Today, as everyone knows– or should know– is Mardi Gras. The krewes of New Orleans and the samba schools of Rio are now reaching complete exhaustion. The joys and public issues dredged up by the 2010 celebrations will quickly fade into memory tomorrow morning as the cleanup crews arrive to sweep up the confetti, trash, discarded clothing, and broken bottles– and the last of the revelers stagger home. New Orleans and Rio are the super-novas of carnival time, attracting jetsetters, rockstars and Hollywood idols every year.
Yet Carnival, in countless local forms and celebrations, is a cultural form that is found in almost every place where the celebration of sexuality, sensuality, and strong appetites triumph– at least briefly– over the strictures of an established church.
Carnival is that liminal time when the forbidden is permitted, when the passions are unleashed and social identities masked. Fitted neatly into the Christian calendar, it is a sort of more elaborately staged Halloween with parades, music, and revelry, allowing the people to blow off steam and vent their frustrations by breaking social conventions before (church) discipline is at least nominally imposed again.
The antagonism between order and chaos makes carnival time a calculated risk for those in power, lest events get out of control. That uncertain outcome was depicted with particular vividness by the Flemish master Pieter Breugel in his Fight Between Carnival and Lent in 1559.
Enter the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage which seeks to protect living traditions– like carnivals– through international recognition and oversight. Indeed the distinctive carnivals at Binche in Belgium, at Oruru in Bolivia, the Carnival of Barranquilla and the Carnaval de negros y blancos in San Juan de Pasto in Colombia, the bell ringers carnivals in the Katsav region in Croatia, and the Busó festivities at Mohács in Hungary. But these are just a few of the hundreds of carnivals in 52 countries recognized, promoted, and marketed for tourists through the European Federation of Carnival Cities (FECC).
Now here is the problem: Official heritage recognition and marketing brings attention and (the hope of) economic benefit from tourists, so once recognized, the carnivals– especially in their local variations– almost inevitably become fossilized. With the recognition that their “authenticity” is important, their organizers (if not all of their participants) tend to want to keep it “authentic,” which means highlighting the elements that the heritage authorities deem important and keeping the arriving tourists out of harm’s way.
And so it is, for example, in Barranquilla where the city fathers and business leaders are strong advocates of streamlining and creating a comfortable, welcoming show. An ominous editorial last week in El Heraldo warned that the event could even be “dangerous for foreign visitors” if some significant changes were not made.
On the other side of the spectrum there those who believe that the “heritage-ization” and official surveillance of the carnival experience has gone too far. Last week a group of Maltese “writers, artists, culture workers and academics” publicly protested the demand of the local police to be informed about which bands would participate in the Carnival of Nadur– and which songs those bands would perform.
“It is ironic,” the writers’ group declared, “that this intervention by the police should occur in the context of the Nadur Carnival, one of the few that maintains the vestiges of spontaneity and anarchy that are the essence of these festivities, which constitute an important part of an intangible cultural heritage that is fast disappearing.”
So these days the fight is often a battle not between Carnival and Lent, but between carefully, often meticulously performed carnival ritual for tourists and the kind of social abandon that the local population has come to expect. As in so many facets of today’s heritage world, “ownership” of tradition is seen as a zero-sum game. Yet it is only in the constant struggle between inherited traditions and raucous iconoclasm that carnivals remain dynamic and evolving– and preserve their magical liminality.