Le house d’opera

In the latest World Leaders Forum, cohosted by Maison Francaise and the School of the Arts, Antonin Baudry, Cultural Counselor in the French Embassy in the U.S., and recently resigned National Endowment of the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman, in his final public appearance in the position, discussed their respective country’s relations between the government and the arts.  Arts Aficionado Alexandra Svokos listened in.

It’s no big secret that arts in France are much more publicly supported than in the US.  Rocco Landesman, speaking freely in light of his resignation, made this immediately clear when asked about government funding for the arts, saying, “one more time before I leave: it’s pathetic.”  The budget for the NEA is $150 million, he explained, while in France the arts budget is $9 billion–which would be merely significant…if the countries were the same size.

Given the straight facts, one would think that Antonin Baudry would sit back and arrogantly shrug for the rest of the talk.  But, of course, Baudry had his own complaints to make.  Really driving home the point that the grass is always greener on the other side, Baudry insisted that France would be better with more private funding, that Americans excel in.  Baudry works in the United States for French culture.  Despite having significant public funding, many of France’s major cultural institutions need private donations–Versailles, for instance, gets 25% of its budget from private donations–and much of those donations actually come from America.

There are pros and cons to the state of the arts and state for both countries.  At this point, though, France seems to be winning.  Landesman pointed out that having a majority of funding coming from private entities is extremely volatile, especially during recessions.  As soon as the last one hit the US, donations immediately disappeared.  According to Landesman, American arts are thrown into the system of free enterprise market, with people believing that if something’s worth doing, it’ll get funded.

Moreover, government support is indicative of a nation’s values.  By not supporting the arts, the government indicates that they are not a necessity.  Landesman has theories for why America has a “fundamental, visceral distrust of the arts.”  Mainly, it is because we keep a “cowboy mentality,” telling us to be emotionless and unaesthetic, thus creating a prejudice against the arts, which are believed to be “a little bit gay.”

Of his tenure at the NEA, Landesman says he is most proud of being able to embed the arts more deeply in the government.  They have bee brought into federal policy and representatives now sit at the domestic policy table.  He was amused to note the NEA has even begun major initiatives with the defense department.

When asked if France feels like it has taken a backseat in innovation of arts to the United States (think: films, music) after being at the forefront for so long, Baudry shook his head.  “It’s an American problem,” he chuckled, “not a French problem.”  Although we don’t see a lot of evident French arts, they’re prevalent around the world, with French being the second most translated language.  France produces more films per capita than the United States, it’s just that American films are the big blockbusters.  In festivals, however, French films dominate–you need only look at lineups and winners from the Venice, Berlin, and even New York Film Festivals to confirm this.

Throughout our histories, in any case, France and the US have influenced each other.  Artists from both sides of the ocean have found success on the opposite shores–“thank God for France appreciating American artists,” Landesman laughed, while Baudry cited Michel Gondry’s New York residence.  From Melies and the Lumiere Brothers of early cinema teaching American innovators to American genre films driving the New Wave, this is evident.  Finally, the two most acclaimed films of 2011, The Artist and Hugo, were love letters from American filmmakers to French, and vice versa.  Judging by the way Landesman and Baudry were lusting after each other’s national standpoint on the arts, it doesn’t look like the US and France are going to stop looking to each other anytime soon.

Impressive French arts institution via Wikimedia