The enormous cuckoo

« Nous voulions que ce soit la fête de toutes les musiques et faire en sorte que le public soit le créateur de son propre événement »

(We wanted it to be the festival of all musics and enable the audience to be the creator of its own event.)

Jack Lang, remembering the creation of La Fête de la Musique in Le Monde, 21 June 2022

Today is the 40th birthday of La Fête de la Musique. The idea was dreamed up in 1982 by Jack Lang, influential Minister of Culture in François Mitterrand’s first government. It was a moment of idealism—the first Socialist administration of the Fifth Republic, achieving power with more than two decades of pent-up energy, and in the wake of the 1968 cultural revolution to which France was still adjusting. From those events had come new ideas of cultural rights, crystallised in the concept of cultural democracy, which had been a focus of policy debate in the 1970s. Jack Lang’s tenure as Minister of Culture represents one of the first serious attempts to implement cultural democracy as national policy, albeit in a context where conservative ideas of cultural value remained (and remain still) extremely powerful.

Lang’s fête, as he told Le Monde, enacted two key elements of cultural democracy—diversity (‘all musics’) and empowerment (‘the audience [as] the creators of their own event’). The minister had been impressed by data showing how many French people played and sang in non-professional ways for the joy of music, so the idea was simply to encourage them to do so in public—in streets, squares and gardens, freely and without official organisation. Public institutions were encouraged to take part alongside commercial promoters in an egalitarian celebration of popular creativity on the first day of summer.

It has been a huge success, at least if judged by the extent of participation (audiences are estimated at 10 million in France) and of imitation (40 countries had adopted the idea by 1986, and 120 today). But, as I wrote in A Restless Art, cultural democracy emerged at the same time as neoliberalism, its antithesis in so many ways. Where the first pursues empowerment as a route to emancipation, democracy and social justice, the latter uses a simulacrum of empowerment to ensnare people into an exploitative economic model that sees emancipation as a threat to its self-interested profit distribution. The past 40 years have seen both ideas locked in unequal struggle, with the second happy to use popular aspects of the first—choice, participation, co-creation—to achieve its own, very different goals. That confusion of means, ends and values helps explain the incoherence and division of today’s democratic political landscape.

Today the 40th Fête de la Musique will be celebrated with enthusiasm, after two years when the pandemic all but prevented it from happening, with people of all cultures and abilities sharing their love of music. I’ll be home in time to enjoy the moment in my rural community, where accordion and vielle (hurdy-gurdy) will reel their characteristic airs in the cafés and streets. Elsewhere, commercial media companies, music industry promoters and global stars will use the moment to protect market share and sell product for their multinational sponsors. That’s our paradoxical time: Jack Lang’s hope of cultural democracy has to make room for an enormous cuckoo.

One comment

  1. I will never forget that first Fete de la Musique… we were having diner outdoors in Paris with some friends and at a table next to us a family of 5 kids + parents. They enjoyed their meal, then got up, opened the boot of their car parked just there, pulled out violins and viola, sat back on their chairs and gave us a wonderful half an hour of classical music… not only was it enchanting, the whole idea was totally exhilarating, somehow that this was not only permitted but encouraged! We then proceeded to spend the whole night walking and dancing in the streets. I’ve kept a few images of that night…. of a concierge opening her rez-de-chaussee window, pulling out an old record player and serenading her street, of a bunch of kids singing with their teacher in a park, mostly its a blurred souvenir save for everyone’s good cheer, the freedom of it all, how easy it was to be happy if you will… The years that followed, more organised, more ‘professional’ never quite had the same vitality…
    thanks for bringing back that memory.

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