EVERY Edinburgh festival season has at least one cause célèbre. Which is exactly as it should be.

Taken together, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Festival Fringe and their sibling festivals are the biggest showcase of the arts on the planet. As such they would be failing in one of the arts’ most crucial functions, as the grit in the social oyster, if they didn’t generate a bit of controversy.

The thing about controversy, however, is that it’s very hard to predict where it will pop up. Often it emerges where you least expect it. Meanwhile, those you might have thought would cause a storm of consternation sail through the three-and-a-half weeks of the festival in the calmest serenity.

There may or may not be a show in Edinburgh next month that leads to an outbreak of cultural warfare between the Daily Mail-reading “outraged of Tunbridge Wells” and those the ever-delightful Suella Braverman dubbed the “tofu-eating wokerati”. However, there are bound to be artworks that, at the very least, lead to uncomfortably overturned expectations, and maybe even a bit of artistic argy-bargy.

The National: Mamoru Iriguchi & Cyclops. Credit Jo Hanley & Wellcome Collection.

The Scotland-based Japanese theatre-maker Mamoru Iriguchi is a fantastically audacious artist. His show Sex Education Xplorers (S.E.X), for example, didn’t so much walk as dance with stunning alacrity into territory (not least the history and construction of human gender) where proverbial angels fear to tread.

His offering at this year’s Fringe has the abundant title What You See When Your Eyes Are Closed / What You Don’t See When Your Eyes Are Open (Summerhall, August 2-27). A piece about the complex relationship between performer and audience member, it presents a challenge to audiences both in terms of their ideas about theatrical performance and their personal comfort zones.

The show’s two characters, Iriguchi himself and Cyclops (a furry monster who sees the world two-dimensionally through his single eye), interact and invite the involvement of those audience members who wish to do so. This process explores the experience of seeing and being seen in the performance space.

The show comes with a detailed warning, highlighted on the Summerhall venue’s website in alarmingly bright orange, alerting potential audience members to the following aspects of the production: “audience participation, nudity, scenes of violence, audience invited (not required) to move around [the] space, and speak/sing with/for the performers. If sensitive to light, bring sunglasses as projector may shine directly onto faces.” However, we are reassured that the nudity is “brief” and occurs in a “non-sexual context.”

Presumably Iriguchi hopes both that this injunction will warn off those theatre-goers who might find the show a little too rich for their blood, and, paradoxically, entice those seeking a bit of theatrical adventure. However, in these days of often paper thin sensibilities, where this experiment might lead is anyone’s guess.

The National: Peter Howson, Trinity, 2020. Photo Antonio Parente.

Another potential bone of contention is When the Apple Ripens: Peter Howson at 65 (City Art Centre, until October 1). This major retrospective of the work of the famous Scottish painter opened in late May, but it will undoubtedly receive a spike in the number of visitors during the festivals in August.

Here I am open to the accusation of being controversial myself, but I can’t help but hope that many art lovers who are encountering Howson’s work in-depth for the first time notice how deeply problematic it is. Howson was one of the group of young, figurative painters (including Ken Currie, Adrian Wiszniewski, Stephen Conroy and the late Steven Campbell) who emerged in the 1980s under the collective title of ‘The New Glasgow Boys’ (successors, the sobriquet suggested, to the original ‘Glasgow Boys’ who had pioneered modernism in Scottish painting almost a century before).

Howson’s technical brilliance is absolutely without question. However, there is, in his work, a generalised misanthropy and, more specifically, a nasty characterisation of working-class men that has always left me cold.

An early painting of a football match (titled Just Another Bloody Saturday, 1987), in which bull-headed footballers clash on the field, while a number of fans in the bovine crowd give Nazi salutes, pointed towards what would become a reductive, fixed idea at the heart of Howson’s work.

The most difficult interview I have ever conducted as an arts journalist was in 2002 with the famous writer and actor Steven Berkoff. The man’s arrogance and misogyny were, at least, equal to his formidable talents.

Interestingly, his studio in London’s Docklands, where the interview was conducted, boasted a number of artworks by Howson. One, a typically threatening depiction of Scottish working-class masculinity, exemplified everything I dislike in Howson’s work.

When I alluded to it, Berkoff replied that it was like a “Glaswegian ‘Last of the Mohicans’” (a reference, one assumes, to the 1992 film described by one critic as a “testosterone opera”).

If the Scottish painter’s, in my view, highly dubious attitude towards his fellow men (in particular) and humankind (in general) isn’t controversial enough for you, welcome back to Edinburgh arguably the most contentious comedian performing in the UK today: namely, Jerry Sadowitz.

The National: Jerry Sadowitz became the talk of the Fringe after having his gig cancelled for racism

Following his notorious cancellation by Pleasance, after one performance, during the 2022 Fringe, the Glaswegian comedian returns with a presentation titled defiantly Jerry Sadowitz proudly presents… Last Year’s Show! (Queen’s Hall, August 23-25).

Far from a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary who needs to be hounded from our stages, Sadowitz is (as I have argued in this newspaper before) the closest thing contemporary comedy in the UK has to the late, great American comedy pioneer Lenny Bruce. Like Bruce, Sadowitz is Jewish, a fact that is far from irrelevant where his dark, deliberately troubling, deeply ironic and fascinatingly complex material is concerned.

Sadowitz is lauded by the great Arnold Brown, one of the founders of “alternative comedy” in the 1980s, and a man whose progressive political credentials are beyond doubt. As those lucky enough to get a ticket for one of Sadowitz’s shows will discover, there is much (including a large dose of self-discovery) to be gained from the white knuckle ride that is a gig by one of Glasgow’s most controversial sons.