The circus is a cultural icon, close to people’s hearts

What's cultural about the circus?

The circus, which was invented in England in 1768 and has spread to almost every country in the world,  is one of the most popular forms of entertainment in existence –truly a ‘popular art-form’.

Unlike other art-forms, the Classic circus exists in most countries without public subsidy.  It’s there, as it always has been, because it pleases its audience and responds to their changing tastes, perennially renewing and refreshing itself.  

Circuses can be enormous and magnificent, with huge numbers of performers; or they can be very simple, performed by a couple of multi-skilled people.   Large or small, they’re all still circuses!  That flexibility of scale has helped many circus owners start up in business. A couple of people can start their own show, and can add to it a little at a time, often as the founders' family expands and children become performers.  Great companies have grown from small beginnings; most frequently, the basis of a show is a single family. 

That 'tightness' of organisation is also one of the factors that carries the circus to every corner of the world, from outlying Scottish islands to the globe’s largest cities.  A tented circus can set up almost anywhere, so communities that have no other venue for entertainment can experience the thrill of a live show in the magical circle of the circus ring.

 Even in big cities, the circus is for many people their only experience of live performance.   Not everyone would feel comfortable going to a theatre, but the informal atmosphere of the circus attracts audiences from all backgrounds.  The circus transcends cultures .  There are no language barriers as it’s mostly physical action.  The show is suitable for all ages, both sexes, and for people from all belief-systems and all walks of life. 

By its nature, the circus achieves what other art-forms fight to do – it attracts ‘new audiences’, not just small children coming with their families to see a show but also young adults who might otherwise be interested only in mechanical media but who often delight in ‘thrill’ presentations. And tickets are affordable, too, making a trip to the circus accessible to most.

The importance of the circus arts is recognised by many governmental bodies. Arts Council England supports all forms, and funds Contemporary circus work.  In France and in Italy, circuses are actively recognised by those countries’ Cultural Ministries, and Charters exist under which Classic circuses must by law be granted use of sites in every town.  State-sponsored circus schools train new artistes. In Hungary, the State Circus is given higher official artistic status than every other art-form except the ballet.

Circus was nationalised in Russia in 1919 following the Revolution, and the new Soviet Union was quick to recognise that, unlike other arts, the circus had no bourgeois associations, and was truly for everyone - ideal for the country’s egalitarian ideology,  hence the organisation famed in the west as the Moscow State Circus. The State College for Circus and Variety Arts was founded in 1929. 

Initiated by the European Circus Association, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in 2005 stating that “it would be desirable for it to be recognized that the classical circus, including the presentation of animals, forms part of Europe’s culture.” 

The circus is a cultural icon, close to people’s hearts.