Thursday, August 06, 2009

If it's called a festival, is it one?

'Festivals are collective phenomena and serve purposes rooted in group life. Systems of reciprocity and of shared responsibil­ity ensure the continuity of and participation in the festival through the distribution of prestige and production. Most fes­tivals provide the opportunity for individual religious devotion or individual performance, and this opportunity is a primary motive for the occasion. Other unstated but important purposes of festivals are the expression of group identity through ancestor worship or memorialization, the performance of highly valued skills and talents, or the articulation of the group's her­itage.

Rarely do such events use the term festival, employing instead a name related to the stated purposes or core symbols of the event: Mardi Gras (Catholic), Sukkot (Jewish), Holi (Hindu), Shalako (Zuni), Adae (Ghanaian), Calus (Romanian), Namahage (Japanese), Cowboy Reunion (American), and Feast of Fools (French). Those events that do have festival in their titles are generally contemporary modern constructions, employing festival characteristics but serving the commercial, ideological, or political purposes of self-interested authorities or entrepreneurs' (Beverly J. Stoeltje, 'Festival' in Folklore, Cultural Performances and Popular Entertainments, ed. Richard Bauman. New York, 1992).

Interesting point, but 'authenticity' isn't everything. John Eden reviews Bestival, arguing 'Whilst I agree with History is made at night’s comments on the commercial festival boom I would never really have been up for imposing something like Stonehenge Free Festival on children. I’ll take corporate sponsorship over hells angels, drug hoovers, and police brutality any day. They can discover all of that for themselves when they get older, ha ha'.

And indeed despite my earlier comments on festivals, we shouldn't fall for the myth of the earlier 'free festivals' as some kind of communism in one field contradiction-free utopia. There was certainly plenty of buying and selling , with the corollary of the threat of violence to preserve market share, and the violence of cops preventing Stonehenge festival in the mid-1980s was prefigured by the earlier violence of biker gangs - who, for instance, beat up punks at Stonehenge in 1980. As Penny Rimbaud from Crass recalled:

'Our presence at Stonehenge attracted several hundred punks to whom the festival scene was a novelty, they, in turn, attracted interest from various factions to whom punk was equally new. The atmosphere seemed relaxed and as dusk fell, thousands of people gathered around the stage to listen to the night's music. suddenly, for no apparent reason, a group of bikers stormed the stage saying that they were not going to tolerate punks at 'Their festival'. What followed was one of the most violent and frightening experiences of our lives. Bikers armed with bottles, chains and clubs, stalked around the site viciously attacking any punk that they set eyes on. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to escape to; all night we attempted to protect ourselves and other terrified punks from their mindless violence. There were screams of terror as people were dragged off into the darkness to be given lessons on peace and love; it was hopeless trying to save anyone because, in the blackness of the night, they were impossible to find. Meanwhile, the predominantly hippy gathering, lost in the soft blur of their stoned reality, remained oblivious of our fate'.

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