Benoît Duteurtre, Requiem pour une avant-garde, Herald Tribune, Katherine Knorr, 7 juin 1995

French music and Subsidies: Who Are the Moderns?

Paris – Benoît Duteurtre, a 35-year-old novelist and music publisher, has been compared to Robert Faurisson, the infamous French historian who denies the Holocaust. What has Duteurtre done to deserve this? He has written a book that intends to be the obituary of atonal music and denounces the large subsidies given by the French government to what is unfortunately called musical research.

Duteurtre is not the First to criticize the French government’s bloated and pretentious cultural bureaucracy but his focus on music » in his recently published « Requiem pour une avant-garde » (Robert Laffont), amounts’ whether he intends it or not (and mostly he does), to a broadside against France’s most famous musician, Pierre Boulez, who is celebrating his 70 years amid wide and deserved acclaim.

This is a flashpoint not only for hard-core Bouleziens, but also for those who feel that it is unwise to criticize France’s only musician with major international stature (In that sense, Duteurtre is, as the French say, spitting in the communal soup).

Like a lot of « cultural » Fights these days, on both sides of the Atlantic this one has led to accusations that seem all out of proportion to the topic, and indeed a court forced Le Monde to print an answer from Duteurtre after music critic Anne Ray compared him to Faurisson in a very angry review.

It is curious to witness such anger at what seems after all to be within the realm of legitimate criticism. Boulez’s generation and indeed Boulez himself was famous for its blanket denunciations of previous generations as bourgeois or even fascist. Now Duteurtre essentially is being labeled « reactionary. » Or, who are the Ancients and the Moderns here?

Duteurtre’s caustic and funny book which says that musical « analysis » has replaced music in some circles and that audiences are expected to endure atonal concerts like religious sermons demonstrates what has become increasingly apparent in Europe and in the United Slates: Abstraction in all the arts has reached a dead end and a new generation of artists has turned its back on the self-conscious avant-gardism of their predecessors. Abstraction was only ever an idea, seductive but ultimately sterile (as demonstrated, for example, by the nouveau roman).

This means that the French government, through its subsidies to lrcam and other Boulez-inspired organizations, is funding music that not only has no audience, despite all of French radio’s attempts to force-feed it to people (with « world premieres » never followed by performances elsewhere), but also is Fighting the last war.

Duteurtre’s book harks back to two others published during the last Five years that are evidence of a severe intellectual malaise in France vis-à-vis government patronage of the arts and that are relevant to discussions elsewhere at)out state money for culture.

The idea that France has turned into a theme park called France and that « culture » is the state religion, was the subject of « L’Etat culturel « , a brilliant book published in 1991 by Marc Fumaroli, a professor at the College de France who has just been elected to the Academic Française.

The absurdities of cultural « policy » under Culture Minister Jack Lang was also the subject of Michel Schneider’s « La Comédie de la Culture » ( 1993), his apologia after he left his job as the top music bureaucrat in a confrontation with Boulez. Criticism of the mega-Culture Ministry thus has come from both « conservatives » like Fumaroli and « progressives » like Schneider

Duteurtre’s book confronts the artistic poverty of the second half of this century a very real poverty despite the cheerleading that takes place in (he political and commercial world that lives off contemporary art. Admitting this state of affairs goes against a contemporary notion of progress, where everything gets better and art « improves » as it is « opened » to more people and so on. That this is not the case is politically incorrect in France, which has become deeply insecure about its artistic place in the world (and where the novel is moribund) and spent millions of francs in a weird attempt not to miss the next artistic train and to trump America by showing « official » interest in the art of repression like graffiti and so on.

It is a fact that, while there lire very Fine writers and artists working today, there arc no obvious masterpieces. Tills seems to be a source of shame in certain circles and leads to a lot of nonsense about trying to make canonical » works of art that don’t deserve to be.

What the French example which is often praised in the United Stales by those who favor increased funding by the National Endowment for the Arts has amply demonstrated is that subsidies do not often encourage great art. They go to people who are good at writing grant requests or who are friends of the bureaucratic Maecenas or who have the right politics, race or gender. In the United States, it has led, for example, to funding literary magazines that publish what (he critic Bruce Bawer recently called « poems that are on the literary level of bumper stickers. »

Of course, some money goes to people with considerable talent, whose lives are therefore made easier, but is this really what the taxpayer wants?

Katherine Knorr

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