The time of festivals is upon us. There are over 70 festivals a month – of various sizes – in Ireland during the summer season. It’s now big industry and according to the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism, will play an important role in the ensuing scramble out of our recessionary hole. How ironic. We have, on the one hand, a government agency, Failte Ireland, waxing lyrically about the cultural wealth of our nation while at the same time destroying the very fabric of our culture through a concerted effort to gentrify everything by bundling it up into a neat package and selling it off at the cheapest price. And on the other, the Government intent on slashing state funding to the Arts Council while mouthing off about our rich heritage, artists, writers, performers and musicians.
And yet we plod on….plod, plod, plod. Not for much longer though. One day we’ll all wake up and find there’s nothing left but corporate sponsored State festivals run by companies more interested in the bottom line than the idea, the content, the celebration, the joy and the expression. We will be a nation without a notion.
This bottom line now has a name. It’s bandied about as if it’s an elixir, a tonic that once drunk will economically fortify us. We. Will. Be. Saved. Only problem is it’s a snake oil salesmans pitch. Gulping down cultural tourism will actually make us sick. Yes, yes. C-U-L-T-U-R-A-L T-O-U-R-I-S-M. What does it mean? What is it? And what of these festivals? Are they important? What do they now offer us?
In the last 10 – 15 years – during the wild years of rabid consumption and extravagant expenditure – the cultural worth of festivals has diminished as they have become increasingly commercialised. Driven by market forces the objectives of our larger festivals have changed. They are now predominantly used as sponsorship vehicles for large corporate brands and government agencies with many festivals becoming subservient to their corporate paymasters.
These days festival programmes are often devised around available funding streams through local authorities, central government, European and international agencies and large corporate brands (such as Heineken, Guinness, AIB, Bulmers, HKSB, etc). Success is based on bottom line.
This structure, built on foundations of state and business has now left major festivals in a no win situation. Without business and state they can’t function because they’ve forgotten why they exist.
They have lost their sense of place, space and thus are at the mercy of economic forces and political expediency.
It wasn’t too long ago when festivals were an occasion of celebration. An occasion of community, place, history, tradition. There was a sense that you were part of it, had an active role to play – festival time gave the community the opportunity to assert themselves, to say we are, we exist, let’s play, sing. Celebrate.
Etymologically the word derives from the middle English word fest, and the Latin word festivus. It was generally used in reference to the celebration of a church holiday. It has always – until now that is – been a term for feast and celebration. No longer. There isn’t much room for celebration and feasting in todays festival climate. It’s all about the hard sell; tickets, hotel rooms, festival programmes, tv and radio spots, advertising, marketing and PR. The community has become consumer. The target market is king. Cultural expression a mere by - product. The celebration of collective identity is now merely an anachronistic by – product of days gone by. Romantic notions of times past are seen as old fashioned, antiquated, narrow minded, ignorant of reality, impossible. Festivals, once a vehicle for community celebration, have now become engines to facilitate employment, market product and generate tourism expenditure.
This railing against the market forces that are turning our individual festivals into generic product generally means being tarnished a naive romantic at best, an ignorant unsophisticate at worst.
So be it. I put up my hand. I admit it. I am an ignorant unsophisticate. I’d rather work with and for sustaining the collective right of communities to celebrate their place and space. Communities, not just in the physical sense, such as; village, town or city but in the cultural and sociological sense too. I want to hold on and fight for the right for all communities from gay to straight, Christian to Muslim, black to white, young to old to celebrate. We must encourage the celebration of difference not create a sense of sameness. Difference makes us who we are, diversity is one of the cornerstones of knowledge, learning and wisdom. We must find these small spaces handed down to us by our families, community, history and strengthen them.
I’m tired of going to the same thing in different places. What’s the point.
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