In the courtyard of Edinburgh College of Art there sits a young oak tree, planted in October 2021. The oak commemorates the life and work of the activist and environmentalist, Joseph Beuys, and was planted 100 years after his birth. Beuys was also a central player in the landmark Strategy: Get Arts
. The 1970 exhibition, held at the college, is widely considered one of the key events in the history of the Edinburgh Festival.
The planting of the oak (alongside a piece of basalt from Salisbury Crags) was inspired by Beuys' 7,000 Oaks
(7,000 Eichen – Stadtverwaldung statt Stadtverwaltung
). The oak was planted by Richard Demarco, who brought Beuys to Scotland and played the leading organisational role in the 1970 exhibition. He considers it an exhibition which succeeded in changing the 'image of the Edinburgh Festival'. By drawing leading artists from Germany and other countries, it demonstrated that Edinburgh could be a major player in the world of the visual arts – and 'taken seriously all over the world'. Demarco wanted the oak to be a reminder to future generations of students that 'the greatest artists in the world' had been here and had made art in Scotland, inspired by its nature and light.
A loss of ambition
For the last two weeks, that courtyard and the college has been taken over as the location of the Book Festival. It's perhaps all too easy to compare the avant-garde Strategy: Get Arts
with the cosiness and commercialism of the contemporary Book Festival. Demarco feels that the Festival and Fringe should not be 'safe', putting on shows that were 'guaranteed to make money'.
Sadly, some of the visitors to the Book Festival have evidently knocked against the tree, damaging some of its fledgling branches. Many of the leaves look distinctly off colour; the oak is in danger of withering and waning. Beuys' fascination with the oak was a reflection of his interest in 'the mystery of time passing', as they often live to be 300 years or more (in contrast, the block of basalt was 'about the beginning of time, it is about volcanic energy'). This sapling may well have a much shorter life than that. Demarco might well see this as a stark visual manifestation of failure –
of failure to maintain cultural ambition.
This disappointment is expressed in a new book, Demarco's Edinburgh
(Luath Press), in which he reflects on his long involvement with the Festival and Fringe. Co-written with the author and journalist, Roddy Martine, it looks at the many significant Festival and Fringe events Demarco has been an instigator of. The book was launched at a packed-out event at the Boardwalk Beach Club in Silverknowes. Speaking to a large throng of Demarco's friends, associates and collaborators, the event revealed a man who, at 93, is still burning with passion for culture.
Demarco began his typically rich and meandering narrative by focusing on what stood in front of him, through the windows of the cafe: the Firth of Forth. For Demarco, art and nature are inextricably linked –
as manifested in the work of two of his long-time collaborators, Joseph Beuys and Ian Hamilton Finlay. Demarco used the Forth as a visual metaphor for the flow of creativity and ideas across nations. It had brought tidal forces which had changed Edinburgh and his life.
In the tidal shifts, he also saw a constant reminder of the great threats, especially 'the perils of global warming' and, something he hoped never to see again, war in Europe. The war in Ukraine is, Demarco believes, 'a threat to the very idea of Europe'; the idea that the Festival is 'a glorious manifestation' of. After the horrors of war, it had brought people together 'through the universal language of art', not the 'divisive' language of politics. This division was most clearly manifested in the 'heinous, disgusting thing' –
the Iron Curtain –
which divided Europe for decades.
Art is, Demarco believes, the language with which you can communicate with anyone. As he put it, 'every child I taught [at Duns Scotus Academy in Corstorphine] could use the language of art'. He urged everyone to embrace creativity and not be 'numpties' or 'cultural tourists' who didn't really engage.
Scotland and Europe
In emphasising the European connections, Demarco reaffirmed his deep scepticism about a focus on specifically Scottish art. He poked fun at the idea of Scottish art as inherently superior. This parochialism was a dead end which overlooked Scotland's true identity. Scotland had been the northern frontier of the Roman Empire and it had been deeply connected to continental Europe ever since. The neo-classical architecture that abounded in Scottish cities was a manifestation of this.
Demarco feels profoundly European and hence finds Brexit and the thinking behind it deplorable. This is all connected to Demarco's sense of being an outsider, due to his Italian heritage and further emphasised by his Roman Catholic schooling. Being treated as an outsider has shaped him.
In reflecting on his early years, he compared Martine's school, the Edinburgh Academy, with his own –
Holy Cross Academy. While the academy was clearly the top school at that time, Holy Cross was seen as a slightly 'dodgy place', in what was then a highly presbyterian city. It was as a 17-year-old Holy Cross pupil that he experienced his/the first Festival. Looking back on those early days, he described the Edinburgh of the late 1940s as a rather narrow-minded and 'sad place'.
It was only the 'miracle' of the Edinburgh Festival that brought it out of the doldrums. Demarco was therefore overcome with a feeling of gloom and despondency every autumn when 'the circus' left town. Edinburgh returned to being a 'dreich and grey place', shorn of the 'spirit of internationalism'. It was a 'horror' as Demarco put it at the oak planting ceremony.
A cri de coeur
In describing the glories of the Festival and Fringe, Demarco tends to use the past tense. He admitted that Demarco's Edinburgh could be seen as a cri de coeur
for the Festival. He sees the contemporary Festival as a pale imitation, and bemoaned the relegation of the visual arts within it. Instead, stand-up comedy had become the dominant aspect of the Fringe. Demarco sees this as tied up with the Fringe's transition from a culturally ambitious event to 'a money making machine'.
He feels that the Festival still 'hasn't yet taken root' in the city, as Edinburgh has remained fundamentally 'resistant to culture' and its claims to be a capital of culture were rather unconvincing. Glasgow, for instance, has a greater claim to be a cultural city, in Demarco's view. Edinburgh 'hadn't really deserved' the Festival in the first place and then only managed to do so as the most obvious candidates (Salzburg, Vienna, Berlin) were not viable at that time –
for obvious reasons.
Demarco ended on a particularly powerful note, reemphasising what lay behind his internationalism. He related that Rico
, the recent film on his life (by Marco Federici) was so titled as this was the name he was referred to at home as a child. However, since his childhood he had to camouflage this 'shameful name' and instead go by Richard or Ricky. He reminded the audience that the recently departed singer Tony Bennett's real name was Anthony Dominick Benedetto. Italians in the UK and the States had suffered greatly during the Second World War.
Demarco brought his talk to an end by re-emphasising art's ability to connect rather than divide. He strongly recommended Vanya is Alive
by Natalia Lizorkina, which has been receiving its UK premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe. The play is presented by a group of artists currently in exile due to their anti-war stance. Demarco made clear that it is the Russian regime we should oppose, not Russians. Russia has long been a culturally vital place. It reminded him that 'art is a matter of life and death' and also that there were fragments of quality still being presented in the Festival and Fringe.
Demarco's hope is that performances such as Vanya is Alive
can inspire a better Festival; one truly worthy of the original mission. He will hope that as the autumn approaches, the Beuys oak sapling will fully revive and continue to stand there representing 'the one language that endures' –
the language of the visual arts.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher who writes on culture, education and politics