The School of Athens
from Even No. 2, published fall 2015
At dinner one night in Exarcheia, a month after Greece’s continent-shaking plebiscite, an Austrian journalist asked Yanis Varoufakis to explain himself. Varoufakis had stood alongside Alexis Tsipras right through the referendum. Now the prime minister was reluctantly pushing the eurocrats’ vindictive third memorandum through the Hellenic parliament, and his former finance chief was opposing him. Varoufakis countered. “At moments like this,” he said that night, “every decision is both right and wrong at the same time.” It was no longer so simple, voting this way or that. In a crisis, you have to think.
Art history itself was born out of a love of Greece, and in the early 19th century it was de rigueur for idealistic European artists and writers to gaze, or to move, southeast. (Chateaubriand, who did a spell as foreign minister after inventing French Romantic literature, put it better than we can: “Whatever happens, I want to die a Greek.”) Now, a little late, and not least in Germany, the art world is exhibiting a resurgence of philhellenism. At this year’s Venice Biennale, the sad spectacle of Isaac Julien’s Das Kapital singalong was beautifully outclassed by the artists of the German pavilion, Hito Steyerl among them, who draped from its Nazi-era marquee a defaced Greek flag. The coming Documenta will take place jointly in Kassel and Athens, to the delight of everyone except the Hessian tourism board. Fiscal basket case? Killing field of the European project? Greece, more than that, is a crucible — where received wisdom gets smelted, but something new may yet be forged.
This second issue of Even takes seriously the proposition that we need Greece as much, if not more, than Greece needs us. Marina Fokidis (a Documenta participant) guides us through the exhausted capital, where life takes place amid ruins, where verities ring hollow, but where imagination has not yet been destroyed. And Travis Diehl, at the Getty’s unprecedented exhibition of Hellenistic bronzes, finds in their patinated surfaces a dull reflection of the art of our own age: self-glorifying, and less modern than we believe.
At moments like this, every decision is both right and wrong at the same time. The day before we went to press, Greeks headed to the polls for the third time in a year, and delivered Tsipras a honking new mandate. The turnout was low, understandably. When one’s room for maneuver is so narrow, a vote is a crude way to be heard. Documenta’s Adam Szymczyk, during the July referendum, put it this way: “I don’t trust this alternative, this choice between yes and no. There’s so much more to say. With this dichotomy we remain stuck in the same game.” That seems a duty, even: to dissolve such obsolete dichotomies, and give voice to a varied gang of art lovers and philhellenes.
—Jason Farago, editor
The voluble gent at the left of this print is Mitsuuji, who has come to pay a call on the modest woman in blue crouching with her lady-in-waiting behind the flowered screen. Who is Mitsuuji? Mitsuuji is Prince Genji — the dashing protagonist of the world’s first novel, transposed from the strict imperial court of 11th-century Japan to the cruder landscape of an outlandish 19th-century spoof.
A Country Genji by a Fake Murasaki was the best-selling illustrated romance of the late Edo period, an image/text crossover for which Kunisada provided boldly colored illustrations looped by calligraphic poetry. Decades later, in this print, Kunisada redeployed the parody Genji in his own intertextual art work: a translation of a translation of a translation, showcasing the hot new trend of falling in love.