With a new government comes a new Minister of Culture, and as usual we observe turnover in the leadership of top artistic establishments. Ms Filipetti, minister of culture, is no exception to this rule: theatre directors who are disliked are replaced by people more palatable to those in power.
The case of Jean-Marie Besset, director of the Montpellier theatre, is especially interesting. In fact it could be the topic of a Vaclav Havel play.
Mr Besset is being sacked following a report by an “inspector” who criticizes his artistic choices. Mr. Besset complains that he did not get the report, which furthermore seems to have been written by a competitor, the director of the Odeon theatre in Paris.
As bureaucrats paid by the government, theatre directors are subjected to inspections. What we learn from the Besset episode is that the inspectors are not only in charge of checking that the director followed the rules of public management, but act as political commissars who evaluate the conformity of the director with the esthetic Party line.
In the particular case of Mr Besset, the political commissar complains that the style of the productions is outdated and the actors play too much like vaudeville.
National theatre directors in France are an interesting kind of apparatchiks. Most of them are stage directors (a much revered category) whose artistic-bureaucratic cursus honorum rests on catching the attention of the cultural establishment early in their careers by being “provocative”. These so-called provocations essentially mean either
(i) being outrageous to some putative conservative bourgeois infected by rigid traditional values (but, as no theatre goer would ever admit having even a shred of traditional values, nobody complains about being offended, and so it is unclear whether these predictable devices — a typical one being having naked men on stage — amount to any provocation).
(ii) organize one’s production around a well-meaning humanitarian cause (such as the fight against AIDS or racism), while keeping a “décalé” and chic radical twist (you don’t want to appear as being lecturing, especially when your are).
Now Mr. Besset is not a director, but an author, and furthermore he has the bad taste of giving his plays to private theatres, an endangered species which only survives in Paris. As the government has massively invested in public theatres, with the price of a seat often as low as 10 euros, private theaters, that have to pay taxes and balance their budget, and typically have to charge from 30 to 80 Euros, struggle for survival. These private theaters rely more on the text of a play and on the quality of the acting, and less on the costly decors and staging devices, because they simply cannot afford lavish productions. In contrast, major public theatres often indulge in pharaonic, opera-type productions so as to make sure to spend their entire endowment for the year (a golden rule of public management is that you don’t save a cent for the taxpayer, otherwise your endowment in the subsequent year will be reduced by the savings you made. The logic of “needs” prevails, and everybody acts so as to boost their needs).
Private theaters are less hospitable to the provocations and innovations that are instrumental in determining the careers of state stage directors, because they cannot afford to lose spectators and they prefer to cater to them rather than to the cultural establishment. This hierarchy is inverted in the public sphere.
Mr Besset’s twin sin is not to be a member of the clique in control of the higher national theatrical establishment and managing his theatre as a private one, i.e. believing that the text is more important than the actual staging, which runs agains the cultural Party line.
To be sure, the French artistic caste is almost unanimous in begging for government money. But their claims that they may achieve more independence that way than under private sponsors is ludicrous. An artist paid by the government has to cater to the tastes of the people in power (who, that way, manage to staisfy them with other people’s money). The government is no more neutral than private sponsors but, unlike private sponsors, there is only one government and its hegemony in financing the arts is a threat to diversity.
By over-subsidising theatres the government has managed to create a loyal group of supporters for state intervention in culture. There are currently some 400 plays in the Paris area; this would have to shrink to perhaps 100 should the government withdraw its support, many people in the artistic profession would have to retrain into less exciting occupations. Statism in culture is entrenched by having artificially boosted the number of artists, thus rendering them vulnerable and dependent on state subsidies for their survival.