Letter to an American Friend on France’s « Cultural Exception »
I love America.
And I detest anti-Americanism, that latter-day form of socialism for imbeciles (the original having centered on anti-Semitism) against which I have been fighting for 30 years. I am one of the many Europeans who know that, without American culture, there would be no great literature of the 1950s (Sartre, reader of John Dos Passos…), no French cinema worthy of the name (think of the Truffaut-Hitchcock-Spielberg axis), and, obviously, no modern and postmodern art (Pollock and Franz Kline shading into Soulages and Simon Hantaï).
I am also one of those who believe that the best way for a culture to protect itself is to stay dynamic, to gain in vitality while maintaining barriers, not against other cultures, but against the subculture without borders that goes by the name of vulgarity or stupidity.
Yet despite all this I am a partisan of the « cultural exception » recently articulated by Aurélie Filippetti and François Hollande, respectively the French minister of culture and president, and I would like to explain to my American friends why this is so.
First, because living culture is a good fully as precious as preserved culture, the legacy of the ages. No one objects when the international community, through UNESCO and other means, makes it a point of honor to preserve what is known as « world heritage. »
Second, because culture is a good that is as rare as that other rare resource we call nature and that ecologists throughout the world rightly seek to protect. The film, « The Artist, » the books of Jürgen Habermas and Umberto Eco, the opportunity for a French writer or filmmaker to be free of the constraints of writing or filming in bad English–do these not deserve at least a little of the energy that you devote to preserving the Everglades of Florida or the baby seals of Antarctica?
Third, because culture is not an ordinary good but rather a very special one that contributes to human dignity, to the singularity of the human race, to its capacity to become and remain subject to law and free deliberation. The Wall Street Journal, speaking recently of « French particularity, » would have us believe that the French are hunkered down in some sort of « Gallic village » nursing a reactionary « minor difference. » Nothing could be further from the truth. The French, on behalf of all those who wish to speak their mind, are defending access to the universal, real universality, not the cheap universality of the make-believe world of merchandise and the make-believe merchandise of the world. They are defending the universality of distinctive individual voices, voices which, by America’s own credo, are entitled to scrupulous respect.
Fourth, because culture–as the condition for authentic speech, its base and foundation–also provides the possibility for its commerce and circulation. The cultural exception, in this sense, does not stifle free expression–it makes it possible! The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but only a living culture, one appropriately protected, has the power to preserve and enforce that guarantee. Which means that the protection in question has nothing to do with protectionism and everything to do with a democratic duty properly conceived–duty conceived, in fact, in the sense that most Americans understand the word.
Fifth, because your film industry has everything to lose from the disappearance of what remains of the European cinema. Was not the vitality of your industry of the image nourished by the creativity of Rossellini, Fellini, and Visconti? Did not the generation of Coppola, Scorsese, and Lucas emerge as much from Cinecittà as from Hollywood? Was not the disappearance of Italy’s Cinema City a resounding blow, a catastrophe, even, for the American cinema and the United States–a catastrophe that would be repeated were the French cinema to disappear in turn?
Sixth, because your culture, too, is threatened by the triumph of the Web; because it, no more than ours, will not survive without the constitution of forms of support for publishers and studios; because the recourse to sponsorship that has been the vitality of your system is not suited to the new configuration imposed by the Internet and its copy industry; and because the mechanisms devised by France to protect its culture are, for you as well (if perhaps in other forms), a solution to the looming desertification of mind and spirit.
After the crisis of 2008, you acted to regulate financial markets.
And now you face the disintegration of the cultural market. If nothing is done to counter the massive deregulation brought about by the Web’s new techniques of diffusion, we will be treated sooner or later to a cultural crisis comparable to the financial crisis of 2008.
Two choices, my American friends. Either you cling to the anarcho-capitalism that brought us all to the brink in 2008 — or you admit that our fight is your fight, too, and that in defending the cultural exception France is pleading not for France but for the world.
Translated by Steven B. Kennedy
Bernard-Henri Lévy’s latest book, Les aventures de la vérité–Peinture et philosophy: un récit (Fondation Maeght / Grasset 2013) traces the epic struggle between philosophy and art, word and image, over the centuries. In parallel with the book, Lévy has curated a show with the same title at the Fondation Maeght in St. Paul de Vence. The show opens June 29 and runs through November 11.