For the love of the Louvre

French traditionalists, outraged by plans to introduce private investment into the country's museums, should be wary of state influence, too.

Yascha Mounk

Topics Culture

Ask a French traditionalist whether private money should be pumped into the French arts and you will be met by vehement objection and complete disdain. Here in Paris, such high-minded indignation has reached a fever pitch over schemes to attract more private investment to French museums.

It all began last year, when the Louvre accepted $6.4 million for organising nine temporary exhibitions at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta over a three-year period. And the Louvre agreed to lend its name to a museum of Western art to be built near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In the last few weeks, opposition to the influx of private capital into France’s museums has concentrated on these two schemes, and has become even more vehement.

In the deal with the UAE, the French will receive €975 million, in return for loaning artworks from its ample collection and for giving the Abu Dhabi museum permission to use the Louvre trademark for 20 years. Even the government’s far-reaching promises that all the money from the deal will go directly to France’s museums has been insufficient to calm opposition to the scheme.

Now, you might think that nowadays money is money, and that, if it pays for the long-awaited restoration of a room in the Louvre or the Palace of Versailles, it is money put to good use.

If you said this in a Parisian café, however, you would – perhaps politely, but certainly firmly – be asked to think again. Such a Parisian would argue that the money needed to preserve le patrimoine républicain – the legacy of republican ideals- must come exclusively from the French state. Until the 1960s, this principle was ingrained in the law itself and considerable obstacles to private sponsorship remained in place and helped reduce its role to a minimum, until government reforms in 2003. What is more, now that the legal barriers have gone and sponsorship is on the rise, allegiance to this time-honoured principle is being all the more vociferously declared by France’s cultural elite.

In an article in Le Monde entitled ‘Our museums are not up for sale’, Roland Recht, professor of art history at the Collège de France, Jean Clair, former director of the Musée Picasso and Françoise Cachin, former director of the Musées de France, slammed both the Louvre deals. As a matter of principle, the authors insisted, French museums should never lend artworks in return for money. A petition against the projects organised by the popular history of art blog, La Tribune de l’Art, has attracted over 5,000 signatories, a substantial portion of whom are influential museum curators and art historians.

But why is the deal so unpopular among art professionals here, even though it is highly lucrative for their museums? The explanation lies in the fact that the French establishment regards the Louvre as a symbol of all it is proud of. The Louvre’s importance is, in large measure, owed to its history. Built as a royal palace, which was naturally the preserve of the few, the Revolution transformed it into a museum for all. This allows it uniquely to reconcile the value of universality – which is fundamental to the French Republic’s self-image as the most enlightened nation in the world – with the comforting air of cultural exclusivity.

‘The Louvre must of course be open to all. But, frankly, I find it pitiful that it has eight million visitors a year. Most of these people don’t even know what they’re looking at – they probably are tourists who got lost on their way to Euro Disney’, Mr Clair told me sadly, lowering his voice a little to pronounce the last two words.

Because the Louvre allows for a synthesis of equality and elitism, the country’s establishment tacitly agrees that it incarnates the correct conception of what France is all about. That’s why Gauche Caviar Parisians – the French equivalent of Champagne Socialists – and the traditionalist right fight side by side to keep the Louvre, and France, what they are today.

At a time in which globalisation and the resulting need for reforms have hit home in France, this peculiar blend of ideologies is more than ever invoked to set France apart from ‘the commercialist Anglo-Saxons’. Hardly surprising, then, that in their Le Monde article, Clair, Recht and Cachin referred to Atlanta simply as ‘the rich city of Coca-Cola’.

Of course, everyone here denies that this kind of rhetoric is anti-American. But the continental objection to the United States and the UK (that ‘nothing is holy’ there because all people care about is money) remains an essential element of European intellectual rhetoric.

So do other stereotypes, for example that of America’s segregated South. ‘It makes us laugh out loud when people insist that Atlanta is also the city of Martin Luther King’, Didier Rykner, the founder of the Tribune de l’Art, told me. ‘The great majority of those invited to the inaugural reception of the Louvre Atlanta were white. The only blacks around were there to serve champagne and canapés.’ Recht, speaking to me independently of Rykner, also scoffed: ‘The only blacks you can see in the Museum of High Art in Atlanta are there to serve the cocktails.’

It is unfortunate that these phantom arguments have rendered mounting a balanced debate about the ‘desert Louvre’ difficult. This may well pose some real problems. It is rumoured that Abu Dhabi might refuse to exhibit paintings depicting religious themes or female nudes, for example, meaning that curators may have to censor works of art for a UAE audience. Indeed, the contract between the Louvre and the Emirates fails to resolve this question, coyly stating that paintings could not be rejected for ‘unreasonable motives’.

To assuage the chorus of critics, Donnedieu de Vabres, the French minister of culture, assured the French art world that, in his estimation, nothing needs to stand in the way of exhibiting ‘des nues calmes’ – roughly meaning calm or peaceful nudes – in the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Opponents of the project, understandably, have particular fun with this neologism. ‘It is astonishing that the concept of a calm nude was invented by Donnedieu de Vabres, a politician – one should think that it was thought up by some religious sect’, Professor Recht triumphed. ‘It’s a grotesquely eighteenth century euphemism…’

In France, laicism is widely understood to require expressions of religiosity to be kept entirely out of the public sphere. The idea that French museum curators, who are state employees, should be forced to put together an exhibition in which their artistic freedom is curtailed by religious taboos is therefore seen as particularly scandalous.

French politicians would not think of censoring a nude that is not ‘tame’ enough for their personal taste. But in other ways, the state’s power over museums can be problematic in France as well. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, for example, has been forced upon an initially unwilling Louvre administration by a government not too interested in consulting museum curators about possible objections. The paradoxical result is that the dangers of state interference in artistic decisions are most emphasised by the very people who oppose a greater role of private initiative in the art world.

They claim, for example, that the minister of culture removed Françoise Cachin and Michel Laclotte, a former artistic director of the Louvre, from the influential Conseil Artistique des Musées Nationaux due to their public opposition to the Abu Dhabi deal. ‘The way the minister behaves is pure McCarthyism’, Mr Rykner told me. ‘But he doesn’t even have the courage of McCarthy, who at least publicly declared his principles.’

Despite their recent misgivings about the influence of partisan politics on artistic decisions, most traditionalist Frenchmen continue to equate artistic freedom with public financing of art. The significant changes of recent years have not shaken the fundamental dogmas of France’s art world. The Louvre Abu Dhabi deal has been concluded, but any future projects for internationalising the art scene here, or making it more accessible to private sponsorship, are as likely to be resisted tooth-and-nail.

Professor Recht, for example, remains entirely convinced of the need to eschew all pragmatism. ‘In these matters’, he proclaimed with a gentle smile forming on his face, ‘I am very Jacobin’.

Yascha Mounk is a freelance writer living in Paris. He blogs at A European View.

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Topics Culture


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