May 12, 2003
France - pretty as a picture

Today my host and I visited a delightful French seaside town, called Collioure. All that I've been saying here about the pleasures of vernacular architecture applied to this place. Cute or what.

There were, of course, many shops aimed at tourists, selling trinkets, food and drink of all kinds. In particular, there were a number of "art" shops.

Coullioure is one of a number of towns in these parts which are famous for their association with artists, rather in the way that the town of St Ives in Cornwall is, although that's not somewhere I've been so I don't know how exact the comparison is. But whereas St Ives is merely a quaint oddity in terms of its place in the life of the British nation, it is no exaggeration to say that France itself actually defines itself as an aesthetic enterprise.

Remember that film called The Train, the one with Burt Lancaster playing a French railway worker in the French Resistance, who gets embroiled into supervising a daring scheme to divert a bunch of French paintings which evil Nazi Paul Scofield is trying to steal and take back to Germany. True, this film was made by an American, John Frankenheimer, who also directed another favourite film of mine, The Manchurian Candidate. Nevertheless, I think this film captures something very basic about post World War 2 France, which is that France now defines itself as an aesthetic enterprise. Those paintings - the names picked out in big letters, "PICASSO", "MATISSE", "VAN GOGH", and so on - now are France, in a way that nothing else is.

I live in a country, Britain, which defines itself as its history, as its constitution - unwritten but proud, as its institutions, as its procedures. Insofar as Britain is the way it merely looks then that look would be the English countryside and a manner of occupying it both of which are now rapidly fading into history, and being buried under agribusiness and concrete and general modernity.

In France, it's the opposite. The national political history of France is a mixed story at best. They brag about "gloire", but they have precious little of it really to boast about. What they still do really well is this beauty thing. The place just looks so damned nice, almost everywhere you go.

So these art shops are not mere side shows; they are the equivalent of those many, many souvenir shops in Britain which celebrate the continuity of our political institutions (personified by the members of the Royal Family), the decency of our policemen, the honesty of our cab drivers, and the excellence of our Parliamentary system of government.

And I hate these French art shops in much the same way that I hate those ghastly London souvenir shops. Both these institutions are cashing in on something real, by selling trash which is the bastard cousin of these realities. These French art shops are crammed with faked up impressionism by the square yard, with mass produced Cezanne rip-offs, with pictures of pin-up girls done with Van Gogh clouds in the background, with stuff that is just not real. It would be okay if they sold photos and posters of the real stuff, the way lots of real art shops in places like Paris do. But what they sell is not the honest reproduction of art but the illusion of art itself. In fact, thinking about it some more, I think I probably hate these places more than I do those damned souvenir shops.

Everything else about this national aesthetic project seems to me to be working, at any rate aesthetically. But the important thing to get is that this is what is going on. If you want to understand French foreign policy, you have to realise that their anti Anglo Saxonism is not "political", it is aesthetic. The French are anti-American because they are anti-ugly.

There are, of course, lots of French people who wish France could be a bit less beautiful and a bit more, well, interesting - a bit more aimed at the future and aimed at making money and doing stuff not already done. Lots of young French people would love to live in a country where, even if you have crap qualifications, you could get a job with a future without travelling to ugly little Britain or ugly great America.

Will France be able to keep this aesthetic enterprise going? I doubt it. The way they are heading now is that they are well on the way to turning their entire country into a huge retirement home for the rich middle classes of the world. Will they settle for this indefinitely? My guess would be not. But it will be very pretty for as long as it lasts. Apart from those art shops, I mean.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:05 PM
Category: CulturesPainting