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Where’s European culture gone?

Monday, 28 February, 2011 - 11:07

Frédéric Martel has just completed an epic five year’ investigation of cultural industries throughout the world. Having weaved his way through 30 countries and conducted over 1,200 interviews; he unravels power relationships, information publication and the many and various strategies of those involved in his latest work “Mainstream”. So…Europe? Let’s take a look.

Frédéric Martel is pretty much the contrary of that species of sociologist that frequents exclusive, hush-hush, private member clubs and never gets a taste of real life. For his investigation, this intrepid researcher-journalist scoured the world’s entertainment hot-spots, covering Hollywood to Bollywood, Al-Jazeera’s Qatari studios and Televisa’s Mexican HQ, traversed sub-Saharan Africa, China, Korea, Brazil, Egypt and a myriad of other remote and distant lands… And, of course, a host of European countries. Frédéric Martel explains:

For many, many years, any type of culture or information emanating from Europe was given royal treatment. Nowadays, in international cultural exchanges, the Old World has met its match. It’s not actually drowning but is standing face to face with ever-increasing competition resulting from the success of American information and the emergence of new culture and information exporter countries.

For the last dozen years or so, European film, TV programme and music exports have slumped by 10% per year. The exact opposite of the United States, which reports a 10% rise every year and now handles 50% of the world’s information exports. The 27-State Europe ranks second, totalling a third of all exports… and it is the world’s leading information importer – intra-European flows remain higher than extra-European ones.

Is this then proof that Europe is culturally stagnating because it has not taken enough interest in popular culture and the mass market? “It’s not as simplistic as that” replies Frédéric Martel, whilst highlighting the “inability of European universities to carry out cultural experimentation projects and their lack of links with the industries, technological slowness and inadequate innovation, constant scepticism as regards Internet and digitalism and the outflux of creators to the USA…

Or maybe even a dilemma in actually defining culture in Europe: “It’s historic, a legacy, it’s often elitist and also anti-mainstream; it’s probably not in tune with globalization and digital culture and it doesn’t necessarily correspond to international information flow norms”.

Individual European country cultures still stand strong

Even if it may no longer be considered as a mass culture, Europe still continues to provide niche products for valuable market segments, specifically on national-levels. Frederic Martel retorts:

It is totally inaccurate, on a world and even on a European scale, to say that local, regional and national cultures have been weakened by globalization. In Latin America, every country continues to vibrate to music; in Asia, Korean, Taiwanese and Japanese “dramas” continue to attract crowds; literature, read throughout the world, is essentially penned by national authors; as for cinema, films are made just about everywhere, even if production is minor in some countries such as England or Italy, it can reach up to 50% of box-office takings in France or in the Czech Republic.

Consequently, American culture has spread through European countries at the expense of “other” cultures, yet almost without undermining national cultures. “Henceforth, human beings have two cultures: their own – distinctive, national and local – and American culture. It’s not just a matter of standardization, but also of strengthening the local and global aspects. We’re synchronously more ‘national’ and more American. Internet intensifies this phenomenon: yesterday’s cultural products become today’s cultural services, formats and flows – highly-specific and highly-standardized.

If you chat to young Europeans, they’ll all know a great deal about national music or cinema,” continues the journalist. “They’ll talk to you about niche products and community culture, yet will be extremely Americanized in their cultural practices. The only problem is that, if you’re German, you won’t take any interest in Italian culture; if you’re French, you’ll feel totally unconcerned by Czech culture.

Overthrowing national cultural doctrine

Due to a lack of linguistic unity, of a coherent domestic market and of economic growth, Europe is not a continent but an amalgamation of national markets that, culturally-speaking, rarely converse with one another: “Considering that its area is extensively unified, that its 300 million inhabitants speak the same language, the United States domestic market is powerful; this critical mass also exists, to a certain extent, in China, India, Brazil, perhaps in Arabic countries, but not in Europe, nor in South-East Asia or Latin America, given the diversity of nations within these latter.

How can we go about establishing a common European culture under such circumstances?
It’s extremely difficult,” says the author of “Mainstream”. “As the Poles say: it’s easy to make soup with fish; but once you’ve got the soup, it’s a lot more difficult to recover the fish! This just about sums us up today. We have national cultures, but we no longer have a common European culture. Of course, I’m talking about mass culture here, entertainment, youth culture; we’re much better equipped when it comes to contemporary art, modern dance, experimental theatre or avant-garde literature.

We have a multitude of common European values. But we’re not very strong industry-wise. Yet we do have great assets, such as major European groups: Pearson, Bertelsmann, Prisa, Lagardère, Vivendi – but these groups offer local and Americanized productions. The French group, Vivendi, ranks first in video game production and is world leader in the major record label field: yet Universal produces essentially Anglo-Saxon music and Activision-Blizzard American video games. Then there’s Bertelsmann, the German media group, with Random House, the world’s foremost publisher: but they principally produce works like the Da Vinci Code and other American bestsellers.

One of the leads we have, among others, for moving forward is to: take European cultural diversity seriously. “Not so much by defending the cause in major international gatherings, such as UNESCO or the WTO, but rather in practical terms, by helping our minorities to become more visible, by creating distinctive, exceptional, original work. By overthrowing national cultural doctrine and cultural control so that we can bloom. By acknowledging the culture of French people of immigrant origin, for example, we can succeed in renewing French culture and in opening doors in Europe and throughout the world. We should prioritize this genuine, pragmatic promotion of diversity throughout Europe, to stimulate our Old World’s culture, to arouse it from its dormant state.

And, as such, to offset European population aging, which deprives creative industries from their main entertainment generator: young people. “One of the key factors for the increasing success of areas such as India, Brazil or Arabic countries is the inexhaustible demand by young people for cultural products (these countries have a high percentage of under 25 year olds). A contrario, it is one of the reasons that Japan is stagnating,” states Frédéric Martel.

No common strategies

Could European institutions stimulate collaboration, partnerships between the cultural industries of the various countries and boost their market positions? The researcher does not think so.

You can’t fight the strength of the American entertainment market with EU subventions! We can fight by regulating and more so by establishing strong industries. I bet more on Orange, Vivendi and Canal + to face up to the Americans than the State. But national and European institutions do have a role to play by encouraging, rather than hindering, industries, start-ups, innovation and Internet development. If this book helps make Europeans aware of the importance of soft-power and encourages them to integrate this new international situation, then it will have fulfilled at least one of its purposes!

For example, via strategic bridge-building between media groups of different countries. “It’s an idea, but for the moment it’s just wishful thinking. No major European media exists. On a minor scale, there’s the Financial Times and The Economist, but they only appeal to the elite. Neither the RFI, nor the BBC, nor any radio station speaks to Europeans. Arte has low audience ratings in France and they’re quasi non-existent in Germany: we aren’t even capable of talking about culture to the French and the Germans at the same time!

Especially since today, “there are more differences between us and the Romanians than between us and the Americans,” concludes Frédéric Martel. “And that’s where the problem really lies: we’re all European, but European identity continues to elude us. And as for European culture, well, it’s still trying to discover itself.

Read “Mainstream, On Mass Culture” by Frédéric Martel, published by Flammarion.
Listen to “Masse Critique” (Critical Mass), the creative industry and media magazine presented by Frédéric Martel, every Sunday from 7pm to 8pm, live on France Culture Radio.