Who was England’s culture minister at the time of Shakespeare, Sidney and Donne?
Austria’s, during the period demarcated by Haydn at one end and Brahms at the other, with Mozart and Beethoven in between?
Russia’s, from Pushkin and Gogol to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky?
Venice’s, from Bellini to Tintoretto, via Titian?
Tuscany’s, when Duccio and Piero della Francesca painted their masterpieces?
France’s, when Rabelais used fictional titans to satirise real pygmies?
No one, is the answer to all these questions, which only goes to show how backward people were before the advent of modernity.
These days most countries, emphatically including Britain, Austria, Italy, Russia and France, have placed their culture into the safe hands of government ministries.
These are led by officials whose whole lives must have prepared them for the arduous task of shaping their lands’ cultural output and pushing it up to new plateaus of greatness.
However, post hoc, ergo propter hoc being a rhetorical fallacy and all that, one is sorely tempted to detect an inverse relationship between a country’s culture and the presence of a minister at its helm.
Observing all those countries rapidly sliding into out-and-out barbarism, one may suggest, without much claim to logical rigour, that they’ve suffered their cultural demise not when they acquired culture ministers, but specifically because of it.
Such jaundiced speculations are going to become wider, thanks to France’s new culture minister Fleur ‘Flower’ Pellerin.
This pretty 41-year-old, usually photographed with a neckline plunging down to her navel, told a TV interviewer that she loved Patrick Modiano, the French novelist who earlier this month won the Nobel prize for literature.
Asked which of his novels had impressed her most, ‘Flower’ couldn’t name a single one.
When the interviewer expressed a mild surprise, the culture minister admitted “without the slightest difficulty” that, being a busy person, she had no time to read books.
Now allow me to provide a little local backdrop.
The French hold bookishness in much higher esteem than the British do. Their university graduates tend to be better-read than ours, or at least better at pretending they are.
Thus few people in Britain are scandalised when finding out that Tony Blair hasn’t read a serious book since his student days, if then. We don’t hold such illiteracy against our politicians – in fact it enhances their popular appeal.
The French tend to be different, and they also tend to be more overtly patriotic than we are. Hence every achievement, no matter how trivial, by a French citizen receives wide, not to say cloying, publicity – especially if said achievement confirms the sense of cultural superiority most Frenchmen share.
Add the two tendencies together, and you’ll see why Modiano’s name, along with the titles of all his books, has been splashed all over the French press with gallons of typographic paint.
Anyone who has as much as opened a French broadsheet over the last fortnight has Modiano coming out of his ears, and it’s as hard for a Frenchman, even a non-reading one, not to learn the titles of Modiano’s books as for an American not to know Kim Kardashian’s vital statistics (38-26.5-40, for the ignoramuses among you).
In other words, the lovely ‘Flower’ has no time not only for books but also for newspapers, at least those sections that don’t deal with the latest opinion polls.
The French are surprised, which is the only thing that surprises me. They simply don’t seem to understand the nature of modern government.
At first glance it appears that a culture minister who doesn’t read books is as incongruous as a pacifist defence minister or a finance minister who regards money as filthy lucre and the source of all evil.
The assumption is that someone put in charge of a government department ought to be familiar with the field under its aegis. This assumption is woefully wrong.
It’s no more necessary for a government bureaucrat to possess such knowledge than it was for the Nazi Gauleiter of the Ukraine Erich Koch to learn Ukrainian.
Koch represented an occupying power, and so, in a way, does a modern culture minister. Mlle Pellerin’s brief is not to return France to her former artistic glory but to use public funds to bend culture to the state’s egalitarian will.
Since things can only ever be equalised at the lowest common denominator, ignorance and cultural barbarism aren’t disqualifying characteristics for the post. They are practically job requirements.
A cultivated and refined culture minister might diverge funds to promote real art, as opposed to electronically enhanced flatulence, tasteless scribbles, unmade beds and pickled animals (I’m not sure what the French equivalents of those last two are, but I’m certain they exist).
That simply wouldn’t do. Before long schoolchildren would learn enough discernment to realise that not all tastes are equally valid or all judgements equally sound. When they grow up, they may even notice that yet another ‘leader’ is capable of jamming a dozen grammatical and logical solecisms into a short speech.
This would undermine the very foundations of modern politics, casting the state adrift like a rudderless ship. People would demand to be governed by public-spirited statesmen, not power-grabbing spivs, and where would we be then?
Summing up, Mlle Pellerin is perfect for her job, and I can only compliment my friend François Hollande on his keen, and widely publicised, eye for female beauty.