Culture: Europe’s mainstream is just a trickle
23 April 2010
Having lagged behind an American cultural superpower for decades, the European mainstream now faces competition from the cultural products of China, India, and Brazil. A book published in France warns that Europe has been increasingly marginalized in the soft war to capture the popular imagination.
"If Europe does not react, it will be marginalized and even submerged by emerging countries… ." You might be tempted to dismiss Frédéric Martel as a doomsday preacher were it not for the carefully documented arguments in the 450 pages of his book Mainstream, which focuses on the rapid changes that have marked cultural industries in the digital era. As its title implies Mainstream is about cultural products that are designed to please the widest possible audience and an industry that accounts for an increasingly large share of the world's GDP, which has now become the battleground for a face-off between major international groups. And it is not just a fight over money, because the outcome of the conflict between soft powers, which is fought with the products of creative endeavour rather than conventional weapons, will also have a determining influence on global culture.
On a tour of the planet, which aims to evaluate the consequences of the digital revolution, two decades of globalisation and the emergence of the Southern powers, researcher and journalist Frédéric Martel (France Culture, NonFiction.fr) naturally visits the United States – the Mecca of mainstream – and also travels to new centres of cultural power in Mumbai, Shanghai, Seoul and Dubai. At the end of this journey, he arrives at a conclusion that is hardly surprising: the United States remains "the uncontested leader" in the global market for mainstream culture. And this is underlined not only by the strong performance of its cultural exports, but also by the worldwide adoption of an American cultural model: "From Damas to Beijing, from Hué to Tokyo, and even in Riyadh and Caracas, I was struck by the universal fascination with the American model of entertainment. The words of the people I spoke to were in Hindi or Mandarin, but the syntax was always American." The other clear winners in the ongoing redistribution of powers, were emerging countries like China, India and Brazil, or Gulf states, who are busily creating cultural industries with their large reserves of petrodollars.
Europe's culture industry has many handicaps
In this fascinating study, there are two major losers: Europe, whose relative decline is described and explained, and southern countries who do not have the large populations or financial means of emerging countries, and are thus forced to import media from elsewhere. There is no denying the figures which quantify Europe's dwindling influence on the popular imagination. Over the last decade, its share in the global export market for films, television and music (Martel indicates that publishing has fared better) has fallen by 8% by per year, while America's share has grown at a rate of 10% per year. Europe still remains the second-ranked cultural power, but for how long?
Europe's cultural industry has to contend with many handicaps, and chief among these is the problem of fragmentation, because the European market for culture is a statistical entity, which in reality is divided into 27 national markets "with largely hermetic borders." Then there is the issue of its aging population which also weighs heavily on the entertainment industry: this is expressed by "a historical, heritage oriented, and elitist European definition of culture, which is mainly anti-mainstream, and out of sync with the current era of globalisation and digital revolution." But the list does not just stop there.
French culture dominated by aesthetes
Martel goes on to apportion blame to the initial mistrust of the internet and "the frequent rejection of culture produced by immigrants and there children." However, the most serious issue and "the major problem for Europe, which distinguishes it not only from the United States, but also from the Arab world, probably from Africa, and perhaps even from Asia, is the disappearance of any common mainstream culture. This is abundantly clear from a close look at cultural statistics in Europe, where most countries have succeeded in protecting their music and literature, some have managed to sustain their film and television industries, but the remaining content aired to national audiences is virtually always American and hardly ever European. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, it is as though every European had two cultures: his own national culture and the culture of America."
It is on this basis that Martel condemns the current hegemony in a French cultural industry dominated by aesthetes solely concerned by the preservation of the essence of French culture, who are willing to surrender control of the mainstream to the Americans and the Chinese. This attitude is misguided because it fails to take into account the fact that the neglect of mainstream culture will not only have a significant impact in other sectors, but it will also decrease France and Europe's ability to produce non-mainstream culture: in other words, its capacity to create viable alternatives to schlock. Martel concludes with a call to arms in which he notes that his book "will have fulfilled its purpose if it succeeds in raising European awareness of soft power and prompts political change that takes into account its global context." It remains to be seen whether he will achieve this ambitious goal. In the meantime, he has certainly defined the parameters for debate on the European mainstream.