ART EXCHANGE / Star buys at the art supermarket

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The start of Edinburgh's annual jamboree provokes a number of annual questions: should the marketing of the international festival and the fringe be better coordinated? Should there be more music and less theatre, or more theatre and less comedy? Should the whole thing be more generously funded or left to fend for itself?

But the one question rarely asked about this, the mother of all festivals, or the swarms of offspring it has spawned (a staggering 600 plus in Britain, with 36 arts festivals in London alone) is why we have it at all.

There are drama festivals, film festivals, book festivals, comedy festivals, opera festivals, music festivals and just-about-anything-else festivals. And, as New York's recent 'Woodstock 94' jamboree demonstrates, we are now in the era of festival-revival festivals.

And now there is the anti-festival festival, which, in effect, is what the South Bank Centre in London has just commissioned. 'Now You See It', which finished at the weekend, was devoted to one-offs: experiments and collaborations in performance art never seen before and unlikely to be seen again. Michael Morris, director of Cultural Industry, the group which administered the anti-festival, says: 'Most festivals have their themes - dance, music, the choice pickings of a selected country - with each act plucked from an international circuit of artists and companies doing the rounds. The danger is that the artist's work becomes a commodity created only to be packaged into a festival. There is no room for growth or ingenuity, and the artist's voice becomes stifled, trapped between the over-produced pages of a glossy brochure.

'What we have done could signal the end of a certain kind of 'festival' and the beginning of new artist-led series. Meanwhile, I am sure that the theme-led hardy perennials will remain an alluring prospect for those who choose to bulk-buy at the festivals supermarket.'

Too right. Which is why I am a confirmed supermarket shopper when it comes to festivals. It does not worry me that this year's fringe programme is full of comedians I could see late night in Leicester Square at any other time of year, because I probably wouldn't bother with too many late night London showings knowing that I can see the cream in Edinburgh in August. Provided of course that I can return from Edinburgh knowing I have also seen stimulating, radical drama.

There will always be the one- off in every festival. Peter Stein directing Oresteia in Russian at the Murrayfield ice-rink as part of the official festival is unlikely to be replicated anywhere else in Britain, and I will sit through all eight and a half hours of it for that very reason, even if it turns out to be a lonely experience.

A festival has to be this mixture of the idiosyncratic, the daring, and the too darn familiar, all given an added dimension by the setting. The reason why Benjamin Britten feels different in Aldeburgh than at the Royal Festival Hall is that one is conscious that the surroundings inspired the artist, and on the morning of the concert you can see the fishermen who could have been Peter Grimes. The smart festival organiser will always trade on the locality. Edinburgh in the past has not. Scottish Opera over the years has been woefully under-used, though this year, thankfully, they are performing Fidelio.

When I think about what I want from a festival, I think of a remark a civil servant at the Department of Education made to me about playgroups. 'You must understand,' she said, 'they're not really for children, they're for parents.' And festivals, though they might not like to believe it, are not really for artists, they're for audiences.

What makes Edinburgh unique is the arts-social experience. After seeing a play you can discuss it in the bar with the cast. The comedian Eddie Izzard disappears to the star dressing-room after a show in London; in Edinburgh he buys you a drink. Which is why, for me, the perfect festival has to be in a small town or city where you can wander from show to bar to show as in Edinburgh, Bath, or Brighton. Apologies to LIFT and the other 35 festivals in London this year, but the capital should not put on a festival. If you can't walk from venue to venue, it ceases to be a festival and becomes merely a themed package of shows.

A festival should be a mixture of social occasion, an artistic supermarket and a shop-window for the innovative and radical. I fear the only people complaining that it should comprise nothing but one-off, avant garde, performance-art collaborations, are the one off, avant garde, performance-art collaborators.

Daily coverage of the Edinburgh Festival starts today, page 20