‘Glastonbury is a work of art. It is a masterpiece’

The Guardian’s art critic goes to Glastonbury for the first time since 1984 and finds Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights has come to life. Did the festival free his mind – or make him lose it?

It was the night the music died. I was 19 and had come to the Glastonbury festival with my girlfriend. We were looking forward to 1984’s headline act the Smiths. But then it rained. Quite a lot.

The sky was thunderous, the lanes turned to rivers of mud. We hiked miles into the campsite, in a wall of leaden rain, past ranks of drug dealers. It was like fleeing Saigon. Then it got worse. I had claimed that I knew all about camping. I did not. We struggled in the merciless rain, in mounting darkness, to assemble our tent. The poles wouldn’t stay up and the ropes and pegs just baffled us. We ended up huddled in the mud under a flapping bit of filthy nylon.

Next morning we fled, and never saw the Smiths (“a legendary year”, music critics tell me). Running away from Glastonbury was the start of my gradual alienation from pop culture. Maybe it even helped to turn me into an art critic who prefers Klee to Kanye. Subsequent milestones in rock disillusion included the time I visited Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris and felt depressed by the fans’ “tributes”, while all the other poets and heroes buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery appeared forgotten. Even that was not The End, as Jim would say. No – the last stab of betrayal and nausea at the bloated carcass of rock’n’roll was seeing U2 play at Wembley and noticing how much of the venue was given over to corporate entertainment. I told myself I had more important things to do in my life than rock’n’roll.

The Smiths on stage at Glastonbury in 1984
The Smiths on stage at Glastonbury in 1984. Photograph: Paul Slattery/Retna UK

This year, though, I agreed to step back in time, rewrite my past, reverse my disillusion – and head back to Glastonbury. When the Tor’s breastlike mound and phallic tower appeared on the horizon through the bus window, my heart stopped. There was not a hint of rain. The sun filled the sky with sapphires and the fields with emeralds. How often do you get a second chance at your youth? Would I somehow be able to regain Glastonbury lost, and become the raver I failed to be at 19?

I strode on to the Glastonbury site in the golden afternoon, found a spot with a view of the Tor and put up my tent in 10 minutes flat. Ha ha, Glasto! This time I’d got a pop-up tent. I then sat down for some quick preparatory reading from a book about Hieronymus Bosch’s lurid late medieval masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights. This great painting is a vision of three possible worlds. One is the Garden of Eden, a landscape of natural bliss. Another is Hell, a landscape of torment. But the hardest place to understand is the scene of utopian joy and carnival that fills the central and largest panel, where people feast on giant strawberries, prance naked, crawl through glass tubes, ride wild animals and generally cavort. This is the terrestial paradise, or Garden of Earthly Delights. But are these people freeing their minds or losing them?

It seemed a suitable picture to ponder. I had a vague idea the festival might prove a Garden of Earthly Delights. (“Have you been to the giant strawberry field yet? It’s just past Arcadia, up the hill … Everyone’s really getting mashed on huge strawberries …”) I was soon to find out how right my hunch was that Bosch predicted Glastonbury.

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Heironymus Bosch
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

By sunset – a glowing, nearly cloudless sunset – that first evening I was in a sweating, swaying, swarming crowd at Glastonbury’s Unfairground, loomed over by giant, grotesque dolls with evil baby faces. Its attractions included Bez’s Acid House – yes, that Bez – among a parodic, over-the-top variety of fairground Americana. You could try the test-your-strength machine or shoot at sea monsters for prizes. What looked like a hall of mirrors turned out to be a shaking, surrealistic dance tent where metallic-faced, male go-go dancers robotically got the crowd going. Soon my body started jerking about in an unexpected and unfamilar way. Shit, I was dancing.

It was like being inside a big and seriously strange work of art. The Unfairground is, in fact, the creation of the Mutoid Waste Company, a “legendary scrap-pile art and party collective”. Well, I found it legendary. There is something agreeably demonic about their sprawling, energised, living art installation. All it lacks is a freak show – or were we the freaks? Pushing into the enthusiastic crowd in the tiny tent holding Wango Riley’s Travelling Stage, I caught the end of a set by a thrashingly loud and coruscatingly funny band called the Men That Will Not be Blamed for Nothing. Steampunk is an overused word, a cultural cliche, but it seems the best way to describe a band who get the audience to sing along to a song about the Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

What larks. Mock Americana blending with Victorian rock schlock under the greenest of trees in the light of the silvery moon. Glastonbury, I found to my delight, is not just about huge global stars playing to thousands on the Pyramid stage. The vast site, spreading over hill and through dale, is a midsummer night’s dream of unexpected entertainments. Through the Unfairground I reached Shangri-La, the most sought-after of these – in fact, the whole of Glastonbury seems to pass through its cubist bar, boisterous dance tents and thematic decorations. This year’s theme is Revolution. Yeah, right. That seemed to mean designer graffiti in its labyrinth of discos, and people round its live stage waving placards. One demanded: “More oxygen for everyone.” I am not entirely sure that was a joke.

The Unfairground at Glastonbury
The Unfairground at Glastonbury. Photograph: Andy Hall

The Green Fields are full of people who hope to change the world with laughter therapy, radical midwifery, whittling, ironmongery, “Ogham stones”, yoga and plant-growing. “Growing your own food is the most radical of acts,” insists the Nutshell Garden. But surely the 1970s sitcom The Good Life had already tried that road to revolution. I think the people fighting the carbon culture by launching candle-powered steamboats (that will show the steamboat industry!) have a better chance.

Glastonbury is full of the urge to do good. This is not hypocrisy. As Rob Young recounts in his book Electric Eden, that idealism goes back to the very first Glastonbury Fair in 1971, which attempted through music, community and well-being to activate the hidden ley-line energies of the Glastonbury landscape, with its legends of King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea. The Pyramid stage created for that original Fair was meant to channel Earth energies through its sacred pyramid form. So Glastonbury without hippies would not be itself.

Greenpeace, too, has a hefty presence – including a massive ship – and ecological consciousness is constantly urged on revellers, with messages on the big stage screens before bands go on. As I write this, I have just received a tweet from the festival urging me not to wee on the grass because it pollutes the river. But could it not be argued that the greenest thing to do would be not to cover this lovely landscape with the world’s greatest rock festival to begin with? And if you want people to piss responsibily, why not give them proper toilets instead of reeking, rancid, horrific booths that, if the festival went on for more than a few days, would add another bit of steampunk in the form of a cholera outbreak?

Brittany Howard, the lead singer of Alabama Shakes
Brittany Howard, the lead singer of Alabama Shakes. Photograph: Hannah McKay/EPA

There are proper loos in the restricted hospitality areas, of course. Nice if you have access, which I did. But I don’t have any objection to this astonishing festival accepting some sponsorship and schmoozing some people, such as me. After all, you need a bit of help from your friends if you are going to create a Garden of Earthly Delights.

That is what this place is. It is not the spiritual power centre of the new Avalon and it is not likely, as people thought it could when it was invented, to overturn the social order with guitar solos, let alone drum’n’bass. No. This a space of pure hedonism. I have never seen so many people getting mashed up, rammed or having such a jolly good time. I am a morose critic, but I was dancing through the night, high on the sheer commitment to pleasure that is Glastonbury’s true raison d’être. With its glowing fairground tower topped by an Arabian Nights viewing platform in the area known as the Park, a giant robot spider pumping out dance music in Arcadia, its fairy glades and New York nightclub where they give you a moustache, its stone circle and, most of all, these masses of people pursuing oblivion, Glastonbury resembles The Garden of Earthly Delights visually as well as in its sheer monstrous abundance.

That first night was bliss, and so was the weather. I set out from my tent the next morning without a coat. What could possibly go wrong? Already my feet were covered in blisters because I’d left my home with no footwear but wellies. I tried to ignore this first sign of my Glastonbury curse, or idiocy – was I to prove, just like the first time round, too soft for the hard work of festival pleasure?

Block9 at Glastonbury
Dancing at Block9. Photograph: David Levene/Guardian

That afternoon, the Alabama Shakes were laying down some stirring, soulful rock from the Pyramid stage. “And yes, we really are from Alabama,” explained their wondrous leader, Brittany Howard. Then it started to rain. Just a shower, but a Somerset summer shower comes down in oceanic quantities, driven in your face by the wind. I was soon soaked and freezing, my T-shirt sticking to me. It was like being embraced by a dead fish. Out of all the people in the huge crowd, why was I alone stupid enough to have no rain gear?

A hike to the tent to get my coat, and I was back watching Mary J Blige, just in time for the next mighty downpour. The ground was now a squelching, slippery mess of mud and discarded beer cans (pleas to use the recycling bins having hit deaf ears). Next act was Motörhead. Just as the veteran heavy metal noisemakers took the stage, the rain stopped. By the time guitarist Phil Campbell was halfway through a beguilingly corny solo, the sun suddenly broke out behind the band, illuminating the Pyramid with the kind of sublime natural display that seemed to fulfil the festival’s mystical roots. So what does that mean? That God loves metal? That the devil has not just the loudest music but the best weather?

The sheer aggression and elan of Motörhead seemed the kind of music festivals were invented for. Massive drum solos, walls of feedback, soaring electric volume and Lemmy standing there impassively in shades, telling the world: “We’re Motörhead. We play rock and fuckin’ roll.” Great. Loud and to the point. But the damping seemed to have put a chill in the air. It set into my spirits, too. How much more enjoyment could I take?

An owl tries to eat a sandwich at Glastonbury
An owl tries to eat a sandwich. Photograph: Andy Hall/Guardian

I got lost looking for the Park stage and missed almost all of Sharon van Etten’s performance. What I did hear was visceral and lingering. Van Etten’s words have a Patti Smith-like vitality. It was a shame to miss her just because the site was so huge, and my feet were hurting, and it was like a war walking through the mud. It is not that it rains unusually frequently at Glasto. It is just that all those feet on what is, in reality, a farm produce epic mud very quickly. It is a kind of gourmet mud, with many rich varieties of texture and viscosity. Just like the stuff you try not to look at in the toilets.

Fun – it’s such hard work. There are so many dancefloors, pounding through the night, so many bars and burger joints. What about a library and a museum in this tented city, just for a change of pace?

Glastonbury is awe-inspiring. It delighted me. And then I felt sick, as if I had eaten too many giant strawberries. From a hillside above the Park stage, I watched Jamie xx’s lasers and lights compete with the glowering, majestic twilight sky. Visually, the scale of Glastonbury as a spectacle truly rivals Bosch’s fantastic landscape. The crowd were dancing amid a city that would soon vanish; an artificial paradise where, for a few days, anything seems possible. Glastonbury is a work of art. It is a masterpiece. And, like Bosch’s masterpiece, it is a stupendous enigma.

Caravan of Lost Souls at Glastonbury
The Caravan of Lost Souls. Photograph: Gary Calton/Guardian

• This article was amended on 2 July 2015 to correct the name of the Men That Will Not be Blamed for Nothing.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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