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Cultural ambitions

Art and Technology in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries By Pierre Francastel.MIT Press, 2001. 331pp. £20.50

Pierre Francastel's book is an extraordinary work, but even more extraordinary is the decision to publish it in English now.

Francastel (1900-70), a teacher at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, wrote the book in the 1950s. This was during that remarkable explosion of French intellectual life which accompanied Dien Bien Phu and the Algeria fiasco, when Claude LeviStrauss reached maturity, Michel Foucault set out on his intellectual journey, and Roland Barthes decoded those icons of French culture, the stripper and the Citroen DS. This trio and many others still help to shape our perceptions of the world, but Francastel is not their equal.

If Art and Technology has any relevance now, it is in the insight it gives into that milieu. In trying to 'retrace the circumstances surrounding the encounter between a historically frozen view of art and material transformations that altered man's goals, values and means of action', Francastel certainly has an important subject. He seeks to show that the relationship between technology and art is not simple determinism - and that is about all he achieves.

We can sympathise with his claim that those who went before him missed the mark. But he ignores Gottfried Semper, treats Lewis Mumford respectfully but briefly, and constantly prods Sigfried Giedion and Bruno Zevi into the frame, only to subject them to Gallic scorn.

We shall return to the nationalistic chauvinism, but some methodological problems demand attention first. They start with basic factual errors: Turner's painting is called Rain, Steam and Speed, not Speed, Wind and Smoke; the sculptor Pevsner was Antoine not Nikolaus; Monet did not precede Ruskin by two generations.

Couple such errors with over-dependence on unreferenced phrases such as 'it is generally agreed', and credibility starts to disappear. Then there is the lack of footnotes and of an index, and while the text cites many artworks which beg illustration, pictures are scarce.

Back to the chauvinism: the characterisation of Kandinsky as drawn to chaos and infinity is emblematic of the French attitude to Russia in general.

Russian culture continually opens up the concept of Europe - geographically, politically, linguistically, economically, culturally, in religion and even emotion. As such it is a terrible threat to the fondly Gallic perception of Europe as Greater France.

Francastel has a point in claiming that Modern Art derives largely from Paris: 'Wright and Aalto built on representational precepts that emanated from the Impressionists, the Cubists and the Abstractionists, who could only have been nurtured in France'. But his assertion that new art will continue to evolve on the banks of the Seine was made at a time when New York was, in the words of Serge Guilbaut, 'stealing the idea of the avant garde' from Paris.

It is tempting to conclude that Francastel's re-constituted understanding of the relationship between technology and society merely disguised an attempt to reclaim French leadership in art. 'Today's technology has fallen into the hands of uncultured individuals who have done the least to foster the blossoming of humankind, ' he writes, and - quelle surprise! - the guilty parties are 'primarily Anglo-Saxon'.

We know now that the CIA sponsored American leadership of the avant-garde in the 1950s. As the Elf scandal now unfolds in France - revealing how this nationalised company systematically furthered French interests with its donations - I shouldn't be surprised to find that its largesse went to cultural theorists as much as politicians who supported France's global ambitions.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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