While a Cultural War Continues to Rumble in France, Art Remains a Lighthouse for Progressive Views

Accused of pandering to the far-right ahead of France’s federal election in 2022, President Emmanuel Macron attempted a balancing act. In January 2021, the leader’s party said it would create a “memories and truth” commission on France’s painful colonial history and war with Algeria. In March, it released a report on the positive contributions of individuals of immigrant backgrounds called “Portraits of France.”

These initiatives are part of a broader effort to find alternative solutions to growing demands for the removal of statues and street names honoring historical figures that are connected to France’s colonial past, including its slave trade. Yet, at the same time, Macron and some of his ministers have been igniting emotions as they publicly denounce forces that they see as stoking so-called “separatism,” including what many see as Us-style political correctness and cancel culture—the latter of which is a largely unpopular but growing concept in France—as well as a perceived US-version of multiculturalism.

Recent events within and outside of France have further stoked this upheaval. The #MeToo movement has been met with uneven hostility. The October decapitation of a teacher who showed cartoons of the prophet Muhammad during a course on free speech has led to a new bill “against separatism,” which aims to combat Islamic radicalism. And the protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in the US last year have prompted renewed conversation about the nature of racism in France, and put the country’s old ways of cultural assimilation on trial.

Against this backdrop of a culture war that shows little signs of abating, artistic projects remain a powerful place for progressive discourse in France—even as some factions in the country move to denounce what many have called an “importation” of America’s discourse on identity politics.

President of France Emmanuel Macron. Photo: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images.

President of France Emmanuel Macron. Photo: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images.

Art and Politics

As warring factions argue over how to integrate populations of citizens descended from former colonies, a new resurgent left, notably marked by young people from within the very populations at the center of the issue, have been pushing back against the country’s “universalist” social model, which traditionally downplays—some would say ignores—cultural differences between citizens. The traditional style of governance aims to avoid what is often viewed as an Americanized version of warring ethnic and religious groups.

In a Le Monde editorial from March, supporters of the president’s “Portraits of France” project said that playwrights, filmmakers, and painters should “seize upon these life stories and make works of art out of them that speak to our society and our world.” They added that “by ignoring a part of our shared past, we have made it harder to understand our present and to write our future.” This effort at reconciliation comes on the back of the French president’s breakthrough comments a few years ago on restitution, when he commissioned a special report advocating for the return of African art from public museums that had been taken “without consent,” tipping off the movement in Europe.

But these cultural in-roads are not always met with open arms. The executive branch of French government has specifically singled out academia, including the social science fields of post-colonial and intersectional studies, saying that these areas are under risk of influence from radical agendas that are pitting communities against each other. It also announced in February a sweeping investigation into the presence of “Islamo-gauchisme”—a term loosely referring to extreme-left activists who are “complacent” toward radical forms of Islamism or who apologize for terrorism—in universities. As a result, many are worried about censorship in schools and that scholarly research into the darker chapters of France’s history is under threat.

Emo de Medeiros …notwithstanding the forces at hand (2018). Collection MACAAL / Fondation Alliances © ADAGP, Paris, 2021. On view with the exhibition "Ce qui s'oublie et ce qui reste" currently on view at the Palais de la Porte Dorée.

Emo de Medeiros …notwithstanding the forces at hand (2018).
Collection MACAAL / Fondation Alliances © ADAGP, Paris, 2021. On view with the exhibition “Ce qui s’oublie et ce qui reste” currently on view at the Palais de la Porte Dorée.

This debate spewed over into the art world when a government-commissioned portrait series of women publicly displayed in March in Paris, which was designed to celebrate diversity by featuring images of professionals from an array of different fields, sparked a vicious response. The photographs in “109 Mariannes” became fodder for controversy due to the inclusion of the young astrophysicist Fatoumata Kébé who was singled out for her headscarf. Angered that Kébé was chosen to emblematize “Marianne,” the personification of the French Republic often seen interpreted in art or on stamps, former spokesperson for the right-leaning Republican party, Lydia Guirou, was among the angry tweeters: “Marianne is not and will NEVER wear the headscarf!”

The sentiment dovetails with a draft bill that the Senate amended this month to forbid chaperones on school field trips from wearing Muslim headscarves. The bill has been strongly criticized for stigmatizing Muslims and called an overreach of France’s already strict secular laws, which forbid the wearing of clearly visible religious symbols in schools, and by civil servants. That said, opinions are changing: A poll from earlier this year by Ifop has showed that high school students have “ruptured” with an older generation’s more restrictive view of French secularism, and a growing number favor allowing the headscarf in school.

Visitors look at “The Slave for sale” (1873) painting by Jean-Leon Gerome during the press visit of the exhibition “Black models: from Gericault to Matisse” at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris on March 25, 2019. Photo: Francois Guillot/ AFP) via Getty Images.

The Faces of the Republic

Despite instances of incendiary reactions, the cultural sphere is being won over by a new wave of progressive viewpoints. A younger generation has become eager to more openly focus on the topic of race and difference. French citizens of immigrant descent are raising their voices to say that, in practice, their identities are under-represented in a society that discriminates against them for their inherent differences. With a sense of irony, they describe a society which claims to be blind to those differences while demanding that any outward signs of that difference—for example, hijabs—are avoided, to best fit a cultural mold.

“We like the idea of ‘universalism,’ because it’s a kind of utopia… But it’s easier to go to Mars than to the land of universalism,” Nadine Houkpatin told Midnight Publishing Group News. She is co-curator with Céline Seror of a show that includes work by artists from Africa and its diaspora called Memoria: accounts of another History that is on view until November at the Frac-Nouvelle Acquitaine MECA in Bordeaux. Houkpatin notes that while a new generation has indeed been “inspired” by some of the “woke” political ideas stemming from the U.S., the theorists behind many of these left-leaning ideas are often of French origin.

"Memoria: Tales of another History" at the Frac Nouvelle-Aquitaine MÉCA. Photos: Gaëlle Deleflie.

Views of the exhibition “Memoria: Tales of another History” at the Frac Nouvelle-Aquitaine MÉCA. Photos: Gaëlle Deleflie.

The curators of the Bordeaux show surmise that, when it comes to discussing these issues through art, people have an easier time accepting more progressive, controversial topics. “I think that through art, we can address these questions that are essential,” said Seror. Art “gives a certain liberty that enables us to express ourselves about these subjects,” she added.

Indeed, it seems that the art world has been somewhat shielded: Responses were overwhelmingly positive to the two shows, despite the debates going on in the public realm. The show at Musée d’Orsay even received a nod from a critic who supports the government’s investigation into academics. “I saw the exhibition, and very much appreciated it,” said Nathalie Heinich, a sociologist who has published work on contemporary art.  She is in favor of the French government’s recent stance against “radical” intellectual currents “that come from elsewhere” and a signatory in an editorial in Le Monde that described them as “feeding a hatred for ‘whites.’”

Immigration Museum director Pap Ndiaye, a French historian, poses during a photo session, outside the museum in Paris on March 5, 2021. (Photo by Martin BUREAU / AFP) (Photo by MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images)

Pap Ndiaye, the historian and new director of France’s immigration museum, the Palais de la Porte-Dorée, recently told reporters that he too is concerned by the pushback on academia. “It comes at a moment when post-colonial and intersectional questions are beginning to find their very small space in French universities,” he said. “If we stop teaching them, where will the students go?” The Paris museum he oversees is currently showing an exhibit on the immigrant experience that includes 18 artists from Africa and its diaspora—it is a poignant exploration of artistic diversity and it falls on the 90th anniversary of the museum, which infamously opened with an exhibition to celebrate the colonies and included human exhibits.

The title of the show at Ndiaye’s museum, “Ce qui s’oublie et ce qui reste,” which translates to “What is forgotten and what remains,” also seems to ask what traces of this dark past remain in the popular subconscious today. It is on view until July.

While the government and certain factions of the population continue to rail against the universities, art institutions are set to become an increasingly singular voice for pressing questions about post-colonialism in France. “When an artist presents [their work] in a museum that is open to the public, then we can start talking about colonialism, decolonization, and its impact on society,” said curator Seror. “That’s the power of art.”

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The Gray Market: Why the New York Art Market Could Be Reshaped by the State’s Progressive New Budget (and Other Insights)

Every Wednesday morning, Midnight Publishing Group 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, anticipating a new clash between collectors and the taxman…



On April 6, New York state announced a new budget that does exactly what many in the liberal-leaning cultural sector have been clamoring for every level of government to do in recent years: raise taxes on the highest-earning residents, partly to directly benefit the art industry. The question now will be whether this more progressive tax policy works as envisioned, or whether it backfires by driving the one percent away from spending, giving, and even living in New York.

All told, the state’s fiscal year 2022 budget will channel more than $1 billion in relief and recovery funding to small businesses within and beyond the cultural space. The lion’s share of that total ($865 million) will take the form of grants to small businesses, including both for-profit and nonprofit arts institutions accosted by our ongoing public-health nightmare. Another $139 million will be doled out to the same categories of recipients via tax credits. 

Of the package’s $865 million in grants, $60 million will be earmarked exclusively for cultural nonprofits. Two-thirds of this amount will arrive through a dedicated fund to help these entities bounce back in general, and one-third will be funneled through an array of capital grants specifically designed to assist with measures combating everyone’s least favorite spike protein, such as “outdoor performance space projects, flexible seating, [and] HVAC and filtration upgrades.” (Separate from these provisions, the budget also re-ups the $40 million in arts grants provided every year by the New York State Council on the Arts.)

While a significant portion of this new spending comes courtesy of federal aid to the Empire State, some of it will be fueled by higher tax rates hitting top-earning residents like a well-placed uppercut. For the 2022 through 2027 tax years, New York’s freshly ratified budget will increase the personal tax rate from 8.82 percent to 9.65 percent for filers with annual income over $1.08 million, and to 10.9 percent for the top income bracket, above $25 million.

How do these rate hikes actually translate into dollars and cents? Setting aside all other factors, any New Yorker with $3 million in annual income would see their starting state tax bill rise from $264,600 to $289,500—a delta of less than $25,000. 

Zooming out, state officials estimate that the new budget will bring in an additional $7.8 billion in tax revenue over the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years. That two-year stretch will be Albany’s most lucrative under the plan, since it will also see the tax rate temporarily ascend from 6.5 percent to 7.25 percent on business income above $5 million. 

To summarize, then, New York’s fresh fiscal blueprint raises a lot of money for statewide recovery by asking individual high earners to make what practically everyone else would call modest sacrifices. But many of the people being asked to pay more may see the situation differently, and their reaction could deal an unexpected blow to the New York art market.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on International Women’s Day in the White House in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on International Women’s Day in the White House in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.


Here’s one thing I know to be true about wealthy people: None of them makes decisions about their money or lifestyle based strictly on just one type of tax. It would be like trying to find their way out of the wilderness using a map that leaves out waterways and mountains. Instead, they (and their tax professionals) look at the entire landscape of levies and chart a course forward based on how everything coheres. 

This is important context in the U.S. right now, because president Joe Biden’s ambitious new infrastructure plan hinges on at least two major federal tax considerations. First, the administration hopes to pay for the program in part by elevating the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent; this move would effectively double as a stealth wealth tax, since companies paying more to the IRS inevitably return less to shareholders (who disproportionately tend to be people of means).

The second issue is the state and local tax (or SALT) deduction, the amount any U.S. resident can lop off their federal tax bill because it has already been paid to those other two levels of government. 

In 2017, the Trump administration placed a cap of $10,000 on the SALT deduction—a change seen by several policy think tanks as being most damaging to high-earners in blue states, where taxes tend to be higher. No surprise, then, that multiple Democrats in the House of Representatives have already pledged to reject Biden’s infrastructure bill unless it eliminates the upper limit on the SALT deduction. Among them? Tom Suozzi of New York.

So on its own, Biden’s infrastructure bill embodies why high-earning participants in the New York art trade won’t evaluate the state’s new budget in a vacuum. Diana Wierbicki, the global head of art law at Withers Bergman LLP, pointed out to me that removing the SALT cap would lessen the impact of the New York increases on taxpayers. “On the other hand,” she added, “collectors may see changes in New York as a predictor of federal tax increases to come and therefore may react more strongly than the New York changes would in isolation predict.” 

What would it mean to react strongly? It depends on who we’re talking about. Wierbicki judged the state’s new budget as “unlikely to have a major impact” on the art spending of ultra-high-net-worth collectors (normally defined as those with investable assets of $30 million or more). She also anticipates few instances of donors reducing their financial contributions to arts institutions, particularly since other measures enacted under recent federal relief bills dramatically incentivize certain types of charitable giving through 2021. 

On top of this, I would wager that any self-styled art philanthropist would be absolutely crushed by their peers for scaling back their donations because of a minor rise in the state tax rate. Social currency and optics are far too important in this realm to do something so cheap. 

But Wierbicki cautioned that the state’s new budget could affect activity in the “middle tier” of the art market. Why? The tax increases will be felt more by the class I’ll call the unremarkably wealthy: New Yorkers earning a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars annually, giving them far less discretionary income to spare than UHNWIs. (Remember what Connor Roy told cousin Greg in Succession about being worth $5 million: “You can’t do anything with five, Greg. Five’s a nightmare… can’t retire, not worth it to work.”) 

Yet the New York art world isn’t just about spending, even at the apex. It’s also about presence, and presence may be the most interesting question provoked by the shifting tax landscape. 

The Breakers in Palm Beach. Photo courtesy The Breakers.

The Breakers in Palm Beach. Photo courtesy The Breakers.


Attorney and art law specialist Thomas Danziger framed New York’s new budget memorably: “The current tax plan could have been devised by the Florida chamber of commerce.” Although he doubts any serious collectors would move elsewhere based on Albany’s latest budget alone, he echoed Wierbicki in stressing that what matters is how it contributes to the cumulative effect on every high-net-worth collector’s individual tax picture.

“Each of our clients has a different tipping point,” he said, “but there comes a point where the people in the top income bracket will make the decision that it’s no longer worth it to live in New York.”

The grand irony is that the driving force behind the state’s progressive budget—namely, the preceding year of devastation caused by the “c” word—has arguably made the prospect of bailing on the Empire State more palatable to ultra-high-net-worth collectors than it’s ever been. 

Danziger called 2020 a “dry run” for such a future given that so many wealthy people spent so much of 2020 in other elite-friendly locations like south Florida, California, Mykonos, and elsewhere. They didn’t just survive in these other destinations; they thrived, with many of their businesses and investment portfolios posting best-ever returns.

High-end dealers and auction houses followed their migration patterns, too, whether that meant setting up glitzy outposts in Palm Beach and the Hamptons, or just hopping on a plane for a sortie to a particular client and/or a target-rich selling environment.

It’s worth remembering that moving away for tax purposes wouldn’t necessarily mean vanishing from the New York art scene forever, either. The rules are complex, but if high earners are careful, there are still ways for them to spend significant stretches of any year in New York without qualifying as a resident owing state income taxes. (The annual upper limit is 183 days, but the closer you get to this threshold, the more onerous it becomes to prove you were just visiting.) Regardless, I promise you the collectors who would bankroll this lifestyle would also bankroll the tax attorneys and certified public accountants necessary to slide through every loophole. 

Pace Gallery's new space in East Hampton. Photo by Sylvia Muller. Image courtesy the Mill House Inn

Pace Gallery’s new space in East Hampton. Photo by Sylvia Muller. Image courtesy the Mill House Inn

In the end, though, I don’t think we’re at a point in the overall tax cosmos where New York’s modestly more progressive budget will push a sizable number of high- and ultra-high-net-worth art buyers out of state. The disruption seems too extreme relative to the tax savings they would get out of it.

As Ginia Bellafante wrote in the New York Times last week, how many people “making $2 million a year will really move from the Upper East Side to South Beach—a location where climate models predict two feet or more of sea-level rise by 2060—for a savings roughly equal to the cost of a used Chevy Malibu”?

That could change, however, depending on what else transpires at the federal level in the years to come. Yes, the richest Americans have a long history of howling at tax increases no matter the circumstances; my favorite example remains Jack Morgan, the third-generation leader of the Morgan banking dynasty, slandering the New Deal in 1933 as a Trojan Horse aimed at the “extinction of all wealth and earning power” when he himself paid no personal income tax in the three preceding years and the nationwide unemployment rate was 25 percent.

Still, I agree with Danziger that everyone has a limit. Like an unfaithful man, the very wealthy tend to only be as loyal as their options make them—and they have never had more options in the art market and luxury living than they have in 2021. Let’s see how unsexy but important changes to the tax code might direct their wandering eyes and collecting dollars in the years to come.

[The State of New York | The New York Times]


That’s all for this week. ‘Til next time, remember: Things change very slowly, then all at once.

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