Festival warned to re-assess or face decline

Edinburgh celebration: Organisers urged to reflect the rise of the sciences
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The Independent Online
The Edinburgh Festival was given a warning yesterday that in its 50th and most successful year it must re-evaluate its relevance or, like the arts in general, face decline.

Speaking at the first Edinburgh University Festival lecture, the American philosopher Professor George Steiner said: "To know when to stop is a rare but vivid mark of honesty within excellence."

In a speech containing a strong warning not to ignore the world of science, Professor Steiner said: "Too many worn-out ghosts of past or altered cultural ambitions and ideals litter the scene. It is precisely when it is still doing well, when its box office is healthy, that an institution should draw a dangerous breath and ask of itself: 'Is my continued existence truly representative of my initial aims?'"

The Edinburgh Festival was created to provide a positive focus for post- war Britain in 1947 and to nurture international reconciliation. Half a century later it is an arts juggernaut, featuring hundreds of companies playing to more than a million people.

But it is failing to reflect the new dominance and influence of science. "Today, it is noon time, not in the arts but in the sciences," Professor Steiner warned. "Whereas to a very major extent [the performance] of the arts festivals looks backward, science is, by very definition, in forward motion."

Such was the progress of this trend that he felt the coming of another Michelangelo, Shakespeare or Mozart was doubtful. But in the sciences, even a middling talent would find itself on an upward escalator.

"One would, in Renaissance Florence, have aspired to some personal contact with the painters and sculptors. In this late 20th century, many, very possibly a majority of the most gifted, work in the sciences. They harness the most concentrated, innovative, impulse towards the future." The past was becoming the territory of the arts, he said.

"The bitter quarrels between critical schools and movements in the humanities, the voluminous triviality of much that is produced in human letters, art history, musicology, point to a Byzantine afternoon - as do the jugglers' ingenuities of deconstruction and post-modernism. I have seen scientists stare, as at lunacy, at the central deconstructive axiom that 'there is nothing outside the text'."

The Edinburgh Festival would ignore science at its peril, he continued. "The festivals of tomorrow cannot simply exclude what is most stylish, most intellectually challenging and hopeful in our otherwise rather parlous and often grey estate.

"One of the disabling weaknesses of current Western literature is its unwillingness, or inability, to engage with the dance of the spirit in the sciences. Music and the arts are equipped to do better. The native land of Watt and of Kelvin could give a lead."

The other direction the festival should follow was that of the workshop, the philosopher added. "It is the privilege of attending rehearsals for music, ballet, theatre, of watching a film crew or animation studio at work, which can make a festival memorable. The spirit of the age is, as pioneers such as Boulez have shown, that of the aleatory and the fragment, of the unfinished and of 'work in progress'."

Brian McMaster, director of the festival since 1992, said the problem with incorporating the sciences into the main festival was that he did not want to compete with the science festival which took place in Edinburgh in March. Nevertheless, he would consider Professor Steiner's suggestions.

"He threw out many provocative thoughts, some of which I don't obviously agree with. Nevertheless, they were very constructive and challenging," Mr McMaster said.