PRINT November 1997


Catherine Trautmann

FOR THE PRICE OF A tramway ticket, the Strasbourg commuter purchases not only a ride through the city in a transparent, state-of-the-art streetcar, but also a series of encounters with contemporary artworks: Barbara Kruger’s monumental anti-advertising campaign covering the lone underground station, Mario Merz’s red-neon Fibonacci numbers in translucent glass boxes embedded between the rails over nearly a mile of the surface line, and Jonathan Borofsky’s Woman Walking to the Sky, on an eighty-two-foot pole that rises diagonally over a public square (a pendant to his Man Walking to the Sky in Kassel). Even the tickets are mini-artworks, imprinted with Gérard Collin-Thiébaud’s “living encyclopedia of Strasbourg.”

“Contemporary art is a sign of our times,” then-mayor Catherine Trautmann declared at the November 1994 inauguration of these public commissions. “It must be visible and accessible to everyone.” Indeed, during Trautmann’s eight-year mayoral tenure, Strasbourg became one of France’s leading cultural centers. Combining an international vision with grassroots applications, she not only piloted the European Center for Youth Creation (a new inner-city cultural complex), the International Writers’ Parliament and its “refuge cities” program for writers in danger (Strasbourg is the European Parliament headquarters), and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art scheduled to open in September 1998, but also neighborhood libraries, music-school outreach programs, and a “Culture Card” allowing young people to attend cultural events at reduced rates.

Most French people were, and probably still are, unaware of the preeminent qualifications Trautmann brings to her new post as Minister of Culture and Communications—the media have been more inclined to point out that she is the granddaughter of a Protestant minister, holds a theology degree, and has studied languages. But by last June’s French elections, she had become a household name—as enemy number 1 of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s neofascist Front National. Trautmann had spearheaded the massive countermobilization to the FN’s annual congress, held in Strasbourg over Easter weekend; two months later, Le Pen was to lead off his party’s final preelection rally by parading onstage with an effigy of her head on a platter.

For Trautmann, culture is inseparable from politics: “Accepting that writers are condemned to death in certain countries or not reacting when Front National municipalities cut off funding for theater, film, or dance, basically means opting for the most unenlightened forms of intolerance and mutual violence.” Culture is essential to social well-being, she maintains, “because it allows everyone to join the society, no matter what their income or where they come from.” Defending the idea that “everyone should have access to what is excellent,” she insists, “we can’t just think about creating for a small number of people.”

How does she intend to translate these principles into practice? By giving the maximum number of people access to all forms of cultural activity as spectators and participants—through, for example, improved circulation of exhibitions and performing arts in the regions, a national “Culture Card,” or more widespread art education. One priority is support for book culture, through libraries connected online with the Bibliothèque Nationale. Another is visual literacy—essential not only for mastering “image inflation,” but also improving the quality of film, audiovisual, and multimedia production—and still another is architecture and urban culture, entailing the development of a more integrated approach to today’s cities.

The Strasbourg experience clearly underlies these approaches. But where Mayor Trautmann had one of France’s largest funding allocations for culture—some 20 percent of the city budget—Minister Trautmann inherited a budgetary situation she herself has termed “catastrophic.” If she has succeeded in obtaining a 3.8 percent increase in the 1998 budget (totaling 15 billion francs), the Socialist Party’s campaign promise of a return to the symbolic “1 percent for Culture” is still a good way off. Does this call into question the French model of state-supported culture? For Trautmann, the issue is not simply one of economics but a social philosophy: “Before General De Gaulle created the Ministry of Culture for André Malraux [in 1959], culture came under a vast Ministry of Public Instruction. We’ve basically maintained this vision, which is that the Republic is responsible for giving the population access to the historic and contemporary cultural heritage.” She adds, “I believe that this notion of the Republic has also provided artists with the context that allowed them to create in France.”

Miriam Rosen is a regular contributor to Artforum.