Festival fatigue

Festivals aimed at boosting the public image of any profession make much of their cultural significance, but Hugh Pearman thinks they’re little more than self-congratulatory trade shows

I am expecting a festival of grass seed any moment now. Or a festival of rust, of old socks, of toothpaste. There is nothing, I believe, that does not lend itself to the festival treatment. Any one of these events would attract a crowd of passionate adherents. Possibly a small and somewhat unhinged crowd in some cases – even Prince Charles has been at it with his damp squib ’Garden Party to Make a Difference’ – but nonetheless, devotees will gather.

You know what has prompted these thoughts, but it’s not just this year’s London Design Festival, which has come in for a bit of criticism. I wouldn’t know, since I managed to convince myself in advance that it was really just about over-priced furniture and trinket shops putting out drinks and nibbles, and that you can have too much of that. Consequently, I completely avoided it. There’s the London Festival of Architecture also, which for some reason always seems to involve a lot of bicycle rides, and the laying of turf over streets. This year, I largely steered clear of that one, too, along with anything else that had the ’festival’ tag. In consequence, my consumption of free Veuve Clicquot, Bombay Sapphire and Beck’s has been commendably low.

I know I shouldn’t have this bah-humbug attitude. I can hear my mother, urging me as a perennially event-averse small boy with the words ’Now go along, Hugh. When you get there I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.’ I know that enormous efforts are made by lots of good people, usually giving up their time and professional expertise for free. It’s by no means just window-dressing – there are all sorts of talks, debates, exhibitions, performances and suchlike to be had. I know this because from time to time, in the past, I have even managed to take part myself. I also know that putting it all together, finding the venues, getting the sponsorship, public funding, media coverage and so on is an undoubted logistical triumph. However, I’ve always had the nagging feeling that it’s all a bit of a waste of time, that it’s just a profession or trade showing off to other people in the same profession or trade. I say this to the festival PR people who badger me, and I feel bad when they start to sound a bit sad and desperate.

To counter this possible misapprehension, we are always presented with research statistics after the festivals, showing that it’s been the best-ever year, that untold millions of the public have been brought into contact with the wonders of whatever it is the festival is about, that the whole shebang is, quite frankly, a wonder, and certainly deserving of funding next time round. My problem is that I don’t believe these statistics. I think that, apart from a few publicity stunts, such festivals are a strictly business-to-business affair. The families of those involved do not count, by the way.

This year I came across someone who shrilly denounced various LDF naysayers as cynics who never lifted a finger to do anything themselves to improve things. Fair enough, but my point is different. I’m not saying these events should be better. I’m questioning whether they need to exist at all. Keep the jewels – the Proms, Cannes Film Festival, Glastonbury, the Venice Biennale – of course. But all the me-too events? The world wouldn’t end if they did. Design, architecture, food, film, music and so forth would continue to take place without them. So have your trade promotions if you must – but please, just don’t overplay the cultural significance card.

Hugh Pearman is an architecture and design critic whose house is full of Arne Jacobsen door handles, most of them on doors

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