, and contemporary offerings of the Theatre de la Ville Sarah Bernhardt too little, the films often movies with which the station had promotional partnerships — the discussion itself was aesthetic-intellectual candy for an inveterate critic and editor of critics like me. (Radio’s answer to Dance Insider quoi.) For young artists marooned in the provinces and thirsty to know what their colleagues in Paris were up to like my new friend — and unlike the puff pieces that constitute most of the rest of France Culture’s arts coverage, particularly a noontime program “The Big Table,” which mostly consists of the unctuous, ingratiating host’s uncritical cheerleading of ostensibly new work from the same limited circle of chou-chous to whom she tosses soft-ball, if not downright silly, and rarely challenging questions — if La Dispute was important for the window it provided to current cultural offerings in the capital, it was also vital for the exposure it offered to the cultural and critical debates which marked the current Zeitgeist. (Translation: What critics were saying about the work. And because there were always at least four critics on the 7-years + old program counting Laporte, whose tendency to correct the verbal flatulences of some of his younger colleagues I could also relate to, you could trust that the global output would be balanced, and not just reflect the tastes, jaundiced outlook, and prejudices of one sour critic.) And — unlike the promotional, ingratiating, and uncritical programs which make up most the rest of France Culture’s arts coverage — for the artists who listened, as well as critics and the arts-interested and art-literate public, besides furnishing a vicarious experience of the work of art, with regular listening one acquired a pretty good idea of the various critics’ optics and thus could imagine how one might have reacted to the work oneself had one been able to experience it first-hand. (I can hear Laporte chiding me for all those ‘one’s.)
For the art exhibitions in particular — where Laporte always began by asking one of the critics to describe the lay-out of the show — one really felt like one was there, perambulating around the museum or the gallery with the critics, even moreso when the one taking you on the tour was the perceptive and droll Corinne Rondeau.
Of course, the justification for eliminating a critical program centered on current cultural offerings at this historical moment is probably that the offerings will be thinner — and potentially more dangerous to attend where it invovles sitting in a closed space for two+ hours — in Covid-times. For the second argument, I guess each critic has to make his/her own choice. But the first just doesn’t fly for music recordings, film (where preview DVDs are usually available), and particularly literature (France Culture had already eviscerated what remained of its book programs in favor of more pop cultural-oriented coverage of the same old artists everyone already knows about), where the effervescence of new titles for the current ‘literary re-entry,’ numbering over 500 from mainstream publishers alone, begs for a little critical guiding in navigating them, and not just the effusive and ingratiating soft-ball questions one hears on, say, the “The Big Table.” (Rarely big enough to feature artists or writers not already famous and among the host’s chou-chous.) (Laporte: “That’s three times you’ve used ‘ingratiating,” Paul. “It’s less awkward than ‘Journalistic lap-dog,’ Arnaud.)
But where France Culture’s decision — which seems to have been abetted by Laporte, who offered absolutely no explanation on the initial broadcast of the show which replaced La Dispute Monday in the same time-slot, yet another interview and feature program with no critical perspective (besides perhaps Laporte’s) — is really a cop-out, and fails its public, is the hit this represents for the theater and dance and plastic arts sectors in their attempts to re-launch in a challenging moment which has them fighting for their lives, figuratively anyway. (With sales up, the book business — a solitary spectating adventure which one can practice at home, after all — seems to have experienced a re-bound.) Museums and galleries have bravely re-opened (after a summer in which national institutions like the Louvre particularly took a hit because of the drop-off in international tourists, even though the locals did take advantage of the opportunity to view their national treasures in less crowded conditions), despite the evident hesitation of visitors to return to any closed space, even with masks (not a cheap undertaking given the high insurance costs, particularly for imported art) and attendance limits meant to encourage social distancing. And theaters are forging ahead despite the evident anticipated loss of at least a third of their box-office revenues, if they do the safe and correct thing and leave an empty seat between each spectator, as the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt in Paris has committed itself to doing. Despite the automatic blow to its coffers this announces, Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, director of the TDLV’s Seine-side and Montmartre spaces, and his team have taken the financially courageous decision of announcing a uniform ticket price of 20 Euros (places can normally go for as much as 40). This after Demarcy-Mota — belying the naval-gazing tendency of many arts organizations and artists, and I don’t mean just here in France (want me to name names? How about “Dance NY,” with its ludicrous campaign insisting that dancers are ‘necessary workers’?) — had taken the lead in initiating a coalition with health and educational organizations to develop a detailed plan of action for continuing to create art in healthy, artistically dynamic and adventurous, and educational contexts, settings, and circumstances in a time of cholera.
Then there’s the role critics can play as monitors of publicly funded art; the government announced Wednesday that 2 billion Euros from the national ‘re-launch’ plan will be directed to the culture sector — which indicates a) that the government at least has not abandoned that domain (President Macron recently named a high-profile former official from Nicolas Sarkozy’s government as minister, signaling the importance he attaches to the sector), and b) with 2 billion Euros culture and creation are not going to stop in France, so there will still be something to criticize. And critics can play a vital rule in helping ensure that this limited resource is spent judiciously, responsibly, and creatively.
And what did France Culture — which vaunts itself in house ads as advancing the ‘esprit d’ouverture,’ with Laporte opening his new program by claiming it is ‘engaged’ at the side of culture and creation — do? It abandoned ship, shamelessely reducing itself into a promotional agency for a limited number of its hosts’ favorite artists and theaters (frequently the same names the station has been promoting for 10 years, a modern version of the type of coronated, State-sanctioned artists a young playwright named Victor Hugo once decried), now officially devoid of any critical discourse, of the objective intermediary the critic who is concerned not with selling culture but its critical and credible transmission can be for an audience. (“Engaging” on the side of culture doesn’t mean just putting out uncritical puff pieces and interviews, it means *engaging* aesthetically and intellectually with the work, as a critic.) To copy a phrase from the Surrealist Léo Malet — another Montpellierard who, after flirting with the anarchists, hanging with Andre Breton, being one of the first to experiment with collage street poster art, and hawking newspapers from a corner near the French Stock Market, went on to become the father of the modern French Private Dick, his Nestor Burma a kind of Philip Marlowe as re-mixed by Boris Vian — by cancelling “La Dispute,” France’s marquee source for national radio cultural coverage with a self-proclaimed ‘esprit d’ouverture’ has put the K.O. on cultural criticism for the mass audience radio has the potential to reach, as it continues its spiral from dumb to dumber.