featured photo
The Kitchen

More Buzz
Go Home

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 or dehydration.)

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.

More Buzz
Go Home