In February, a couple of friends went to Trinidad for the carnival. What makes for a great carnival? Living in west London, and having seen ours evolve from chaotic and lively to dully over-regulated, I’ve often wondered.
My conclusions: carnival is good when the number of participants isn’t grossly outweighed by the number of spectators, and when it’s easy for the “spectators” to join in (dancing and singing along). Carnival is good when the participants exhibit a range of skills from the absolutely minimal to the absolutely astonishing (the first being an invitation not to be intimidated—“Hey! I could do that!”—and the second an invitation to be amazed). Carnival is good when people of all ages, races, shapes, sizes, beauties and inclinations can get involved. Carnival is good when there’s too much to look at and everything’s mixed up and you have to sort it all out for yourself. Carnival is good when it dignifies and rewards all sorts of abilities—singing, jumping, laughing infectiously, writing the hit song of the carnival, wiggling your backside, standing on a soapbox praising Jesus or the local hardware store, frying salt fish over an oil drum in public, inventing symphonic arrangements for steel bands, building fabulously impossible things just for a day. Carnival is good when people try to outdo each other, and then applaud with delight those who in turn outdo them. Carnival is good when it gives people an alibi to experiment with being someone different. Carnival is good when it lets people present the best part of themselves, and be, for a little while, as they’d like to be all the time. Carnival is good when it gives people the feeling that they’re really lucky to be alive right now. Carnival is good when it leaves people feeling that life in all its manifestations is unbeatably lovely and touching and funny and worthwhile.
Now substitute “culture” for “carnival.” There’s a vision for the future of culture.