WITH THE CRISIS, Greek assets in general have plummeted, and with them, so did the Greek art market. Auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s have lost their interest in Greek art (their Greek sales becoming rarer and rarer), while some collectors have been trying to sell off some of their Greek works. What does this exactly mean for Greek art? And what better way to kill off Greek creativity by not supporting it? But no, there are still some Greek artists that seem to function beyond the boundaries of the market, and are still creating, whether they are selling or not… because it was never easy for artists in Greece. Unless if you’re talking about ancient Greek artists.
It just goes to prove that at the end of the day, the art market is not just about good art but more about economic power. Because there’s plenty of good art here in Greece, as there is plenty of good feta, good wine, good olives, good jewellery (good weather too, good sea)… ‘Blasphemy!’ you might say, to put that highest-of-the-high of cultural products (Fine Art), next to the likes of feta… but in part, a product it is nevertheless. And that’s the sad bit, if you just see art as a product and as an asset. Because maybe more importantly, fine art is the highest form of cultural expression. And that’s what we should focus on. And that’s where Greek art has the ace up its sleeve…
Let me explain. Well, I don’t need to really, because all you have to do, is go to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum for starters, to see where the history of Greek art began… Because us Greeks have been doing it (art that is, at least that’s what we’re talking about here), for a very long time.
Back in ancient Greece, art and artists were revered, and held an important position in society. The beautiful artefacts that remain from those times, are proof of that. The influence of Ancient Greek art is at the base of the whole of the West’s history of art. Take for example ancient Greek art’s influence on the development of naturalistic, representational and figurative art; consider also the movements of Neoclassicism and Hellenism in the West.
Ancient Greek art is part of the cultural baggage that every Greek artist carries – ingrained in his conscience and maybe even subconscious whether he likes it or not. It’s a bit like having a world-renowned, famous great, great, great (add a few more of those) grandfather, that everyone compares you to. It’s a genetic curse and a blessing at the same time. Now you might say that all this ancient heritage goes way, way back, and now, it’s a different story. But no, it isn’t, because ancient Greece is everywhere in modern Greece, whether you like it or not. And the Greek artist has a difficult task indeed – to go one step beyond that ancient greatness. Possible? In some instances yes, because there really are (and have been), some excellent artists in Greece, despite the fact that they haven’t had the recognition or publicity they have deserved. But why?
That ‘why’ is a very big one – and complex. It seems that if you look at the history of art, it’s a bit like Western history in general –written by, and for, white Western males. And sometimes it’s more about who has the power… rather than the talent. Many Greek artists who ventured outside of Greece to make a career for themselves, managed to get their names in the Western art books (eg El Greco and De Chirico), while those who chose to stay here, carried on ‘plugging away’ at their art, creating really great works, which in many cases were ‘speaking the language’ of other Western trends. But they were basically speaking only to the Greek public. Take for example Hadjikyriakos-Ghika’s version of Cubism, or Moralis’ take on Abstract Art as applied to the human figure. And the postmodern dialogues emanating from Tetsis’ unique blend of Expressionism and Colourism, or Mytaras and Fassianos’ infiltration of ‘Hellenism’ into postmodern trends in painting. These are just some of the most obvious examples, of the most famous Greek painters of modern Greece, that are virtually unheard of in the history of art books, published outside of Greece…
Here, I would also like to point out, that in the course of the Western History of Art, it was ok for artists of the West’s main cultural capitals (eg Paris, London, New York) to add ‘ethnic’ touches to their art: See for example Picasso’s incorporation of elements from African art (without which Cubism might not have been realised), and ancient Greek art (as was evident especially in the recent Picasso and Cocteau show at the Theocharakis Foundation). Picasso wasn’t afraid to show his Spanish roots in his art either. However, when a Greek artist in Greece infuses a bit of that ‘Hellenistic spirit’ into their modern or postmodern art (even if modernism itself had taken a few lessons from ancient Greece), his art will be considered too ‘regional’ (or ‘local’), rather than avant-garde. How about then if Moralis for example, had chosen to stay in France after studying there, and had infused his abstract art with a touch of Hellenism while he was living there. Would that then make him more avant-garde all of a sudden?
With globalisation what it is today, and with information technology and communication networks creating a whole new sense of that concept (developing it much faster), artists all over the world are becoming all the more ‘international’. They are doing their part in joining in the increasingly pluralistic international language of contemporary art and its trends. Furthermore, new chapters in the history of art are being added all the time – with a recent exploration in the work of up till now neglected female artists being especially in the limelight. Maybe it’s also time however, that together with the Western History of Art that we all know and love, someone also wrote about ‘The rest of the world’s history of Art’ – or a global history. A herculean task indeed. Certainly highlights of this history are surfacing all the more these days, due to the increasing amount of information now available to all – over the internet in particular. (And that’s what ‘Art Scene Athens’ is about anyway, trying to bring awareness on a global level, to the amazing world of Greek art.)
The popularity of international art fairs has also played a pivotal role, in giving a voice to the art of up till now mostly neglected ‘art scenes’. Greece’s art fair (Art Athina), is coming up in May – and is a good opportunity for someone to see how Greek contemporary art compares to that of other countries. Greece’s participation in various Biennales has also helped, plus Greece’s two Biennales have played a role (one in Thessaloniki and one in Athens, the latter working on projects in the district of Omonoia at the moment). Furthermore, the much awaited National Museum of Contemporary Art will be a major platform for Greek art, once it opens its doors to the public later on this year.
But is there still a glass ceiling somewhere? Are Greek artists unheard of because Greece is a small economically unimportant country (and what’s more – now in crisis), so it can keep its artists to itself, after all this is an exclusive club? Maybe a bit of that, but also a bit of something else: the fact that Greece itself hasn’t really done much to promote its own artists outside of its borders up till now. This again of course boils down to money – promoting art outside your borders is expensive (shows, books, other publications and events etc), so it’s the countries with the money that can do it best. Or in the case of Greece it’s in the hands of private initiatives, plus, some passionate Greek art collectors (respect!).
But what exactly am I getting at here? What’s the point of this article? Well, it’s pretty simple really and it can be summed up via a Greek saying, which translated into English, goes as follows: ‘If you don’t praise your house, it will fall and crush you’. If Greeks want to get out of the crisis, they have to support their own ‘products’, especially the ones that are good. And Greek art is one of them.
‘But it’s not a good investment’, I hear someone out there say… and I would answer back, that art is not just an investment. How about buying good art, instead of just buying a good investment? Buying good art at a good price, means you will enjoy it for a lot longer, plus you won’t have paid a fortune for it. Value for money. Buy art for art’s sake…
And for those ex-pats living here, or tourists who are visiting Greece on holiday, don’t think that Greece is just the Acropolis. Explore the art culture: the galleries, art museums and art spaces that this country has to offer. You will be pleasantly surprised with how vibrant the art scene is. The contemporary artists of Greece are creating really good quality works, that are worth investing in for this reason. After all, despite the crisis, they have some pools of inspiration that will always be there for them – their country’s ancient history and natural beauty being the two main ones that can outweigh the aesthetics of an overpriced, preserved shark any day (which nowadays isn’t selling as well any way).
(PS: I would love to hear any views on this subject, please leave a comment so that we can start a discussion.)
Below: Works by Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, Moralis and Tetsis