IT is festival time in Edinburgh. Or should I say festivals, because we are in the midst of multiple arts, music, film, book comedy and jazz events. The numbers attending may not yet have recovered their pre-pandemic peak but the capital is full and something of the old effervescent mood has returned to the streets –streets which are now piled high with rotting, festering rubbish as a strike by the city’s bin workers takes hold.

For the Edinburgh Festival has never been far from politics, even if – especially today – it pretends otherwise. I don’t mean party politics but politics in the wider sense of an immediate concern with the human condition. Of expressing the fate of humankind through art.

As 92-years-young impresario (he hates the term) Richard Demarco has been telling audiences throughout the proceedings.

Richard is one of the few people left – perhaps the only one – who has attended all 75 Festivals. He thinks the event has passed its best and should be scrapped – or at least re-invented. He is right.

Let’s start by remembering that the invention of the Edinburgh Festival back in 1947 was a profoundly political act. Europe and the world had been devastated by war for the second time in a quarter of a century. The conflict had ended in a nuclear mushroom cloud that promised worse to come. A Cold War was about to start – British conscript troops were already being deployed to crush popular and nationalist uprisings in Greece and Vietnam.

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At this pregnant moment, the Jewish opera impresario Rudolf Bing (an expat Austrian living in the UK) proposed the inauguration of an annual festival of music and drama that would heal the wounds of war in Europe through art. It was a mad, impossible dream but it was life-affirming and bold.

Of course, amid the economic wreckage and continuing political strife, how could such a visionary fantasy be realised? And, amid the bomb damage, what willing venue could be identified? At this moment, a normally unimaginative city in the cold north of Europe answered the call – Edinburgh.

To me, this response from the city fathers and mothers – a reactionary and colourless crew – remains extraordinary. Of course, Edinburgh had escaped the worst of Europe’s destruction. Perhaps there was a guilty need to give thanks? Or perhaps the crafty burghers of the capital simply had their eyes on the main chance. Regardless, they welcomed Bing’s initiative and the inaugural festival opened on August 22, 1947.

The first orchestra to perform was the Vienna Philharmonic, which, following the Anschluss, had expelled its Jewish members and become a handmaiden of Nazi cultural propaganda.

Having the (semi) reformed Vienna Philharmonic at Edinburgh in 1947, conducted by Bruno Walter, was both an act of healing and a rapprochement with Germanic Europe. No-one could ignore the symbolism. Imagine if this year’s Festival had invited the Bolshoi Ballet and you’ll get the emotional atmosphere. In 2022, any move to invite Russian artists would be met with media hysteria.

The original Festival carried a message of peace and reconciliation. The first festival logo – the dove of peace – was designed by the communist Picasso. By 1947, the Cold War had begun. Imagine today if Edinburgh invited a Chinese or a Muslim calligrapher to re-invent the Festival logo, with a stress on global brotherhood rather than Western liberalism. The result would be binned immediately as droves of American tourists cancelled their reservations. Not that the early Festivals were without controversy. They were criticised (with some merit) for being elitist and lacking in local involvement.

This led to the launch of a festival fringe, called (initially) the People’s Festival. This was the brainchild of communist fellow traveller and brilliant poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson, in tow with the bard Hugh MacDiarmid – another communist.

In fact, the main moving force behind the creation and running of the People’s Festival was the cultural subcommittee of the Scottish Area of the British Communist Party. The subcommittee members were a truly subversive bunch as – contrary to party line – they were mostly vigorous advocates of an independent Scotland.

Other communists involved in the early People’s Festival were folksinger and playwright Ewan McColl (The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face) and theatre director Joan Littlewood (Oh What a Lovely War).

The original fringe People’s Festival was closed down after the pro-Nato Labour Party leadership in London forced an end to Labour members participating or to trade union affiliates providing funding.

However, by the early 1950s, the idea of a Festival Fringe had taken hold and become self-sustaining. It is now the dominant wing of the whole event, eclipsing the official music and drama Festival.

But politics was not done with the Edinburgh Festival(s). The 1960s and 70s saw massive social and economic unrest in the UK and abroad, as workers and students challenged the old, conservative political structures.

Culturally, this was reflected in a global avant-garde movement in literature, theatre, satire, art and music. The Edinburgh Fringe became the major international focus for this avant-garde – led by people such as Richard Demarco and the late Jim Haynes, and by Edinburgh’s pathbreaking Traverse Theatre.

The high point, perhaps, was the 1962 Writers’ Conference which brought together the cream of avant-garde novelists including Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Mary McCarthy and William Burroughs and Scotland’s own Alexander Trocchi. In the radical 1970s, Edinburgh could also claim to be in the forefront of the new performance art, with the German Joseph Beuys making the city into a living work of art.

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Sadly, those days are gone now, in part caused by the proliferation of international festivals. The Fringe has degenerated into an Anglified, commercial, comedy showcase. As Demarco points out, comedy without tragedy is merely vacuous. The main Festival, shorn of ideas as well as financial resources, has drifted artistically. Now it largely imports material premiered and well known elsewhere. You don’t come to the Edinburgh Festival to experience something new. Of course the Edinburgh Festivals are still significant, with more individual events than probably any other arts festival anywhere.

But quantity is not quality, and popularity does not spell relevance. Can anyone seriously doubt that if the Edinburgh Festivals disappeared, the world would notice? The comedians would hibernate in London, the peripatetic orchestras would still play in Boston and Sydney and the student reps would head for off-Broadway or Manchester.

Why this cultural irrelevance? Because we took the politics (small “p”) out of art and made it about tourism, commerciality and pleasing the crowd. Because Edinburgh reverted to its pre-1947 safe, boring, conservative self rather than taking risks.

A bold Edinburgh Festival would today be awash with Russian and Ukrainian artists debating and sharing and subverting. A relevant Edinburgh Festival would be putting the break-up of Britain and of Europe at the heart of its cultural inquiry.

Real art is subversive, not merely entertainment. Now, as the rubbish piles up in Edinburgh – because a Labour Council won’t pay a decent wage – the worry is what the tourists might think. Instead, at every Festival and Fringe performance, a striking bin worker should be asked to explain their cause.

Rubbish as performance art.

Joseph Beuys would have loved it.