Covid-19: in France, culture sacrificed?

Creative Industries & Culture

publication date 17/12/2020

After tourism, culture is the sector most affected by the crisis due to the pandemic in 2020, especially in liberal economies such as the United States or Great Britain.

France, which has the most subsidised cultural policy in the world and despite the announcement in September of a €2 billion recovery plan that was nevertheless deemed insufficient, made absurd crisis management choices for culture at the end of the year, giving priority to other economic sectors.

The sector has thus fallen into deep disarray, both economically and symbolically, destructive, and can no longer fulfil its function. Deciphering this worrying debacle in the country of cultural exception.

Culture, the government's great oblivion

First stage of this debacle: during the first lockdown, from March to May, the culture sector is forgotten in the speeches of French officials while Netflix action blazes on Wall Street and the Steam video game platform exceeds 20 million players connected simultaneously, due to the spectacular increase in their traffic.

The physical cultural offer, which is based on a real experience, had to lower the curtain: museums, monuments, libraries, theatres, concert halls, cinemas, bookshops, festivals, filming... Bitterness of the actors of the sector that a recovery plan in May relatively relieves.

Second stage: at the end of October, at the beginning of the second lockdown, while announcing new aids, the executive makes a distinction between products that are considered as essential or not on the basis of a logic that proves to be problematic and illegible.

The activities of the cultural sector are designated as non-priority or even futile. The closure of bookshops in November was a scandal and offended the entire sector.

Third step: against all expectations, and while the actors have prepared to reopen with reinforced sanitary protocols, all cultural venues remain closed for the festivities.

The cultural sector, disaster-stricken and incredulous

This is too much, when businesses, transport and shops are places where people are exposed to the virus.

Revolt of the sector which feels scorned and manifested by numerous pleas since this announcement of December 10, already launched during the first lockdown.

The performing arts sector is contesting the closure of its theatres before the Conseil d'État (Council of State).

The president of the metropolis of Lyon wants to reopen its museums. The opposition to the government supports this large-scale movement. Former Ministers of Culture speak out.

The public is disoriented. A demonstration is organised on 15 December at the Bastille and elsewhere in France. Roselyne Bachelot, the current Minister of Culture who fought to defend the sector is no longer audible, "it is better to be defended by the Minister of Economy", asserts Nathanaël Karmitz.

Several arguments are put forward: health, economic, symbolic. Theatres, cinemas, museums and libraries are undoubtedly the safest public places, with health protocols that have been tried and tested during the summer and are convincing, hence their incomprehension.

In July 2020, the Studies Department of the Ministry of Culture announced a drop in activity ranging from 36% for museums to 72% for the performing arts, and probably much more today.

Despite the high level of public support for the sector, which makes France such a cultural exception, the budget deficits are significant and the most fragile actors suffer greatly: many small independent companies threatened with bankruptcy, closures of galleries, theatres, companies, collectives, cinemas, festivals, end of intermittence due to lack of contracts, precarious artists and workers, depressed art school students.

Moreover, the government's communication at sight and without consultation with this review clause of 7 January strongly hinders the strategic planning of cultural venues.

Finally, the societal and symbolic argument is undoubtedly the strongest.

If "Culture is France", then where is culture during this crisis?

Its economic virtues (2.3% of GDP not counting its strong indirect impact on other creative industries such as tourism and luxury goods), but also its social, anthropological, psychological and philosophical benefits are strangely denied.

A reductionist vision of consumption

The governmental perspective of a dichotomy of essential/non-essential goods reveals a strong disconnection with the key factors of economic success and conceptualisations of post-modern 'consumer societies'.

This is disturbing for an executive which has used its youth as a 'start-up nation' to signal its acculturation to the liberal codes inseparable from the market.

Baudrillard's now classic work on Consumer Society has, however, long since alerted us to the reductionism of a purely economic reading of consumer goods.

The international interpretative turn in consumer behaviour, and its sequel, Consumer Culture Theory, have for decades deciphered consumption as a mirror of daily life. Baudrillard wrote: "To consume is to exist socially".

And one Internet user humorously noted that "in any case, deconfinement is a commercial feast". It should be noted in passing that while museums remain closed until further notice, many museum shops are allowed to open

Behind consumption, it is the identity construction of individuals that is at stake, their social belonging and many existential, critical and playful values according to Floch's perspective, beyond the transactional or functional economic logic.

Baudrillard thus insists on "sign consumption", i.e. a system of complex interpretations underlying it. In other words, consumption and culture are linked. The consumer is also cultural. Culture is also an object of consumption.

The first confinement has seen the consecration of consumption of basic foodstuffs for "home-made" pleasure food but also of "home culture", benefiting mainly from the digital products of the American cultural industries, known as global.

Competition was already fierce between the physical and digital supply of culture, even though the two modes of access to culture are often complementary. Crisis management is knocking out the physical offer, even with online distribution, but mainly free of charge.

Conversely, the major content industry platforms offering a paid virtual offer have taken advantage of the crisis to develop their market position: Disney+, Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV, Ubisoft, Google Art... Even if independent platforms have also emerged. Modes of cultural consumption have been reinforced, such as streaming, the big winner of the crisis.

Instead of drawing consequences, the government continues to apply an outdated reading of the hierarchy of needs of Maslow's pyramid, whose inadequacy is known, a criticism deemed acceptable by the author, who added the need for transcendence or aesthetics.

For the government, closing cultural venues for so long means that transcendence through aesthetics is considered non-essential, or limiting it to the most commercial forms of pop culture, even if non-profit cultural actors try to adapt by disseminating their content online, but without an ad hoc business model.

The government is completely disconnected both from the way citizens navigate in so-called aesthetically pleasing consumer societies and from the way offers are also conceived, in post-modern and phenomenological design.

Consumption in its complexity has itself become a cultural factor and the actors of culture are inseparable from the market system where they offer a form of existential reflection that cannot be found elsewhere.

The extent of the revolt can be measured against this blind spot of government, missing this economy of beauty or aesthetic capitalism.

A poor cultural exception

If the cultural sector in France remains the most financially supported in the world by the State, even in the midst of this crisis, the crisis of meaning currently induced has led several players in the sector to speak of a reversal of the cultural exception.

Devaluing culture in the name of public health and the economy is absurd even though it is intertwined in both areas.

This misguided binarism between essential and non-essential goods as a lever for crisis management crystallises problematic dichotomies: functionalism versus existentialism, through consumption which makes culture appear futile and dangerous and denies its strong social and economic value; dichotomy of body and mind in a vision of health which does not recognise the meaning of well-being as defined by the WHO and the role played by culture in containing major psychological consequences.

And above all, what about France's cultural identity and reputation as a marker of universality, republican cement and excellence?

Other enlightened governments have made other choices in Europe.

The indignation of many citizens in the face of this debacle, including those who do not go to museums, theatres, concerts or cinemas, shows how essential culture is to exist together in France.