On Writing and Art

Lady Gaga and the fascist

It was a fascinating evening last night at the Dutch Institute in Paris. Not at all what I had expected, but fascinating all the same. Or perhaps I should say: fascinating for the very reason that it delivered something I did not expect.

The debate about the role of art in society is an old one. As is the discussion about the difference between high and low culture. But current political developments in the Netherlands have placed these subjects back on the agenda. It’s not just the new government that wants to cut its art budget; a recent poll showed that nearly half of the Dutch people believe that too much public money is spend on culture. Time to defend the necessity of art – or more concrete: to defend cultural subventions.

Four invitees, two Dutch and two French, all men (Frédéric Martel, Rob Riemen, Harry de Winter and Marc Restellini) where seated behind a table, with Fouad Laroui (also a man) moderating their discussion. The evening had been announced as a structured dialogue about elitism, the rise of populist politicians, the situation in the US, the commercial aspect of arts, and the effects of global competition. But as soon as the first speaker made his statement, we all sensed that structure was too high a goal. Everyone was far too passionate for a calm dialogue along premeditated lines.

This first speaker was cultural philosopher (and president of the Nexus Institute) Riemen. He stated that the Dutch politician Wilders, who had been referred to as a populist, was better called by its proper name: a fascist. It should not have surprised anyone that Wilders attacked our culture. All fascists hate culture, as they all hate democracy. To Riemen, high culture was necessary to ensure or at least facilitate political freedom. In line with Spinoza, he believed that art helped us to establish human values.

The second speaker was sociologist Martel who came to the conclusion, after his research that took place in thirty countries, that the distinction between high and low culture had more or less disappeared. Of course there was still a difference between Beethoven and Lady Gaga, but the difference between a dance performance and Japanese manga was a lot more blurry.

And there it was, the mentioning of Lady Gaga (or “Lady What’s-Her-Name,” for some). She would dominate the debate from here on out.

Museum-director Restellini was rather black and white in his opinion of her. Lady Gaga represented nothing but money. She was a young girl, possibly without any talent, being exploited. This statement made television producer De Winter “speechless”, although fortunately it did not leave him without words. To him, Lady Gaga was a genius. And sure, she had a great marketing team, but that did not mean she wasn’t an artist. What we used to consider bad or low culture had changed: HBO television series from the US were important cultural products.

Without even blinking, Restellini then admitted to have never seen or heard anything from Lady Gaga. Still, he was sure that she did not represent art.

His avowal exposed an underlying problem, as his opinion on Lady Gaga was not based on Lady Gaga. It was based on what he had read about her. But according to Riemen, we no longer lived in a reality with intelligent free media to inform us, we lived in a mediated world, where mass media prescribed our opinions.

Needless to say, the men did not reach an agreement on the importance, danger, genius or superficiality of Lady Gaga, but they did deliver an animated discussion.

The distinction between high and low culture seems to have mostly vanished, but that does not mean that all culture is in danger of becoming plain entertainment. When confronted with something (a painting, a television series, a Lady Gaga video clip), we shouldn’t ask: is this high or low? We should ask: does this have the potential to give us something we don’t expect, to force us to think outside the box, to change us? And if the answer is ‘yes’ or even ‘perhaps’, then that something is worth defending.

March 10th 2011 // L’Institut Néerlandais (The Dutch Institut) // UN CRI POUR LA CULTURE (A CRY FOR CULTURE)

One Comment

  • Institut Néerlandais

    Thanks, Claire, for attending the debate and for your thoughtful blog. It’s important to know, however, that the Institut Néerlandais is devoted to bringing quality Dutch arts and culture to the French public. We don’t only represent “high” culture. Whether it’s baroque music or a horror film, Rembrandt drawings (coming this summer!) or fashion photography, what counts for us is a reflection of the best of what our artists have to offer. – Jeanne Wikler (director, Institut Néerlandais)