Several question spring to mind upon meeting the French minister of culture. What direction will French culture take under socialism? Does he regard all art as a revolt against man's fate, as Andre Malraux, a predecessor, did? Why is his first name Jack, not Jacques ?
"So many people ask me that," Jack Lang says (in French to his interpreter) with an incredulous smile, shifting position on the damask couch to share this fact with others seated behind him. "I must ask my mother why. . . I was born at the beginning of World War II, so perhaps out of respect for the English, she named me Jack."
He is 41, with dark curley hair and European good looks, and he is versed in the law (he's a lawyer who has taught the subject) as well as the theater (he started a theater festival at the age of 20, did some acting, worked on scenery, too). He looks crisp in blue blazer, pink shirt and narrow stripped tie, sitting comfortably in the French Embassy. He is accompanied by a French writer, Paul Guimard, and the press counselor at the French Embassy, also incredibly crisp in the warm, still air. As minister of culture, Jack Lang is now holder of the title that Malraux held for 11 years under de Gaulle -- three French presidents and about seven ministers of culture ago, Lang estimates.
"The turnover is very fast. It has to do with politics," Lang says, shrugging.
Lang is here to look at some of Washington's museums. It is a very short visit -- but not because he fears the same fate as the seven before him. He likes President Mitterrand -- "a cultivated man, really devoted to art, knows profoundly all the forms of arts. He wants a cultural and artistic renaissance in France. He wants France to be open to all the artists who might go there."
And Mitterrand likes him, he trusts. Says writer Paul Guimard, ensconced on another sofa in the room: "Jack Lang has been interested in culture since he started speaking, I think. He founded the World Theater Festival in Nancy. He is and has been absolutely crazy about culture, and the president has the strange idea that this job should be given to a man of culture instead of a businessman or army colonel." Guimard, who is a personal adviser to President Mitterrand on the subject of culture, smiles and takes a puff on his cigarette.
In manner, Lang is more like a student or an artist than a politician, says one who knows him. When met by embassy officials at the airport, en route to the Museum of American History, he was not wearing a tie, and it was suggested that he put one on since that was what American officials would expect of a French minister of culture.
Lang regularly visited Mitterrand at his country house before the election and now talks to him twice a week. They met when Lang was administrator of the National Popular Theater of Chaillot, a job he lost in the mid-'70s when he had problems, ironically enough, with the minister of culture. "He had difficulties, because he was a close friend of the Socialists," says Philippe Faure, press counselor at the French Embassy. "He was throuwn out under a cultural pretext. The minister of culture said what he was doing was too expensive. But the background of the problem was political."
As for the direction of culture under the Socialists, Lang notes first that there is a tradition of public backing of artists' works and theaters and the like. "In our opinion, as socialists, it has been done too timidly." Under Mitterrand, Lang says, it will be attempted more vigorously -- with perhaps a doubled budget for the ministry of culture. (The budget now stands at 3 billion francs -- about $545 million.) "We want to reconcile beauty, art and the aspirations of the people. We want culure to become a core of life, not a plaything."
This is not to say that all artists who ask for government funding will get it. "That would be too costly and stu-pid ," Lang says in English. "We gave to set up rules of the game. We have to set up committees. The ministry will not be the only one commissioning art. The ministry will be encouraging private industry and schools to commission artists."
We're not going to make them into civil servants," he explains. "We are going to sow the maximum seeds. And we must accept the idea that not all the works will be good."
Currently in France, when a school is built with public funds, 1 percent of the budget must be set aside for artistic work. Lang would like to put all public buildings under that 1 percent rule.
"We want to ensure an irrigation of the whole territory for artistic values," he says soberly. "We want to establish theatrical centers and launch a wide project of artistic education, so children could all choose art, music, whatever they want to study."
In addition, the minister of culture is in charge of the maintenance of chateaus, castles and museums in France. "We want to change many of these," he says. "Old historical homes, monasteries will be changed into residences for artists or places for theater."
At the moment Mitterrand intends to build "a huge cultural complex," says Lang, "housing an opera hall, orchestra hall, a hall equipped for contemporary music, a large museum of science and technology. Paul Guimard and I wanted to see some of the best things, so we went to Toronto and here. We come here not to imitate but to see and to draw lessons from your own experiences."
This planned complex will be built in La Villette, an area north of Paris. And it is, appropriately enough for the Socialists who now run the government in France, a working-class community. Is this symbolic? Was the location of La Villette chosen as a shining example of what the Socialists had to offer "les enfants de la patrie "?
Lang pauses a moment. "It was chosen because there was space there," he says with a smile.