Letter from Bucharest

«Of course, our own aesthetic values are different,» Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos rather arrogantly declared two days ago, after more than 6,000 openly bored Muscovites out of the original 8,000 spectators walked out of the 12,000-seat Olimpiski Stadium in Moscow, during a three-hour show titled «The Labors of Hercules.» «Clearly, by Russian standards, the results were very positive,» Mr Venizelos added apologetically, referring to a spectacle (740,000 euros) financed by Greece’s Cultural Olympiad. Noticeably, aesthetic values fluctuate depending on who is trying to dominate culture during the period of Olympic euphoria. Once again, Greek culture – in the form of «The Labors of Hercules» – has been presented abroad as shallow, tacky and populist. And this was not just due to the lack of public funding. It was – partly – due to the way in which public funding has been given to such art forms as this variety production, which included a caged lion and a deer, as was reported. «Governments sometime blame public taste for what is called the dumbing-down of British culture, but we have a government-led education service, a government-led arts system and a government-led broadcasting system. The only thing that the British public can be blamed for is electing the government, which is a symptom of cultural health (or vice versa) in itself,» John Elsom, honorary president of the International Association of Theater Critics, remarked last week in Bucharest. We could change here «British» to «Greek.» What sounded almost unthinkable for us Greeks was the fact that on the occasion of the conclusion of the World Congress of IATC, last Wednesday night, Mr John Elsom was made a Romanian knight. In fact, the Romanian minister of culture (plus religious affairs) handed him the distinction in the name of Romanian President Ion Iliescu. Furthermore, the Romanian president himself went to the trouble of commenting in a message: «I regret so much that state reasons kept me far from the country,» and tendered his excuses for not seeing any of the performances, since «in my young days, I was, and have remained, a great theater lover and I do not think that I have ever missed one of the important events of our theatrical life.» Now, how many (and how often?) Greek politicians have been spotted in any of the numerous Greek theaters, bar rare exceptions such as ex-MP Alexandros Lykourezos or current MP Nikitas Kaklamanis? (though President Costis Stephanopoulos is a regular attendee). «In our country at least, it would be unthinkable that the Spanish king would ever take pains to decorate someone on a similar occasion,» said the delegate from Spain. So we, the Greeks, are not alone after all. For a country – one of the most Europhile candidates – that is not doing exceptionally well economically (though it has expressed admirable determination to reform), it was stimulating to hear such presidential words as «the dynamism of arts and culture continue to remain our most powerful currency, and our best saleable product on the international market.» Excluded from the first round of EU enlargement, and hoping now for 2007, Romania has been making positive steps politically, economically and socially. Artwise, it undoubtedly possesses an exceptional theater. Romanian producers and directors (despite financial insecurity) now find themselves in a strong position: They can explore new ideas while retaining the ideal of direct and powerful communication. At the forefront of «aesthetic values,» post-communist art has brought about a lively accessibility in Romania – and also a desire to be, as soon as possible, «like the West, where we have always belonged.»