Greece received a much-needed voice of support from Berlin last month. No, it wasn’t a kind word from those tyrannical Teutons who have multiplied Hellas’ misery with their insistence on financial domination of Europe under the guise of European monetary policy.
Rather, it was cinema star George Clooney, who deserves the appreciation of Hellenes and Philhellenes everywhere for his support of the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles.
Speaking at a press conference in Berlin for the international premiere of his latest movie The Monuments Men – a story about a group of soldiers whose mission it is to recover stolen artwork from the Nazis – he fielded a question from a reporter about the Parthenon Marbles (aka Elgin Marbles), which are located in the British Museum.
According to the Associated Press, “Clooney called for ‘an open discussion’ on the fate of the ancient friezes, which were taken by British diplomat Lord Elgin 200 years ago. Both the Vatican and the J. Paul Getty Museum had sent parts back, Clooney said, raising the question ‘of whether or not one piece of art should be, as best as possible, put back together.’ ‘There are certain pieces that you look at and think, that actually is probably the right thing to do,’ Clooney said.”
Bill Murray, another star of the movie, came out even stronger in his support for the cause. “It’s had a very nice stay here, certainly,” Murray said. “But London’s gotten crowded. There’s plenty of room back there in Greece… If [the marbles] were all together, the Greeks are nothing but generous – they’d loan it back every once in a while … like people do with art.”
The Parthenon Marbles (or sculptures, to be more precise) were looted by the 7th Earl of Elgin Lord Thomas Bruce, who served as British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Systematically looted during the first decade of the 19th century, the sculptures, which date back 2,500 years, were subsequently purchased by the British government in 1816 and displayed in the British Museum ever since.
Shocked perhaps by the unexpected support for Europe’s favorite punching bag of late – or perhaps inebriated, as Clooney politely suggested, in one of the classiest responses to political mudslinging that you can find – London Mayor Boris Johnson accused Clooney of “advocating nothing less than the Hitlerian agenda for London’s cultural treasures.”
Clooney told the Huffington Post “I’m a great fan of the mayor, and I’m sure my right honorable friend had no real intention of comparing me to Hitler. I’d chalk it up to a little too much hyperbole washed down with a few whiskies. I’ve found myself in the same spot a time or two so I hold no ill will.
“When it comes to real facts, not imagined history, you need only to look at the UNESCO rulings that have been agreed to by all parties. An occupying nation can’t sell off the national heritage of the country it occupies. More relevant is the fact that the Parthenon marbles were chipped away from the Parthenon by the occupying Turks and sold. It was a single monument broken into bits. It would be as if the statue of David’s head were sold to England, his arm to the Vatican and his torso to the Met.”
He added: “There are many pieces in nearly every country that this conversation should take place. The best place to start would be at the most obvious object. When polled the British people are overwhelmingly in favor of their return. The rest of the world follows suit. If you want to deal in facts. Those are the facts. But maybe it’s just easier to compare me to Hitler.”
Clooney’s comments served as a ray of sunlight in a perennially gloomy Berlin day. Of course, much like the truth, not everyone can withstand the rays of the sun. Like Boris Johnson or those blokes at the British Museum, they seek to shield themselves under a covering of lies and misdirection.
Perhaps more importantly, these newsworthy statements by internationally acclaimed actors Clooney and Murray illustrate the power of cultural diplomacy. Like the marvelous speech given by Stephen Fry a few months earlier in support of the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles, Clooney and Murray’s public display illustrates the timelessness of the Hellenic legacy and its lasting effect.
The same case could be made for other masterpieces of the Hellenic culture and civilization as well, both new and old. From the Hagia Sophia to the Church of St. Nicholas at Ground Zero, Greece has a world of history to offer and a cultural product that can engage a global audience.
Now, regarding the last example, it is highly debatable whether architect Santiago Calatrava should be the person chosen to craft this message, considering the lack of inspiration his 2004 Athens Olympics projects have on the local populace only a decade later, but that’s another story.
Back to the Parthenon Marbles, one of the most despicable things about how Lord Elgin obtained them was the fact that he vandalized the Parthenon in order to acquire this booty. In doing so, he defaced Western Civilization’s perhaps most seminal monument.
The words civilization and culture, which are so closely related, can be distinguished by labeling all tangible artifacts produced by a culture as part of its “civilization,” while classifying all intangible manifestations (language, religion, polity and social organization, etc.) as “culture.”
This then begs the question, if Elgin’s defacing of a tangible masterpiece of civilization is to be denounced as deplorable, what are we to say about the defacing of intangible cultural masterpieces taking place around us, within our Community and on a larger scale in general? Perhaps there are a lot more Elgins’ out there than we thought…
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