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Aug 20, 2017
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    THE Festival: A (very) Special Case

    Richard Demarco, who at 87, has seen – and been involved in all of them – argues the Edinburgh International Festival, which rose from the ashes of World War II, deserves better than to be lumped together in a tourism marketing exercise

    WHEN DID the Edinburgh International Festival become promoted, not as an international festival of all the arts, associated with an unofficial programme known as The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but as part of a programme defined as The Edinburgh Festivals?

    There are now eleven Festivals associated with the City of Edinburgh and the majority take place within the month of August.

    I am thinking particularly of the highly popular Edinburgh Book Festival, and what is known as the Edinburgh Festival Tattoo, which is guaranteed to perform to capacity audiences against the incomparable backdrop of a floodlit Edinburgh Castle.

    The Edinburgh Fringe Festival has become dominated by the presence of over one thousand stand-up comics, and the word 'international' can hardly be applied to it as not one comic will use any other language but English.

    In 1947, the Fringe consisted of eight theatre productions and one of them took place, not in Edinburgh, but in Dunfermline. It continued to be on a human scale and therefore complementary to the official Festival programme until it increased in size to such an extent that became a dominant feature of what is loosely known as 'The Edinburgh Festival'.

    Only two years ago did the Fringe Festival take place synchronised with the official Festival programme. For far too long a period, it seemed to exist as an independent, self-sufficient artistic event.

    As someone who has presented innumerable programmes which brought the spirit of the international avant-garde in the performing and visual arts into fruitful collaboration, I am saddened by the fact that, over the last three decades, the official Festival programmes have gradually given over the responsibility of presenting the contemporary visual arts to the Fringe programme under the aegis of what is known as 'The Edinburgh Art Festival'.

    For twenty-five years, from 1967 until 1991, I was director of the official Festival contemporary visual arts programmes under the condition that I would have to find the necessary funding.

    This I did through the generous support given chiefly by the governments of West Germany, France, Poland, Romania, The Former Yugoslavia, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and, above all, from The Arthur M. Sackler Foundation.

    These exhibition programmes were incomplete without manifestations of film, video and what is known as 'action' art. These programmes never resorted to what is now recognised as 'spectacle culture.'

    I am now tempted to question the significance of the Edinburgh Festival – for many, it is now seen as a successful part of culture as a commercial venture.

    I cannot forget the words of Sir John Falconer, the 1947 Lord Provost of Edinburgh and as such, Chairman of the newly-established Edinburgh International Festival committee.

    He wrote the foreword to the first Edinburgh Festival programme and, in doing so, took care to include this sentence: “The Edinburgh Festival is in no way a commercial venture.”

    Nowadays, the Edinburgh Festival plays a major role in what most governments consider as the world of Creative Industries. The artist is no longer a prominent figure in the 21st century art world; the artist role is now controlled by market forces in the hands of those who place art firmly within the market place, firmly linked to tourism and leisure industries.

    Now in Scotland there exists a list of over seven hundred festivals located in cities, towns and villages. Within this list, you will find the name of the Edinburgh International Festival; it surely deserves to be placed apart as a cultural phenomenon, born out of the dreams, hopes and aspirations of a small group of friends who believed that the language of all the arts could begin the process of healing the horrific wounds inflicted by the Second World War.

    I imagine they believed, as I do, that all true and enduring art ascends to the condition of prayer. Certainly, this was evidenced in that 1947 Festival in the sublime singing of Kathleen Ferrier and the sound of the revived Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra performing under the baton of Bruno Walter, a survivor of Hitler's Germany.

    Now, at the age of eighty-seven, I treasure my Festival memories, linked to the lives of Lady Rosebery, Rudolf Bing, Tyrone Guthrie, Lord Harewood, John Drummond, Cordelia Oliver, Peter Diamand, Henry Harvey Wood, Richard Buckle, Alexander Schouvaloff, Joseph Beuys, Tadeusz Kantor, Paul Neagu, and my fellow co-founders of The Traverse Theatre Club, Andrew Elliott, James Walker, Tom Mitchell and Michael McLoughlin.

    Sadly, their names belong to the vast majority who are no longer alive. Thankfully, I can add those of John Martin, John Calder, Sheila Colvin, Tamara Alferoff, Sean Hignett and Jim Haynes, who are still very much alive and who belong to that unforgettable time when the Edinburgh Festival miraculously came into being, seventy years ago.

    Richard Demarco
    Kingston University Emeritus Professor of European Cultural Studies, July 2017

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