Issue Number: 94
Edmund Fawcett enjoys two new books that celebrate the art of collective fun
Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich (Granta, £16.99); Spectacle by David Rockwell and Bruce Mau (Phaidon Press, £29.95)
David Rockwell and Bruce Mau, Spectacle.
When Goethe saw the Coliseum in Rome, he mused that its builders and their patrons must have chosen an oval shape, so that the crowd would be aware of itself. The spectators themselves, he wrote, were the real spectacle.
The organisation and manipulation of public fun is a common theme in these two contrasting books. Barbara Ehrenreich, an American author, wrote revealingly about the harshness of life on the minimum wage in her best-selling Nickel and Dimed. In Dancing in the Streets, she turns to the history of ecstatic ritual and popular festivals. From Bacchic orgies to medieval carnivals and rock ’n’ roll, the instinct of society’s elites, she tells us, was always to control such disruptive outbursts of spontaneous joy.
The colourful festivities of the French Revolution are a vivid example. Surges of popular expression in the streets mingled with carefully crafted state ceremonies, most notably Robespierre’s Festival of the Supreme Being, for which Jacques-Louis David acted as artist-in-chief.
Laughing at her own Puritan roots, Ehrenreich ends this lively survey with a rousing homily on behalf of unprompted fun. In Spectacle, American design gurus David Rockwell and Bruce Mau look at the visual impact of public gatherings and give a dazzling visual tour of ‘public performance worldwide’. This genre mixes visual and performing art with mass entertainment in which spectators – Goethe, take a bow – are somehow participants. Spectacles include parades, protest marches, pilgrimages, mass baptisms, half-time displays, Rio carnivals, Spanish tomato-throwing, Pamplona bull-running and an exuberant Indian festival in which people spray themselves in colourful powdered dyes (above). Few are spontaneous, all need careful choreographing and many are profitable.
Spectacle includes interviews with promoters, organisers and enthusiasts, such as the Las Vegas developer and art collector Steve Wynn and the Las Vegas art critic Dave Hickey. It takes note of sceptics such as the late Guy Debord, who, in The Society of Spectacle, lamented an ‘epoch without festivals’ in which we become tamed observers of our own enjoyment. But generally the message in Spectacle is upbeat and sunny: ‘Join the fun, watch the parade.’
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