A friendly letter to François Hollande by Patrick Sommier

This text written by Patrick Sommier, director of the MC93 Bobigny and Vice President of the UTE - was published on the MC93 website, the 26 December 2012.

There was in our country something indestructible, a cement, a loess, a fertile silt, that we call “culture”.

Simple things that became knowledge which we once wanted to pass on. It needed to be protected, listed, interpreted, so we built shelters: libraries, museums, amphitheatres, houses of culture. This was us, this was our history. In these shelters, we put books, scores, we built stages, we created dance, music and theatre academies. And that is also our culture.

Culture also represented a simple source of wealth which we could take with us when we had nothing else – without ever running the risk of being robbed. And this little we had, we were more than a little proud of it, to say the least. Being able to read and write means freedom for mankind. What is this desire for culture today, if it is not the continuation of this same desire for liberty?

Without ever thinking about it, we were reassured to belong to a language, to a poetic geography, to have landmarks, to have a memory, a history, in one word, to exist.

This culture made us curious about the world. It made us love Tarkovski and Nelson Mandela, Tchekhov and J.D Salinger. It helped us to understand and accept our differences, whispering to us: “what we are looking for in the other, is the most beautiful part of ourselves”… Differences which are so fragile in this standardized, codified, digitized, consumable, disposable new world.

Of course, none of this can be measured. How could we measure the enrichment of human beings when they contact themselves?

I wrote these lines in Romania, a few days ago. In this country where nobody speaks French anymore, everybody congratulated me on France and on its culture. What could I answer?

Culture cannot be thrown away. It sticks to the skin, to the language, to the hands, to the heart. Despite this, with a little strategy, it’s very easy to make us forget it (and also forget our language and our heart).

What culture provides is impossible to quantify. The consequences of the destruction of culture have already been described, a long time ago, by H.G. Wells, Georges Orwell and Evgueni Zamiatine. More recently, Pierre Bourdieu and Bernard Stiegler described the technical process.

The most beautiful Ministry - the one that all those who cherish the common good should long for, as a prestigious responsibility – should be the Ministry of Culture. Our Minister longed for it.

For years, we have been cutting the means that enabled a democratic access to these works of art. The houses of culture which sheltered them - and which still bring together those who sometimes feel the need to “be intelligent together”, in front of a stage where a different history of humanity written by theatre is performed - have been weakened.

For decades, we have considered culture solely from the perspective of public spending. Instead of propelling it into society and using its incredible driving force, we have continually tried to neutralize it, as if it contained a lethal capacity, a grave danger for the nation. Remember that the state asks every French person for only 10 euros per year for access to all the theatres in France.

Mr. President, you know of course Baumol’s law. You know that today, just like in 1594, we need the same amount of rehearsal time and the same number of actors to perform The Comedy of Errors by Shakespeare. No technological device can reduce the production cost. The play is still part of repertories, here and there, despite four centuries of inflation. But what of tomorrow?

A fifteen point reduction in the budget of French theatres means cutting their running capacities in half, and at the same time will result in the disappearance of entire sections of the theatre repertory. Especially since over the past twenty years, the collapse has been so dramatic. With the money saved in the name of this national effort, France will be able to equip itself with an extra 75 to 100 roundabouts.

Culture is not profitable in the short term. But it is an investment in which no one can lose. The national effort is not for less culture, it should be for more culture. And this is not a utopian dream.

Sir Brian McMaster related that during the first editions of the Edinburgh Festival, which he directed for fifteen years, the penniless spectators used to exchange food coupons for theatre tickets. In 1947, bread was really scarce. But people were also hungry for another thing. And this hunger was just as intense as the hunger for bread.

I’ve always loved Paul Valery's inscriptions on the walls of Chaillot. There is one of them that goes like this: “On those who pass it all depends/ whether I am treasure or a tomb/ whether I speak or stay silent / It only depends on you Friend…”

Also published on Libération: See article

And on the MC93 website