The Gray Market
How France’s Plan to Give Teens Free Cash to Spend on Culture Exposes the Art World’s Deepest Anxieties (and Other Insights)
Our columnist surveys the French government's Culture Pass initiative to discover what it can tell us about snobbery in the art world.
Every Wednesday morning, Artnet News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process.
This week, a reminder that you get what you pay for…
Last week, the New York Times reported that the biggest winners of the French federal government’s program to spur teens to indulge in culture seem to be makers of Japanese comics and graphic novels. Reactions to the news within France have exposed numerous fault lines between generations, classes, and political interests. But the most important aspect of the story for us is how ably it reflects a central existential dilemma of the art world in 2021.
Known as the Culture Pass, the initiative equips every 18-year-old French citizen with €300 (about $350) to spend on their choice of art-centric goods or experiences within 24 months. The state places relatively few restrictions on the funding, freeing recipients to purchase anything from physical books, vinyl albums, and streaming-video subscriptions, to ballet tickets, museum admission, and music lessons.
The money is disbursed through a smartphone app that doubles as what French president Emmanuel Macron called a “cultural G.P.S.” (Libération instead went with “arty Tinder.”) Proximity plays a central role in the government’s strategy: although recipients can blow up to €100 on digital purchases, the program “aims to encourage meetings between cultural actors and users” in person, partly by notifying app users of nearby art opportunities, and partly by requiring any physical purchases to be picked up in person from a local retailer.
About 825,000 French teens became eligible for the Culture Pass when it went live this spring. More than three-quarters (about 630,000) have signed up so far. The price tag for the initiative will be €80 million (nearly $95 million) this year, with the cost estimated to double in 2022, according to the Times.
Although the program endeavors to expose young people to a range of art forms and activities, the lion’s share of the millions spent so far have been poured into one narrow slice of the cultural quiche. Aurelien Breeden of the Times relays that “as of this month, books represented over 75 percent of all purchases made through the app since it was introduced nationwide in May—and roughly two-thirds of those books were manga, according to the organization that runs the app.”
If the same trends hold for the rest of the year, it will mean that almost half of the Culture Pass’s €80 million first-year cost—meaning, a hair over €40 million ($47.5 million)—would be splashed out on manga. I think it’s safe to say this is not quite what Macron had in mind when he proposed the plan during his 2017 presidential campaign.
Despite extenuating circumstances, Breeden writes, France’s national press has pounced on the phenomenon as evidence of the policy’s inherent design flaws:
The French news media has written of a “manga rush,” fueled by a “manga pass”—observations that came via a slightly distorted lens, since the app arrived just as theaters, cinemas, and music festivals, emerging from pandemic-related restrictions, had less to offer. And manga were already wildly popular in France.
For our purposes, I think the results solidify the program as a microcosm of the art world’s lack of standing among teens. This isn’t because the app was engineered poorly per se, but rather because it was engineered fairly well—at least, for a program meant to be used widely and fully by the young in a cultural landscape that longstanding trends have terraformed into a flattened marketplace.
NO ALARMS AND NO SURPRISES
I have to take a moment here to stress how hilarious I find it that cultural pundits and politicians are scandalized by the fact that 18 year-olds are disproportionately using their Culture Pass money on works of international fiction. This is the outcome that proves the misguidedness of the the program? Quelle horreur, the teens want to read!
I’m exaggerating a little, of course. Obviously, the data suggests that the culture ministry’s plan has so far failed to spark a full flourishing of interest throughout the cultural ecosystem, and that’s a missed opportunity. But if you’ve been following the Culture Pass initiative since it was first piloted in 2018, then there’s a good chance you saw something like this coming.
From the program’s earliest testing phase, French officials responsible for implementing it messaged that they would take a populist view of what constitutes “the arts.” Françoise Nyssen, then the state’s minister of culture, declared in 2018 that the initiative would be free of “cultural snobbery” and paternalistic distinctions between “high” and “low culture.”
One of the central questions was always what kind of guardrails the government would install to prevent naked abuse of the program’s already liberal permissions. Critics (including former ministry of culture head Jack Lang) were quick to highlight how savvy teens and defiant vendors undermined the intent of Italy’s “cultural bonus,” the clearest model for the Culture Pass.
That program awarded €500 to the nation’s 18-year-olds to spend on the arts… only for Italian officials to watch aghast as some retailers sold iPads, laptops, and other electronics billed back to the government as “books,” while a black market developed in which the program’s credits could be exchanged for straight cash. (Less problematically, many students backdoored their way into buying academic textbooks, which were supposed to be off limits.)
The final iteration of the French Culture Pass incorporates finer-tuned controls than its pilot program and its Italian inspiration. For starters, the €100 cap on digital offerings can only be cashed in with companies domiciled in France. So teens can use part of their budget to stream ad-free pop music from the French startup Deezer, but not Spotify or Apple Music, and they can pay for movies on Canal+, but not Disney+ or HBO Max. Video games eligible for Culture Pass funds must be published by a French company and cannot feature violence—”conditions so restrictive that most popular titles are unavailable,” Breeden writes in the Times.
The ministry of culture also programmed the app with nudges toward fare likely to be outside most users’ comfort zones. Aside from geolocating nearby offerings, Culture Pass serves up deals on, and/or exclusive access to, events from across the art spectrum, such as “a live-streamed concert at the Soulages Museum in southern France and a behind-the-scenes look at the Avignon theater festival.” The app includes personal recommendations from celebrities and (um, somewhat less excitingly) Culture Pass staff members. Because, you know, nothing gets teens’ blood pumping quite like state sanctioning!
WAIT AND SEE?
It’s still too early to conclude that France’s efforts are a failure. Other statistics cast a warmer light on the Culture Pass. When the app went live in May, my colleague Kate Brown noted the following:
In a test run, the Élysée Palace received reservations from 125,000 users of the Culture Pass. In the test, which was implemented across various departments, 73 percent reported discovering new cultural activities, and 32 percent went to a museum for the first time in 2021. Books were ordered more than video games.
It’s fair to wonder what the genre breakdown is on all those books, but I don’t think a probable predominance of manga should be mistaken for a monopoly of manga. In an N.P.R. story earlier in July, Culture Pass official Jenna Hemery said: “Yes, a lot of young people go into a bookstore and buy a manga on their pass… but then they buy a second book that’s in another cultural category.” Behavioral Economics 101 says that this is exactly what most teens should (and will) do: spend the bulk of the money on what they know they like, then use the rest to experiment on intriguing unknowns that are normally too risky to warrant use of their limited resources.
Remember, too, that the app’s guardrails ensure that those purchases are made from local French bookstores, not Amazon or other behemoth e-tailers. NPR and the Times both heard firsthand from bookstore owners elated by the nascent presence of teenagers as everyday customers in their shops. All the more reason the outrage here feels excessive to me. If you’re pissed off that indie booksellers are eating in 2021, I’m not entirely sure what kind of guardian of culture you’re trying to be.
In other words: sheesh, can we all just settle down a little about the manga thing? Because other elements of the Culture Pass deserve discussion.
WELCOME TO THE ARENA
Even for those portraying the manga wave as proof that the program has failed, I don’t think the initiative’s perceived weaknesses arose because Macron lacks genuine interest in traditional branches of the arts. This is a guy who studied piano for a decade at a French conservatory, earned an advanced degree in philosophy, and served on the editorial board of the well regarded literary magazine Esprit before pivoting into politics.
Others have argued that there was some serious cultural nationalism dog-whistling its way through the language he and his supporters used to pitch the program. In Frieze, Cody Delistraty described their rhetorical focus on “enlightenment” and “cultural values” as “a center-right, Sarkozy-esque way of saying that there is one true French culture and other cultures would do well to use their €500 to learn about it.” In that sense, it’s fair to wonder how different the “manga pass” backlash would be if the comics and graphic novels that are selling so well were made in France, rather than overseas.
But if all of the above is true, then why did Macron and his allies design the Culture Pass as they did?
My take is that the president’s neoliberal worldview all but guaranteed that he would orient the project around personal choice in a consumption-based free market. His commitment to technocratic ideals also ensured that he would prioritize maximum participation with verifiable metrics. Little wonder, then, that how well the Culture Pass is “working” will mainly be determined simply by how much of its money is spent within the proscribed parameters, not where or how it is spent.
This last point brings us back to Italy’s cultural-bonus initiative. Macron and his team almost undoubtedly drew a direct link between the program’s tighter restrictions and the bustling black market that developed around evading them. But just as damning an effect, I’d wager, was the Italian program’s uninspiring rate of uptake. Only about 60 percent of eligible teens in the country bothered to enroll, according to Delistraty.
The likely takeaway for Macron? If you want to make sure the Culture Pass gets used, loosen the reins of what the money can be used for.
This calculus slams the traditional fine arts with the same sledgehammer clobbering them outside this specialty initiative, and outside France. Over the past 30 years or so, the ascendance of social media (which blends a user’s every interest into a single unmitigated stream of data), the hollowing out of public funding for the arts, and the expectation that all professions should chase a Silicon Valley-style program of unceasing growth have combined to flatten “culture” into a geographically borderless, genre-agnostic, winner-takes-all competition measured in money spent and participation logged.
You can see it most clearly in the rise of the experience economy, which has increasingly pushed even the most storied art institutions to embrace would-be pop culture blockbusters, if not complete existential makeovers. But it’s not all a race to the bottom. For every major museum’s attempt to fend off the predatory instincts of “Immersive van Gogh,” it seems there’s an award-winning literary talent spending years elevating a Marvel Comics property. The niches are reaching for the mainstream while the mainstream is seeping into the niches.
The motivations vary, but we’re all in the same arena together now. As a result, most of us are hunting for the Goldilocks zone: not too high-minded to be popular, not too vacuous to be ignored. In this way, France’s Culture Pass is a perfect mirror for the widescreen state of the arts worldwide.
I’m not distressed about the manga boom lifting the nation’s indie bookstores. I think the outcome could be so much worse in a broad-spectrum market-based system. As I wrote about the initiative’s test phase in 2018, I’m also uncomfortable with the notions that all forms of mainstream culture automatically lack depth, and that anyone uninterested in digging into contemporary art, classical literature, or the other supposedly fine arts is some kind of lesser being because of it.
But if you’re hoping to use the Culture Pass’s incentives to turn the maximum number of minds onto the art forms blessed by elite tastemakers throughout history… well, bonne chance. You can’t reach everyone without leaving something behind.
That’s all for this week. ‘Til next time, remember: You don’t get what you pay for; you get what you negotiate.
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