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The Crisis and the Arts
by Marianna Tziantzi
27 October 2011

An old Greek saying, “the hungry bear does not dance,” refers to an era when chained bears danced in the street while their masters beat tambourines. When hungry, however, the bears were not inclined to dance. Something similar is going on right now in Greece at this time of crisis. Artists and others who work in the cultural sphere are unable to dance because their stomachs are empty. Moreover, the way forward is closed while the audience, at the end of the performance, not only is unable to donate a few coins but is not inclined to continue to attend.

Culture has been one of the first victims of the policies being carried out by the Greek government based on requirements demanded by the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Community. Unemployment among actors reached 95% in the spring of 2011, 97% among dancers, 80% among musicians and 50% among professional singers according to a research by the newspaper “Avgi” (“The Dawn”), July 31, 2011. The situation is even worse if we take into account that those workers in the arts who find employment in the private sector are earning less than what is called for in collective bargaining agreements.

A phrase we often hear in Greece these days is “the lock-up”, meaning the closure of stores, businesses and even school libraries and suburban theaters. Another commonly heard expression is “merger’, a euphemism for the abandonment of hospitals and schools. The 2011-2012 school year finds Greece with 1,000 fewer schools (total number: 16,000), this loss being particularly felt in distant villages where schools function as epicenters of culture and social life. And this past summer, apart from the closing of schools, we have seen the closure of traditional coffee shops, especially in those areas lacking tourism. In many villages, only the church bells still ring---usually to announce funerals rather than weddings and baptisms. Many of the now-closed schools were exemplars of traditional architecture or had special historical significance.

Thus, television and surfing the Internet have become the most accessible and inexpensive forms of recreation. As such, the signs of the crisis are clearly evident on TV as Greek productions (fiction, documentaries, current affairs) are primarily reality shows, cooking programs and Turkish soap operas which have now displaced Hispanic telenovelas. The most significant event for television has been the government’s decision to close ET1, a public channel that primarily aired cultural programming. This is a great blow to the arts in this country because ET1 was the only channel providing original programs on subjects like poetry, prose, the visual arts, architecture, film, theater, and the like. The closing of this channel, along with that of many local radio stations, is accompanied by mass unemployment of other workers, something that negatively affects the quality of the remaining programs.

Funding cuts have devastated our symphony orchestras with the result that hundreds of musicians have not been paid for months. It is said that many of them have even had to sell their instruments, their violins and guitars, reminding us of Carlo Gollodi’s Pinnochio, in which Geppetto, Pinnochio’s father, was obliged to sell his winter coat in order to buy school books for his wooden son. Sadly, reality is worse than fiction. Artists with years of productive talent and experience see themselves lucky if they find work as bartenders or waiters, while actors are working in films and theatrical productions for no pay at all, only the promise of a percentage of hoped-for revenues.

The crisis in the arts is not only about quantity but also about quality. Less is not always better, and the situation does not support the view of those who see the economic crisis as an opportunity for improvement. When, for example, major publishing houses with long traditions in Greek literature close their doors, that loss is not confined to the hundreds of people now without work. It diminishes the cultural development of the country as a whole.

There are so many examples of this: the de-funding of museums, implying that history and the arts are unimportant in these times of crisis; the unemployment of youth; the destruction of the safety net for those with special needs or mental illness, for pensioners, and for others similarly situated. The question is whether, in a time of crisis, alternative forms of social and cultural expression can arise, as was the case in Argentina some ten years ago. In Greece, where the Left has a strong tradition of social struggle, there is no such outcome in sight. While it is true that many artists have taken a stand against job cuts, and against severe austerity measures by means of petitions and happenings and concerts, etc., these actions have played out within the limited sphere of a small vanguard. They have not spread to their fellow workers in the cultural industry or to the public at large].

The choice between “bread and roses” is false. During difficult times such as the German occupation and the military dictatorship, many performers, visual

artists and writers took a stand not only with words, but also within the context of the artistic works---their songs, their poems, their books. Today we need new voices and new methods. We need a new, creative language that will give expression to a new era of resistance brought forth by the movement of the indignados.

What is certain is that the situation is changing rapidly. What seems unimaginable, even impossible today, may be the normal of tomorrow.

Marianna Tziantzi