During the reopening of the National Gallery last Wednesday, the prime minister poignantly said: “The National Gallery has never been a simple depository for artistic creations. On the contrary, it has been a living organism that has also been part of the country’s progress.”
But he was also making a comment. The building had been closed, for renovation works, for almost a decade. Progress is not a straight line, it regresses, faces obstacles both legitimate and illicit, difficulties whether obvious or imaginary. And, of course, indifference. Cultural projects are often brought up and promised but are never a priority in action. In the span of those 10 years, we had eight culture ministers, admittedly some only lasted a few months, but the gallery remained a problematic worksite in the center of Athens.
“We have created a road map and are monitoring the situation […] There is no clear indication when the renovation works will be complete,” one minister said about the National Gallery. The minister’s gender and political party are inconsequential; it is an answer that could be heard at any time and about – let’s face it – anything.
Over the last year, however, with the bicentenary celebrations looming large, efforts were coordinated, hurried, successful. Progress was achieved.
From the symbolism of guiding foreign dignitaries across rooms filled with art of a wider European civilization, references by the prime minister to the “wealth of Greece,” the connection with history and the journey Greece has shared with friends and allies, to Greece itself that is taking its first steps in the third decade of the 21st century with an “invaluable gift,” everything coalesced to reinforce a Greek brand name through modern art.
Cultural diplomacy is something that doesn’t just exist in theory. Its soft power and its long-term penetrating influence, its undeniable value, the unforced unity it promotes, are aspects of cultural diplomacy that can only be beneficial for Greece. Especially in periods that are so unsettled and unpredictable that the narration of events through art can contribute to a better understanding of human passions and mistakes, even if this understanding is lacking or looks ineffective.
We are used to considering art a mere bauble. It is however a weapon that works silently and effectively. It is rendered impotent not just by indifference, but also by ignorance.