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Exception culturelle and cultural de-centralisation : contradictions in the (...)

Exception culturelle and cultural de-centralisation : contradictions in the landscape

15 décembre 2006
Ferdinand Richard

Circle conference in Helsinki "European art and culture between free trade and cultural diversity. A delicate dialogue ?

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Ferdinand Richard, director of Aide aux Musiques Innovatrices,

In 1853, the american economist Henry-Charles Carey published a little book called "Letters on international copyright", made of six letters adressed to M. Cooper, senator of Pennsylvania, who wanted to be briefed on the opportunity to sign an international treaty on copyright.

« What is called free trade looks to the maintenance of the foreign monopoly for supplying us with cloth and iron ; and international copyright looks to continuing the monopoly which Britain has so long enjoyed of furnishing us with books, and both tend towards centralization. »

Finally, through the signature of a treaty on international copyright, Carey acccused the then anglo-french economical hegemony.

Developping arguments which could be easily recognised by the anti-globalisation militants of today, he explains how the two countries, through trends and fashion control, through constant changes of new tendancies, keep dominating the world industrial sector, and, doing so, capture substential profits.

In the book publishing world, Casey’s writings appear as a genuine pladoyer for the "exception culturelle", which in itself is rather humoristic, coming from the pionneer of american economists !

On the more strictly cultural level, Carey stresses the risk that represents free trade for the preservation of cultural models, a question which is exactly to-day the one of the defense of cultural diversity.

In the same texts, the american economist exposes a model of cultural development based on supporting demands and decentralisation, which enlights the actual debate on cultural policy, and the relative failure of cultural democratisation.

The Carey’s interest on demands drives him to design a dynamic model of cultural development based on decentralisation and proximity between producers and consumers. The models for cultural decentralisation find in Carey’s writings very relevant arguments. Cultural development cannot exist without a very closed relationship between population and institutions.

Dominique Sagot-Duvauroux

Directeur du GEAPE


Université d’Angers

13 allée François mitterrand

BP 3633

49036 Angers cedex 01


When talking about "exception culturelle" we are obviously dealing with a tricky semantic issue. Most of the uncertainity comes from the large variety of interpretations and contexts. From the grassroots of local cultural action in a peripheric province of France, I shall modestly try to give you some feedback about its various interpretations. In order to explore this unclear word "exception culturelle", let me take you through two preambles, and three doorways, one on geography, one on democracy, and one on creation .

A) As a first preamble, I would like first to whipe out confusion between two very different types of actions, confusion which is recurrent in the medias of my country :

1) one action is legitimately quoted "Exception culturelle". It is an exception of treatment when considering taxation or public help. Cultural products should not be taxed as other products because of their exceptionnal value, beyond physical properties, or, for the same reason, cultural enterprises should be publicly supported at some point of their development, because they create a public exchange which is considered a part of the collective wealth, an enriching factor for the benefit of all citizen’s, an immediate tool for enhancing on longer term the collective ability to create richness.

From my point of view, this is the "exception culturelle" I would fight for, and it could easily be considered a major term of what I would preferably call a "contract", rather than public subvention (subventions ought to be considered as moral contracts).

Of course, at this level of understanding, I should considered it a universal value, with no specific link to any specific nation or human group, exactly as I would consider public health, scientific research, or education.

We are reaching here the sphere of human rights.

2) Another thing is quotas for national productions, such as music braodcasting on the radio, or any proactive protections for national or language privilege - very often the understating of an opposition of local values against external values , as if local values were of cultural importance and external values were not, which is an undefendable position, even introducing dangerous links in some cases with national prestige or protectionnism.

I admit that for contextual reasons, this mechanism of protection could eventually be adopted and justified in itself, but this cannot be named "exception culturelle". It has more to do with market conflicts, or global diplomacy , or home affairs, and each case is a specific one.

B) As a second preambule, I would like to remind you the historical context of the birth of the Ministère de la Culture in my country, a relevent preambule since this Ministery is considered the main tool for the defense of the "exception culturelle".

Before its creation in 1960, there was in France a Delegation des Beaux-Arts in the Ministery of Education, tightly linking together, for better or for worse, the Cultural Action to the Educational Process.

At this time, even more than today, the main players on the international political game were the nations-states.

André Malraux then received the green light from Général de Gaulle to create a Ministery of Culture. It would be very naïve indeed to believe that the De Gaulle decision was prompted by his abounding love for the artists. It was done after carefully considering the strategic advantages of having a tool for prestige and "rayonnement" on the international scene at this precise moment (I open here some brackets to stress with some sadness that the word "rayonnement" is still a key-word on the very last national cultural program of the french Socialist Party, publicly released a few months ago, in the context of their possible access to government next year).

Better than me, you know of course that this creation arrived only less than 15 years after the Americans launched the Marshall plan and its cortege of fascinating cultural products, whose impact on the European populations was of carefully mesured by European leaders.

Furthermore, a few years later this Ministère was transformed in the Ministery of Culture AND Communication, which says a lot about its strategic weight and missions.

So far, the French interpretation of this "exception culturelle" has been constantly placed in the framework of national interest, of national defense of cultural production, whose success has been very uneven if you consider for example the tremendous differences between the field of cinema, and the field of music. Supporting French cinema industry has been successful and useful, and therefore providing french filmmakers with enough independance and free space to create a genuine and high-level catalogue... (but it would also be pertinent not to forget some negative side-effects of this french cinema policy, for exemple on the independance of emerging film industries in the African continent, where it does not seem, in all cases, to receive the warm support one could expect from a country which is fighting for the exception culturelle), a tremendous constrast with the field of french music industries (in 2002 only 3,3% of market share for independant records-producers in France, probably the worst figure in Europe).

So far, the government attitude about tax exception is not very rational, and seems at least to be influenced by various lobbies, differing from books to Cds or DvDs.

All this designs a very specific conception of "exception culturelle".

There could be others...

We could try to re-shape the concept through three doorways :

C) Through geography :

In my view, the main issue about Exception culturelle is firmly articulated on two dynamics, one concerning the gradual (and unequal) autonomisation of local authorities, the other concerning the on-going european integration.

The correct position to seek should be the role of balance which could possibly be played by a renoved Ministery of Culture between those two geographical levels.

In order to save its legitimacy, such a centralised national Ministery of Culture would have to re-organise its missions in regards of these two areas :

1) one towards local initiatives and practices in the field of arts and culture, focusing on definitions, legal frameworks, evaluation, coordination and technical assistance, in a true comprehension of "exception", in order to help, coordinate, evaluate territorialized strategies, in a constant co-construction process with the final deciders at this level, which must clearly be local authorities.

In this context, very recent statistics published by Le Monde in its edition of the 1st of december 2006, a few days ago, shows that French people considers that the number one task for cultural policies, far before the "defense of cultural diversity ", 15%, or the "image/influence of France in the world", 13%, or (sadly enough) "the promotion of new talents", 11%, the priority is for 46% of them the "access for all to Culture", although the newspaper does not explain precisely what this appelation means, leaving the door opened to all kinds of misunderstandings once again.

Nevertheless, I interpret it as decisive to approach differently the question of the exception culturelle.

It forces us to reconsider the question entirely , firmly attached to the neighborhood, the locality, the territorialization (local authorities), opening the door to another conception of what should be the common work about Culture on the european continent, a dynamic and collective attitude on cultural matters, something comprising a diversity of heritage, common values concerning creation and innovation, of common tools and means of protection for the cultural practices of the people living in Europe, and common rules for a fair and ethical cultural market.

We are facing here some hard evidence : the dreamline about public money for culture in France, this mirage that almost all the rest of the world envies us, is today provided to the extent of 70% by local or regional authorities. It is a fact that they are the decision makers, for better or for worse, even if the Ministery and its parisian courtiers try desperatly to defend the idea that they are the only credible art-experts and prescriptions, attitude which is of course equally shared by the Left and the Right, explaining to some extend why this assumption of national consensus on the "exception culturelle" is so vivid.

By the way, the recent Le Monde statistics I just quoted above also show that only 37% of the french people notices a clear difference between left and right on cultural matters.

But we all know that such differences are more visible when considering local actions.

2) the other would consist in supporting and facilitating the EU initiatives on culture.

The logic of this idea could also be seen in the interest of member-states in enlarging the assistance they could provide to the local authorities for augmenting the field on which their artistic production could be disseminated.

Unfortunately, it does not seem to be the case now, and on this matter we still have the feeling that the main factor slowing-down european cultural integration is the member-states, at least France. If our own governments are timid as regards their European cultural initiatives, why should the civil societies of these countries be blamed for not attending European cultural networks, but focusing only on their own country ?

Instead of combating the prominence of the Cultural issue on the european agenda every day, member-states should seriously work out what they have in common with the EU programs, and not leave the EU to add another program, another slice to this indigestible, heavy and incomprehensible cake, eventually in concurrence with each other.

This could be very fruitful when distributing structural help or artist’s support, when planning cultural relationship and cooperation with non-EU countries (cf professor Dragan Klaic article in De Vrij/ Netherland n°35, august 28th, 2004, about what could be collective European culture initiatives abroad).

With its traditionnal and rich background in the field of cultural policies, France could be a leading force (amongst others) for a multi-national initiative on culture and territories.

This transversal think-tank and task force on "exception culturelle" could gather specific budget lines, procuring resources not only from the Ministeries or Directorates for Culture, but also from other public bodies (Work, Economy, Education, Communication, Technology, etc...)

D) second doorway : through democracy :

When we talk about de-centralisation, we also talk about increasing the level of co-construction with the populations. The nearer we bring the decision-making process, the more we increase democracy .

At this level, the "exception culturelle" is something that could èntirely refresh the process of defining guide-lines for culture, re-orienting it from "bottom-up", or, better, on an horizontal perspective.

If we consider cultural policies from the point of view of their regional interest, we aknowledge that local people are eventually more interested in an "active" market, something more than just buying cultural goods at some consumer terminal, especially when considering the explosion of cultural clubs of all kinds. From a local perspective, they would be keen (mostly young populations) to think and act in terms of "chain", to integrate efficiently all the steps in the same chain of processes, from creation to distribution, involving all of the dozens of professional and amateur activities which constitute cultural life in a region, and therefore augmenting the chances of local control on this cultural life.

The organisation of this regional chain is a thing that should be publicly discussed in appropriate fora.

Adapting equipment for this type of regional development would radically re-model the landscape of culture, from a policy which produces bigger and bigger concrete buildings (as if any medium-size provincial town would desperately try to compete with the capital metropoles), to an articulated, flexible complex of equipements and teams, in a very close contact with the people. This is what I understand when I read of those 46% demanding "access for all to Culture".

They are, of course, some European regions where this process is already successful, and we should use these as models. In this regard, the work done around the Agenda 21 for Culture represents an excellent starting point.

Exactly as artists do, let’s give the citizens a place to transcend their existence, to design their collective dream, to organise their own aesthetic construction. If we consider public funding as a necessity, there is no better justification for it than these, and citizens must be in harmony with the true process of their own lives.

E) third doorway : through creation :

My region Provence, as some others, is adding another difficulty for the good comprehension

of cultural decentralisation. This is called "tourisme culturel".

We are one of the main tourist areas, a holiday resort for all our European friends. We could be rather proud of it, if this was not going to be planned somewhere in Brussels as our sole and unique activity.

Although every one would be legitimately proud of her/his regional heritage, although every one is legitimately aspiring to visit other European regions, to enjoy free time, all of this understood as "tourism", we have to be aware that "tourism" does not mean sustainable development. On the contrary, as a co-lateral damage, it could also lead to waste and destruction for ever, it could also affect the local on-going cultural process, it could finally turn to be the worst virus for cultural development.

This massive economical activity is interfering dangerously with our policy making. Numbers are relatively significant. Yes, our region shows more or less 30500 employements in the cultural field. But what are they really, when our region shows also more than 150 music festivals in july and august, since every mayor of a small town wants its festival to attract as many tourists as possible ? The result on long-term cultural policies is a gradual disappeareance of the support to artistic experimentation/creation and its enriching high-profile activities, replaced by the folklorisation/festivalisation and its low-profile temporary jobs, not to forget that these summer jobs are more and more dealt with national or international companies which provide local city-councils with artists, technicians, communication agents, none of them living in the area, all of them gone after the 31st of august, including the direct commercial benefits, leaving small cities with silence, television watching, internet surfing, and nobody in the streets after 9pm...

Is this cultural decentralisation ? Is this respecting diversity ? Is this the true image of "exception culturelle" ?

In most of the training courses about cultural management I have been involved with, "cultural tourism" is presented as a pragmatic way to fund Culture... Why not, but all parameters must be clearly mesured, and co-lateral effects must be integrated in the perspective of sustainable development.

As the "eco-tax" for energy and transport, some kind of well-designed preservation program should be the rule.

Whatever we think about political strategy, it is a fact that the ecological and environnemental NGO’s have shown remarkable methodologies of action. We now clearly understand the interaction between each and everyone of our activities on the global climate, for example.

Talking about "exception culturelle", it seems that the time has come for a cultural ecology, a transversal comprehension of all cultural productions, or even to all human activities, rather than an exclusive sphere of privileges and national prestige. Therefore I would rather swich from this unclear concept of "exception culturelle" to a more rational comprehension of what is the "cultural facette of ecology"

Ferdinand Richard, dec.2006