Artist receives honorary doctorate

«The artist is always a moral figure. He offers his personal take on history in a metaphorical way. No one can dissociate the history of art from the history of society, in the same way that no one can dissociate black people’s funerals from the blues.» Jannis Kounellis is being repatriated – albeit temporarily. The 73-year-old artist received an honorary doctorate from the School of Fine Arts in Athens earlier this week. He accepted the distinction with joy and humility. At the packed School of Fine Arts’ Giorgio de Chirico Hall, students sat on the floor while Kounellis delivered his speech to the aspiring artists. During the ceremony, Niki Loizidi, chair of the school’s Art Theory department, talked about the artist’s career, while photographer and assistant School of Fine Arts professor Manolis Baboussis – and Kounellis’s close friend – painted a portrait of the artist through Kounellis’s own words. «Speaking out these days is pure suicide. Not speaking, on the other hand, is pure murder. We speak, therefore, entrusting our survival to luck. The great English poet Byron died in Mesolongi for Greece’s freedom and autonomy. We have a duty as far as this death is concerned. Why did he die? Times have changed, but we don’t exactly know how they have changed. The Greek language is still spoken in this country, the Parthenon still standing on the great rock. Ithaca hasn’t moved since Homer’s time and those born in Greece feel the need to lead their era. Yet where is the center which justifies the leader, in whose name do we maintain the veneer of reality’s history?» In his speech, Kounellis focused on the role of the «Great Idea of Hellenism.» «Greece gave me ideas, good-quality values and humanity. Mankind would be poorer without Greece, but perhaps not without other smaller countries, which are full of banks. My Greek might not be very good, but I know the country. Greeks are going though an identity crisis. Americanism rules, while popular culture has disappeared. I watched the December riots on television. Young people are right to demand. In order to make things, you have to reach a level of integrity. We have the language – it’s inside of us, sitting at our feet, we have a point of view, we have politics. Perhaps we have a future.» Kounellis refered to the notion of Ithaca: «Ithaca is hypothetical. Ithaca is greatness, and it always exists, just as Hellenism always exists. Ithaca is a matter of love,» he said. As for the artist’s personal vision, it was described by Baboussis, again through the artist’s own words: «I wish I were exiled in a tiny house in Tlemcen’s kasbah, with the white walls and blue and white floor tiles, like those of Matisse. In this extraordinary place, I would like to have an erotic encounter with one of ‘Les Mademoiselles d’Avignon,’ the African woman, the one on the right. To eat the fish in Rembrandt’s still life. To taste the grapes of Bacchus in Caravaggio. To go out fishing on Manet’s little boat. And to die honorably like Marat in David’s painting.»

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