Monday, 2 August 2010

What Philadelphia Can Learn from Paris

The historic encounter between Philadelphians and Parisians the Foundation for Architecture has organized (November 10 and December 6) is a once in a lifetime chance for our city to get its priorities straighter. What can we learn from the French experience of the “Great Projects” to make Philadelphia a more viable and valuable city? A few Big Things. And many, many Little Things.

The Biggest Thing we can learn, paradoxically, is to retrieve our Revolutionary Heritage, practically lost because of our own intellectual laziness and an excess of consumerism. Alas, Tom Paine is better known and respected today in Paris than in his once native Philadelphia. The “Great Projects” of François Mitterand did not spring full blown from the empty head of a French bureaucrat.

They are the outward signs that the Socialist President of France still takes very seriously the inner graces of Liberte, Egalite, and Fraternite. The French take their culture seriously, from the quality of tehir morning baguette or croissant to the ordinary wine of the working man’s evening dinner. Their funding of the Great Projects is on a continuum that begins with the smallest details of everyday French life and culminates in the Great Projects.

Because we deny our revolutionary heritage (even though the French every once in a while try to remind us—out of gratitude for our original gift of the idea of Liberty to them—with mnemonic aids like the Statue of Liberty) we don’t see culture as a daily manifestation of wholesome vitality but more as an only on Sunday museum visit thing. The myth of American classlessness distracts us tragically from the gritty class realities the French express openly, in a continuing effort to make all Frenchmen proud of “la gloire” even though separated by class and region. Our feeble equivalent is the Disneyland Response, denying the particularities of our troubled history with a Dopey/Sleepy infantilism.

The myth of classlessness has another debilitating effect on our cultural life. The donnybrooks we have endured recently over the piddling pittances we have given to the National Endowment for the Arts and of the Humanities are ludicrous compared to the steady, substantial funding of the arts including architecture throughout France. We act as if Culture is a Band Aid to mollify lesions on the body politic. It is a potentially fatal mistake to construe Culture as good because it aids tourism. Culture for the bottom line is putting the cart of economics before the horse of personal cultivation. The arts are important because they civilize us, not because they make tourists want to stay an extra day. The French know that in their bones. And tourists from all over love the way they live and lived.

Another sad dimension of our misapprehension of the way culture works is the desperation with which we seek funding for the arts. The most recent example is the disgracefully sycophantic way the Philadelphia Museum of Art wangled to get Ambassador Annenberg to add his collection to theirs. (At about the same time the management of that cultural institutuion cut the pay of its guards. The French would never countenance such hypocrisy.)

You would never know from the way the Powers That Wanted To Be More cosseted Walter Annenberg that he has been by all accounts the worst newspaper publisher in twentieth century Philadelphia—managing the news like the tyrant of a banana republic. Why? Because in the deficit-ridden cultural sector, Money Talks; Big Enough Money Stops All Talking. The trouble with this Tax Deduction Philanthropy is that we common tax payers ultimately play for the MegaDonor’s munificence and eponymic hunger to have his name on everything in sight with our April 15 mites. The French tax the Biggies big and let it go at that. The French people then decide through their representatives how and when to fund culture.

Recently, I saw just how debilitating this system of ours can be to the working artist. After a screening of his luminous eighty-three-minute documentary, “The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg,” at the Hot Springs, Arkansas Film Festival, U. of Colorado film instructor Jerry Aronson told me of his ten-year ordeal to rais ethe $250,000 to finish his film. PBS didn’t want to touch it: Ginsburg, after all, is gay, charismatic, and politically minded. HBO told him to come back after Ginsberg had died! So how did he raise the final half of the money?

From the French/German cultural TV consortium, ARTE, and from the Japanese public television network NHK. Nice going, Yanks. American TV execs treated Aronson with disdain; European and Asian functionaries couldn’t get him into a screening room fast enough. I hope we Americans have the humility to ask the French serious questions about the role of funding in the life of the arts in our ravaged cities. The French don’t just fund the arts. They have day care, health care, subsidies for families raising children. You can’t expect a family worrying itself to death over mere survival to go all out for Culture.

Those are some of the Big Things. But it’s the Little Things where I think we can begin to learn what we need to learn from the French. I still remember my joy at first seeing Parisian garbage collectors in their funky lime-green jump-suit uniforms. I was going into the press office of the Louvre at the time, and I almost got run over by one of those humongous Parisian buses, I was so mesmerized by this vision. Our garbage collectors dress in their own UrGrunge, and drop great gobs of garbage on the street in their sloppy pick-up habits.

They despise what they do and they despise us for despising them for doing their well-paid enough job so despicably. We don’t really live in a community in Philly anymore. We cohabit the same spaces in diverse but sullen styles of withdrawal and alienation. If we actually listened to our artists—if we read poems, say, like Daniel Hoffman’s “Power”—we wouldn’t be reeling from crisis to crisis, a tabula rasa of a civilization with no memory and thus no prospects.

I once taught a poetry seminar at the Holmesburg Detention Center, and the best student poet got to read his stuff one evening at the Northeast Regional Library, accompanied of course by a guard earning overtime pay. Do you know what that guard said to me after his charge had distinguished himself with some fresh original poems to great audience response? He didn’t join in the congratulations to the beaming prisoner. He whispered to me, with a stupid grin on his face: “Heh, this poetry stuff is OK. More overtime.”

When Mayor Rendell or David Cohen argue that culture is good for the bottom line, “essential” to our economic future, I want to tell them, “Eddie and Dave, the arts are for civilizing individuals, for making it possible for all of us separate atoms to imagine and then create a common heritage, a (do we even recognize the word?) community.” The French already know this, and determine their arts policies accordingly.

The trouble is, I think they may be too polite to tell us. Let’s just hope enough of that natural French arrogance expresses itself when we ask them how to turn South Broad Street into another Beaubourg. You don’t, as they well know, start with architecture; you start with a steady and vigorous daily life out of which can grow, if we’re lucky and inventive, Great Projects. In other words, you start with great baguettes and superb croissants. The infrastructure of Culture is daily lives well lived. Big Things out of Little Things grow.

As the great English poet William Blake put it (ironically, since he was commenting on the rationalistic excesses of the French Revolution), "He who would do me good must do it in Minute Particulars.” Let’s hope the conferees at the Foundation for Architecture affair at the Top of the Bellevue November 10 get their Minute Particulars right.

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