Letter from Thessaloniki

Pleading the «cause of civilization» and striving to give a major boost to the nation’s tourist appeal, Greece’s Cultural Olympiad is «a bet that has been lost,» as an admirable article in the weekly Ependytis remarked on Saturday. Organized by the Ministry of Culture, our Cultural Olympiad was thanked by nobody for its wasteful approach to the treasury. And it’s not just a question of the lost money. It was that once again Greek culture has been presented abroad as shallow, tacky and populist – think of «The Labors of Hercules» in Moscow (when 6,000 openly bored Muscovites out of the original 8,000 spectators walked out of the 12,000-seat Olimpiski Stadium), or the exorbitantly costly musical, «Mythodia,» by Vangelis (Papathanassiou) put on in Athens, or the dancers of the American Ballet Theater clad in ancient Greek tunics that caused the viewer’s brow to contract. And that is to name just a few cases. Admittedly, the Moscow show was created by Russian artists. Our Cultural Olympiad contributed a mere 740,000 euros to the spectacle. «Of course, our own aesthetic values are different,» Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos, a disciple of semiotics or the «science» of signs, declared apologetically. Governments sometime blame public taste for what is called the dumbing-down of Greek culture, but we have a government-led education service, and a government-led arts system. The only thing that the Greek public can be blamed for is electing the government, which is a symptom of cultural health (or vice versa) in itself. With a Cultural Olympiad budget of more than 145 million euros and with a chain of embarrassing and costly flops in Greece and abroad, cultural lobbyists close to the ministry seemed – at least until yesterday – to presume that financial support would rise exponentially and indefinitely, whatever government is in power. Well, it should not be so. It is a certain thing that a different government in Athens will in all probability galvanize innovative Greek artists to go after commercial sponsorship and other fund raising. For there is hardly any money left. To hazard a guess, which would, however, be in line with declarations about political and cultural matters during these last pre-electoral weeks, government subsidies will be used as a challenge for an increase in turnover. Well, we shall see how things will turn out. For arts reform is political, not economic. Up to now, every time there has been a change of regime in Greece – or even a change of a mere minister of culture – believe it or not, people involved in state-financed arts in some odd cultural position – director of a state theater or an orchestra, say – have to make way for someone of a different stripe or shade. It is almost a local rule that aging «green,» «blue» or even «red» apparatchiks get to hold in their withering hands the fate of Greek art after each election. Which reminds me of «The Little Golden Calf» – a satire in prose written in the 1920s by the Russians Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov. The book contains the story of a coarse partisan whom the party rewarded with the lucrative position of the director of an old people’s home following the establishment of Soviet power. However, as he was not friendly to the aged, worried party authorities had to transfer him to another job: They appointed him director of… an orchestra. Absurdly funny, you think? Not at all if one considers Greek practices. Take, for instance, the previous Greek government, which appointed a culture-loving, retired bank official, close to the PASOK of the time, to the helm of «Thessaloniki Cultural Capital 1997,» and to the Cultural Olympiad 2004, a lady known mainly for her longtime connection with Melina Mercouri and for nothing else. Noticeably, aesthetic values fluctuate depending on who is trying to dominate culture during the period of Olympic euphoria. In a society where winners and losers occupy the same sinking boat, it is certainly too late to save the Cultural Olympiad from shipwreck. Yet we now know that government commitment is required for an expanding arts industry. Getting such commitment from our next Greek government requires good arts politics, not bad arts economics. In a commentary made in the 1970s (from a collection of essays «The Mirror and the Knife,» Ikaros Publishers), when New Democracy – under the uncle Constantine Karamanlis – was the undisputed and unchallenged government party, Oscar-winning composer Manos Hadjidakis, a self-declared ND party follower and a close friend of the prime minister wrote: «Everything that is considered an ‘evil emanating from the government,’ we (New Democracy followers) have committed as well… The only difference is that we have daubed it with blue-and-white nationalism while they have smothered it with a greenish populist socialism. We did it ‘for the nation.’ They did it ‘in the name of the people’. Is there any difference?…» Hardly. The analogy works amusingly on all levels and for all Greek governments. To strike an albeit faintly optimistic note, in that same commentary, the enlightened creator also noted: «Me, personally, I do criticize from the inside.» Not that we have lacked for harsh critics during those last weeks. But for critics to criticize, they must have standards. And Manos Hadjidakis did.

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