As I found when I first moved to France, you don’t have to look far for ‘cultural’ or artistic events and activities. One great example is a parade I attended this past weekend which was the opening ceremony for a Biannual Dance festival. I went to the parade knowing that it mostly highlighted performances from local dance studios. I don’t know much about dance, but the performances were really surprising to me. Obviously hours had been poured into the choreography of the different groups, the costumes, the timing, the music, and I thought on the whole it was really well done. What surprised me, though, was that for a very big, well advertised parade the choice of dance was contemporary, and at times, just plain weird. In my mind, contemporary art in any form remains fairly inaccessible to the general public. This kind of thing doesn’t shock people here, but I have a feeling it would be less well received in the US.
The question is, why? Not so much why wouldn’t a French person find this weird (I spoke to some French people who saw the same parade, they also found it strange at times), but rather, why is art, strange art, accepted here as a normal thing to see parading down the street?
The answer, I believe, is that the French have a more constant and regular contact with art in all forms. Contemporary art requires thinking and engagement. Even if everyone’s not on board with what it represents, these qualities of thinking and engaging are present in different forms throughout French culture. For example, philosophy is a main subject in all high school curricula and students taking the nationwide baccalauréat often have to answer questions like: “What is the role of art in society?” or “Are all beliefs contrary to reason?”. If you look on the Wikipedia pages for French presidents during the 20th century, they all have a ‘publications’ or ‘bibliography’ section. This is not for books published on them, or for their biographies or autobiographies. This section is for books they wrote on various subjects, often political but sometimes literary as well (translations, biographies on other Frenchmen of the past, that sort of thing). In short, from your average high school student who is forced to read about Rousseau, to the elected leader of your country who is also a writer, to the literary talk shows on TV where they invite current authors to discuss books, art and ‘culture’ are everywhere.
So getting back to my original question, why is it more acceptable to have this kind of parade here? Because it’s expected high school students can think and reason about philosophers. Because politicians are considered more legitimate if they write books. And because you expect that if a large crowd of people see a parade with contemporary dance, even if they don’t understand it, they can recognize what it is and know that it’s part of a tradition of art.