Looking for the real Paris

Toulouse-Lautrec_Au_Moulin_Rouge

The last time I visited Paris, my travelling companion was decidedly disappointed by the place. He complained that the city had none of the life and sparkle and bustle he’d been led to expect. I knew what he meant and I suspect it’s a common experience. Paris is a great city to visit if you’re interested in the history of Paris – but it’s rarely the slightly twee, romantic, ‘gaye Paree’ that’s so often depicted in films.

Recently this seems to have become more of a public concern. The newly elected (socialist) city mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has pledged to tackle the housing problem that is forcing a middle and working class exodus to the hinterlands. This social homogenisation of the city is unfortunate for many reasons, and one big one is the negative impact on its vitality and creativity.

This article on the Matador Network went further, accusing Paris of being a ‘cultural wasteland’:

Paris boasts few artists of international recognition, it has a Ministry of Culture that seems to do anything in its bureaucratic power to keep Paris from progressing, and French nationals occupy every notable cultural post… Paris proper seems to be slowly atrophying, a muscle that has long ago stopped being able to afford to pick up a pen or paintbrush.

The piece suggests (among other things) that the city’s cultural policy is too tied to memorialising its glorious past – because there are millions of tourist euros to be earned that way. (It’s striking that another of Hidalgo’s first major announcements is a revamp of the 125 year old Eiffel Tower.) But this means that the living city is slowly ossifying into a monument to a former period of great creativity, rather than continuing to be a fount of creativity today.

Parisians themselves are aware of this flagging, of the gradual disappearance of edgy arty bars, independent cafes and randomly curated shops that are the outward evidence of emerging creative communities. A friend reported after a recent trip:

There was a real melancholy about the place – people were saying how it feels so staid against cities like London that are constantly changing. In London we lament the loss of the true East End character to the hipsters, but in Paris they are still sitting about in cafes in Montmartre like they always have, and they’re bored of it.

There are two things I think about all this. First, London should be wary of any superiority in the creativity stakes. Its own inexorable property price rises may well be driving it the same way, as this Guardian piece by Alex Proud points out. But – second – I wonder whether Paris has become a victim of its own impossible reputation, and is being unfairly judged. There are a number of reasons to suspect this is the case.

Paris, and the life of Paris, has been mythologised like no other city, in paintings, books, and films, and by actual historians – who can’t let it alone but are constantly ‘re-reading’ and re-telling its significant moments. The imaginary city – the one tourists have in their head when they flock there – is a rich accumulation of all these things, layers of fact and fiction and speculation. The real city is disappointingly solid and one-dimensional by comparison. I was quite prepared, on the occasion of my last trip, for the unavoidable difference between the Paris of the mind – exotic, chic, the city of lights, of dancing girls, intellectuals and artists in garretts – and the realities of a modern capital city. But still it’s an anti-climax to find that the place you’ve been hoping to at least catch a glimpse of doesn’t really exist.

So, we then should ask ourselves, did it ever really exist? Or has it been exaggerated by story-tellers all along? Looking back to its periods of great flowering – the Belle Époque, the fin de siècle, the early 20th century – undoubtedly a lot of interesting stuff happened in a relatively short period of time. All sorts of inventions and breakthroughs started life in Paris: in technology (the Eiffel Tower, escalators, diesel engines), art (countless rebellions and movements), design (art nouveau), psychology (think Bernheim, Charcot, Freud), commerce (advertising, department stores) – and all this alongside rapid social change. It is just this, and the fact that the arts at the time were socially so prominent, that makes historians and art historians obsess about it. But hindsight probably exaggerates the sense of compression, and powerful narratives around certain remarkable places (Montmartre) and events (the Worlds Fairs) seep into our picture of the whole period.

A third thought: this great explosion of progress was not unique to Paris. Rather it was a feature of a particular moment in history. Other European capital cities were being catapulted into the modern world in the same way at the same time (we just idolise them much less, for some reason). And few of them in their contemporary state – carefully governed, regulated, constantly surveilled, expensive to live in, and subject to the pressures of global capitalism – embody much of their former creative, disruptive selves. We shouldn’t over-penalise Paris for being the same.

Finally: the accusation that the current cultural administration is backward-facing and protectionist doesn’t distinguish it from previous cultural administrations. The arts in France have traditionally been ruled by an inherently conservative bureaucracy (against which certain artists rebelled of course). Something like Art Nouveau – the powerful imagery that frames our thoughts of this exotic time – grew out of a government-backed project to revive the French luxury goods industry by resurrecting ‘the Rococo’ (the favoured royal house style from over 100 years previously). It was a very historicist project, and it was specifically about protecting the Frenchness of French industry.

So: although it’s terribly depressing that in real life none of us can do an Owen Wilson (ie be transported back in time to hang out with Gertrude Stein, Hemingway and friends, courtesy of Woody Allen), we must be careful to separate this from reasonable criticism of the city. And perhaps visits should come with some sort of advisory warning: if you’re looking for the Paris of your imagination, it’s more likely to be found in a library.

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