Only a spoilsport could scorn cultural circuses

Let's count our blessings. Robert Winder celebrates summer arts festivals, near and far
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The Independent Online
George Steiner must have wondered, as he tucked into his morning porridge in Edinburgh yesterday, whether he was dreaming. The papers were busy telling everyone how he had just given the festival a disdainful dressing-down in his inaugural Edinburgh University Festival lecture: "Why the festival is too big for its boots," they exclaimed. "Time to bury the cultural relics."

Steiner had, it appeared, accused the annual fiesta of failing to live up to its exalted aims, suggesting that it was blinkered in its reluctance to embrace the vivid, purposeful aesthetic of modern science. He had even, apparently, urged the festival to quit while it was ahead.

In the long history of media misrepresentation this is of course an innocuous and trivial case, but it is worth mentioning that these were not remotely the themes of Steiner's long and interesting speech. They were merely a teasing (and, if anything, constructive) coda in a sustained tribute to the excellence of Edinburgh's engagement with the cosmopolitan artistic life of Europe. One headline even credited the professor with saying that Edinburgh "has outlived its spirit, aims and ideals" - a notably unSteinerish cliche that does not, as it happens, appear in the lecture at all. He did say that the vision of European fellowship (or "communion") which inspired the festival in its early, post-war days "has not been realised"; but this was a criticism of western Europe's continuing love-affair with sectarian feuding, hardly a comment on a Scottish arts carnival.

In fact, it would be possible to have some sympathy even for the distorted version of Steiner's views. The Edinburgh festival sometimes seems too wacky by half. You can't turn a corner near the Grass Market these days without bumping into someone dressed as a tomato, handing you a playbill for tonight's explosive satire-cum-farce. But even if the fringe has flopped down far over the eyes, only a spoilsport could seriously object: it is only fun, after all. Indeed, this exuberance is a big part of what makes any festival popular and successful: the creation of an exhilarating, creative, lots-going-on atmosphere in the city as a whole.

Still, the serious question discussed in Steiner's lecture - "What are festivals for?" - is a good one. Certainly we are in the middle of a large and sustained festival-boom. The British Council's guide to arts festivals counts 71 events in the calendar year: everything from the sizeable international gatherings at Edinburgh, Aldeburgh, Hay-on-Wye and Cheltenham to the more modest get-togethers in Abergavenny, Richmond-upon-Thames and Bracknell. Culture vultures with time on their hands can gear up for Edinburgh by checking out the scene in Harrogate and King's Lynn, and then while away the rest of the summer going to readings, plays and write-ins at Rye, Dartington, Ilkley, Sheffield, Cleveland, Wells, Lancaster, Guildford, Canterbury and Hastings.

And this is just in Britain; the rest of Europe is just as busy. You can jet off on lovely musical holidays in Bayreuth or Salzburg, with time to climb an Alp before the string quartets; or attend stirring operatic weekends in Verona and heady jazz nights in Nice. One might have thought that the escalation of media consumption in recent decades - videos, satellite, cable and so on - would have turned us all into stay-at-homes, diminishing the appetite for a personal brush with the real thing. The opposite seems to be true. These days there are simply more coat-tails the public wishes to touch.

It is hard to see a danger to civilisation in any of this. For one thing, it goes back a long way: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were all products of the great drama competitions of ancient Greece. We moderns no longer believe that art is competitive, though gold medals for art, architecture, music and literature were included in the Olympic Games until 1948. But the idea of culture as sport (rather than as education, or morality, or duty) is attractive. These things are supposed to be enjoyable; they are above all social occasions. There is a touch of despotism about arts festivals. Tyrants love them - it shows how sensitive they are. But there is also a genuine demotic impulse, the same urge that drives people on to streets in Rio de Janeiro or Notting Hill Gate. Edinburgh appears to marry these two elements as well as anywhere - better by far than Salzburg, for instance, where only lottery winners can afford tickets, and bow ties seem to be compulsory even in the ice-cream kiosks.

There is one risk, however, which Steiner forcefully underlined. Festivals cannot merely be bourgeois museums: they need to be forums for promoting new or difficult work, places to experiment - arts laboratories, as it were. One of the biggest blights on English culture was the association forged by the Bloomsbury group between the high arts and country house living. The baleful idea that a taste for fine art is pretty much the same as a taste for fine wine and elegant furniture (ie, a luxury) has cast a long shadow which continues to dim the view. If festival-mad Britain goes down this heritage-industry route, serving up inoffensive entertainments in the gap between a cream tea and dinner in the Duke's library,then it will not be a heartening trend.

But this does not seem to be happening. Indeed, the touching aspect of most festivals is that they began as private obsessions, and continue to feel driven by innocent enthusiasm. A month ago, for instance, in Bantry, Co Cork, a new one was created. A dairy-farming music lover persuaded the Vanbrugh Quartet to perform in one of his cowsheds for a week. Seamus Heaney dropped in and read some poems. The audience went away dazed and happy. Next year, who knows, they may have to use the hayloft as well, and before we know it they will be performing in a muddy marquee out by the silage. It will be many years before the three tenors descend on Bantry and distinguished professors are mistakenly supposed to be shaking their heads and saying that it is not what it used to be.