The decline and fall of haute couture

Paris: Capital of the Arts 1900 to 1968 at the Royal Academy suggests that art thrives when it is despised by politicians.

Aidan Campbell

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Paris: Capital of the Arts 1900 to 1968, Royal Academy of Arts, London (26 January to 19 April 2002)

Paris reigned as the world capital of art between the impressionists of the 1860s and the emergence of New York’s pop artists in the 1960s. Paris: Capital of the Arts, 1900 to 1968, a fine new exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, provides us with a glimpse of the city’s artistic life at its height. Why did Paris burn out?

One reason is that Parisian art fell into the hands of bureaucratic quangos and government agencies. In the 1980s, French president François Mitterrand began to sponsor Parisian art in an attempt to regain the kind of recognition of the days of impressionism, cubism and surrealism. This state finance funded a number of new galleries, but left French art looking anaemic and needy. French art critic Catherine Millet has commented that, in France, ‘Everything rests with the state. This makes French art look like official art. Since the Mitterrand years, we have created a generation of noncombatant artists who have settled into a comfortable existence’ (2). This seems true – can you name any living French artists?

Yet chucking artists out on to the proverbial pavement doesn’t resolve the problem, either. It is difficult for people to obsess about art when they are concerned about where their next meal is coming from. The world’s cornucopia of culture is a product of modernity – the fact that Italy lost its cultural baton to Paris in the first place was partly thanks to the emergence of France into the modern world. But the fall of Italian art was also because art mattered too much to the Princes and the Pontiffs of the Renaissance. Their narrow agendas increasingly cramped the style of the Italian masters.

The art of the Baroque was commissioned at the behest of a Catholic Church eager to demonstrate its generosity. Elsewhere in Europe, Protestant iconoclasm severely limited artistic room for manoeuvre. With both sides hitching art to theological dogma, the verve and experimentalism of Renaissance imagery took a nosedive.

Thankfully, both the ancien regime and Republican France were free from this pious intrusiveness into art. Indeed, France’s new bourgeois rulers could not care less about the avant-garde artists inhabiting the dregs of Bohemian Paris. If anything, they regarded them as part of the miasma and filth of urban blight. Gustave Eiffel’s Tower was despised by the great and the good of France when it was built in 1889 for the World Fair, and they wanted it dismantled pretty damn quick as soon as the Fair was over.

As the Royal Academy of Art show demonstrates, Parisian art ruled the world between 1900 and the 1960s. On show are several Picassos, including three studies for ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907), the first Cubist painting. My personal favourites are the two by Roberto Matta: ‘Accidentalité’ (1947) and ‘Temps-space du pissenlit’ (1967-69). Other surrealism fans may prefer Dalí’s ‘Sleep’ (1937).

For those interested in post-war French art, there is a fine selection from the Brutalists, including Dubuffet, and also from the Nouveau Realists, whose use of found objects developed Marcel Duchamp’s original theme well into the swinging Sixties. The 1968 events were important in bringing the French Situationist guerrilla artists to the attention of the world – for that reason, the otherwise bizarre emphasis of the Royal Academy show on the art of 1968 is thoroughly justified.

Thanks to the amazing creativity of these artists and others, Gay Paris became an international symbol of haute couture. Eventually, provincial France became fascinated by the lifestyle of the denizens of the Left Bank. And that is exactly when Paris lost its position as cultural hot-spot, first to New York and now to London. As Millet notes, Mitterrand’s desperate efforts to pump up Parisian culture only made a bad situation worse.

What Millet cannot explain, however, is why some contemporary art is still extremely shocking and radical, even though its creators now live comfortably complacent lives far removed from the smell of CS gas and police batons. But while it is not mediocre, contemporary Western art is not passionate, either.

A society, such as our own, which is hung up about its imagery, tends to generate a far narrower range of styles and fashions than a more indulgent society which, while prepared to fund culture, considers its art scarcely worth serious attention. The endless form-filling and committee meetings that seem to accompany all works of art these days, not only in France but everywhere, is evidence enough of an intrusive society’s dependence on culture.

It would be too glib to assert that contemporary shock art is the product of the dumbing down of culture by officialdom. The establishment would surely have preferred to revive its traditional cultural heritage. Yet for now, it has to promote a form of art in which cow dung and human turds feature prominently.

Overall, Paris: Capital of the Arts suggests that imaginative art is most successful when it is left alone by the powers that be.

Aidan Campbell is the author of Western Primitivism, African Ethicity: A Study in Cultural Relations, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and a contributor to Art: What Is It Good For?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

Busts: dead from the neck up?, by Aidan Campbell

Turning art into peepshow, by Shirley Dent

(1) See the Royal Academy of Arts website

(2) Quoted in ‘French Artists Left Out of the World Picture’, Charles Bremner, The Times (London), 13 June 2001

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