From “liberté, égalité and fraternité” to the Enlightenment and Napoleon; from Proust and Flaubert to Beckett and Breton; from Descartes, Voltaire and Diderot to Sartre, Foucault and Derrida; from Jacques Louis David, Millet and Courbet to Degas, Cezanne, and Matisse, French culture—from politics to literature, from philosophy to painting—was the jewel of the world for centuries. Their snobbery, though obnoxious, had reason.
But with severe fiscal blows to the head, high unemployment and an inferiority complex triggered by globalization, France has fallen into a deep depression. Their notorious pride has been injured as they slide into Europe’s second tier. But instead of grappling with their projection of “grandeur”—the French, true to form, prefer to cling desperately to their glorious past. This country is suffering from a form of nostalgia as deluded as Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.”
The first blow to French cultural prominence came during the Cold War era, when, as art critic Serge Guilbaut suggests, New York stole modern art from Paris. At the time, America was already known worldwide for its catchy pop culture, which the French were first to call crude, but if the US was to come out on top of the Soviets, they needed high art to give them cultural authority on top of the military and economic prowess they had already proven. Meanwhile, in the wake of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the spiritually fractured artists of the West became immensely politicized . . . and it was in this mood that they pioneered abstraction. In 1948, Clement Greenberg, the most influential art critic at the time, declared the end of Parisian prestige and the birth of a new cultural capital: New York City.
Suddenly . . . the entire lineage of l’art français—from Renoir to Latour; from Monet, and Rodin to Duchamp and Yves Klein—was trumped by three machismo New Yorkers —DeKooning, Rothko and especially, Pollock. Abstract expressionism was born, it shook the world, and it was distinctly American. And if you don’t believe that Pollock had the power to single-handedly steal modern art from Paris, then you will surely agree that Warhol did.
The next blow came when Wittgenstein, Heidegger and the booming of the Frankfurt school brought philosophy back into German hands. Although this point is debatable, the following events are not. Burgundy, Bordeaux and Montpellier lost out to Napa Valley in California. Baguettes, cheese and olives lost popularity to McDonalds & other American food trends; Parisian “coffee and cigarettes” were taken over by a corporate team comprised of Camel, Marlboro and Starbucks. In film, though Godard was the real artist, Hithchock, Kubrick and Coppola raised the bar higher in America, launching Hollywood into the stratosphere. The world applauded when Marc Jacobs was nominated the artistic director of Louis Vuitton, but to me this was the coup de grâce for French haute couture. Jacobs’ deliberately dowdy, self-consciously ironic style became more trendy than “chic” ever was.
Unsure of who they are anymore, the French are grasped in the clutches of a “crise existentielle,” one that shows no signs of letting up amidst globalization, America’s cultural hegemony and the rise of China. No one speaks their language anymore, they lost the franc, and they can no longer afford to give their citizens the high standard of living that their social democratic system once proudly provided.
Joie de vivre has vanished. France is depressed and wallowing in it. The Inuit have 50 words for snow, and the French have several for their signature misère: la mélancolie, la tristesse, le malheur, l’ennui, la Nausée, le malaise. And in the age of modern pharmaceuticals, French morosité isn’t as enchanting as it once used to be; today, the French have higher rates of antidepressant use and suicide than any other European country. “And now that they’re smoking electronic cigarettes,” as Maureen Dowd says in The New York Times, “their ennui just doesn’t look as cool.”