Is the Paris Art World Dead?
Paris was long ago eclipsed as the center of the art world, but that doesn’t mean it has to fade into dignified irrelevance.
Paris is not the up-and-coming art city. That’s Naples, or Shanghai, or Leipzig, or Los Angeles. It’s not the art champion of the moment. That’s Berlin. It’s not really even one of the old gods anymore, big, dated, but still influential, like its classic competition of New York and London. I often find myself wondering why.
Paris makes the cliché version of ourselves into a tough opponent. Even living here, no matter how many times I see the Eiffel pricking up in a rain-soaked vista, I can’t seem to stop myself from an awkward cooing. It’s a fight that, for whatever reason, I seem to take up against the part of myself that enjoys the simple pleasures of postcard histories. It’s a boring fight, but I think it’s an important one.
For those trying to be artists in this city (a distinction I fortunately or unfortunately must lump myself into), fighting the cliché, fighting the way Paris romances you with its past accomplishments, is crucial.
It’s too easy to lie down in the warmth of the city’s wet monuments, in the goings up and down of its sun, and in the countless -isms of art history that were born or made famous here: Cubism, Fauvism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Impressionism.. .the -isms go on. The risk inherent to making art in Paris is the easy comfort of living out a romantic image of the artist here, receiving the benefits of being a bohemian in the eyes of the outside world, and never contributing new ideas to the evolution of “Art.”
I feel I have the right to criticize the cliché because I arrived here as one. Twenty-two years old, and, like all good Americans, loaded with 1920s writer-kinks and painter-fantasies. In a desire to draw equivalencies between the past and present, I went out looking for living people doing the romantic stuff I’d read about. I found some like me, foreigners in 10th arrondissement poetry-bars and 20th arrondissement cheap cafés, clichés basically, and though it was cute to role-play together something sexy as a Parisian art community, there was a sadness in the act. There was something hollow in pretending to be a collective who had contributed ideas to the world without actually contributing our own.
A friend and I, with the help of other writers and artists we met, wanted to do something to crush that hollow feeling and make sure we had a chance to live our own “Paris moment.” We started a magazine, the Belleville Park Pages, as an attempt to record the work of our Paris-based peers. The magazine was designed to be cheaper than a pint of beer, and quick to read, one big sheet of paper folded like a map. We got the magazine stocked in places around the world, in the bookshops of our fantasies. We sold over 20,000 copies.
But the magazine was limited. In the media, the magazine and the people in it were constantly compared to dead names of the Parisian past. Dead Joyces, dead Fitzgeralds, dead Hemingways, dead Steins; dead everyone else. The magazine benefited from what I refer to as, “the Paris bump”, the benefit of simply being considered an artist in Paris without doing anywhere near enough good work to deserve the comparisons (read, “any at all”).
The magazine, at least in my opinion, was hamstrung by the romance of its overt Paris branding. Purposefully, there weren’t defined ideas and clear concepts driving its editorial direction. We wanted to give people a platform to say whatever they wanted. But in doing so, we didn’t give the magazine any identity to carry it beyond its Parisian sexiness, to make it something worth a value to the larger world beyond an image. That image could only sell so many magazines, and after three years we decided to stop due to money problems. In the aftermath of an important era of my own life, I felt lost. I was still living in Paris and so I tried to connect myself with a more local art community. One that was based less on the Anglophone cliché of the city.
I found the French art community of Paris, with its own writers and artists, and though it doesn’t suffer from the same aforementioned clichés as the foreigners who try to make it here, it still suffers from its own cliché: the weight of history. The amount of times I’ve heard sentences spoken by French artists like, “I can’t talk about X because Zola’s said it,” or, “I can’t talk about Y because de Beauvoir’s said it,” feels countless. That’s not a problem for Anglophones, Americans especially, with our grandiose sense of individual liberty. But the weight of history limits ideas just the same.
Because the big ideas are avoided for fear of intellectual comparison to the past, the Franco-Parisian art community seems to silo into nothing more complex than friend-groups who make art together. Disparate art defined by social connections instead of unifying themes. Friend-groups whose ideas do not intermingle, and in turn, do not really develop. Though this criticism is clearly a subjective failure, I don’t believe that art, and the beauty it produces by leveling diverse experiences on universal themes, can truly succeed when produced by small groups who don’t communicate.
For different reasons, the French and foreign communities of Paris are failing the same. Failing in the responsibility of projecting our new ideas, new thoughts on society represented through art, that would give something of substance for the outside world to analyze (the art world and the world generally). That failure defines the unified, international art community of contemporary Paris. And maybe that failure explains why Paris has lost its grasp on international artistic relevance.
To assess mathematically the decline of Paris as ‘Cultural Capital’ is difficult and dangerous. Difficult, because numbers struggle to capture theoretical influence. Dangerous, because numbers often take the form of financials, which limit artistic importance to the base of their monetary worth. But, if we start with the accepted assumption that France (Paris specifically) invented the “collector-driven” art market as we know it today, then here are some numbers that speak weight:
As reported by Artprice, a leader in art market research, France contributed only 2 percent of global art sales in 2018 (versus 39 percent for the U.S, 28 percent for China and 23 percent for the U.K.) They are one tenth the value of their U.K., London-centered, neighbors, their competition. Those numbers are even more disparaging when viewed in the context of Contemporary Art, current creation. Just 8 percent of France’s total 2018 art sales were considered “Contemporary Art.” There were no French artists in the top 100 auctions of Contemporary Art last year, world-wide. And Contemporary French artists made up only a tiny fraction of overall sales at the world’s leading auction houses: 1.4 percent of Christie’s 2018 sales, and 0.9 percent of Sotheby’s. This stands in stark comparison to burgeoning cultural capitals like Hong Kong, whose Contemporary sales amounted to 46 percent of total sales, a trend supporting China’s rise in art market importance.
To contextualize the decline differently, we could instead look toward France’s historically strong literary tradition. Between the prize’s founding in 1901 and Jean-Paul Sartre’s winning of it in 1964, France produced 12 Nobel laureates in literature. Since then, it has produced only two (though one could argue that Paris was instrumental in the lives of some of its famous inhabitants).
These numbers are very neo-liberal, very modern-capitalism, in that their relation to young, “up-and-coming” artists is trickle-down at best. The support of top awards or large-scale investment isn’t seen, directly, by artists still trying to make a name for themselves. But award recognition and a strong economy, localized within an art capital, does help. It brings attention to the urban artistic environment and gives artists a clearer ladder to climb (if their goal is, as it is for most artists I know, to make a living through their art). That attention, which I’ve felt more strongly in other art cities, is crucial for artists trying to win respect for their ideas beyond direct social networks.
I’ve had the chance to live for some short moments in New York and London and Los Angeles, and in all those cities I was often asked the same cutting question by artists: does anything still happen in Paris? That question, a metaphor for lacking attention, always made me sad. And, when living away from it, Paris was always a place I defended, though I’ve never had a great retort to throw back at the question.
I myself have consistently moved back to Paris after having left it. Three times I have left and returned. And though my inability to quit the place is biased, I’m sure, by my internalized clichés and personal love of the city, there are more legitimate reasons for staying.
The city, contrary to popular belief, is cheap. Or at least, cheaper than the other mega, Western world cities it competes with for influence. It’s cheaper than LA, with its automotive expenses. Much cheaper than New York, (with its manic urban renewal of affordable spaces). And a lot cheaper than London, with its crippling rent and public transportation costs. For a surprising and larger context, Paris is now even cheaper than my hometown, Portland (Oregon), the stereotypically cheap, small, and funky bastion of the United States. In Paris, a decent rent of €650 can be found easily, with plenty of €500 gems going around. In Portland, $1,000 rents are now normal and considered a steal by some.
Beyond price, Paris is small physically. You can move through it quickly. You can shuttle between multiple events and meetings and vernissages in a single night. Transportation is relatively cheap. And, if you know where to go, drinking is more affordable too. This all allows for a spontaneity of human interaction, based on the public space, that defines and improves an art community.
If the cause of an artistic hub is what I think it is, price and the ability to interact (or at least, find inspiration in your competition), Paris should be a place that still attracts artists and produces quality work. But it doesn’t. Or, it doesn’t produce like it used to, when it used to produce all of those romantic -isms.
This makes me wonder, what is Paris missing? It has the price. It has the space. And it still has the Paris Bump: the lingering reverence from the outside world. And so I return to its failure. The failure of the art community to project our views on the modern world.
I would be remiss not to mention the effect technology is having on art and artists generally, regardless of location. I’m not anti-Instagram, or anything like that. But the formula for success in contemporary art requires a buying-in to the cult of fame. It requires an artist to make a name for themselves online, on social media, prior to on-earth success. Often, the gatekeepers to financial stability in the art world ask for strong followings in order to access opportunity. That is the modern hustle, and we have to play. But to play requires a simplification of ideas, a reduction in complexity in order to fit within the single-word algorithms that manage contemporary attention. So if we live in Paris, where ideas struggle to grow beyond the city, and if we live in a time where ideas are being cut down to make space for visual, portrait-driven simplicity, then what can we as Paris-based artists do to reclaim some of our relevance?
Rather than be angsty about it, I set out to do my part, to do the best I could to improve our situation. I decided to “write” a book. I put write in quotations, because in reality, the book was written for me, in the words of Paris’ young, living artists.
I went looking for artists living in Paris. Young artists who had something interesting and definable to say about society. I sat down with them in various locations around the city, often had a drink, and then spoke with them for hours at a time. We didn’t speak so much about their art. More, we discussed their views on society. We spoke about identity, sexuality, mental health, urban life, love, loneliness, technology, and the future; all the things that everyone around the world seems to be discussing. We talked about a lot of things, and sometimes we spoke about Paris too. I put their words together and attempted to uncover a narrative of ideas that uncover the opinions which make Paris-based artists’ views on the world unique.
It’s my belief that, no matter their location, artists act like a funnel for society. They ingest the effects of politics and sociology, then turn out a simplified, accessible and inspirational reflection. When that reflection is good, it attracts attention and causes people to appreciate a person much more strongly than the simple, image-driven cliché distinction of “being an artist” or “being an artist is Paris” ever could.
The book, With Paris in Mind: Talking With Artists of This Generation, contains 16 interviews with 22 artists working across six art forms, all of whom have produced ideas that I love. I love their ideas, not because they inspire my own writing (though they do), but because their ideas inspire my life outside anything related to art. Their thoughts help make sense out of the confusion that comes from living through our modern moment, our confusing now. By hearing their ideas, and seeing how those ideas help me make sense, I know I will follow what these artists make in the future, to see how much more sense they have left to make. It’s a focus on this sort of reaction, real ideas and their potential, that I believe is needed in the Parisian art community. It’s the focus on ideas that will connect artists across developing thought and innovative theory rather than across friendship, clout, or cliché. And I think only then, when ideas have killed the cliché romance, will Paris possibly have the chance to regain some of its relevance in the eyes of the outside world.
With Paris in Mind is a collection of interviews and photographs with writers, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, fine artists, and chefs. You can find the book online here. Or in Paris starting November at Shakespeare and Company, Galignani, Palais de Tokyo and Yvon Lambert.