Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Le Louvre et l’exception francaise

Last week I spent a few happy hours in the Italian and Spanish Paintings section of the Louvre. I gazed at statues I had never heard of and gawked at the huge crowd gathered around the face that launched a thousand paperback bestsellers. Unless you too have joined that crowd at some point over the years, I promise you the Mona Lisa is much smaller in person than you think it is.

It struck me later that perhaps, for a course on art in and of Paris, actual French paintings might have been more appropriate. It’s possible that closing my eyes and choosing the section of the map my finger landed on was not the best strategy for navigating the museum, overwhelmingly large as it may be.

There is a reason that the prominence of foreign art in the Louvre initially drew no surprise from me, however. “L’exception française” is a diplomatic name for what many people think of as typically French arrogance. Strictly speaking it refers to the French tendency to favor domestic arts and goods over foreign ones, as with public funding for French cinema and better market conditions for French cheeses; as with so many cultural concepts, however, it means much more than that.

Modesty and humility are fine virtues, according to l’exception — for other countries. It is silly to pretend, out of what could only be misguided politeness, that France is not special. Better. France can no longer claim a concentration of the world’s power, but it holds on to its reputation as the center of the world’s (really the west’s) culture. France simply is the center of everything, and naturally Paris is the center of France. Mockery of this mindset comes easily, especially as an American with one’s fair share of national arrogance, but the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of this concept’s power.

Paris has long been the destination for artistic and personal development for everyone from lost-generation artists to eager students with terrible accents .(I myself am guilty of the latter, but I hope to parlay my Californian-Sinaloan-Parisian hybrid voice into a career as a glamorous Cary Grant figure with the attendant unidentifiable origins.) If the cliché question to pose to someone who’s taken time off is, “Did you find yourself?” then Paris is the place where that cliché seems the most likely to be fulfilled.

The multiple Italian nationalists who have tried to steal the Mona Lisa away from France disagree that Paris is a natural place for Spain’s and Italy’s artistic heritage. Of course they do; they’re bitter that they aren’t French. Aren’t we all? Just as the United States may lose its economic superiority but not the iron grip in which American English and MacDonald’s hold the world, France’s collapsed empire enjoys an afterlife in minds all over the Occident.

The image of cultural knowledge and power outlives the political clout that created it to such an extent that a few days in a single museum in Paris can lend a person enough credibility to bluff through decades of cocktail party conversations. L’exception française has taken me in thoroughly enough that, at least on first glance, that fact seems only right.

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