The art of enlightenment

There is too little art in our lives. So it was wonderful to see the great fasaria this week after a far-right populist in full vote-grabbing, outrage-inspiring mode sailed into Parliament demanding to know which sick minds were responsible for the display of a painting that showed a phallus and a crucifix with what appeared to be semen dripping from the latter. In the ensuing uproar (which drew in the Church as well as the main opposition party, New Democracy) it was the painting by Belgian artist Thierry de Cordier that was removed from polite company and not Giorgos Karadzaferis, leader of Greece’s Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS). The following day – Thursday – a woman wearing a large crucifix ripped off the exhibition’s wall a large color photograph of a Greek artist, naked and in surroundings as beautiful as Eden, in intimate relations with a watermelon. The woman was caught and police gave her a warning before sending her on her way. Her way was back to the exhibition, where this time she tried to tear down a work by an American painter, Raymond Pettibon, which was nothing other than a sketch of the torso of Hermes, the Classical-era marble masterpiece by Praxiteles which is the pride of Olympia’s museum. This time the guards stopped the evangelical vandal before she could martyr another work. This was heady stuff. The chat was suddenly among the pigeons of the chattering classes. Suddenly the 55 life sentences and 110 centuries’ worth of time in prison demanded by the prosecutor for 15 people convicted of involvement in the November 17 terrorist gang was almost forgotten. It was as if life – messy life, life with half-baked thoughts and adolescent fantasies, life with the fear of loneliness and death, with feckless politicians and messianic maidens – was reclaiming our attention from the self-important merchants of death in the Korydallos Prison courtroom, from this band of exhibitionists with guns. The art exhibition in question is called Outlook. In translation it turned into Outrage. There was outrage from the Church, which called de Cordier’s painting «an insult to our morals, customs and our religion.» There was outrage from Karadzaferis, who noted darkly that the penis in de Cordier’s dark painting was circumcised, adding injury to the assault against the Christian symbol. The main opposition party too felt that it could not stand aside. Its spokesman denounced the painting as «vulgar» and declared with a smirk that the organizers of the state-funded exhibition had made «spectacles» of themselves. He was unaware of the irony of his statement. Because art has a singular way of sucking in everyone who gets involved in it. What happened at Outlook this week was, literally, a «happening.» The seed dripped off de Cordier’s painting and fell on the mental manure of Karadzaferis’s professional outrage. This, in turn, forced the Church and New Democracy to jump in and show their own credentials as upholders of the faith and the traditions of the Hellenes. Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos, who is as good as the great sophists of old in arguing any cause, declared that organizers had taken down the painting so as not to detract from «the substance of the exhibition which is the public’s contact with contemporary currents, without provocation.» This time the grand sophist was off the mark: Taking down the painting was part of the «provocation» and part of «contemporary currents.» And the «public» was just beginning to warm up for its own participation. Aside from the storm in the news media and among politicians, at least one citizen got in on the act. And this was enough for the rest of us to learn more about the major international exhibition on gritty Pireos Street, at the Athens School of Fine Art, New Benaki Museum and Technopolis. It opened about eight weeks ago and was inaugurated by President Costis Stephanopolos as part of the government’s ambitious Cultural Olympiad, aimed at showing the depth of Greece’s «Olympic Spirit» beyond sports. But after its opening and a brief flurry of interest by the mainstream media, the exhibition finally found itself on the front pages of newspapers, in opinion and commentary pages, and on breathless television bulletins. Art was suddenly important. But the uproar had very little to do with art and much to do with the cross that its protagonists either bear or wield against each other. The debate became one of whether Greece was slipping back from the age of Enlightenment or whether it had ever experienced the Enlightenment at all, other than in the writing of a handful of authors in the early 19th century as the Greeks rose to fight for their independence (and the fighters in that war were a bawdy bunch if ever there was one, with the national bulge lurking proudly under the fustanella). Once again, Greece was split pretty much along the divisions in our national identity. We had the progressives proclaiming the inalienable right of the individual to express him- or herself in whichever way, against those who put the symbols of religion and ethnicity above all else. We saw the nationalistic, grasping mentality against the spirit of ecumenism, and their camp followers – the bigots and the tolerant, the absolutists and the relativists. We saw the sacred and the profane and the difficulty of knowing whether freedom was more sacred than faith. We saw the way faith is twisted for expediency. And we saw how often the extremist views expressed in the debate can prompt unsettled minds to break the bonds of the everyday. (And I’m not referring only to the artists.) It is both fitting and bizarre that Thursday’s vandal – who was carrying plastic bags with clothes in them, wore a large cross around her neck and was described by exhibition employees as «disturbed» – should target the works she did. Unlike de Cordier’s work, Thanassis Tsotsikas’s intercourse with a watermelon and the sketch of a naked Olympian god could hardly be described as blasphemous. The only thing that all three had in common was the male organ (and Hermes’ was depicted, as in the marble original, with this part already vandalized, perhaps the trophy of some zealous ancestor of the Pireos Street avenger). The controversy brought home our society’s complicated relationship with its sexuality and its symbols. The phallus used to be a most public sight in ancient Athens, with the sacred herms outside homes and in public places. These were square-edged marble columns topped by the head and shoulders of Hermes and, at about eye level, sprouting an erection which passers-by stroked for luck. At that time, the blasphemer was the one to destroy the penis and not the one who created it or displayed it. And the Greeks were never shy with their sexuality. So the puritanism provoked by some of the works at Outlook, unleashed by de Cordier’s painting, was a healthy reminder of the power of art (even ugly depictions of pubescent daydreams) to show where a society stands. It can strike like lightning and jolt every dark monster lurking in the deep sleep of our reason. And it can make us think, which is not always a bad thing.