Photography, Aristotle, and the French in 1944

Armistice Day (Armistice de la Première Guerre mondiale) was this past weekend and one can tell that Paris winter is not far away.  While it’s often been bright and sunny this week, temperatures at night are dipping closer to zero, and the metro stations are seeing more homeless (sans-abris) sleeping underground to avoid the cold.

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But luckily Paris offers innumerable reasons to get out and about, and this past week found Kathleen and me at three more photo exhibitions, something I always enjoy. Quai Branly continued a series of outdoor exhibits featuring people of the world.  20-some different photographers were featured, and I especially liked the work of Russia’s Evgenia Arbugaeva, Panama’s Jose Castrellon, and Mexico’s Alejandro Cartagena.

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<<From Arbugaeva’s “Tiksi,” a return to her native village in Siberia after 20 years away; from Castrellon’s “Priti Baikes;” from Cartagena’s “Commuters,” taken from bridges as Mexican workers come into Mexico City from their home villages.>>

The City Hall (l’Hotel de Ville) of Paris is currently showing an extensive collection of photos by Gyula Halász (1899-1984), known professionally as Brassaï.  Entitled Pour l’amour de Paris, the photos from the 1930s and 40s show daily life in Paris, focusing on street scenes and night life in the pubs and cabarets, as well as graffiti scratched on walls.

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(B/W photos courtesy Wikipedia.)

The mairie of the 6th is showing a series by the San Francisco photographer/filmmaker Evvy Eisen, who had only a very brief opportunity to capture images as workers stripped years of layers of advertising from the walls of the St. Sulpice Metro station prior to reconstruction.

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<<From St. Sulpice Metro, by Evvy Eisen.>>

All of these exhibitions were free, and all of them were very well attended.  Access to art and culture is central to the French way of life, and put me in mind of a book by Michael Sandel, entitled Justice: what’s the right thing to do? Sandel notes that Aristotle believed that non-relative views about societal aims are impossible.  Social institutions – e.g. marriage, free markets, military forces – are based on two things: how citizens should be rewarded for supporting certain institutional norms over others, and based therefore on what the desired outcomes from those institutions are.

It seems to me that France has chosen easy public access to art and culture as a societal norm, and supports access as part of government policy.  In the same way, France supports an excellent medical services plan, as well as public pensions, inexpensive child care, etc.  All of this results in a high tax rate, for which the French have been criticized by conservative economists and politicians both in Europe and abroad, but Aristotle would point out that these critics simply believe a different set of social norms – e.g., free market capitalism over state socialism – should be rewarded.

Whether France suffers from its view of societal norms is moot.  Its problems – e.g., youth unemployment, future sustainability of social network, overstaffed public service – are not unique to France. By any international measure, France is the world’s fifth largest economy, a world leader in several industry sectors, and one of the most-visited countries in the world.  And it is one of the few countries in the developed world where the birth rate is rising, perhaps exactly because of the government supports offered to families.  Perhaps NYT writer Paul Krugman is correct when he notes: “France has committed the unforgivable sin of being fiscally responsible without inflicting pain on the poor and unlucky.”

To change this social model to a more free-market model will be a severe challenge.  In my view, the French entered a “contract” with their government some years ago which our late friend Annie once summarized as “we don’t mind the taxes, as long as we receive equal value for them.” And they will fight to keep the government to their side of the bargain.  National elections often draw 85 -90% of eligible voters, and French voters seem generally to know the issues and the candidates.

Writing about France’s social network, an NYT writer interviewed Virginie Chargros, a baker’s wife, who depends on the $404 monthly “family subsidy” she gets from the government to help raise the couple’s three children. She and her husband work six days a week and bring in about $2,200 a month, but without the subsidy, they would have trouble providing the family with “small pleasures,” she said.  Another interviewee, 25-year-old Louis Paris, stated baldly: “You cannot take away guns from Americans, and in the same way you cannot take away social benefits from French people.”

Serendipitously, while writing this post and trying to “summarize” the French, I learned that, in 1944, the Information Branch of the U.S. Army Service Forces prepared a Pocket Guide to France for all soldiers, sailors, and airman who participated in the invasion and liberation of France.  According to the Pocket Guide:

1.     The French are mentally quick. 

2.     Rich or poor, they are economical.  Ever since the Nazis took over, thousands of French families have kept themselves alive on modest savings.

3.     The French are what they themselves call realistic.  It’s what we call having hard common sense.

4.     The French of all classes have respect for the traditionally important values in the life of civilized man.  They have respect for religion and artistic ideas.  They have an extreme respect for property, whether public or private.

5.     The French are individualists: stay out of local discussions, even if you speak French.  In any French argument involving internal French affairs, you will either be drowned out or find yourself involved in a first class French row.

6.     The French are good talkers and magnificent cooks.  Like all good talkers the French are polite.  The courtesy words (“please” – “thank you”) are the first things French children are taught.

One can quibble with certain things – not all French are “magnificent cooks,” but it seems fair to say they care about good food – but nearly 70 years later, this resident Canadian tourist still finds the summary quite applicable.

(Many thanks to Alice Galloway for keeping us up to date with the ongoing NYT editorials about things French.)

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4 Responses to Photography, Aristotle, and the French in 1944

  1. Chris Michel says:

    I love the St. Sulpice metro wall photos by Evvy Eisen – my kind of visual pleasure – found art as a societal norm!

  2. Dick Allen says:

    Great post Gordon. The masses have been starved to hear from you. Kathleen provides for half of our french nutrition but we need more posts like this to maintain a healthy and well balanced french cuisine.

    Indulged in the purchase of a burr grinder for my coffee beans yesterday at Gourmet Warehouse. Now I’ll need to learn to make croissants to go along with the java and the latest posts from Paris and I’ll feel oh so french, oui!

  3. kate says:

    Thank you once again for such an erudite explanation of how all things French work . k

  4. Evvy says:

    Regarding the mention of my photographs of the Metro St. Sulpice above. The exhibit is now at the Maison de la RATP and will be there through March. Maison de la RATP is open Monday–Friday 7h30 à 19h30. Closed Saturday and Sunday and holidays. The RATP is the organization responsible for all metro and bus transportation in Paris.

    189, rue de Bercy
    75012 Paris
    The building is just opposite the Gare de Lyon, The exhibit is in the lobby area.

    It is quite different from the one at the Mairie and includes a video display I hope that you can update your content to inform your readers about the current venue.

    Thank you
    Evvy Eisen, Photographer

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