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New York

Perhaps Paris
by James Loks

Listen, there is no way around it. In the article that follows I'm going to be forced to wield sweeping generalisations, peddle the occasional stereotype, and generally piss off the people of my adopted home. However. It needs to be done. It's like one of those difficult talks that normally take place in the kitchen and are basically painful for one party. Home truths might be what we are dealing with here. I would also like to say that this is not a negative article and I don't want anyone to get needlessly defensive about its contents; indeed, this type of quick-to-offend pride might be one of the problems and I suggest that this is indicative that deep deep down in your hearts you know that there is a kernel of truth in what is being said. It is time to face that kernel, look to the positives and move forward.

Caveat in place, here we go.

Paris, and France in general, is not a significant cultural centre. The rest of the world does not look to Paris for its cultural, and specifically artistic, cues. It is most definitely not 'the centre of the cultural world'.[1] It doesn't have the frantic internationalism of London, the raw energy of Berlin, or the art market shares of New York or Hong Kong. It is what it is, which is in fact something of a backwater. It is urbane, luxurious, conservative and staid. It is the place where tourists of the world come to take pictures.

Perhaps a ridiculous thing to say, particularly in terms of art. The city is full of museums and galleries; as well as the Louvre, Orsay, Pompidou, Palais de Tokyo, et al, you also, in areas like the Marais, have what seems to be a ridiculously dense collection of commercial galleries, including a few big hitters. In FIAC you have an International Art fair. What more do you want?

And it is in this question that we start to approach the centre of what I'm getting at.

Two things.

Firstly a truly international outlook, a permeability and openness to things that are not French.

Secondly, the energy and conditions that generate great art.

Dealing with them in order. In one way you can see this as a historical hangover. At one point France undoubtedly filled this position as a world leader in art and culutre and almost all things, but we are now talking about a couple of hundred years ago. Rather like the British somehow believing that because they once had a huge empire they are now still a major world power (I am British), the French still cling to this belief. However, instead of manifesting itself in loutish behaviour on holiday it seems to have brought about a retreat, a narcissistic self-examination and denial whereby only things that are French and in France are of any importance. And don't get me wrong, there are many great things about France, but nowadays a mentality limited and defined by national borders seems archaic; an inability to see value in things that come from elsewhere, to appreciate and understand things that are not French, seems very, well...small minded. And kind of stubborn and ignorant. Particularly when we are talking about a world so completely cosmopolitan and international as contemporary art.

By way of an example. On the FIAC press release under the rubric of the Grand Palais, i.e. the main fair, is this text:

FIAC 2012 will bring together around 180 galleries from 24 countries at the Grand Palais. France will be represented by 61 galleries (or 34% of the exhibitors), followed by the United-States (30 galleries), Germany (24 galleries), Italy (12 galleries), Belgium (14 galleries), the United Kingdom (9 galleries), and Switzerland (6 galleries). Galleries from Denmark, Poland, Romania and the United Arab Emirates will be present for the first time.

Here is the equivalant text from Frieze in London:

Frieze London will see a total of 175 exhibitors from 35 countries making it the most international edition of Frieze London; confirming its position as one of the world’s leading contemporary art events with participants from territories including Argentina, China, Columbia, Hungary, India, Korea and South Africa.

And Basel:

Art Basel features nearly 300 leading galleries from North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

The point being who cares what percentage of exhibitors are French? The answer is only the French. Sure it indicates that it might be the place to come and specifically buy French art, but one imagines the international art collector would be aware of this. It also seems to bracket it is as a smaller, less significant fair.

There is also the perennial problem, language. Unfortunately the language of the world is not French. It is English. And I know that this makes it particularly difficult to stomach if you are French. However, if you want to get on in the world it is necessary, and I'm just going to say it straight, that all gallery press releases and websites need to be written in English as well as French.[2] If you don't you instantly appear limited; if it helps don't think of it as being for the English, it is just the lingua franca (oh the irony of this term).

And the problem runs deeper, as Hervé Loevenbruck mentioned while talking about these problems in last year's Artprice Annual Review FIAC special, as there is institutional scepticism as well:

There is also a permanent uncertainty about France’s political leaders’ attitude to the Contemporary art market, which has become an area of primary importance in terms of international cultural recognition.

An uncertainty that has only just lead, last year, to the relaxing of certain laws concerning the conditions of sale for artwork, which had previously kept a lot of the market away.

So there we have it, point number one. In order to lead the world you need to embrace the world. Look back at the statement from Art Basel; what this very quickly says is 'the whole world is here.' Everybody. And do the Swiss care what percentage of artists or galleries are Swiss? No, probably not. Do they have the biggest international art fair in the world that has transformed a city of about 150,000 people into a world hub for contemporary art? Yes.

Second point. Do you know one of the things I miss living in Paris? I miss those types of vernissages where you find yourself holding a tin of lager in some scruffy space in a run down part of town, surrounded by a crowd that seems to be about ninety percent art students and about seventy percent drunk and wild. It was a staple and a reassuring part of my life in both London and Berlin. Sure, the work is rarely mind blowing, and it can seem a long way from the 'art fairs' and the 'art market', but the point is, it isn't.

Artists develop in a milieu; networks and groups, peer comparison and assessment all help to nurture and develop their work. They help generate artists. And here again Paris has a problem, and we can give that problem a name, and that name is space.

What are the struggles for an emerging artist? They need to be able to live, they need to be able to work, they need to be able to show. What makes these things possible is an availability of cheap space and this is one thing singularly lacking in Paris. And one need not say much more than this, you need only look to Berlin to see the effect this can have on the artistic life of a city, despite all the ensuing issues around gentrification. The cost of living and base line economic pressures of living in Paris, and even, to an extent, in Ile-de-France simply removes the possibility of emerging artists living and working in the area. Instead they move to Berlin. While maybe not immediately obvious as to how important this element of the art world is, putting my social life to one side, none of the major centres of art don't have this kind of scene. I might put forward that it's from this type of environment that new things happen.

Connected to this, there is also a more subtle point to be made, because Paris isn't actually short of art spaces; community arts, arts courses, art therapy and this type of thing are, in comparison with other countries, pretty well funded in France. But of course this does not make artists. It points to another problem—I'm really straying into conjecture—that relates to space. As I mentioned the French are incredibly proud of their artistic heritage; it is part of their national identity and it makes it really difficult to be an artist in France today, not only because you perhaps feel this weight of history but also because you are so assimilated into society that you are kind of feted. The problem is that this acts as a constriction: there is no room afforded for the outsider, that space can't be found somehow, the outsider here is perversely such a cliched and accepted figure as to be itself subverted out of existence. It is, after all, the country where punk never happened.

But enough. The point of this article, as I believe I mentioned, and all of these kind of 'painful truth' talks, is that they have a positive effect and this is no exception. The reason why these issues are important is that things are changing, as I mentioned: there have been changes in the law, things are opening up and the market is beginning to expand. It feels like right now, in this moment, there is the possibility that Paris might begin to attract some international attention, but a lot matters on the impression it leaves. There are some new galleries opening up on the fringe of the established areas, there are a couple artist-run spaces, and a generation of young artists coming through, many of whom are spending time in either London or Berlin. The challenge however is to see if these things will be of interest to the world, or only to France. Or as Han Nefkens incisively put it:

Of course, the obvious contenders come up when thinking of contemporary art; London, New York, Berlin...perhaps Paris.


[1] I'm quoting here from a piece of literature associated with the current exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville called "Paris seen in Hollywood". It's kind of interesting but at the same time incredibly self-congratulatory and reinforces the cultural stereotypes as to what Paris is that are half of the problem.

[2] Even in an art world that seems populated by a terrifyingly high number of bi-, tri-, and quatro-lingual people. I will also add that I do speak French so this isn't a purely personal complaint.


(Image on top: Matt Mullican, Untitled (Paris Street Map) II, 2011, acrylic, oilstick on canvas, rubbing; Copyright Matt Mullican, represented by: ProjecteSD. Stand : 1.H01)

Posted by James Loks on 10/16/12

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I did live in Paris and know what your talking about. But, I must say that you will find, outside of Paris, in places like Aix-en-Provence many artists who are creating exciting things. There certainly is more going on in London.
20120123123937-atelier_selection__17_of_19_ side note
Mr. Thompson, Whereas I agree that the french are stubborn in their ways (i'm half french, half American and have lived for extended periods in both countries) you are overlooking a very important point. The French do not defend their artists. Of the 61 french galleries at FIAC, look and see how many french artists are actually in their rosters. You will find many Americans, Brits, Germans, Swiss etc. but the Parisian art market is not fueled by nor counts on French artists. I think that this is an important reason why Paris is no longer a relevant cultural center, as far as contemporary art is concerned. It is a market happy to buy and sell artists from countries that have taken risks to support and export their young talent while taking relatively few measures to do the same.
20120906093929-grancanaria0704_1 Only in France
I love France and the French People and even have a home in France, but unfortunately there appears to be a fear, amongst the 'establishment', that to acknowledge the worth of anything that is not French, will in some way diminish that which is French. This is the opposite of what has been shown to be true, those non-French cities that have accepted and celebrated the wonder that is art, from all cultures, have become more vibrant, innovative and alive because of this. Their open mindedness has increased their stature as places of art, throughout the world. Unfortunately, by their denial of the value of international art, the 'establishment' is indeed turning Paris and France into a cultural backwater, where it was once a raging torrent!
Profile_picture_youtube Daccord
Mr Thompson. I could not agree more... and i am a Francophile and have had a life long love affair with Paris. I love in LosAngeles.The creative/artistic energy in Paris just cannot begin to compare with that of Berlin and London. You hit the nail on the head. Thanks for this great expose!!! amadea
20140820193740-japan_7 Voila
Mr. Thompson, You are bold to write such an article, and you are absolutely right. France, like Italy, has largely rested its laurels on its hundreds of years of art history, and is largely irrelevant in 2012. Though I would say, and you failed to note, that Paris was the center of the art world as recently as the 1920s.

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