As a cultural war continues to rumble in France, art remains a beacon for progressive visions

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As a cultural war continues to rumble in France, art remains a beacon for progressive visions


Accused of bending to the extreme right before the French federal elections of 2022, President Emmanuel Macron tried to strike a balance. In January 2021, the leader’s party said it would create a “memories and truth” commission on France’s painful colonial history and the war with Algeria. In March, he published a report on the positive contributions of people with an immigrant background entitled “Portraits of France”.

These initiatives are part of a larger effort to find alternative solutions to the growing demands for the removal of statues and street names honoring historical figures linked to France’s colonial past, including its slave trade. Yet, at the same time, Macron and some of his ministers have stirred up emotions by publicly denouncing forces they see as fueling so-called ‘separatism’, including what many see as political correctness and canceling culture. to the US of which is a largely unpopular but growing concept in France – as well as a perceived American version of multiculturalism.

Recent events in France and abroad have further fueled this upheaval. The #MeToo movement has encountered uneven hostility. The October beheading of a teacher who was showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a free speech class has led to a new “anti-separatism” bill, which aims to combat Islamic radicalism. And the protests following the murder of George Floyd in the United States last year sparked renewed conversation about the nature of racism in France and put the country’s old methods of cultural assimilation to trial.

In this context of cultural war which shows few signs of slowing down, artistic projects remain a powerful venue for progressive discourse in France – even as certain factions of the country mobilize to denounce what many have called an “import” of the discourse. American on identity politics.

President of France Emmanuel Macron. Photo: Jean Catuffe / Getty Images.

Art and politics

While the warring factions argue over how to integrate the populations of citizens from former colonies, a resurgent new left, marked in particular by young people from the populations themselves at the center of the issue, has rejected the social model ” universalist ”of the country. , which traditionally minimizes – some would say ignore – cultural differences between citizens. The traditional style of governance aims to avoid what is often seen as an Americanized version of warring ethnic and religious groups.

In one The world March editorial, supporters of the presidential project “Portraits of France” declared that playwrights, filmmakers and painters should “capture these life stories and turn them into works of art that speak to our society and our world” . They added that “by ignoring part of our common past, we have made it more difficult to understand our present and write our future.” This reconciliation effort follows the decisive remarks of the French president a few years ago on restitution, when he commissioned a special report advocating the return of African art from public museums that had been taken “without consent”, informing movement. in Europe.

But these cultural forays are not always welcomed with open arms. The executive branch of the French government has specifically designated universities, including the social science fields of postcolonial and intersectional studies, saying these fields are under the risk of influencing radical agendas that pit communities against one another. He also announced in February a broad inquiry into the presence of “Islamo-leftism” – a term that loosely refers to far-left activists who are “complacent” to radical forms of Islamism or who apologize. for terrorism – in universities. As a result, many are worried about censorship in schools and that scientific research into the darkest chapters in French history is under threat.

Emo de Medeiros … Despite the forces involved (2018).
MACAAL Collection / Fondation Alliances © ADAGP, Paris, 2021. On view with the exhibition “What is forgotten and what remains” currently on view at the Palais de la Porte Dorée.

This debate spilled over into the art world when a series of government-commissioned portraits of women on public display in March in Paris, designed to celebrate diversity by featuring images of professionals from different fields, sparked a backlash. vicious. The photographs of “109 Mariannes” have become a subject of controversy due to the inclusion of young astrophysicist Fatoumata Kébé who was chosen for her headscarf. Irritated that Kébé was chosen to symbolize “Marianne”, the personification of the French Republic often interpreted in art or on stamps, the former spokesperson for the right-wing Republican party, Lydia Guirou, was among the angry. tweeters: “Marianne is not and will NEVER wear the headscarf!”

The sentiment is consistent with a bill the Senate amended this month to prohibit accompanying persons on school trips from wearing Muslim headscarves. The bill has been heavily criticized for its stigmatization of Muslims and called for a violation of France’s already strict secular laws, which prohibit the wearing of clearly visible religious symbols in schools and by officials. That said, opinions are changing: a poll carried out earlier this year by Ifop showed that high school students have “broken” with the more restrictive view of an older generation of French secularism, and a growing number of people in favor of secularism. scarf at school.

Visitors look at “L’esclave à vendre” (1873) by Jean-Léon Gérôme during the press visit to the exhibition “Black models: from Géricault to Matisse” at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris on March 25, 2019. Photo: François Guillot / AFP) via Getty Images.

Faces of the Republic

Despite examples of inflammatory reactions, the cultural sphere is conquered by a new wave of progressive views. A younger generation has become eager to focus more openly on the subject of race and difference. French citizens of immigrant origin raise their voices to say that, in practice, their identities are under-represented in a society that discriminates against them because of their inherent differences. With a sense of irony, they describe a society that claims to be blind to these differences while demanding that any outward sign of that difference – for example, hijabs – be avoided, to better fit a cultural mold.

“We like the idea of ​​’universalism’ because it’s a kind of utopia… But it’s easier to go to Mars than to the land of universalism,” Nadine Houkpatin told Artnet News. She is co-curator with Céline Seror of a show that includes works by artists from Africa and its diaspora called Memoria: tales from another story to be discovered until November at the Frac-Nouvelle Acquitaine MECA in Bordeaux. Houkpatin notes that while a new generation has indeed been “inspired” by some of the “awakened” political ideas emanating from the United States, the theorists behind many of these leftist ideas are often of French origin.

"Memoria: Tales from another story" at the Frac Nouvelle-Aquitaine MÉCA.  Photos: Gaëlle Deleflie.

Views of the exhibition “Memoria: Tales of another History” at the Frac Nouvelle-Aquitaine MÉCA. Photos: Gaëlle Deleflie.

Bordeaux salon curators assume that when it comes to discussing these issues through art, people have an easier time accepting more progressive and controversial topics. “I think that through art we can answer these questions which are essential,” said Seror. Art “gives a certain freedom which allows us to express ourselves on these subjects”, she added.

Indeed, it seems that the art world has been somewhat protected: responses have been overwhelmingly positive to both shows, despite ongoing debates in the public domain. The exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay even received a nod from a critic who supports the government’s investigation of academics. “I saw the exhibition and enjoyed it a lot,” said Nathalie Heinich, a sociologist who has published works on contemporary art. She is in favor of the recent position taken by the French government against “radical” intellectual currents “from elsewhere” and has signed an editorial in The world who described them as “harboring a hatred for ‘whites’.”

The director of the Immigration Museum Pap Ndiaye, a French historian, poses during a photoshoot, outside the museum in Paris on March 5, 2021 (Photo by Martin BUREAU / AFP) (Photo by MARTIN BUREAU / AFP via Getty Images )

Pap Ndiaye, the historian and new director of the museum of immigration to France, the Palais de la Porte-Dorée, recently told reporters that he, too, was concerned about the retreat of academia. “This comes at a time when postcolonial and intersectional issues are starting to find their tiny place in French universities,” he said. “If we stop teaching them, where will the students go?” The Paris museum he oversees currently has an exhibit on the experience of immigration that features 18 artists from Africa and its diaspora – it’s a poignant exploration of artistic diversity and it falls on the museum’s 90th anniversary. , which openly opened with an exhibit to celebrate the settlements and include human exhibits.

The title of the exhibition at the Ndiaye museum, “What is forgotten and what remains”, which translates to “What is forgotten and what remains”, also seems to ask what traces of this dark past remain in the world. unconscious popular today. It is visible until July.

As the government and certain factions of the population continue to take revenge on universities, artistic institutions are expected to become an increasingly singular voice for pressing questions about postcolonialism in France. “When an artist presents [their work] in a museum open to the public, then we can start talking about colonialism, decolonization and its impact on society, ”said curator Seror. “It is the power of art.”

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