Letter from Thessaloniki

Deputy Culture Minister Petros Tatoulis, a 52-year-old politician from Arcadia (meaning the actual province Arcadia, and not the idyllic region imagined by 19th century European intellectuals) proclaimed on October 24, in an article in Kathimerini, that Greece’s arts lobby should seek an American-style arts policy, instead of pleading for a bigger subsidy from his ministry. On October 30, highly, and internationally, esteemed film director Nikos Koundouros, 78, an artist generously funded by the state in the past and a celebrity who knows how to grow old gloriously, spurned the deputy minister of culture by addressing a letter to his boss: to Minister of Culture and Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis. Therein he accused Petros Tatoulis of «inadmissible arrogance and ignorance of the cultural history of this country,» and pleaded for the continuation of government subsidies. This letter also appeared in Kathimerini. By and large, the acknowledged truth is that the government actually has less money than before. Not only the Olympics are to blame. But that is another sad story deriving from the cultural politics practiced during the last two decades. Furthermore, Greece has solemnly vowed to guarantee that next year’s budget deficit meets European Union limits. How is this going to be accomplished? Obviously, it will be done by curbing public spending. Although Finance Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis said he was confident that the government would see that Greece’s budget deficit would surely fall next year to 2.8 percent, the EU has estimated that it could not possibly drop under 3.6 percent. Is art money or vice versa? Gone are the days when artistic discussions were mostly about aesthetics; about how art ennobles and enriches people; when there were prolific debates to establish which came first: the absolutely relative or the relatively absolute nature of beauty. Now, when we have to create a civilization as opposed to a way of life, arts are mainly considered as an excellent «investment.» And there are those who insist that economics as well as cultural survival dictate that they should get what they need. Presently in Greece, it’s an open secret that when cultural institutions – such as theaters, orchestras, and museums, pleading the «cause of civilization» and their role in «teaching people eternal truths about living a better life» – have recently asked for funds to meet their «essential needs,» they were sent off with a flea in their ear. One could speak of a cultural standstill in real terms. There may be some voices insisting that art is a major contributor to the nation’s tourist appeal, but who cares about them? With heroic continence, such tongues articulate how art accounts for such a great number of «creative jobs» and all kinds of business, from travel and tourism to galleries, restaurants and hotels – voices that seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. «It is about time to put a definite end to state-subsidized culture,» Deputy Culture Minister Petros Tatoulis insisted in his article two weeks ago. His obvious retort must have been: If the investment for tourism is so good as you imply, go talk to a bank, not the state treasury. «It is the citizen himself who has to decide which artist is in a position to flourish and make a name for himself, and not some public servant,» he added; and how true. Perhaps it was such aphorisms about investment, dividends and profits in art that must have stuck in the throat of a star personality in arts such as Nikos Koundouros, who promptly countered: «In all European countries, without exception, culture is subsidized with public funds.» Well, not exactly. Britain’s Arts Council, a body that subsidizes the bulk of the live arts in Britain, gets decidedly less than a decade ago. So does the Goethe Institut in Germany. There are also some other European countries who are trying to galvanize innovative artists to go after commercial sponsorship and other fund-raising. So, why not us? It is probably because our artists and art commissars still have the bad habit of depending largely on subsidies, which is still heavily laden with bureaucratic controls. In yesterday’s Kathimerini, cultural columnist Vassilis Angelikopoulos once more touched on the subject: They (meaning Costas Karamanlis and Petros Tatoulis) must finally make it clear: Are they going to grant the money for culture or not? «They should cease this kind of foreplay….» he wrote accusingly. Well, he was exaggerating of course, because Petros Tatoulis, in this time of financial emergency, has the good cause on his side. Salvation lies not in pointing enviously to the bloated opera houses, national theaters and grand museums of Europe’s old city states, but in encouraging creative management and audience-directed marketing in state-funded cultural institutions in Athens and Thessaloniki. After all, the less arts are reliant on the state, the better. If anything, Deputy Minister Tatoulis is the one who will be remembered for establishing a government subsidy program that should be used as a challenge to increase turnover and to seek out support for Greece worldwide. The Hellenic Culture Organization, an institution for promoting Greek culture abroad – an organization that seems to have ensured a government commitment to an expanding arts industry – is already working on a project to increase incentives for individuals. We’ll see if anything comes out of it. Because what is badly needed is good arts politics, such as a tax incentive structure similar to that operating in America, and not bad arts economics.