The Buzz, 8-26: Grace
New Yorker to Artists: Let them wait tables!
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider
PARIS -- Poor Adam Gopnik.
The New Yorker writer who eloquently chronicled his five-year vacation
in France in "Paris to the Moon" returned this summer for more material,
only to find just about everything shut down but the sand on an
artificial beach by the Seine. The major arts festivals were shuttered
by the strike of the Intermittents, or freelance performance artists
and technicians, "en greve" to protect their social safety net,
France being the only country that grants their category of arts
workers unemployment compensation. For working 507 hours over a
one-year period, the Intermittents qualify for a year of unemployment
compensation. The employers organization, abetted by the government
and enabled by some of the smaller unions, wants to reduce the qualification
period to 10-and-a-half months (10 for technicians), and the duration
of the compensation to eight months. The other major story here
this summer -- great fodder for the New Yorker's ersatz social anthropologists
-- is the death of, according to to the country's leading undertaker,
as many as 10,000 people due to an unprecedented heat wave earlier
this month. (The doctors blame the government, while the government
at first blamed the last government, for installing a 35-hour work
week it says left hospitals understaffed, and later the French family,
for its habit of leaving elderly relatives at home unattended in
August. Most of the dead were elderly, succumbing to heat stroke
Gopnik, who certainly
has the chops, could have probed either of these oh-lah-lah situations
for what they reveal about the French culture and society. Instead,
he went the way of a petit bourgeois pissed off that some of his
pleasures had been taken away from him, and decided to pick on the
pick-up artists, as it were. The Intermittents, Gopnik tells us
in this week's New Yorker, are a
bunch of "part-time actors," "night-club bouncers," and "musicians"
(dancers apparently don't rate with Mr. G) whose "old French Communist-dominated
union," is interested mostly in keeping "a stranglehold on film
and theatre." By striking the festivals, the Intermittents aren't
exercising their legitimate rights, but practicing "nihilism" of
the "domestic" stripe, on a scale of nihilism whose other end is
held up by the murderous nihilism of terrorists.
Some of the above viewpoints
Gopnik attributes to domestic pundits, such as the writer Andre
Glucksmann, who shakes his head before observing, "There is a kind
of nihilism (American intellectuals love it when French intellectuals
start using words like "nihilism") at large in the world now, which
ranges from the murderous nihilism of the terrorists to the comic,
domestic nihilism of the (I)ntermittents, who have only the power
to block, to destroy, and they use it." Some of the viewpoints he
more vaguely attributes to the smaller unions who have agreed to
the changes, on, Gopnik says, "the rationale that an excellent remedy
for the precariousness of the position of part-time actors already
exists: it is called 'waiting on tables.'" But I think it's fair
to assign these opinions to the author, as he allows so little room
for others that might contradict them.
For instance, had he
bothered to go over French President Jacques Chirac's Bastille Day
speech, Gopnik would have found that even this theoretically right-wing
head of state sympathizes with the plight of the Intermittents.
"These are people who, in the majority, face particular constraints,
and who we must take into account," Chirac explained, in remarks
we reported earlier. "These are not ordinary workers....
(They)... bring the best of themselves to their art, and... therefore
leaven society (with art) -- one of the elements of national cohesion.
Therefore, they must be taken into account."
Nihilists destroy. If
he'd bothered to talk to choreographic institutes like Mathilde
Monnier, Gopnik might have found out that the Intermittent artists
create. If he'd bothered to talk to theater directors like Jean-Marie
Horde, he might have learned that the Intermittents -- the technicians
in particular -- enable creation. As the director of the Theatre
de la Bastille explained to me earlier this year: "Without this
Intermittents regime, we would have to close." What he meant was
that his theater -- like many in France, from the most petite all
the way up to the Opera de Paris -- could not afford to employ on
a full-time basis the dozens of artists and technicians who work
on each show. And if Gopnik had bothered to talk to the directors
of the cancelled festivals on whom the Intermittents supposedly
practiced their "domestic nihilism," he would have discovered that
the majority support them. Shortly after annulling what was to have
been his last Avignon Festival rather than subject audiences to
the, er, precariousness of "reconductable" strikes (at many of the
festivals, workers voted each day whether to strike that night),
outgoing director Bernard Faivre d'Arcier told Le Monde that his
first step after leaving would be to volunteer for the Intermittents'
cause. And then there was the festival director who, goaded by a
Radio France interviewer to castigate the Intermittents, pointed
out that in fact, his festival existed thanks to them.
Actually, the word he
used was "grace," meaning the festivals exist by the grace of the
Intermittents. One would think that Gopnik, having benefited, as
spectator, from the creative work of Intermittent artists of two
continents (he now lives in New York), would have the grace to allow
them their safety net. Au contraire! He seems to think that he has
the right to be entertained by artists who can then be kept from
being starving artists by further serving him as a waiter. (Instead
of the New Yorker, perhaps Gopnik should be writing for Dance Magazine,
which recently advised dancers to furnish their apartments by dumpster-diving
on "garbage" day, and scrounge yoga classes by "gypsy"-ing around
town from free intro class to free intro class. Yup, we're dancers,
we'll take the scrapings and be thankful for it. Far be it from
us to ask for anything more.)
Gopnik uses the Intermittents'
situation -- or his framing of it, anyway -- to support his general
analysis of French society today, which he characterizes as a "refusal
to live in the world as it exists," this being, in Gopnik's opinion,
"a kind of nihilism too." While I can't pretend to Gopnik's understanding
of all French society, I'd like to suggest that the Intermittents'
struggle is not a "nihilistic" refusal to live in the world as it
exists, but an optimistic campaign to posit the lives of artists
as they should be, their struggle not "comical" but existential.