Conflicting artistic dreams, competing images of desirable community social order, and opposing political and economic discourses underlie the stories of the origins of the two town festivals chosen for this analysis. One began in its American version in 1977 in Charleston, South Carolina; and the other, inspired by the Charleston model, started in 1982 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Each festival might not have emerged from its host community. Each, with small influences, could have evolved very differently from its present form. Today, they represent greatly differing examples of the cultural practice of town festival.
In the stories connected with their creation can be found a key to their original intended meanings, meanings that on the surface are as contradictory as the few published accounts of how they came to be. Here are two versions of the Chattanooga festival's origin:
[Carolyn Mitchell, Chattanooga Times, June 15, 1984.]
One of the key figures in the development of the Riverbend Festival is an urban planner from New York who conceived a precursor to the festival as "shock therapy" for Chattanooga.
Gianni Longo, president of the Institute for Environmental Action in New York City, came to town about five years ago at the request of the Lyndhurst Foundation. His task was to assess the quality of life in Chattanooga and suggest ways to improve it.
After discovering the city was "polarized" along economic and racial lines, Longo set as a goal "getting a lot of people together in a friendly manner."
The urban expert was also interested in getting the people together downtown. "People in Chattanooga thought of downtown as a place to go to the bank, to park their car," Longo said.... "But they didn't think of it as a place to take their kids, or take a walk. They thought it was too dangerous."
What was needed to change that perception was "shock therapy" of a sort, Longo said. "It had to be something of such magnitude that, despite their doubts about mingling in a crowd, people could not resist."
The irresistible event was Five Nights in Chattanooga: five concerts by musical artists, offered free of charge, at night, in the heart of downtown.
Thousands of people jammed the vacant lot across from Miller Park and spilled over into the streets.... "We had everything--bluegrass, blues, pop, country-western," Longo said.
...Five Nights proved that a strong enough attraction would draw people downtown in the evening and led to the formation of Friends of the Festival [emphasis mine], the primary support organization for the Riverbend Festival.
[Charles Slack, Chattanooga Times, June 15, 1984.]
Sid Hetzler, food broker by trade, music lover at heart, traveled to Charleston, S.C., in 1980 for the world-renowned Spoleto Festival. He returned to Chattanooga convinced that the city could support a festival of its own.
Hetzler envisioned a showcase for local talent, emphasizing classical music, opera and other fine arts; a festival that would draw people downtown and introduce a broad cross-section of the public to the arts.
Several of Hetzler's friends responded enthusiastically to his idea. A small group started meeting irregularly, planting the seeds for what would become Friends of the Festival [emphasis mine].
Four years later, Friends of the Festival has mushroomed into a 30-member committee. The fruit of its labors, the Riverbend Festival, is now entering its third year. It has developed into an annual extravaganza with Formula I boat racing, big-name entertainers--such as this year's star, Crystal Gayle--and a budget of $600,000.
Some critics of the festival--including Hetzler, who is no longer involved--claim it has grown too big too quickly, abandoning the original fine-arts spirit and endangering its own solvency.
The festival has had its share of organizational and financial blunders. But supporters insist problems are to be expected with any fledgling project. They point to what they see as a bright future for the Riverbend. And even critics such as Hetzler and some other early Friends members concede that success for the festival is crucial to the city's positive self-image.
Jack Murrah, associate of the Lyndhurst Foundation, the festival's chief backer during its first three years, agrees. It is "very, very important (that the festival succeed), in large measure because it has become the big event it is. It is (the city's) annual image-making set of activities that people have decided to get behind [emphasis mine]."
These are not, as may appear, stories of two separate festivals; they are manifestations of the complexity of a process that created one town's "festival theater." Both articles were printed on the same page, on the same day, in the same newspaper, although the second was featured as the primary analysis of the festival's origin.
Can both versions be true? Is the meaning of what a cultural practice is and does dependent on who is doing the reporting? Or is such a practice's meaning dependent on unnamed, anonymous people who have the power, money, and will to get behind and to dominate the community's "image-making set of activities," as is implied above by a foundation spokesperson. Do these stories of origin represent a festival world of logodaedaly in which multiple truths struggle but live happily side-by-side as a theatrical mirroring of pluralistic beliefs of democratic societies? Or do they signify a Darwinian theater of power in which only the strongest homogeneous festival forms survive by destroying threatening heterogeneous practices of festival?
Such questions and related enigmas suggested this semiotic comparison of the discursive practice of two town festivals and their signs of power. It is not an ethnography of two festivals nor a historical monograph of the founding of two urban festivals, although such studies would be valuable. This analysis is a selective semiotic construct of the written and remembered stories of two intensely creative moments in the life of these two communities, moments that resulted in two very different town arts festivals. Its purpose is to reveal repetitive key signifiers, or their absence, which point toward the more important meanings embedded in these untold stories. The initial approach, general methodology, and concluding interpretations are drawn primarily from readings in the disciplines of semiotic and drama theory. Insights from literary criticism, urban history, symbolic anthropology, and mass communication theory also are employed as appropriate.
Austria's Salzburg Festival, Menotti's Italian Spoleto Festival, Canada's Stratford Festival, Scotland's Edinburgh Festival, and New York State's Chautauqua Institution are regarded by arts critics generally as representative of the most successful contemporary examples of the town festival genre. They are cited to provide a reference for what are generally regarded as examples of the most highly developed form of the contemporary town festival. As such, these international town arts festivals function as a contextual frame for broader discussion of the signification and communication functions of these powerful cultural entities. Eventually an extension of this analysis is expected to take the form of a semiotic of festival, that is, as an interpretive construct of the relational web of signs and sign clusters designated festival historically and in contemporary life.
A deeper understanding of a festival's meaning and meaning-making process, then, comes from a semiotic representation of three interdependent qualities: intent, function, and effect. This critique of Chattanooga's Riverbend Festival and Charleston's Spoleto Festival U.S.A. applies this idea and its practical application. It is this idea of examining unnoticed functions that enables the observer to peer beyond idealistic or misleading intentions as well as accidental, random effect and to draw tentative conclusions about the signifying discourse of festivals.
This approach gives rise, for example, to the possibility mentioned above that festivals act as powerful integrating or segregating media, or as media that perform both these and other functions. Yet festival designers may have had no such idea in mind, and may even deny that festivals integrate or segregate disparate elements of a community, that festivals portray the desirability of social differences, or that they reinforce ethnic samenesses. As communication media, it may be that certain festivals speed up a surfacing of new art, that is, "representations of new ways of seeing," even when planners are convinced the event is nothing more than a giant urban block party, as one Riverbend president claimed. [Rufus Triplett, second president of the Friends of the Festival, Inc., quoted in a headline in the Chattanooga Times on or about June 1, 1986.]
A decoding of these patterns of functions can portray a reality formerly out of sight in which both the modern as well as the Renaissance festival can be seen, in British historian Roy Strong's metaphor, as a theater of power. [Roy Strong, Art and Power: Renaissance Festivals 1450-1650 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: The Boydell Press, 1984) xiii. Splendour at Court: Renaissance Spectacle and the Theatre of Power was used as Strong's 1973 title of the book was revised and expanded in 1984. It is in the sense of his term "theater of power" that the phrase was selected for the title of this work.] Although the similarity of functions of fifteenth- and twentieth century forms of festival practice is uncertain, Strong's analysis points to a theater that combines various practices of power (economic, political, artistic, special interest). This possible parallel suggests it is especially important to question the nature of the interpretive template or grid or contextual logic through which this theater imposes its power. The functions template is one such grid that directs one's attention to offstage forces, activities, and aims.
In light of the above, then, one question to ask is, "What are the ways in which the festival works, or functions, as a whole in the community where it lives?" A functions mode of revealing a festival's nature and possible meanings can be derived from the social, political, economic, and religious signification and communication functions performed. In addition to key phrases from festival creators and managers, a broader sense of festival compiled from standard reference works can suggest functional categories. One function is that of a ritual celebration, or reenactment during certain periods or times that anticipate events or seasons (agricultural, religious, or socio-cultural), that give meaning and cohesiveness to an individual within a community. These days or periods generally originated in religious celebrations, and there are ritual commemorations that usually include sacred community meals.
In this sense, the festival can be understood as a social device functioning to make certain meanings sacred, therefore untouchable, or magical. The time-space in which the festival is situated is bounded in this sense and temporarily placed off-limits from more secular purposes. Admission into this marked space is governed by various devices, and a wide range of social behavior is temporarily allowed. A festival's potential range of functions becomes determined by the particularities of its space, and the purposes and power of the individuals who control the uses of the marked space.
For example, following the original objectives, the Chattanooga Riverbend Festival has made its site, the Ross's Landing public park at the riverfront where the city began, a special place. It has been consecrated by several hundred thousand "festivallers" since 1982. Now that Chattanooga's commercial developers have claimed the festival's surrounding riverpark area for a privately operated complex with a hotel, offices, and an aquarium, its public availability for the festival is uncertain. This economic development became the primary goal of the festival's financial backers, a driving impulse that lay in part behind the economic exploitation of the original Riverbend Festival idea.
|One deeper symbolic pattern could be the emergence of the species from the water; this festival becomes then an enactment of that ritual of passage as a return to a point of origin. However, this would be a pattern encoded at the function level, one derived from selective interpretation and not one necessarily expressed in explicit goals or observed effects. If this pattern should be found enacted in other festivals, that is, a recurrence of imagery, language, and water-related events, then possibly a significant function of a festival could be identified as a "connector to meanings of ancient, evolutionary beginnings." It cannot be suggested within this study that this actually is a function of a festival; the idea is to point out the potential value of searching for the unnoticed work or function of a festival.|
Several conflicting views of this use of the art of the festival can be defended. One could argue that this one festival was successful and that it reached its goal of making its location more meaningful to purchasers and thereby more valuable to its private investors. Or one could argue that selfish entrepreneurs captured a valuable public property and deconsecrated the people's park. Other interpretations can be advanced and defended. However, neither stated objectives nor arguable effects adequately probe the depths of the festival's multiple dimensions. For example, the deliberate intention of tying the festival to development of the water frontage could have had a significance--a textual implication--much deeper than mere reward to private investors.
Overarching any specific function is the contextual logic of any complex signifying practice such as a festival. Logic in this sense is the system of principles underlying any art or science, rather than the more precise meaning of a science of correct reasoning. In this sense, the kindred entities of festival, carnival, and fair are a "logos," in the Greek sense of a combined form of word, speech, and discourse. The festival logos, then, provides logodaedaly, a playing with signs--symbols or objects in close spatial and temporal proximity--functioning as a theater to transform meanings.
As an example of logodaedaly: The Spoleto Festival U.S.A. had a small circus during 1986 and 1988, a circus enjoyed by children and at the same time by attentive adults. It was a delightful parody of the nineteenth-century "political" circuses that told immigrants how lucky they were to be Americans. In 1986 everyone laughed with the children when four horses balked at coming through the tent door all at once and lost their riders; only later did the audience learn that this was not part of the script. Planned or random, it worked, an expression of what Charles Wadsworth termed "art as organized surprise," where even the mishaps appear to be part of the "play."
Too much in too small a space, or the inverse, often is a source of the tension that provokes laughter. I suspect Maestro Menotti has not attempted to articulate fully and publicly in his Italian, American, and Australian festival communities his vision of a new festival theater form of civic opera, in which all these small "worlds" are a living theater that has so much artistic diversity in so many small spaces, or so much commercial sameness in one relatively small space, as evolved in Chattanooga.
This provides the festival form's contextual logic of diversity, difference, chaos, disorder, inversion, nonsense. In all this the space exists for free play, for randomness, for unexpected outcomes. The festival provides a model of logic for accepting the arbitrariness of life; we learn to tolerate as normal the great range of diversity contained within its time and space.
Various semiotic and structural analysis constructs provide the primary perspectives for development of a critical inquiry of festival practice. Eco, in particular, has offered a workable explanation of the mechanism of context as one of the multiple structural levels of festivals in terms of "overcoding, undercoding, and extracoding" operations:
Overcoded...entities float--so to speak--among the codes, on the threshold between convention and innovation. It is by a slow and prudent process that a society admits them to the ranks of the rules upon which it bases its own very raison d'être. Frequently a society does not recognize overcoded rules that in fact allow the social exchange of signs. A typical example is provided by the narrative rules, as outlined by Propp...the plot laws introduced by Propp were an abductive proposal that brought to light the existence of an overcoded language. These laws are now universally accepted as the items of a recognized narrative subcode. [Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana UP 1976) 134.]
If festivals can be viewed as overcoded entities on the threshold between convention and innovation, an unrecognized rule-making operation simultaneously indexical, iconic, and symbolic that allows the social exchange of signs, then it is reasonable to ask whether potential laws of an accepted, recognized narrative subcode for festivals can be identified. As Eco has argued above, "Frequently a society does not recognize overcoded rules that in fact allow the social exchange of signs." Eco could have been speaking of festivals as overcoded rules, "entities [that] float--so to speak--among the codes, on the threshold between convention and innovation. It is by a slow and prudent process that a society admits them to the ranks of the rules upon which it bases its own very raison d'être." This would lend support for a form of Brechtian theater that functions
as a political and social act whose goal seems both to place in question--or to counteract--the other form of theater [the Artaudian "metaphysical" theater], and to oppose and change actual social reality. From being an analysis of codes of action, indeed, it becomes an effort to produce real social praxis, and within a history for which the human individual as an authentic participant in the social collectivity will itself be responsible. [Timothy J. Reiss, excerpt from unpublished course outline for Emory University 1985 summer session seminar, "Toward an Archaeology of the Modern European Theater."]
The Nazi view of art and theater can be viewed in light of this perspective on the importance of goals and purposes. The question, it seems, is not whether art forms have a purpose but rather what that purpose is. In a final note to his chapter on the theory of codes, Eco also points to what is a basic contention regarding festivals as meaning-making artistic contexts, or circumstances:
But there is one aspect which is more interesting from the semiotic point of view, according to which the circumstance can become an intentional element of communication. If the circumstance helps one to single out the subcodes by means of which the messages are disambiguated this means that, rather than change messages or control their production, one can change their content by acting on the circumstances in which the message will be received. This is a `revolutionary' aspect of a semiotic endeavor. In an era in which mass communication often appears as the manifestation of a domination which makes sure of social control by planning the sending of messages, it remains possible (as in an ideal semiotic `guerilla warfare') to change the circumstances in the light of which the addressees will choose their own ways of interpretation. In opposition to a strategy of coding, which strives to render messages redundant in order to secure interpretation according to pre-established plans, one can trace a tactic of decoding where the message as expression form does not change but the addressee rediscovers his freedom of decoding. [Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, 150.]
In summary, the festival theater can be seen as a deliberate framing device in which not only context, or circumstance, but also texts and subtexts are in artistic free play, where participating spectators are addressees in potential opposition to senders (sponsors and performers) in a dramatic "semiotic guerilla war" in the time and space of the festival.
For no other reason than the several millions of dollars that have been spent on the Charleston and Chattanooga festivals since their beginning, this issue could be regarded as worthy of careful study. Also, the shape, form, and evolution of the empty urban theater deserves thoughtful attention as, in Menotti's phrase, an "art form in itself." However, beyond the economic and physical environment is the interplay of the force of one or several individuals' festival vision with the forces of resistance and reaction. This process, in Charleston and Chattanooga at least, was a behind-the-scenes, winner-take-all struggle for dominance.
In such an extreme set of oppositions lies the interest and value of comparing Charleston's and Chattanooga's tale of two festivals. Possibly the narrative reflects a larger "tale of two cities" and how other forgotten or repressed festival stories were still-born or aborted. That story, however, would require social science and economic methodology not yet developed, and would need not only an enormous budget but also a nonexistent, yet emerging conviction, that the festival is important enough to justify significant public and private analysis.
Perspectives and Semantic Framing
Charleston's Spoleto Festival U.S.A. and Chattanooga's Riverbend Festival are of interest in part because of their extreme differences. They are also interesting for study because Chattanooga's festival sponsors in 1981 deliberately rejected Charleston's arts model of festival for a heritage form, a decision that led to official support for what can be termed a festival of sameness rather than a festival of difference. The meaning of this characterization, how and why this change of direction happened, and its general implications are the basic issues this book explores.
Several interpretations are derived from an analysis of three key semiotic categories for each festival: the festival's relationship to empty town spaces (its place), the stated purposes or objectives (its ideal), the role of an artistic director (its force).
The sense of semiotics as the study of signs, intended here and throughout the study, is derived from Peirce's definition of a "sign": "something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign."
A more general definition of semiotics is the representation and processing of knowledge, a more abstracted model which suggests both human and natural communication and signification processes.
The idea of a triadic template, such as Vincent's "place, ideal, force," generally corresponds (although no precise correlation is claimed) to C. S. Peirce's categories of firstness, secondness, and thirdness, as summarized by David Savan:
Place equals firstness: "Firstness might be called quality space, a space which is occupied by existing qualities. Because Firstness is without relation to physical space, time, or casual conditions, Peirce associates it with the ideas of freedom, novelty, and originality."
Ideal equals secondness: "The crucial idea here is that of brute and obstinate existence, related by opposition and contrast to some other second existence....When we say that experience presents us with hard facts, it is the Secondness of experience that we refer to. So too when we point to something, or refer to something without describing or classifying it, Secondness is prominent."
Force equals thirdness (three categories): "Mediation--whenever two things are connected by means of some third factor, thirdness is the category....Transformation--any principle, function, or law which translates one form into another is a third....Growth and Development--laws are subject themselves to change in accordance with what might be called meta-laws....Peirce understands evolution as just such a hierarchical order of laws....The leading principle of growth is the application of the categories to themselves."
Savan observes: "The categories are not, of course, names of individual things. They are classifications of three aspects of whatever can be known, and they occur always compounded together." [Charles S. Peirce, "Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs," Ed Justus Buchler Philosophical Writings of Peirce, 1940. Dover Publications: New York: Rpt. 1955) 99. David Savan, An Introduction to C.S. Peirce's Semiotics, from monographs, working papers, and prepublications of the Toronto Semiotic Circle (Toronto: Toronto Semiotic Circle, Victoria University 1976 No.1) 6-9.]
Each of these three functions, which are regarded as primary elements of festivals, compress a wide variety of empirical data from each festival. They provide the conceptual design that organizes the work and suggest, in their interrelationships, several conclusions about the nature, function, and meaning of festivals in general.
Function, then, is meant to signify that specific and particular action observed in an activity that connects it to its physical and imaginative environment. A festival's artistic director, general manager, or board chairperson controls its direction. This person (or persons) must be connected to those performance activities that point the festival in its particular direction. The evidence from the festivals examined is that the artistic director provides precision steering signals. The absence of an artistic director would invite attention to what, if any, alternative devices for direction setting are functioning. Awareness and naming of the functioning level of such features within a structure's logic makes possible a representation of the broader contextual logic in which various key devices or elements operate.
An Arts Festival-Creature Encounters its Heritage Habitat
Two contrasting ideas of festival frame the issues raised by the Charleston and Chattanooga festivals. These are found in the difference and sameness opposition, the arts and heritage purpose, the open and closed festival form. They can be seen in the following viewpoints generated by Chattanooga's experience with its festival:
Foundation President: Cities and towns are holding heritage festivals--taking a new look, establishing community pride. The towns which "sell out" and follow a foreign culture without struggling to incorporate and assimilate that culture as a subset of its historical authenticity will become fractured, schitzophanic [sic]--rootless. [From remarks at a 1986 civic conference in Chattanooga by Deaderick C. Montague, president, Lyndhurst Foundation, Chattanooga, Tennessee.]
Composer: A Festival is a creature which needs to fit its habitat....My creature Festival then, is one which has characteristics of the local scene....The creature not only sings, of course; it dances and rhymes and paints pretty pictures and makes marvelous, outlandish sculptures and reads outrageously wonderful poems....It has the accent of many voices of the region. [Excerpts from a 1981 proposal written at the request of festival organizers by New York composer and pianist Doris Hays.]
These views seemingly agree on the importance of the local nature of a festival, but they diverge on the degree of diversity tolerated within its habitat. Subcultures quickly can become ethnic, religious, or class minority groups erased from a city's authentic dominant history. "Outrageously wonderful poems," which could become outrageous "full frontal nudity" in Martha Clarke's Miracle of Love in one of Charleston's public theaters during the 1986 Spoleto U.S.A., could in a Chattanooga become a censored production, which has been a recurring practice in the community's publicly-owned theaters. Charleston easily could be the town apparently charged by the foundation director quoted above with "selling out" and "following a foreign culture." The central point is that it is not the particular city or even "foreign culture" that is in question but any cultural practice different from the prevailing preferences of those individuals who control a community's resources and direction of change. The effect is that the community remains on the same course until new information from a more powerful source alters its direction and perceptions.
The principal contention is that most artistic festivals function as a special type of theatrical time and space where the different is presented intentionally and where new artistic and other imaginative productions often are introduced.
Allowing in each case for several commercial and programming exceptions, this statement is much more descriptive of the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston and several other festivals examined during the 1980s in North America and Europe than it is of the Riverbend Festival in Chattanooga.
If Menotti and the NEA served as such a change agent for Charleston, then Charleston's festival provided this new information to Chattanooga individuals and town officials. The record shows that Charleston's Spoleto Festival U.S.A. set both a strong positive and negative example for the founders and organizers of Chattanooga's Riverbend Festival. Whether Charleston, as would be implied by the first view above, sold out to a "foreign culture" or successfully assimilated the Italian Spoleto festival is impossible to prove, if, in fact, that is the example the speaker had in mind. There is no evidence to indicate that Charleston has shown signs of becoming "fractured, schitzophrenic--rootless." However, if that actually is what happened, it seems a path associated with world fame and increasing urban wealth. If the term schizophrenic means "a state characterized by the coexistence of contradictory or incompatible elements" (Random House Dictionary, 2nd edition), then the view proposed earlier of the multi-functional dimensions of a festival of diversity as opposed to a single dimensional festival of unity is cast in bold relief.
In the foreword to Lyotard's Postmodern Condition, Frederic Jameson points out Gilles Deleuze's "influential celebration of schizophrenia" (in books like the Anti-Oedipus). Later he also notes: "Lyotard's affiliations here would seem to be with the Anti-Oedipus of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who also warned us, at the end of that work, that the schizophrenic ethic they proposed was not at all a revolutionary one, but a way of surviving under capitalism, producing fresh desires within the structural limits of the capitalist mode of production as such." [Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translation from the French by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Foreword by Fredric Jameson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, xviii.]
There should be little doubt that festivals, like world's fairs, function as "desire machines," as Robert Segrest has written about the Chicago world's fairs. [Segrest, Robert. "The Architecture of the Excluded Middle...." Paper presented at Emory University, April 9, 1986.] From this perspective, Montague's attack on the schizophrenic is predictable in that the "fractured" state of things would threaten "totality" and monological "historical authenticity." Such an environment obviously would reject Menotti's festival theater of differences and the avant garde. The result literally is monologue conquering dialogue, the great theme of diversity that concerned Bakhtin in all his works. That Charleston went against its "historical authenticity" makes its Spoleto Festival U.S.A. all the more improbable. The Riverbend example suggests assimilation of subcultures quickly becomes unintended "erasure of differences."
It is the issue of sameness versus differences. To be specific, a claim is made for the positive value of the so-called schizophrenic, coexisting, contradictory, incompatible elements in Hays' proposal. This idea was not tolerated by the ideological dominance of "historical authenticity" in the Chattanooga experience described. Neither idea should be carried to its logical extreme; it is the blend and balance that represents the artistry of both personal sanity and social progress, and in serious festivals where all these dynamics often are staged.
There are conflicting views about the influences behind Chattanooga's Riverbend Festival, but the available record indicates that when the city's leaders had the opportunity to benefit from the example of the National Endowment for the Arts' gift of an arts festival to the Southeast, and possibly to request similar support, an official of the Chattanooga-based Lyndhurst Foundation, however well-intentioned, deliberately used his foundation's enormous power to block the appointment of an urgently needed artistic director at the outset of the creative process.
It is definite that what became the Riverbend Festival celebrated few local artists and cultural organizations (a continuing criticism supported by the foundation's extensive 1988 analysis of the festival [Riverbend Festival: A Comprehensive Evaluation. Prepared for Friends of the Festival, Inc., by Urban Initiatives, New York City, in association with Trahan, Burden & Charles of Baltimore, Maryland; Kaminsky & Company of New York and Nashville; and Tatge Productions of New York, 1988.]). It appears the ideological divergences of the philosophies inherent in a heritage or arts festival, to use the simplest oppositions, proved substantial, leading in the first case to a festival of sameness and in the second case to a festival of differences. Although there are important exceptions to such a stark opposition, the tale that is reflected in the Chattanooga story of unity stands in great contrast to the stories of Charleston's diversity as told by Stern, Wadsworth, Sturm, Redden, and Rawle. Their narratives reveal the considerably broader range of imaginative expressions of a festival's place, ideal, and force.
Questions of the social, aesthetic, political, religious, and economic desirability of the different and the new could be viewed as matters of personal taste and values. Arguing that Chattanooga's Riverbend Festival lacks avant garde operas, ballets, and plays, for example, and therefore offers little different or new may offend its blue grass, blues, and rock music lovers, who can point out with pride that traditional Louisiana Zydeco music apparently was heard for the first time in the city at the festival. The festival's sponsors could also rebut the charge of sameness by pointing out that the local symphony plays, normally with a popular entertainer, one night at each festival, and that in 1985 a composition for guitar and orchestra premiered at the festival. However, this practice was abandoned after that year. Increasingly, such Riverbend festival differences appear to be a tribute to the illusory theater, masking the sameness of biological homogeneity and artistic rigidity through an extreme commerciality that perpetuates existing political, religious, social, and economic monolithic structures.
Such issues raise far deeper philosophical concerns about the nature of the societies in which we not only survive but also enjoy and, as Faulkner suggested in accepting the Nobel prize, endure. In sailing through such treacherous waters of subjectivity, it is my intention to be a "loving critic" rather than a "critical lover" of these two festivals, which have grown to be important local institutions as well as representative forms of contemporary festival practice and social order. That Charleston's particular expression of itself through its festival has generated international notice from the arts community suggests that such a festival of differences possesses important functions absent in festivals lacking such critical attention.
Implications of Festivals Viewed As a Place of the Different
In light of this framing of the subject and several approaches to it, Strong's view of the mirroring function of a Renaissance festival takes on new significance:
Revamped medieval romance, the imagery of Sacred Empire, of Christianity and classical myth and history provided the absolutist monarch with an encyclopedia of universally understood symbols with which to promote his rule. [Roy Strong, Art and Power, 172.]
"Promoting his rule" is a much more interventionist function of a festival theater than merely presenting allegories of the times. So also do contemporary festivals provide state, corporation, university, and church with an "encyclopedia of universally understood symbols" that compose the contemporary American city festival's mise-en-scéne and that actively promote the wishes and desires of civic rulers. What the overall consequences of such an encyclopedia of symbolic signs, if it exists at all, might be is a matter that would require significant research resources and new methodology for the numerous festival materials and studies available for review. The power of the new technological theaters of public media in contemporary society is such that the potential new insights into the imagistic nature of human communication processes may justify the costs.
The well-documented history of forms of theater from Aristotle to Shakespeare to Artaud to Brecht to Tyrone Guthrie is evidence of the importance of the physical element in the dramatic meaning-making process. Salzburg opened in 1920 with an outdoor performance of Hofmannsthal's Everyman morality play on a temporary stage in front of the main cathedral. Like Menotti, the director saw the town as potential theater.
If a society believes that such "make believe" literally makes belief, then a theoretical door is ajar through which can be glimpsed the possibility of new insights into the nature and function of the creative and communication processes by which the "social exchange of signs" occurs in festivals and related genres. If no sign exists out of context, then attention must be focused on the actual mechanisms of the sign-context relationship and the possibility of a shift from a one-way, ethnocentric sender/receiver communication model to a helical, multi-dimensional, contextual reception model. Attempts at construction of a semiotic of festival, an overall picture of festivals, as Strong suggested, should produce syntheses that will increase understanding of basic aspects of the "stupendous development" of festivals and of their resurgence in shaping as well as in mirroring their eras as truly unusually powerful "signs of the times." Or, as one drama scholar has worded the issue of the nature and function of a festival theater so precisely:
The [Brechtian theater]...goes toward a social realism and a socio-political practice. It proceeds from an analysis of social (and other) "codes" as found in positivism and capitalism, toward their setting into crisis. This eventually leads to a theatre as a political and social act whose goal seems both to place into question--or to counteract--the other form of theatre, and to oppose and change actual social reality. [Reiss, "European Theater" course outline.]
The evidence suggests that the modern arts festival, exemplified by Spoleto Festival U.S.A., has evolved into just such a Brechtian theater with political, social, environmental, economic, and theological implications so powerful that Eco's term of an emerging "guerilla semiotic warfare" is no understatement. The written and recollected intentions of the founders of the two festivals in Charleston and Chattanooga leave little doubt that both festivals were a "socio-political...effort to oppose and change actual social reality." In the Riverbend case, however, the initial emergence of a Brechtian theater was suppressed by the use of a more dominant form of the very same ideological practice that its founders intended to place into question. If these views appear paradoxical, they represent the actual events described in the stories of origin.
This new but very old social theater could be called "Menottian." Maestro Gian Carlo Menotti's festivals appear to be a new genre of theatrical practice incorporating the Aristotelian illusory stage, the Artaudian "metaphysical, imagistic" dramatic event, and the Brechtian arena of "political and social action." That this metaphor has the plurality of a three-ring circus is understandable in view of the differences contained within the festival theater. It is possible that festival is the general historical class of which theater is a sub-genre; however, little festival theory exists to support this claim and thus drama theory must suffice for this initial study. The possibility that the festival is a primary class of social practice is suggested by noting that in my newspaper clipping files on festivals there is a Festival of Circuses, but to date no circus of festivals has come to my attention.
Functions of an Artistic Festival
The festival's general triadic framework has been presented: a place, an ideal, a force. Yet a festival is difficult to represent, as noted earlier, by its visible features. A specific central idea, a vivid framing device, is needed that places a festival's complexity in a new perspective, a frame that provides insight into the basic nature, function, and meanings of practices such as Menotti's Spoleto festivals.
Several of Davies' novels, especially in the Francis Cornish trilogy, use the Stratford Festival as a dramatic device. In the 1988 final book in the Cornish series, The Lyre of Orpheus, the Stratford Festival holds center stage for the restored Hoffman opera production where the action climaxes and many of the threads are woven together. One can see at the festival. The festival is where all the key institutional elements (foundation, university, artists, critics) are gathered for audience and performers alike to interact in one place at the same time.
The function of the festival in fiction and drama is a topic that could not be explored in this study, but it should be included in an expanded analysis of the art of festival. Other examples of the festival/fair/carnival in works of art includes: Brecht's carnival scene in Galileo, the looming presence of the 1939 New York World's Fair in Doctorow's World's Fair, the meeting place of high and low in Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, the rowdy mob scene Hogarth painted in Southwark Fair, and Schumann's disconnected cadences and tonal breaks in the "Carnaval" concerto.
One such dominant image is available from Stratford's first artistic director, Tyrone Guthrie. To what did he attribute the festival's success? His reflections about the first 1953 Stratford, Ontario, festival came soon after directing the internationally acclaimed productions of Richard III and All's Well That Ends Well under the new tent with its unusual thrust stage. This was "a new kind of theatre...built for the new manner of production which was practised there...," Robertson Davies wrote in the preface to Renown at Stratford. [Guthrie, Tyrone, and Davies, Robertson. Renown at Stratford: A Record of the Shakespeare Festival in Canada. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company Ltd.: 1953, vii.] Guthrie addressed the issue of the value of a festival itself:
In conclusion I want to urge the advantage of the Theatre Festival over just having a theatre which works week in, week out, year after year....
This is where the Festival comes in. It makes attendance at the play something of a Pilgrimage. The wise Pilgrim will not be in too much of a hurry. Masterpieces demand respect. One must give to them at least the same attention as to a serious business conference. One must be prepared to do some homework beforehand, some meditation afterwards.
A Festival should offer, as Salzburg, Edinburgh, and Stratford, England, do, opportunities to absorb great works of art in an appropriate atmosphere, with other people of similar taste bent on the same errand. For this reason small, countrified towns, where life is comparatively calm, make the best Festival Cities.[Guthrie, Davies, Renown at Stratford, 31-32.]
The festival itself can become a community's "powerful, dominating imagistic template" for an entire year, much like Bakhtin's argument that in a festival form "the utopian truth is enacted in life itself" and "for a short time this truth becomes to a certain extent a real existing force." [M. M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (1965; Bloomington: Indiana UP 1984) 265.]
An artistic festival functions as much more than a device for the development of increased tourism, new business, or civic image enhancement (although often these are its mixed blessings). Guthrie's idea of a festival functioning--whether intended or unintended--to make attendance at an arts event a serious experience akin to a pilgrimage with "some homework beforehand, some meditation afterwards" points toward a deeper significance of the potential nature and function of the festival theater, one with theological overtones of belief-making power. And his sensitivity to the value of a suitable festival city as a sort of great cathedral, one where a festival could be the "peak of the year," explains Menotti's strong preference for Charleston's eighteenth-century shell over other Southeastern American cities. Here the urban space was less filled, more open for the new, yet comparatively calm.
In considering why Menotti's festival found a home in Charleston, the importance of the empty urban contextual frame cannot be overemphasized. In the essay, "Center-City, Empty Center," in Empire of Signs, Roland Barthes saw Tokyo as offering the opposite of the typical Western city:
Barthes' caption under an overhead map reads: "The City is an ideogram: the Text continues." As such, the City can be a meaningful text like the festivals and angoras it contains. Scan in a copy
...in accord with the very movement of Western metaphysics, for which every center is the site of truth, the center of our cities is always full: a marked site, it is here that the values of civilization are gathered and condensed: spirituality (churches), power (offices), money (banks), merchandise (department stores), language (agoras: cafés and promenades) [emphasis mine]: to go downtown or to the center-city is to encounter the social "truth," to participate in the proud plentitude of "reality." [Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard (1970; New York: Hill and Wang, 1982) 30-32.]
Guthrie and Barthes agree with the notion of the essential character of the physical city. Guthrie's "too busy" is Barthes' "always full," a city of presences, not absences where there is room for the new and different to co-exist with the old and the same. As a "market place," an "agora," the buying and selling of ideas is a basic function of a festival, where all sorts of ideograms can compete for attention and customers. Overlapping programming, reworked masterpieces, new labels, unknown products --all are part of the festival as a marketplace of the new as well as a storehouse of the old. Although this marketplace aspect is not a primary emphasis of this study, it cannot be ignored if the basic, multiple functions of a festival are to be revealed.
|Ideogram: "A written symbol that represents an idea or object directly rather than a particular word or speech sound, as a Chinese character." The Random House Dictionary of the English Language.|
Meaning in the Western city, functioning as an ideogram, is condensed at the center, where, predictably, there is little space for the new, for renewed meaning.
Yet festival pilgrims seek the sacred festival space, a place and time for "some homework beforehand, some meditation afterwards." Significantly, Barthes groups language with agoras, from the Athenian chief marketplace or public square, and "cafés and promenades." That one downtown center site holds the social truth became the central idea of Chattanooga's festival, entirely the opposite of the ideogram of Charleston's multiple realities and truths that emerge from its many indoor and outdoor empty spaces. One may ask, then, where and how are, in Barthes' words, "the values of Western civilization gathered and condensed?" Some possible answers to this significant matter are found in the stories of the creation of the Chattanooga and Charleston festivals.
It is from this perspective of the festival as an icon, or ideogram, a writing that directly represents a set of ideas and relationships, that Christopher Hunt's provocative suggestion of an arts festival functioning as a disguised religious festival urging us to artistic devotion strikes close to the heart of the nature and function of any serious festival. Like Northrop Frye's sense of the Christian Bible in The Great Code, [Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (New York: Harcourt, 1982).] Frye concludes his book with a point relevant to the matter of what is encoded in language code such as the Bible or a serious festival:
Yet perhaps it is only through the study of works of human imagination that we can make any real contact with the level of vision beyond faith. For such vision is, among other things, the quality in all serious religions that enables them to be associated with human products of culture and imagination, where the limit is the conceivable and not the actual. (231-232).
The ancient tie of church and festival, spiritual and pagan, remains beyond this study's limits, but further exploration of this central aspect of the festival idea seems indicated.
These festivals can function as a community's imagistic "great code," even as an international "great code," similar to what Roy Strong described as a Renaissance "encyclopedia of universally understood symbols." [Strong, Roy. Art and Power: Renaissance Festivals 1450-1650. Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 1984. First published in 1974 at Splendour at Court: Renaissance Spectacle and the Theatre of Power, 172. The earlier title provided the idea for the dissertation's title, Two Town Festivals: Signs of a Theater of Power, as well as one of its central concepts.] Like the great religious documents, to which festivals are related historically as a visible expression of beliefs, the best are few in number and exist in very special places. These festivals are special as much for their place as for their programming, as Christopher Hunt has pointed out in his programming notes:
It is no accident that the great arts festivals of the world--Salzburg, Edinburgh, Aix-en-Provence, Dubrovnik, Prague--all happen in cities with historic charm, a kind of architectonic intimacy that creates a context in which the `willing suspension of disbelief' can most easily happen.
An initial concept of the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. ideogram is needed, one evolving from the general premises described previously, but one more directly focused on one primary function of a successful festival theater such as Spoleto Festival U.S.A. It is this: "Menotti's festival theater can be viewed as a cathedral for the making of belief, a church in itself where various fringe festivals spring up as carnival opposition." This idea of a festival church was offered by an experienced festival artistic director and arts critic, Christopher Hunt, in introductory comments for the 1981 Spoleto Festival U.S.A. Official Souvenir Program:
Spoleto U.S.A. is rather different. The variety and range of these programs reflect not just one art form but a spectrum of artistic experience. It also happens in a place peculiarly suited to the creation of a special atmosphere, a place to which visitors come for days or a week at a time and not just for the evening; a place where the residents feel a certain pride in the occasion....Charleston is such a place, and it is in the combination of environment, identity of audience purpose, and varied programming that its special claim to distinction lies.
...it is the context that needs remarking--and the significant fact that the selection of programs is unified, and not the polyglot recipe of many impresarios....Not that everyone wants or needs feel obliged to have their horizons expanded: a truly festive atmosphere allows one to choose between the simplest level of pleasurable response to any event, and the most profound. Art need not only be about Ultimate Truths, nor should we be too earnestly devoted to it. The religious origin of festivals--whether the Dionysian feasts of ancient Greece or the medieval church festivals of Europe--does sometimes seem to have made a disguised come-back in those who urge us to artistic devotion. [Christopher Hunt, "The Official Souvenir Program of Spoleto Festival U.S.A.: 1981" (Charleston: David L. Rawle Associates, 1981) 73.]
Is Spoleto Charleston the context for a disguised religious festival urging us to "artistic devotion"? A tentative answer would be, "yes, but more...." The significance of context was noted in a recent collection of essays on the festival:
Folklorists and anthropologists have been increasingly aware of the importance of context in the events they investigate, both the immediate performative context, and the abstract context of the worldview, with its set of norms and values that ultimately affect all social phenomena in a culture. [Alessandro Falassi, ed., Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival (Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1987). From his introduction to Marianne Mesnil's essay, "Place and Time in the Carnivalesque Festival," 184. The importance of the urban environment as a functional element is stressed in this article.]
This broader contextual perspective depends on gaining a clear understanding of a festival's broader context and its ideological signs, its story of origin, even if the memories and a few documents of its founders and opponents and later key leaders are the only presently reliable available sources of what happened and why.
Table of Contents Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Bibliography After Thoughts--Summer 2001
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