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THE RINGMASTER OF FRENCH CULTURE : At the Arm of Yves St. Laurent and the Knee of Francois Mitterrand, Pierre Berge Presides as Fashion Displaces Art and Business Becomes the New Muse of Paris

February 28, 1993|JONATHAN KANDELL | Jonathan Kandell, a former Paris-based correspondent for the New York Times, frequently writes on international art and politics

The facade of the elegant Paris townhouse that serves as headquarters for Yves Saint Laurent's fashion empire is decked out with bunting and evergreen wreaths. But inside, Pierre Berge, who runs the business for his designer-partner, is oblivious to the holiday cheer. He is lamenting the decline of French culture over the past 12 years. And he finds enough blemishes to spoil anybody's Christmas mood. * "Good writers have vanished," says Berge, who once counted Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus among his friends. "In cinema, it's the same thing--a few talented directors, and they are aging." Contemporary French painters also get short shrift from Berge, whose joint collection with Saint Laurent is one of the finest private art holdings in the country. And the stage is boring, adds the man who once owned a leading Paris theater. * He's built up a full head of steam by now and is ready to assault that final bastion of French culture--the intellectuals. "They were deeply mistaken," says Berge. "Many of them embraced Marxism and defended the Soviet Union. So it shouldn't be surprising that nobody listens to them anymore." * But who, then, can the French turn to for cultural leadership? "To entrepreneurs, because they have money !" he says in a voice rising with impatience at having to state the obvious. "Today, you are respected because you are rich and perceived as being powerful. I may not like it. But I've come to terms with this reality. And so I've decided, since people respect money and power, I'll say and do whatever I want." * Imperious, controversial, egotistical, Pierre Berge has elbowed his way into the limelight as perhaps the most arresting personality in French culture. In a country where politics and culture are entwined, he has parlayed his personal friendship with President Francois Mitterrand into an appointment as boss of the Paris opera houses. And with Mitterrand's Socialists almost certain to be chased from government in the March elections, Berge is maneuvering, quite deftly by some accounts, to remain as opera czar even if the conservatives take power. * Berge is very much a part of the ultimate transformation of French culture from a cradle of the avant-garde into a carnival for the most entertainment that money can buy. "There are so many spectacles, so many outlets for audiences," says Yvonne Baby, former culture editor of the leading daily, Le Monde. "But in terms of creativity, we are experiencing a period of depression, a sort of great sleep." Adds Bernard-Henri Levy, a leading philosopher: "Nobody believes anymore in the notion of progress in art and culture."

Paris has more cinemas, theaters, opera and dance performances, concerts and art-exhibition spaces than ever before. But the desire to shock and confront society--as did Matisse and Picasso in painting, Sartre and Camus in philosophy and literature, Godard and Resnais in cinema--has disappeared. Instead, the French public is infatuated with the cultural impresario, the man who can best weave together entrepreneurial skills, political connections and the arts.

By these measures, Pierre Berge is without peer. A master of the business deal, he recently engineered the sale of the Saint Laurent empire at more than 30% above its market value while retaining control of the haute couture house for Saint Laurent and himself. The capital from such coups has allowed him to bankroll the arts and back worthy causes, like the battles against racism and AIDS, in a country without a tradition of private philanthropy.

Success has also left him free to break ranks with the business community and support the Socialists in ways that reach beyond campaign contributions: He has helped make left-wing politicians feel comfortable with capitalism. If Socialist government officials speak convincingly about the need for lower taxes and less inflation, if they dress for success, if they and their spouses are seen at haute couture collections and Right Bank dinner parties, Berge can claim a bit of credit.

And in keeping with France's current preference for spectacle over art, Berge as a cultural figure is more P.T. Barnum than Arturo Toscanini. Taking over as president of the new Bastille Opera four years ago, Berge scandalized the music world by firing the renowned pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim as music and artistic director. Since then, Berge concedes that his opera house has staged few memorable productions. But, he points out with glee, the controversies swirling around his tenure have boosted attendance to near capacity.

"People are curious about this building which is so talked about," he says. "Half of them never set foot in an opera before. Yet suddenly, the opera has become the heart of French cultural and political life. It's laughable."

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