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Cultural Genocide – A Modern Greek Tragedy

ATHENS – For a nation, art is not a business, it’s part of its essence. It is not produced by company employees – it is created by individuals alone, by ‘performing families’. And if musicians cannot perform, and if painters and sculptors cannot exhibit, they suffer – materially and spiritually. A musician who cannot perform is impoverished psychically, which is destructive for their art, but when he or she has no gigs or concerts, they simply cannot support themselves.

The appeal I am making here is both for economic justice – the economic dimension of the work of artists is no less worthy of being in a state’s emergency assistance calculations than that of other professions – but also a matter of Philotimo: Greece’s artistic legacy is an integral part of the Hellenic identity, and of the brand others use to promote and profit from Greece, especially its biggest industry – tourism.

Tourism is the industry that saved Greece during the crisis. And its artistic legacy fuels the desire to visit there – along with our beautiful islands and land – of many millions of people around the world. Before they die, millions feel they must see the Partheon floating above Athens, the sun set behind the temple of Poseidon crowning that other sacred rock, Sounion, the mystical ruins of Delphi, the magic of Knossos, and many other archaeological sites – and the museums that house the remarkable creations of four millennia.

We must thank God for our homeland’s natural beauty, but for the rest we can express our appreciation to … the ancient artists – the men and women whose names are renowned in history – through and their spiritual progeny, today’s artists who constitute the cultural soul of Greece.

Let me pause and declare that I would not for a second devalue the importance of Greek entrepreneurship. Promoting it among young people and creating an ecosystem where the young can thrive and which with attract foreign investors – members of the Diaspora not least among them – is crucial to Greece’s future.

Business activity, however, as important as it is, is only one dimension of the life of a nation, and it must be remembered that the nations history usually remembers are the ones that produce art and literature.

Let us now address the ancient Hellenes and their culture. Can you name a single businessman from ancient Greece? Take a moment. Take two. Even if someone with superior knowledge of history can cite someone, you get the point.

On to the world of ancient art. Among the Hellenes, Homer and Sappho are just the first on long lists of well-known male and female poets; Aeschylos is the earliest of several great playwrights; Plato is one of many philosophers who as great authors that inspire artists I will also call artists. Iktinos is not the only great Greek architect we know, nor Phidias the only sculptor. And on and on.

These are the men and women, along with the great statesmen and generals, who make the world remember ancient Greece – but those statesmen were also great patrons of the arts.

Today, the painters, sculptors, playwrights, actors, conductors, composers, singers and instrumentalists are struggling. Unlike most others during the pandemic, they have had virtually no work. Zero, for many. There was some progress in that the state is finally registering them, making them eligible for some assistance, but that does not amount to much. They cannot survive on it.

These are the spiritual descendants of Praxiteles, Euripides, and Kallikrates.

We Greeks often take a triumphalist tone, acting as if our own grandparents built the Parthenon. But there is a way that we can claim to be true participants in our cultural heritage – help support our contemporary artists and musicians.

How? Many of us have friends and relatives in the arts. Donate to them – and ask your friends to do the same. Those whom you trust can direct additional funds to colleagues in need. And the cultural and other institutions of the Hellenic Diaspora can get in touch with appropriate groups in Greece and work out how funds can be raised and distributed to artists.

Many of you are personal friends or relatives of Greece’s leading politicians, heads of foundations, and major corporations – you can lobby them to pass laws and create funds that support artists in need. You can offer to raise money to contribute to any funds that are created. And after COVID, the fundraising concerts that were so effective at the beginning of the Greek crisis can now help Greek musicians.

Germany has earmarked 1 billion euro for the arts. That is not possible in Greece, but the Diaspora can make a difference.

We are talking here of very bright, talented, and energetic people. They will find work in other fields or countries – but that will be a loss for Greece, for all of us. Our visits will be less joyous if the best musicians are gone, and the identities of our children and grandchildren will be impoverished if Greece no longer makes substantial contributions on the world’s cultural stage. Abandoning artists is cultural genocide.

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Before plunging into a controversial and polarizing rant about the pandemic, I’d like to begin with a couple of disclaimers: first and foremost, I am profoundly saddened by all the suffering the virus’ victims and their loved ones have endured.

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