by Rafaël Newman
It’s been 40 years this past month since the election of François Mitterrand as President of France. Today, June 21, is the day chosen by his first Minister of Culture for the Fête de la Musique: what has come to be known as “World Music Day” in the English-speaking countries that have since, along with scores of others, enthusiastically adopted the annual festival.
Mitterrand was the first Socialist in the history of the Fifth Republic to attain the office of president, and his term, historic as well for its unprecedented (and still unrivalled) duration, was characterized among other things by grand gestures of support for culture, both classical and popular, focused not only on Paris but increasingly on the cities and towns of the traditionally underserved French provinces. Following a nation-wide study of amateur musicianship commissioned by Culture Minister Jack Lang, which found that one out of two young people in France play a musical instrument, Mitterrand’s government in 1982 initiated the annual Fête de la Musique, to be held on the day of the summer solstice, and to feature multiple, simultaneous public performances by musicians, both amateur and professional, playing for crowds of varying dimensions, from busker’s circle to stadium-sized audience.
Although Mitterrand’s cultural policy was in some respects a continuation of his predecessor’s efforts at modernization and opening, Giscard’s patrician air had lent his presidency the cast of a bygone era, and it was left to Mitterrand, the former Vichy functionary and perennial also-ran, to reap the benefits of a sea change in French public affairs, symbolized in part by the Fête, an annual celebration of a vital, and vitally homespun, national creativity. The Fête was thus effectively part of an image campaign: a rebranding, or, less cynically and more in keeping with the cultural theory of the era, a re-imagining of the French community, and a libidinous recommitment to its revolutionary pillars of liberté, égalité, and fraternité.
This year, as was the case in 2020, the Fête’s character in France (as elsewhere) is shaped by health regulations: what are known in French as the protocole sanitaire, a phrase that chillingly evokes Clemenceau’s cordon sanitaire, the interwar policy of containment. Of course, in a sense, the Plague Year of 2020 featured a sort of impromptu and movable World Music Day all year long, with balcony serenades and veranda recitals staged and broadcast via Zoom and social media to the virtual counterparts of the variously sized audiences that had been expected at the Fête de la Musique for the previous 38 years. But such a decentralization, digitalization, and distribution of the spirit of public music, for all its communitarian good will, served neither to make up for the official festival’s radical curtailment, nor for the creeping, then sweeping condemnation of regular performance venues, which increasingly depressed professional musicians, both psychologically and economically, as the year wore on and their gigs were postponed, reduced in size, and ultimately cancelled. Now, as various governments have provided relief funding to the cultural sector, and the numbers allowable at both outdoor and indoor performances are gradually rising in many places, some of the damage to the profession, and to the communities in which it is pursued, is being undone: but only some of it; and only in part.
I first learned about the Fête de la Musique long after its first edition, when a French friend in my neighborhood in Zurich initiated a local version of her homeland’s festival. Our block party, or Quartierfest, was inaugurated, during the heatwave of 2003, under the French name; soon enough, however, subsequent editions were being referred to, at first informally and then in our “official” communications (photocopied posters and homemade website), as the Schindlerplatzfest. The new name was a tribute to our neighborhood, at the intersection of Schindler and Lindenbach streets, a crossing we dubbed every third Saturday in June “Schindlerplatz”, or Schindler Square: “a fictional place for real encounters”, as Sandrine Charlot Zinsli, that French neighbor of mine and a tireless local multiplier of francophone culture, aspirationally described it in an early communiqué. The name change spoke to our will to claim the French occasion as our own, for the native Swiss and expat Canadians, Kosovars, ex-Yugoslavs, Chileans, Iraqis, and others among us. It also tacitly recognized the fact that the local Swiss dialect pronunciation of “Fête de la Musique” tended to mangle it into the embarrassing Füdlemusik (an infantile neologism suggesting flatulence).
From the outset, and for much of its history, the Schindlerplatzfest was a resolutely amateur affair: what the Swiss refer to, with affectionate exasperation, as handglismet or “hand-knit” (or, indeed, homespun), albeit with a judicious admixture of professional highlights. Presentation of local musical talent typically segued, as the late afternoon became the late evening, into an act featuring more seasoned performers: thus the Bonobos, a troupe of barely pubescent guitar rockers only recently babysat by members of the audience, might be succeeded by Zofka, a sophisticated electronic duo celebrating an album launch featuring takes on French classics reinterpreted for the theremin; an entire class of neophyte, weekend belly dancers might perform a series of synchronized gyrations before ceding the stage to Dodo Hug, a Swiss singer-songwriter of cultish renown; and an a cappella formation of female vocalists might be followed by The NewMen, a quintet of country-punk rockers with a new CD out, some of whose members were married, in private life, to members of the a cappella group (and whose 15 minutes of fame involved a video topping the RoboClip charts on Swiss TV one whole afternoon in 2008). Refreshments, meanwhile, were sold at “solidarity” rates by a committee of neighbors, with grilled meats provided by a local butcher’s, salads prepared in neighborhood kitchens (often with an uncoordinated surfeit of tabbouleh), and a dessert buffet, traditionally offered for free, at the height of the evening.
For all of its engaging eclecticism, however, the Schindlerplatzfest was not constantly harmonious: or rather, there was also a certain amount of politics to be experienced alongside the cultural offerings. There were disputes within the organizing committee, leading one year to a change of president, rancorous albeit carried out in accordance with Swiss association law. A recurrent desire to seek funding from local businesses, and thus to accept corporate sponsorship and “branding”, was resisted for a time, only to see its indulgence by the second “generation” of committee members, epigones who festooned marquee tents with the name of a large local bank. The victory by the German team in a European Cup match held one summer on the afternoon of the festival was celebrated, in sad-clown fashion, by a mini-parade of Germany supporters, complete with face-paint and drums, while the assembled crowd discreetly turned the other way, hiding under feigned indifference the hereditary Swiss antipathy to its larger neighbor. And the Social Services department of the city of Zurich celebrated our event’s growing renown by including mention of the festival – and its salutary effect on local living conditions – in a 2006 report, in a characteristically understated spirit of self-congratulation.
The French activist philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie is fond of claiming that museums are the graveyards of revolutionary ambition, a riff on de Lamartine’s condemnation of those institutions as cemeteries of the arts. De Lagasnerie recently amplified his proposition, during a seminar held at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, to suggest that the contemporary left seeks refuge in culture generally, and has abandoned the political field to a more radically engaged right wing. De Lagasnerie, who also admits to reading “very little” literature, is skeptical about critical attention applied to popular culture, and typically reserves his own engagement with popular expression to demonstrations against police violence.
But what if cultural endeavors, particularly the public and the performative, are themselves a form of political action? There is certainly eminent precedent for this understanding of art, from the Athenian tragedians staging fifth-century political problems in the form of mythical allegory, through various Renaissance rewritings of classical epic as contemporary imperialist propaganda, to Käthe Kollwitz’s solemnly beautiful protest graphics, Brecht’s refusal to coddle bourgeois spectators with escapist fantasy, and the American folk-music movement of the 60s and 70s. What if, indeed, culture creates and sustains the very grounds from which political action emerges? What we experienced, after all, during the years in which we planned, organized, and produced the Schindlerplatzfest in Zurich, was the invention, the “imagining”, of a community: a group of people thrown together arbitrarily by their choice of residence – a choice shaped, in some cases even dictated, by economic and historical factors – who became aware of themselves as a coherent whole, with a shared physical and psychological habitat, and constructed out of that imagined space a site for cooperative action, whether that action is considered cultural, political, or a mixture of the two. Jane Jacobs, in one of her dialogues, has a character elaborate a seductive, if tongue-in-cheek political aetiology of the arts: theatrical performance, music, and dance, the speaker suggests, were invented as a means of distracting over-eager hunters, and thus of preventing the depletion of wildlife stocks. In this foundational myth, culture and politics are vitally imbricated, indeed symbiotically interlocked. And in the years since the Schindlerplatzfest commenced, despite controversial changes of organizing committee and pandemic-induced hiatus, the community thus imagined has served as a rallying place for political concerns ostensibly unrelated to music and public performance – the preservation of trees on neighborhood streets, for example, or the provision of goods and services to asylum seekers – but as intimately allied with the spirit of the festival as Jacobs’ hypothetical famine-relief performances were to the survival of those early hunter-gatherer societies.
There is a subtle local precedent for this crossover from the artistic field to the political arena. On September 15, 2001, the Swiss actor Peter Arens appeared in the speaking role of Bassa Selim in a production of Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Zurich Opera House. Four days had passed since the attacks of September 11 on New York and Washington, and when Arens, playing the Islamic convert despot and “white slaver”, made his speech of unexpected clemency in the final act, he turned and directly addressed the audience, rather than the captive young lover of the libretto, in what thus palpably became a plea for moderation in the American war effort gearing up in real time against Afghanistan:
I despised your father far too much ever to follow in his footsteps. Take your freedom, take Constanza, tell your father that you were in my power, that I released you so that you might tell him that it is a far greater pleasure to repay injustices suffered by good deeds than to compensate evil by more evil.
Couching this implicit call for a non-violent response to terrorism with a speech reversing a father’s vengeful custom was to prove prescient, as George Bush Jr., his lust for revenge unslaked in Afghanistan, would subsequently resume and extend his father’s war on Iraq with a trumped-up mission to find and destroy non-existent WMDs.
As it happens, despite his antipathy to museums and other forms of institutionalized culture, Geoffroy de Lagasnerie does manifest an interest in opera, at least, as a potential vehicle for political encounters. In a text written for the programme of a new production of Tosca at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, he reflects on the figure of Scarpia, Puccini’s utterly villainous rapist-murderer policeman:
Scarpia makes plain to us some of the characteristics inherent in the exercise of political power. He is a figure who makes us uneasy by speaking about us. He speaks us; he speaks to us. We ought to cultivate the unease we feel in his regard in our effort to gain distance from ourselves, to ask ourselves whether this unease does not arise from the fact that, when we consider him, we experience the truth of our own political condition, a truth from which we all too often try to escape.
So there is hope for the arts after all, in the eyes of this stern critic: not as a cemetery of revolutionary ambition and a refuge from uncomfortable truths, but rather as a secondary, aesthetic medium by means of which to learn primary, political lessons. In other words, a fictional place for real encounters.
La fête continue!