Philip Hensher: The Pantheon clock-repairers' chimes of freedom

In the eyes of the state, alas, there is no place for a guerrilla act of civic good
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As guerrilla interventions from the generation of 1968 go, this one must be one of the most unexpected. Towards the end of 2006, a group of men introduced themselves to the officials who run the Pantheon in Paris on behalf of the Centre for National Monuments. To a puzzled administrator, they explained that for the whole of the previous year, from September 2005, they and a large group of others had sequestered themselves in the dome of the Pantheon. They were now emerging because their purpose was at an end.

The purpose was not vandalism, but its opposite. They had noticed that the famous clock of the Pantheon had been left to decay by the state and its operators since the 1960s. The group had broken in and set up a small workshop and living space in the dome of the Pantheon so that, under the instruction of a professional clockmaker member of the group, Jean-Baptist Viot, they could put the clock back together again.

The hardest part, they airily explained to an open-mouthed chief administrator, was in carrying up the planks used to make the chairs and tables for the living space without being noticed by the guards. Anyway – they continued – the job was done, so the clock could be wound up and set going. There wouldn't be any charge for the service. Bye, now.

Alas, the fantastically ungrateful state operatives, who had achieved absolutely nothing to get the clock back in working order over the previous 40 years, took exception to this. After some poring over the statutes to find any kind of law which the group had breached, the administrator of the Pantheon, an all-round stinker called Bernard Jeannot, came up with breaking and entering. They were, however, finally acquitted last week.

This magnificent group of men are called the Untergunther, and are a society of independent restorers of unseen items of heritage. They have, in the past, been associated with underground creations of unusual ambition. In 2004, the Paris police were astonished to discover an entire underground cinema, bar and restaurant actually under the Seine. It has been widely ascribed to the Untergunther's innovative and ambitious spirit, and, again, the state scratched its head and tried to work out what, exactly, was the law that had been broken here.

It sounds like a gigantic joke, but then M. Lazar Klausmann, a spokesman for the Untergunther, has this perfectly rational and intelligent thing to say. "We would like to be able to replace the state in the areas it is incompetent in. But our means are limited and we can only do a fraction of what needs to be done."

No wonder the French public authorities took umbrage at this splendid intervention. What one needs to understand about the French cultural authorities in particular, but about cultural authorities in general, is that they believe, above all, that cultural enterprises, whether contemporary or concerned with the patrimoine, are only validated by the intervention and support of public money. The cheeky intervention of some freelance clock restorers is quite outrageous, of course; but the authorities are, deep down, as suspicious of any kind of independent aesthetic enterprise.

I say this having endured a day-long conference last week, organised by the Franco-British Council, on the subject of the future of culture, and attended mostly by public officials from both countries. The British side at least seemed to acknowledge the limits of publicly funded culture, or to understand that there might conceivably be cultural forms that the market might happily support.

The French, almost without exception, seemed to have absolutely no notion of any kind of cultural experience which somebody might produce independently and put up for sale in the market. Listening to much of this was an experience of rare, undiluted fatuity, and it was with some incredulity that I learnt of publicly subsidised rock festivals and hip-hop performers.

Whether any of this public largesse is at all likely to lead to an increase in the quality of the work produced is not something which interests administrators greatly. I mean: French policy has, since Malraux, poured untold sums into contemporary music and funded writers more or less directly. Who among us could name a French composer younger than Boulez, or any living French poet at all? No one can have any doubt that artists in receipt of public funds are robbed of a crucial element of debate with an audience. All artists of any integrity long for the guerrilla freedom which the Untergunther have so spectacularly indulged; a freedom compatible with the capitalist production, but not at all with approval through public committee.

In the particular case of historical monuments, we know perfectly well that the worst case is to be run by the state. In that case, splendid Flemish paintings have a knack of ending up being used as dartboards, as in a story from an ex-young offenders' institution last week. Historic clocks rust up and are left to rust. The next best is to fall under the control of a private but quasi-governmental organisation like the National Trust, still retaining a fatal hint of the official. The best of all, though, is almost always to be run by an individual with enterprise and flair; the liveliest country houses in England are, invariably, those such as Chatsworth, still in private hands.

What the administrators of these public properties entirely lack is a sense of the creative spirit. If they ever gave the matter any thought, they would probably consider a man like Soufflot, who built the Pantheon, a man much like them, an official before his time. They are wrong. They were violent and passionate men, and I have no doubt, would now be up in the secret hideaways of the Untergunther, mending and meticulously restoring against the best wishes of the state.