the republic on the flying trapeze

the relation of Nicolas Sarkozy with high culture has usually been ambivalent, or aggressively indifferent. the “President Bling-Bling” as the snickering and smug detractors of his cultural legacy like to point out, is hardly in the tradition of France’s past. But then, what does it mean to be French in the 21st century? Also, the demarcations between low, medium and high culture are vague and they cannot exist independent from one another.Also, as in he case of Sarkozy’s recent plunge into the arts is whether, in his Rosetta Stone approach, is whether aesthetics and morality are the same thing.

Arielle Dombasle at the Crazy Horse. ---For some, the turnaround was too great for a man who only three years declared only "a sadist or an idiot" would include The Princess of Cleves, a 17th-century romantic classic, in public sector exams. "I am very circumspect," sniffed Jérôme Garcin, who presents the literary programme The Mask and The Quill on public radio station France Inter. "In cultural matters, I don't believe in this type of metamorphosis. You don't go from Saving Private Ryan to (Danish director Carl Theodor) Dreyer in a sincere way," he told Libération. Yann Moix, a writer and director, was more convinced. "Carla no doubt pushed him into the debate, that's for sure.---Read More: image:

Stephen Bayley : “Not tonight, Josephine” was something you would never hear in Sarko’s Elyséé Palace. But post-Dominique Strauss-Kahn, France’s sexual elite has abandoned posing pouches and taken to film and literature for “cinq-à-sept” diversions. “Carla, pass me the anthology of 19th-century short stories and the boxed collection of Truffaut” is now the presidential pillow-talk. A certain stratum of French society used to hang out at Les Chandelles, Paris’s notorious “club échangiste” (with full caviar menu). Now, taking the lead from the President himself, you will find them at the Bibliothèque Nationale, checking their footnotes….

---The question remains whether Monsieur Le Président has been well-steered in his voyage of discovery. Hitchcock and de Maupassant? This is doggedly lower-middle-brow stuff. Why not Alain Resnais and Elias Canetti?---Read More: image:,16641,20071203,00.html

…The idea of the auto-didact goes back to Mozarabic Spain, but Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée, of 1938, passed the term into common currency. Before that, Flaubert’s last (unfinished) novel was about a couple of clerks who set out, unsuccessfully, to acquire the entirety of knowledge. Clearly, the French have a demented need to binge on culture. Thus, Sarko’s new regime of cinema classics and the literary canon takes its honourable place in the dodgy annals of self-invention. Fabulous, non, that the President can make knowing reference to compositional stratagems in late Hitchcock and pastoral symbolism in Boule de Suif? But what nagging personality deficiencies is the new and pitiless programme of cultural instruction intended to address? Read More:

---And for self-improvement in the cinema, forget Hitchcock. Instead, I’d recommend they all go to see the complete Carry On oeuvre. Life, you see, imitates art. ---Read More: image:

Evidently, Sarkozy is trying to be more of a gentleman. That is, still being a predator and horny, but not cheating on Carla. It also shows a certain nervousness about manliness and a fragile identity. One wonders if Sarkozy is not pulling at a stubborn root here, one with uncertain and perhaps overrated nutritional value when there is lower hanging fruit nearby.Part of this is political and nostalgic. a conservative sentimental escapist fantasy. The cultured gentleman of the imagination is a powerful image. Sarkozy’s new fixation with cultural ideals reveals something of a societal discomfort, something disconcerting about with being adrift in a multitude of roles; a smug and comfortable Raft of the Medusa for the well-off.It also reveals the holes in our education: a quest for a sort of knowledge once integral in common schooling and now marginalized by popular culture and the parasitic marketing industry behind it. Sarkozy’s moves are simply indicators of much we feel we are missing.

But, for Sarkozy, is this just another method of putting one’s pecuniary standing in evidence; the function of culture as an evidence of ability to pay? All this viewing of art-house films would not be considered a decent activity if it should give any impression of the tradesman on the part of the viewing executive clan. It all carries the suggestion of leisure; a distancing from the unwashed. Again, we come back to what is termed “invidious comparison” Thorstein Veblen’s classification of high culture as just another form, a supplemental variety of conspicuous consumption remains valid.The culture industries do not discriminate in this sense, though Adorno described Veblen’s critique as appalling, though it unmasked a number of illusions.

---What a masterpiece! Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), from a scénario by Jacques Prévert, is a French poetic realist film that takes place within the Boulevard du Temple, Paris during the 1830's. After a few preliminary initial attempts to make the film, it was finally produced by the French Pathé studio. The film sets were brilliantly designed by Alexandre Trauner, the costumes were beautifully crafted, and the inordinate amount of extras all go to create an authentic bustling 19th century Paris. In, and surrounding, two different theaters, the pantomime Funambules and the thespian Grand, the film is about the putting on of plays, the working class life of artist's, and their romantic plights. ---Read More:

Russell Smith:Middlebrow: The Taste That Dare Not Speak Its Name, by Devin Friedman, was in the June edition of the magazine. It goes over the familiar ideas of highbrow and lowbrow taste – categories of culture, with poetry at one end and pornography at the other – and stops with an embarrassed pleasure on the uneasy middle, the undefinable category that has been denounced by the educated since at least Virginia Woolf. Very roughly speaking, you might say the middlebrow is the kind of culture people consume because it shines with the veneer of the sophisticated but is actually unchallenging (the musical Cats, for example). Or culture whose main goal is to promise personal improvement (Oprah’s Book Club)….

…The idea of class distinctions in culture has been much analyzed by philosophers as impenetrable

Pierre Bourdieu (the seminal book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste is pretty much all about how we come up with these competitions) and as populist as Paul Fussell (in fun books such as Class and Bad). The specific examples of what art falls into what class category have changed dramatically over the years, though. The classical music that Bourdieu showed to be middlebrow in 1960s France is unknown to many educated Americans now….

---Russell Smith: So why does GQ need to give cultural snobbery another old-fashioned, feel-good American thrashing? Are we really still fighting against cultural snobbery, now in the age of PhD specializations in The Simpsons? It interests me that a commercial magazine thinks these are points that still need to be scored. This question of what is an embarrassing taste refuses to go away. Despite all the postmodern theorizing about the erasure of high and low, despite the triumph of mass culture, people still feel guilty or inadequate about their lack of intellectual cool.---Read More: image:

…No one can agree on exactly what’s middlebrow because we can only define it in the light of our own exposure to the highbrow. Whatever is our own uppermost limit of enjoyment of the recherché or obscure becomes our definition of the highbrow. If that limit happens to be Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, then all that is perceived to be “below” that – Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, for example – is at least middlebrow. But if the Nutcracker represents classical music itself to you, you probably think of it as highbrow. (Cats would be middlebrow.) Friedman says Jonathan Franzen is a middlebrow taste (I’m guessing because he was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club), whereas to the non-reading public, a style like Franzen’s would be considered quite dauntingly intellectual.Read More:

So, nobody takes culture more seriously than the French; and France is a country where  state promotion of cultural influence has been national policy since Cardinal Richelieu in the seventeenth century. Government spending on cultural, artistic, and recreational activities is 1.5% of GDP, as opposed to one-fifth of that in America. We are living in a world of cultural fragmentation, niche entertainment requiring specialized cultural knowledge. Sarkozy, in a sense is shilling for France’s bureaucratic, protectionist and perhaps elitist control of culture. Institutionally,  a distrust of novelty, market success and “low culture,” something of the opposite in the States.

---Jacques Tardi’s ’70s comic book heroine, journalist/novelist/adventurer Adèle Blanc-Sec, likes to travel to far-flung lands, collect extravagant tchotchkes and dress up in disguises. She’s a female Tintin for grownups, in other words. There she is in Tardi’s first volume, Les Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec, riding a pterodactyl through the streets of Belle-Époque Paris. In French director Luc Besson’s adaptation of Tardi’s first volume, Adèle (Louise Bourgoin) is back in Paris from Egypt, where she’s found a doctor who can treat her sick sister. Just as she thinks her adventure is over, she stumbles on the pterodactyl, and she spends the rest of the film trying to evade a buffoonish police inspector (Gilles Lellouche) and a dashing hunter (Jean-Paul Rouve) on a madcap chase through the city. Besson has faithfully reproduced Tardi’s set pieces as well as a resplendent 1912 Paris, to the extent where it could be mistaken for something out of Jules Verne. ---Read More:


arguing that on the contrary, Sarkozy “parlait vrai” (a euphemism meant to imply the president speaks like the rest of us proles), adding that he refused to lose listeners by using “un style amphigourique” (don’t worry, this is probably the most looked-up word in French dictionaries – it means an incomprehensible and convoluted use of words). What’s that you say? A pompous declaration, overzealous in its desire to compensate for Sarkozy’s mistakes? Mais oui! At least the president has been using a more soutenu language as of late – something easily spotted by the number of imperfect subjunctives used in his recent speeches.

Sarkozy’s muscular rhetoric and use of demagoguery is indeed legendary – so much so that in 2008 a book, Les Mots de Nicolas Sarkozy, was written about it. From the soundbite “travailler plus pour gagner plus” (“working more to earn more”), which arguably won him the presidential election, to his coarse “casse toi pauv’ con”, his words are rooted in action, not nuance. They may be peppered with gut-wrenching grammatical errors (“Si y en a que ca les démange d’augmenter les impots”) and ignoble syntactical mistakes (“On se demande c’est a quoi ca leur a servi”), but above all he remains an effective communicator – something that no one on the left can currently claim. But, on top of the herculean task of amassing votes, should politicians also seek to become hommes de lettres – erudite men and women who shine not only in the national assembly, but also at the Académie Française? Read More:

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