Monday, 10 January 2011

The private initiative in times of crisis

The book Cities in Civilization by Sir Peter Hall deals with the following issues: How do golden ages come about in certain cities? Why should the creative flame burn so especially, so uniquely, in cities and not in the countryside? What makes a particular city, at a particular time, suddenly become immensely creative, exceptionally innovative? Why should this spirit flower for a few years, generally a decade or two at most, and then disappear as suddenly as it came?

In the first part of his book, The city as a cultural crucible, Hall analyzes the golden ages of Athens, Floerence, London, Vienna, Paris and Berlin. The whole book is about 1000 pages long. It will take me some time to finish it, but I´ve already read the chapter on Athens. It´s Athens I want to write about.

Photo: GNTO

Athens, says the author, was the first. The first in so many things that have mattered, ever since, to western civilization: democracy, philosophy, the systematic writing of history, scientific knowledge, lyric poetry, tragedy, comedy, naturalistic art, architecture. But why there? And why at that time? There could be factors such as geography, climate, economic growth, affluence, democracy, free thinking, the fact that it was probably the first global city. Nevertheless, none of these factors is a satisfactory explanation for Peter Hall, mainly because all of them had existed, one way or the other, also in other cities, other territories, that had the ingredients but these didn´t come together in the right order, the right way.

In order to understand the miracle that was Athens, says the author, it is necessary to be more historically particular. Athens was uniquely located as a centre of trade. It was the trade that brought exposure to higher cultures of the Orient, as well as people with energy and talent from all over the greek world and the eastern Mediterranean, creating a unique ethnic and cultural crucible. After that, it was the northern invasions, that brought new influences and cut off the contact with the east, forcing the city to live on its own resources. After that, it was the development of a great trading empire that brought all the goods of the civilized world to the markets of Athens, as well as tribute money and slaves, creating the basis of a unique kind of aristocratic democracy. Athenian culture and society were based on exploitation: first, they existed thanks to tribute money that flowed from the empire; second, Athens maintained critical aspects of an aristocratic society; thirdly, it significantly depended on the work of foreign residents who kept the economy going and were responsible for many of the advances achieved. Hall concludes that the conflict between the old order and the proselytizers of the new resulted in unique creativity: a society emerged that combined the fine discrimination and critical standards of the older society with the scepticism and inventiveness of the new.

While I was reading Peter Hall´s analysis of the miracle of Athens, I was (inevitably?) trying to identify ‘what is left’. Nevertheless, I could mainly find similarities with the factors that drove the ancient city to crisis: the economic collapse mainly due to the war with Sparta, individualism (greatly encouraged by the Sophists), the desertion of the assembly, the search for personal wealth, the loss of faith in and preoccupation about the ‘polis’.

In the last months there were some initiatives in the greek capital that indicate that Athenians (but also the Greeks in general and people from all over the world) are looking for answers in the ancient greek legacy that could guide them in the future and help them redefine values and priorities. In the end of October the new Acropolis Museum organized a cultural marathon on the relation of modern Greece and the world in general with the ancient world. An event that brought together specialists, intellectuals and artists from all over the world, that lasted 12 hours. Weeks later, the new Cultural Centre of the Onassis Foundation opened its doors with “The Athens Dialogues”, a collaboration with eight international academic institutions that placed ancient greek civilization in the centre of a debate on its role to modern society. There were organized six panels on “Identity and otherness”, “History and histories”, “Reason and art”, “Democracy and state”, “Science and ethics”, “Quality of life”.

Photo: Onassis Cultural Centre

It was in the opening of the new cultural centre of the Onassis Foundation that I discovered something that links the modern to the ancient city: the free and voluntary offering of part of one´s personal wealth to the city (in ancient Greece, taxation was considered unworthy of a free citizen, but this voluntary offering was expected and honorific). It was called leitourgia (service) and it funded public buildings, sports events, banquets, etc. Nevertheless, the most important leitourgia was the khoregia (a word that may be translated as ‘sponsorship’), that served to pay the members of the chorus of tragedies and comedies.

The Onassis Foundation has embraced this spirit, just like many other private foundations, and the opening of the cultural centre bears evidence to that. In the words of its president, Antonis Papadimitriou: “The global loss of faith of the people needs answers of support. More than ever, theatre, dance or the visual arts may provide this space necessary for thinking. The Onassis Cultural Centre, choosing to support contemporary creation in a country mainly turned towards its heritage, has a decisive role to play in giving a sense to today´s debates” (Le Monde, 23.12.2010).

The modern Greek State, created in 1830, benefited in the first decades of its existence from the financial support of wealthy Greeks of the diaspora. Today, the country still counts on private initiative in various areas of public life, including culture. In that same avenue where the Onassis Cultural Centre has now opened, the Niarchos Foundation (who had been Onassis´s big rival) is constructing a new building for the National Library and the National Opera.

In times of crisis, economic and mainly social, culture is one´s ‘shelter’. Private initiative takes on responsibility, contributes, gives back to society. An offer that is voluntary and honorific, and doesn´t materialize trying to make business with the state. After all, there is something left.

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