Have Pen, will Travel: A forward-looking memoir of Paris, the Dordogne, Cahors, Fort Worth, Chicago, Miami Beach, New York, Maryland, Montana, Connecticut, San Francisco, Reno, and the High Sierras

chi steinberg train smallPaul Ben-Itzak’s new 40-page Memoir, including art by Ansel Adams, Robert L. Berry, Lou Chapman, James Daugherty, Gustave Caillebotte, Jacob Lawrence, Sylvie Lesgourgues, David Levinthal, Roy Lichtenstein, Sam Peckinpah, Charles M. Russell, Saul Steinberg, and Frank Lloyd Wright from both current exhibitions and the AV Archives, is now available. To receive your own copy as a PDF or Word document, including 35 illustrations, please send $19.95 to the AV by designating your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn about payment by check. Your purchase includes a complimentary one-year subscription to the Arts Voyager and Dance Insider ($29.95 value). Above: Saul Steinberg, “Train,” From the exhibition Along the Lines: Selected Drawings by Saul Steinberg, on view through October 29 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Sam Shepard, voice of the starving class, now flying with the eagles

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text (not including citations) copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

For Martin, with deepest condolences.

Imagine if, in yesterday’s story on the death of Jeanne Moreau, I’d written, “France today is mourning a great singer, who also happened to make a few good films.” This was more or less the ignorant turn that French public radio played on Sam Shepard — whose death Thursday in Kentucky at the age of 73 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, was announced Monday — in reporting that America had lost one of its great actors, who, by the way, as a sideline wrote a few good plays. In fact, it was the opposite. For all his distinction as a character actor, depicting a certain weathered breed of the archetypal Western man, the cinema would not have been much different had Sam Shepard never graced its screens. But where theater is concerned, Shepard was not merely the signature voice of his generation, but the first to formulate a dramatic language which elevated to poetic heights the lingo of an American lower-middle class whose denizens are often relegated to being described as living on society’s ‘underside’ but who are in reality the outcasts of a world “geared to invisible money” where, as Weston continues in “The Curse of the Starving Class” (written in 1976),

You never hear the sound of change anymore. It’s all plastic shuffling back and forth. It’s all in everybody’s heads. So I figured if that’s the case, why not take advantage of it? If it’s all an idea and nothing’s really there, why not take advantage? So I went along with it, that’s all. I just played ball.

Of course, what Weston doesn’t realize is that the game is rigged. And it is the conniptions that result from such dashed hopes, and how they set off  often lethal familial contortions pre-determined by an American idyll constructed on high hopes and premised on their fulfillment, that Shepard explored. If the family traumas that serve as powder kegs for these tragedies are often stored in the basement (just as this territory often forms the most dreaded realm in our own nightmares), Shepard probed beyond this already slippery terrain, drilling through the basement floor and mining the entrails of family dynamics, using his pen like a coal miner uses a flashlight, to illuminate its darkest recesses. If his dialogues and scenarios could be earthy, rogue, and gritty — “The Tooth of Crime,” the first play I saw by him (at San Francisco’s New College) was a sort of Western punk rock opera that could have been scripted by Goth rocker Nick Cave — he was also eminently literary, weaving tapestries as rich in imagery and colloquial rhythm as Faulkner’s.

Growing up immersed in studying and making theater in San Francisco, I felt like Shepard was part of my extended dramatic family. Many of his first successes premiered at the Magic Theater, which also introduced several plays by a cousin, Martin Epstein (in one of which my younger brother made his own debut). My best friend from conservatory went on to play the manipulative lawyer Taylor in a professional-scale production of ‘Curse,’ by a director who had worked with Shepard at the Magic, at the University of California at Davis. Not long afterwards, another conservatory cohort starred as Emma (loosely modeled on Sam’s sister) in an early Magic mounting of ‘Curse.’ So it was only natural that when I finally made my own long-dreamed of debut on the New York stage at the age of 50, it was by playing Weston. If I already knew that Shepard’s characters were prone to bare their naked emotions (and bodies) at the slightest provocation, it was this inside perspective that revealed to me their authentically poignant human frailty.

The following monologue, with which Weston opens the second scene of the second act of “The Curse of the Starving Class,” captures the trap forged by the combination of the rotting American dream and that incurable American optimism which yields so many American tragedies. Later in the play, just before he takes off for Mexico fleeing debtors, Weston will proclaim: “I can’t run out on everything…. ‘CAUSE THIS IS WHERE I SETTLED DOWN! THIS IS WHERE THE LINE ENDED! RIGHT HERE! I MIGRATED TO THIS SPOT! I GOT NOWHERE TO GO! THIS IS IT! BACKED RIGHT UP TO THE PACIFIC DAMN OCEAN!” When the following, earlier scene opens, he’s sobered up, shaved, and donned a fresh shirt. The speech, delivered as he’s folding clothes he’s just laundered, is addressed to a lamb he’s just wormed. A last burst of American optimism — flying towards the Sun fueled by lamb testicles — before Weston becomes the sacrificial lamb to this idol.

There’s worse things than maggots ya know. Much worse. Maggots go away if they’re properly attended to. If you got someone around who can take the time. Who can recognize the signs. Who brings ya in out of the cold, wet pasture and sets ya up in a cushy situation like this. No lamb ever had it better. It’s warm. It’s free of draft, now that I got the new door up. There’s no varmints. No coyotes. No eagles. No — (Looks over at lamb.) Should I tell ya something about eagles? This is a true story. This is a true account. One time I was out in the fields doing the castrating, which is a thing that has to be done. It’s not my favorite job, but it’s something that just has to be done. I’d set myself up right beside the lean-to out there. Just a little tin roof-shelter thing out there with my best K-bar knife, some boiling water and a hot iron to cauterize with. It’s a bloody job on all accounts. Well, I had maybe two dozen spring ram lambs to do out there. I had ’em all gathered up away from the ewes in much the same kinda’ set up as you got right there. Similar fence structure like that. It was a crisp, bright type a’ morning. Air was real thin and you could see all the way out across the pasture land. Frost was still well bit down on the stems, right close to the ground. Maybe a couple a’ crows and the ewes carrying on about their babies, and that was the only sound. Well, I was working away out there when I feel this shadow cross over me. I could feel it even before I saw it take shape on the ground. Felt like the way it does when the clouds move across the sun. Huge and black and cold like. So I look up, half expecting a buzzard or maybe a red-tail, but what hits me across the eyes is this giant eagle. Now I’m a flyer and I’m used to aeronautics, but this sucker was doin’ some downright suicidal antics. Real low down like he’s coming in for a landing or something, tucking his wings, then changing his mind and pulling straight up again and sailing out away from me. So I watch him going small for a while, then turn back to my work. I do a couple more lambs maybe, and the same thing happens. Except this time he’s even lower yet. Like I could almost feel his feathers on my back. I could hear his sound real clear. A giant bird. His wings made a kind of cracking noise. Then up he went again. I watched him going small for a while, then turned back to my work. I do a couple more lambs maybe, and the same thing happens. Except this time he’s even lower yet. Like I could almost feel his feathers on my back. I could hear his sound real clear. A giant bird. His wings made a kind of cracking noise. Then up he went again. I watched him longer this time, trying to figure out his intentions. Then I put the whole thing together. He was after those testes. Those fresh little remnants of manlihood. So I decided to oblige him this time and threw a few a’ them on top a’ the shed roof. Then I just went back to work again, pretending to be preoccupied. I was waitin’ for him this time though. I was listening hard for him, knowing he’d be coming in from behind me. I was watchin’ the ground for any sign of blackness. Nothing happened for about three more lambs, when all of a sudden he comes. Just a thunder clap. Blam! He’s down on that shed roof with his talons taking half the tarpaper with him, wings whippin’ the air, screaming like a bred mare. Brought me straight up off the ground, and I started yellin’ my head off. I don’t know why it was comin’ outa’ me but I was standing there with this icy feeling up my backbone and just yelling my fool head off. Cheerin’ for that eagle. I’d never felt like that since the first day I went up in a B-49. After a while I sat down again and went on workin’. And every time I cut a lamb I’d throw those balls up on top a’ the shed roof. And every time he’d come down like the Cannonball Express on that roof. And every time I got that feeling.*

Having masticated the testes of the American socio-familial psyche like a cowboy pensively chewing his cud before spitting the leavings back out to form a pastiche as lyrical as a frayed quilt, Sam Shepard is now flying with the eagles. (And not — French cultural media take note — because he once played an astronaut in the movies.)

 

*”The Curse of the Starving Class” copyright 1976, 2004, 2009 Sam Shepard.

Liberté

chi statue small

On view at the Art Institute of Chicago through August 20, as part of its exhibition Robert Frank: Photos is, above, Robert Frank. Untitled, 2005/14. The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Ralph and Nancy Segall. © Robert Frank, from the book Partida. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

Conspicuous by its absence: “Ashcan” in the dustbin = mid-measure for ‘Stuart Davis In Full Swing’ Expo in San Francisco

Davis, StuartStuart Davis, “The Paris Bit,” 1959. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

Like what you’re reading? If you’re not already a subscriber, please make a donation today to the Arts Voyager. You can donate via PayPal by designating your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate or subscribe by check.

After having pilloried recent exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou for being too monographic — the everything but the kitchen sink Corbusier cavalcade was pretty crammed to the hilt for what was supposed to be an homage to a master of efficient space management, while the Paris institution’s Wilfredo Lam show should have turned off the spigot after 1950, when Lam’s tropical jungle canvasses started becoming monotonous — I’m aware it might seem contradictory to complain that the exhibition Stuart Davis, In Full Swing, on view at San Francisco’s de Young museum through August 6 before moving on to Arkansas’s Crystal Waters, omits a vital chapter in the Abstract Expressionist’s career. The omission is important, because unlike the apprentice paintings of Duchamp and Picasso, which only demonstrated that they’d mastered the basics of composition before deviating from them but were not significant for their intrinsic value, Davis’s contributions to the early 20th century fount that was the Ashcan School, starting when he was still a teenager, also prove that his social activism (notably as head of the Artists’ Union) wasn’t isolated from his painterly activity, but sprung from the same well.

Davis’s 1912 canvas “Chinatown,” for example, isn’t just a slice of Lower East Side topography, but a portrait of the desperation driving those women who weren’t going up in flames in locked factory fires into selling their bodies to survive. (The painting is part of the permanent collection of Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum of American Art, whose founders identified Davis as one of their core artists around whom they decided to build their stock.) The omission of work from the seminal part of his career that most directly responded to social conditions is particularly boggling given museum director Max Hollein’s declaration that the de Young “has always believed that artists have a duty to comment and critique our culture and we are pleased to show how one American artist responded to the tumultuous times he lived through.” Leaving aside that the ludicrous pretension of this statement is more a reflection of the social-message driven San Francisco aesthetic (and I’m a native) than a directive any artist worth his sourdough starter would take seriously, *having made such a profession of faith*, to then ignore the very work that meets this definition in the exhibition Hollein is putatively promoting is incomprehensible.

Perhaps deserving more leniency is the misapprehending of Davis’s later work by New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl, in his review of the exhibition’s tour at the Whitney last year, as “proto-Pop Art,” perhaps a mis-reading of curator Emma Acker’s statement that Davis’s “appropriation of images from consumer culture and advertising in the 1920s… predates 1960s Pop Art.” In fact, where Pop Art more often than not simply re-envisioned commercial icons as Icons — the only ingredient Andy Warhol added to Campbell’s Tomato Soup cans was his marquee name — Davis actually worked in the opposite sense. Rather than elevating pop “culture” into art, he inserted its ready symbols and recognizable images into his abstract and semi-abstract art to offer an anchor or key which would help viewers identify with the abstractions, perhaps his own manner of resurrecting the ubiquitous key in the medieval Unicorn tapestries on view at the Cloisters museum in New York, where Davis installed himself when he was just 15 years old.

 

Stuart Davis_For Internal Use Only_1944-45

Stuart Davis, “For Internal Use Only,” 1944-45. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Davis, Stuart

Stuart Davis, “House and Street,” 1931. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Odol_1924

Stuart Davis, “Odol,” 1924. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Egg Beater No 2_1963-64 smallStuart Davis, “Egg Beater No 2,” 1963-64. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Salt Shaker_1931

Stuart Davis, “Salt Shaker,” 1931. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_The Mellow Pad_1945-51 smallStuart Davis, “The Mellow Pad,” 1945-51. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Blips and Ifs_1928

Stuart Davis, “Blips and Ifs,” 1928. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Davis, Stuart

Stuart Davis, “Owh! in San Pao,” 1951. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Rapt at Rappaports_1951-52

Stuart Davis, “Rapt at Rappaports,” 1951-52. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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Stuart Davis, “Lucky Strike,” 1921. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Visa_1951 small

Stuart Davis, “Visa,” 1951. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis in His Studio

Stuart Davis in his studio.

 

Want more? Click here to see examples of some of the Stuart Davis works in the Crystal Waters collection.

From the Archives: An American Panorama at the Amon Carter in Fort Worth, Texas

carter 1 hopperEdward Hopper (1882 – 1967), “Night Shadows, 1921.” Etching. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, 1983.66.

By Paul Ben-Itzak  
Text copyright 2012, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you read on the Arts Voyager and Dance Insider? We can’t do it without your support. Please donate now in dollars or Euros through PayPal by designating your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Your donation will help pay for our arts and dance coverage in Paris and around the world, as well as vital and urgent medical and dental care for AV publisher Paul Ben-Itzak. No donation is too small. This article from our Archives was first published on our sister magazine Art Investment News on December 5, 2012.)

FORT WORTH, Texas — Once upon a time a newspaper man named Amon Carter followed the recommendation of his friend Will Rogers, the great American humorist, philosopher, and actor, and spent about $5,000 on a couple of canvasses by the “cowboy artist” Charles M. Russell. He built his Russell (and Frederic Remington) collection until, by the time of his death, he was able to bequeath it to found the museum which for the past 51 years has born his name and which, by his decree, is always free, because Carter wanted children to have the advantages he didn’t. The museum did not rest on its rawhide laurels, but grew up to be the greatest museum of American art in the world, in both its curatorial savvy and collecting prescience. It chose Stuart Davis as the one artist it was important to represent in all phases of his career, which, following the trajectory of art in the 20th century, took him from the stark literalism of the “ashcan” school to the wildest reaches of abstraction, never losing sight of reality. And, unlike so many museums which follow collecting trends, the Amon Carter anticipated at least one. Starting in the 1960s, it built a photography collection which dwarfs even that of the Museum of Modern Art.

It’s been a while since we’ve caught up with the Amon Carter, so busy has the auction season been. So we’re taking advantage of a breather in art sales to continue your — and our — ongoing arts education, always with a view to making us all better informed art investors, to offer this update in images of current and upcoming exhibitions at my favorite museum. Herewith you’ll find images of work from the current exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection,” on view through January 6; “Marie Cosindas: Instant Color,” running March 5 through May 26, 2013; “Big Pictures,” on view March 5 – April 21; “Romaire Bearden: A Black Odyssey,” May 18 – August 11; and “Larry Sultan’s Homeland,” closing January 13.

carter 1A cowboy

David Levinthal (b. 1949), “[Cowboy],” 1988. From the Five Trails West series. Dye diffusion transfer print. ©1988 David Levinthal. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas P1988.9. From the upcoming exhibition “Big Pictures.”

carter 2 lawrence migrationJacob Lawrence (1917 – 2000), “The Migration Series, Panel no. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north,” 1940 – 41. Casein tempera on hardboard. ©2011 the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Acquired 1942, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. . From the exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection.”

carter 3 train photoWilliam Henry Jackson (1843 – 1942), “Excursion Train. Lewiston Branch. N.Y.C. RR, 1890.” Albumen print.

carter 4 sloan trainJohn Sloan (1871 – 1951), “Six O’Clock, Winter, 1912.” Oil on canvas. ©2011 Delaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Acquired 1922, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. . From the exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection.”

carter 5 plumes warholLeft: Walt Kuhn (1877-1949), “Plumes, 1931.” Oil on canvas. Acquired 1932, the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.. From the exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection,” on view through January 6. Right: Marie Cosindas (b. 1925), “Andy Warhol, 1966.” Dye diffusion transfer print. ©Marie Cosindas. Courtesy the artist. From the exhibition “Marie Cosindas: Instant Color,” on view March 5 – May 26, 2013. Both events at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.

carter 6 davisStuart Davis (1892-1964), “Blue Café,” 1928. Oil on canvas. ©Estate of Stuart Davis / licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Acquired 1930, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Part of the exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection.”

carter 7 corte maderaLarry Sultan (1946-2009), “Meander, Corte Madera, 2006.” Digital dye coupler print. Collection of Andrew Pilara. From the exhibitioin “Larry Sultan’s Homeland: American story,” on view through January 13. (It may not look like much, but I was born here!)

Sonnez la matine: La Culture, c’est pas une ‘annexe’

Around the world, French culture is its calling card

“Même si les civilisations successives étaient des organismes, et semblables, la nôtre montrerait deux caractères sans exemple. D’être capable de faire sauter la terre ; et de rassembler l’art depuis la préhistoire.”

— André Malraux, Néocritique*

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

Once upon a time, France’s siren call to the world was its culture, of which the most potent register was its literature. And yet today, this siren call has often been drowned out, or at least muffled — and, at Charlie Hebdo, literally assassinated — by the threat of and acts of terrorism, unfortunately resulting in a state of siege mentality on the part of many. The knee-jerk response to the real and present threat of terrorism in some quarters — in the U.S. as in France — has been to in effect cede to the terrorists by being terrorized, putting up walls, ostracizing the Other, and erecting a citadel we like to think will be impregnable but that risks to swallow us in solipsism. And the understandable and completely justifiable responses of military Defense and verbal Sanction have been under-accompanied by strategies to treat the problem at its roots. To put the question concretely: How to head off that child at risk before s/he becomes a teenager and, in that stage of life so subject to alienation, potentially fertile territory for the manipulation and brainwashing of the ideologues and terrorists?

In France, the tragedy has been that the ‘better offer’ has always been there: In its culture, in ideas, in philosophy, and in the ‘lumieres,’ as they’ve been handed down in the country’s LITERATURE.

To behold this rich heritage and potential anecdote to Obscurantism being so under-exploited has been particularly tragic for an American who from the moment he could have stories read to him has been seduced by the siren call of French and Francophone culture: Babar, “Madeline” (technically not written by a Frenchman, but qualified by its rebel spirit and its luminous setting: PARIS), Tintin and, later, through the lyrics of song, Jacques Brel, Yves Montand, Jacques Dutronc, Serge Gainsbourg…. (Indeed, the first music I remember mimicking is not “Michael row your boat ashore” but “Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, dormez vous, dormez vous?”) And if we extend the literary rubric to film — also, after all, a form of composition — “The Red Balloon” planted the siren of the Belleville neighborhood of Paris in my young head and heart and, later, Truffaut and Godard made their respective imprints with Gallic right and left brains which mined the poetry in romantic as well as societal strife.

I am not the only American who has been drawn to this heritage. (In some cases, more even than the French themselves. During an initial sojourn in Paris in 2001, accustomed to lines around the block for his films in New York and San Francisco, I was shocked to find that Godard’s “Eloge d’Amour,” fresh from Cannes, was allocated the tiniest screen in the tiniest room of a multiplex near the Luxembourg Garden, where all of 10 people watched his latest experimentations. My French actress friend clutched her head in agonized frustration, while I — at that juncture French illiterate — remained perched on the edge of my seat for the entire picture.)

So you can imagine my chagrin in reading, just before the recent presidential election, New York Times columnist Roger Simon’s “France at the End of Days,” a one-sided portrait of a supposedly crepuscular France in which the Neo-Xenophobes were battling the Neo-Liberals for control of the wheel that would determine the country’s direction for the next five years. (Nowhere in the article was it explained that if the National Front had doubled its support since the last election in 2012, it wasn’t because an additional 17 percent of Frenchmen and women suddenly woke up racists, but because a)like my retired neighbors here in the Southwest of France, they’re weary of making their grocery purchases every week based on what’s on sale, and b) the end run by leaders of both the principal parties around the popular rejection of the European Constitution in 2005 with a Treaty of Lisbon not subject to popular confirmation, capped by Francois Hollande’s running in 2012 as “the enemy of Finance” only to (in the view of some; I’ll take the Fifth) embrace Capitalism after he was elected president left many voters disillusioned with the establishment parties.)

Hollande didn’t do much better with the cultural agenda, all three of his cultural ministers qualified more by their allegiance to the Socialist party than their cultural accomplishments. The low point was a minister who, asked to name her favorite Patrick Modiano work after the latter won the Nobel Prize, couldn’t name a single title, finally explaining that she didn’t have time to read books, as her most famous predecessor André Malraux no doubt jumped out of his grave.

So when Emmanuel Macron, asked during the 2017 presidential campaign about his cultural program, said that a pillar would be expanding library hours at night and on the week-ends, I was encouraged.

In the lower-class, mixed, crime-ridden neighborhood of East Fort Worth, Texas where I lived before returning to France, the library was always packed — most of all with young people, often bilingual. (As was the library’s small collection.)

The Library is a crucial point of First Contact with Culture.

The Library is a social nexus that provides a constructive alternative to hanging out with and getting recruited by gang-bangers.

Or terrorists.

And, unlike many other cultural outlets, it’s free. And it’s accessible, in the neighborhood.

And yet, around the world, library hours have been eviscerated and libraries shuttered for the past 30 years. (In the Anglophone culture, this is what we call Penny-wise, pound-foolish.)

With Emmanuel Macron, elected president May 7 with a 66 percent majority, increasing library hours is not just a pat solution. This is a man who carefully chooses his words. During his presidential debate with National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, after two hours of not taking the bait and remaining calm, he finally called her and her party “parasites.” This was not an ill-considered empty put-down but an exact diagnoses; parasites feed on bodies whose immune systems have been weakened. (Also along the lines of better immunizing the country’s infants, Macron has pledged to cut class size in difficult neighborhoods in half, to 12 students.)

And yet for France, it doesn’t have to be this way. Words — words — build up immune systems. They build up our defenses against ignorance, against intolerance, against fear, against pain, against hate, against ‘fermeture.’ I’d even argue that they forge pretty solid inroads against mortality because, as Albert Moravia once pointed out, they augment our existence laterally with a multitude of other lives… and cultures.

But let’s pause on that word Defense.

In analyzing the cabinet named yesterday by Macron and his new prime minister, Edouard Philippe (also a book maven, having launched book-mobiles around his coastal city of Le Havre), most of the media I audit has been commenting that even if half the 22 members are women, only one, the new minister of armies, was accorded a ‘regalian’ ministry. (I can’t find this word in any of my French dictionaries, so it must be a recent — Franglaise? — innovation of the political pundits.)

One Radio France reporter even grouped the ministry of Culture and Communication with those he dubbed ‘annex’ ministries.

This in France, the cradle of literature.

Never mind that the most ‘regalian’ of French presidents in the 60 years of the Fifth Republic, the man still more likely to be referred to by the French as “the General” than “the president,” Charles De Gaulle, appointed as his first and long-time minister of culture André Malraux, himself a Nobel laureate.

The General understood that Culture was not an ‘annex,’ but a pillar of national defense and an essential component of the foundation of a society. And that the best way to protect a nation’s heritage is not to pillory other cultures but to incorporate them in the national cultural identity. (As for Macron, he did not, as some media here inaccurately reported, say that there was no such thing as French Culture, but that it was rather a question of French cultures.)

Francois Mitterand — another literary president — understood this too, appointing Jack Lang to incorporate contemporary elements into the French cultural vision and agenda. (It was Lang who implemented the now European-wide Fete de la Musique, coming up this June 21, just when we’ve got something to dance about.) As did even Nicolas Sarkozy, appointing to the post Mitterand’s nephew Frederick, whose outsized erudition would certainly qualify him as ‘regalian.’

Another normally astute Radio France commentator alleged Wednesday that Macron, seeking gender equilibrium in prime minister Edouard Philippe’s cabinet, had called a cultural figure and asked him to provide the names of three women who worked in the sector. Setting aside that this allegation may be the product of a ‘mauvaise langue,’ I’d respond: “Et alors?” Admitting the possibility — if the story is true — of a latent sexism in the idea that Culture is a ‘woman’s ministry’ and thus only fit for dames and pansies, isn’t this an improvement on the procedure followed by François Hollande, who seemed to choose his cultural ministers not for their cultural currency but on the bit-coin of party loyalty?

Macron’s eventual choice, Françoise Nyssen, definitely has cultural credibility. The long-time director of Arles-based Actes Sud, founded by her father in 1978 and since grown to one of France’s most respected publishing houses, Nyssen’s authors include Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster, and Kamel Daoud. The author of “Mersaut: Counter-Investigation,” a response to Albert Camus’s “The Outsider,” and an independent thinker unafraid to criticize Occidental or Oriental mores, Daoud has also described Camus himself as the last Outsider, a man with no country. (Following the suicide of her son, Nyssen also founded a school focused on listening to children, the School of Possibilities.)

… Or, I’d argue, multiple countries — like Nyssen, an immigrant whose publishing house excels in promoting authors in translation; thus eminently French and open to the world. Not so anecdotally, Arles itself is best-known outside France for having welcomed Vincent Van Gogh, yet another foreigner who expanded French culture even as it assimilated him. (These days, also not so anecdotally, the Provencial city is home to ATLAS, the country’s leading association for literary translation.)

As have so many of us (assimilated French culture), even those who rarely set foot in France. Take Ludwig Bemelmans, the author of the “Madeline” series of children’s adventures, whose courageous heroine exemplified the Gallic strategy of responding to terror with words during a visit to the Paris zoo:

“To the tiger in the zoo
Madeline just said, ‘Pooh-Pooh.'”**

*Published in “Malraux: Être et Dire,” with texts assembled by Martine de Courcel. Plon, Paris, 1976. Copyright André Malraux.

**From “Madeline,” copyright Ludwig Bemelmans, 1939, renewed Madeleine Bemelmans and Barbara Bemelmans Marciano, 1967.