In the field of visual arts, the study of transatlantic exchange has seen recent growth in the...
This collection takes a long view of an aspect of modern globalization: the circulation of artistic forms and practices between the United States and France. It approaches the idea of Americanization through an examination of individual pieces, bodies of work, and changes in the organization of artistic life. Particular attention will be paid to the creative appropriations of forms in music, the visual arts, and literature and to how these appropriations have affected language, the body, artistic genres, and more broadly, ways of life. The presumption of artistic exchanges and appropriations that underpins this approach opens the way to an anthropological understanding of the arts that extends Philippe Descola’s observation to the full range of artistic production: “Since the end of the twentieth century, a handful of historians and anthropologists have undertaken to interpret images…by treating them, not so much as self-enclosed assemblages of signs, but as agents in their own right, exercising an influence on social and affective life.”1
Over and above the obvious impacts of Americanization—the accelerating pace of exchanges, a social space ever more governed by legal norms, greater attention paid to minorities, the multiplication of cultural signs of American-ness—, the goal of this collection is to explore the ways in which American influence has reshaped sensibilities the world of the senses, starting in the mid 19th century, with the arts understood as the cutting edge of the process. Much has already been written on the diplomatic, military, economic, political, juridical, moral, intellectual, and cultural dimensions of Franco-American relations and on American soft power. There is much less literature focused on “practical adaptations and appropriations”2 by artists and their work.
What does it mean for writers, painters, filmmakers or musicians to adopt an “American style” (whatever that might signify in any particular case) in the way they write, compose, film, dance or act? In most cases, it involves an emphasis on speed, economy of expression, impact, energy, and/or the sharpening of contrasts. But which America are we talking about? That of the Surrealist Philippe Soupault who in the 1920s looked to American cinema to re-energize French poetry? That of a cultivated European fringe who in the 1930s celebrated “the American Negro” as part of a dominated group and as a creator of jazz, the “greatest Te Deum of the century”?3 That of Robert Capa and Robert Franck, pioneers of photo-journalism and of the “Americana” photo? That of Boris Vian who invented an imaginary American writer in order to “write American”? That of the cineaste Jean-Pierre Melville who recreated Manhattan in his studio? That of hip-hop artists and rappers? That of country line dancers? In many forms they perceived as American, French artists recognized and reworked elements of their own culture. In return, their production was appropriated and americanized by American artists. Criss-crossings made up of samplings, mixings, resurgences. The jazzy compositions of the thirties, those of Ray Ventura, Mireille, and Charles Trenet, import an American-ness, which has been reformulated through voice, rhythmic articulation, and phantasmagoria in ways that call to mind, for lack of a better word, French tradition.
The joining together of populations from several continents—from Europe and Africa, not to mention Asia —on the soil of yet another continent, America, provides the beginnings of an explanation for the capacity of the American model to “establish a paradigm.”4 Pertinent in this regard is Ludovic Tournès’s approach, which treats the United States as a laboratory of world culture, of a new kind of globalization.5 But Americanization does not just draw its strength from its unparalleled material investment in the means of production, or from its new organization of labor. It is powerful because of all the appropriations that it makes possible. This is where the history of creation enters in.
And so, it is deliberate that this project brings together historians, art historians, musicologists, and historians of photography and film scholars. We are aiming for a comparative understanding of the processes of Americanization, as they manifest themselves from one art form to the next, in terms of chronologies, intensities, usages. Take Jacques Tati’s treatment of the impact of American standards of industrial modernity as an example. In his Jour de fête, released in 1949 just as the Cold War was setting in, the postal service imposes a new organization of work in a French village and comes up against an older way of doing things. On the sound track, different styles of music succeed one another. A slow waltz to the accompaniment of an accordéon musette—the world as it existed before the coming of American methods—gives way to swing riffs, as the rhythm of the filmed images picks up speed and the body itself is caught up in the frenetic motion. It is as though the music itself is the cause of the body’s acceleration. Its otherness, and the otherness of the behavior it engenders, is emblematic of the village’s Americanization. Yet this jazz genre, supposed to represent the negative effects of modernity in 1949, was in reality a style already in vogue in the 1930s. Was Tati out of phase, not in the swing, so to speak? Or are there regimes of Americanization, packages of emblems and signs, that have a history of their own, unfolding at their own pace? And does it then make sense to speak of regimes of appropriation?
Americanization will thus be studied as an outside force which exerts influence on sensibilities, ways moving, speaking, producing, exchanging and behaving with others. For more than a century and a half, this multifaceted and ever changing phenomenon was observed upon, decried or celebrated. That said, does this configuration (i.e. this way of being with all its corporal, vocal, and auditory aspects that American power would impact), still have relevance in a contemporary world governed by globalized forces?
The essays in this collection are drawn from colloquium and seminar papers first presented under the research auspices of the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme of the Université Paris Saclay, Paris Saclay University (Université d’Évry and Université de Versailles Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines), Princeton University, and the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.
Philippe Descola, Les Formes du visible (Paris: Seuil, 2021), 23.
Louise Benat-Tachot, Serge Gruzinski, Boris Jeanne, Les Processus d’américanisation (Paris: Le Manuscrit), 2012, vol. 1 : 9.
Charles Delaunay, De la Peinture au jazz (Paris: W, 1985), 22.
Régis Debray, Civilisation, Comment nous sommes devenus américains (Paris: Gallimard, 2017, 26.
Ludovic Tournès, Américanisation, Une histoire mondiale (XVIIIe-XXIe siècle) (Paris: Fayard, 2020).