Molière, Beckett, Kandinsky, Pina Bausch, Gainsbourg, Mahler and Dalí are amongst the names of thirty artists covering a wide variety of artistic forms, from popular culture to high culture, listed in the 1988 and 2008 surveys on Pratiques culturelles des Français (French cultural practices), designed to go beyond practices to examine the general cultural knowledge in the French population. Each person surveyed is asked to state whether they know the figure in question, and if so, give their opinion of them.
Comparing the results gathered twenty years apart shows that the proportion of French people spontaneously claiming to know the artists on the list, even if just by name, has, in the vast majority of cases, increased over the twenty year period; actual knowledge on the other hand, measured by ability to name the artist’s field, has remained stable.
However this stability hides a generational divide, with the knowledge of artists increasing amongst the generations born before the mid-1960s, but falling amongst the younger generations aged under 45. This generational decline applies to all those figures listed representing academic or traditional culture, excluding the major cultural figures (e.g. Molière, Mozart and Van Gogh), whose renown has increased; thus, Flaubert, Nerval, Mahler and Boulez are not only less well known by the younger generations but also valued less highly, a sign of the declining legitimacy of academic or high culture amongst the youngest age groups.