It’s early July, and the Greek painter Apostolos Georgiou is wondering where else in Europe he might be able to live. Galleries can barely survive in Athens, he says, and the collectors have disappeared or are only buying abroad. The long-delayed project for a permanent museum of contemporary art in Athens seems more chimerical than ever. So where to go: Germany? Italy? England? “London is too expensive,” he figures, but then asks, “Would I be able to find an affordable place an hour’s journey outside the city?” It depends, I reply. Most areas near the city are stockbroker territory; he’d need to settle beyond the commuter zones in one of those shabby, forlorn seaside towns like Margate, Ramsgate, or Whitstable, if they’re still affordable.
I’m ostensibly visiting Apostolos to choose some of his works for a group show I’m organizing for a London gallery this fall. In fact, we could have made the arrangements by e-mail, but I had a further reason for coming: I wanted to understand how and why one continues to make art in a crisis—how one endeavors to create something, like poetry, that “makes nothing happen” while being (to borrow a few more of Auden’s words) “punished under a foreign code of conscience.”
The truth is, I don’t believe Apostolos will ever leave Greece. He’s too attached to his patrída: not so much Athens as Thessaloniki, “the melancholic and heavy city I grew up in,” as he’s called it, and the island of Skopelos, where he spent most of his life. The blue of his paintings is the Aegean sky; their gray sets a mood that I doubt could be conjured somewhere else—“melancholic and heavy,” yet somehow comforting for all that. But three days after Greece’s resounding “no” vote in the July 5 bailout referendum, Apostolos is worried. “I could never have voted ‘yes,’” he tells me, “but I didn’t want to vote ‘no’ either,” because he thinks the referendum should never have been called. And so he sat it out. He has no faith in Syriza, although he allows that it’s the only party untainted by corruption. But in his view, it remains an organization all too practiced in the political arts necessary for surviving as an opposition party, and all too inept at governing.
“You have no idea how terrified we are, all of us,” Apostolos says. And yet, he adds, “look around: Do we look like we’re in a crisis?” He and I are sitting in a pizza parlor in the main square of Voula, the quiet, slightly run-down middle-class seaside suburb south of Athens where he lives. “No—everything looks normal.” Well, everything except the lines of people at each ATM along the square. The cash-strapped banks are closed, and depositors are allowed to withdraw only €60 a day from their accounts via cash machines. But most ATMs seem to be stocked only with €50 notes—no tens or twenties—so the de facto maximum withdrawal is €50. “Things look normal, but in reality, it’s like there’s a silent civil war,” he concludes. “No one can really talk for fear the conflict will break out.”
* * *
Optimism has never been Apostolos’s forte. He’s always keenly aware of the traps we catch ourselves in, and a bitter laughter runs through the imagery of his paintings. Sometimes I think they’re evocative of Beckett’s plays, or Auden’s perception that “each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom.” Earlier in the day, we’d been in Apostolos’s studio, looking over his latest works. The scenarios he’s been painting are ones that he could just as well have conceived five or 10 or 15 years ago, but I couldn’t help seeing many of them as allegories of his country’s current predicament. One shows three everymen trying to make their way across a body of water that comes up to their chests. The man on the left is fully clothed and carries a big black book above his head. The one in the middle is naked; above his head he totes his clothes and shoes. The one leading the little parade is, like the first man, fully dressed. He’s carrying a wine bottle in one hand, a glass in the other. His raised arms could be a gesture of celebration. The painting asks what each of us would salvage, come the worst: our ideas? Our material necessities? Or maybe nothing is worth saving; just keep consuming like there’s no tomorrow, and if tomorrow brings some unlooked-for respite, so much the better. The formal elements of the scene reiterate the question of what’s essential, what’s expendable: The figures and landscape are described with near-geometrical simplicity, the paint put down economically, as if to conserve as much stamina as possible for the next desperate effort.
In another painting, a pair of serious, authoritative-looking men in suits are sorting through piles of papers on a table in the foreground. They seem to be inspectors or auditors of some kind. Strangely, the papers are also piled on the empty air to the right and left of the table’s edge, like Wile E. Coyote after he’s run off a cliff and remains suspended (momentarily) over the abyss. On a bench behind the two suits lies a third man, buck naked, possibly a corpse—or has he just passed out? Like all of Apostolos’s paintings, this one is untitled, so my interpretation of it is my own responsibility, not the artist’s. But how can I see this bereft figure in the background as anything but the nation whose accounts are being calculated and recalculated without any difference in the result?
“For me, if we leave the euro, it’s the end,” Apostolos says. “The end. There’s no more Greece.” I don’t have the heart to tell him that, at this moment, I’m not so sure it would be a bad thing. For all the interest his paintings show in the traps of everyday life, Apostolos doesn’t want to believe that the euro might have also been a trap, albeit one created unintentionally. Instead, he makes jokes: “We can get the money to settle the debt by selling the Acropolis. I think the Qataris can afford it.”
Apostolos lives above his studio, and I notice something surprising about his apartment: He has just two paintings hanging on the walls, both his own—but unlike all of his other works, these two are abstract. One of them, you might say, represents the geometric essence of his art, while the other displays the beauty and freedom of what one observer has called his “controlled flurry of deft marks and wide brush swipes.” Each one implies the possibility of a completely different artistic path that Apostolos might have taken—indeed, could still take in the future—instead of becoming (or remaining) the figurative painter that he is today.
I tell him that the two abstractions made me realize that his other work is animated by an aggressive impulse I hadn’t noticed before: All his anxiety, all his pessimism is concentrated in his imagery—and while he doesn’t want to live with that anxiety before his eyes every day, he wants the others, the ones who buy his paintings and hang them in their homes, to feel it, to see it, to cohabit with it. Apostolos, though, denies that his art conceals any antagonism toward the viewer. “When I see good art, I never feel depressed, no matter how depressing the subject matter is,” he says. On consideration, I have to agree, and this is the great conundrum of political art: When the work is intended as a protest, there will always be someone ready to decry it as a betrayal, because the work’s beauty could have the effect of reconciling the viewer to an awful reality. The only good political art, according to this view, would be an art as bad as possible. Apostolos’s paintings are too good to be political in that sense, yet they evoke situations that are inherently political. After all, what’s more political than the question of expendability—in Primo Levi’s phrase, of the drowned and the saved? But what their political position might be is harder to define. These are paintings that prefer not to say yes or no.
* * *
I mention to Apostolos that when I was last in Athens, four years ago, I was struck by the fact that the majority of roadside billboards advertised pawnshops—but now it seems those ads are all gone. “You’re right,” he says. “The pawnshops are not such a big business anymore. Everyone’s already sold their jewelry.” Today is Thursday, July 9. We’re on our way to central Athens, where we’ll have dinner with a friend of his. Konstantinos Papageorgiou is a professor of the philosophy of law, trained in Germany as well as in Greece, and a serious art collector—an old-fashioned one, because he is an intellectual with a deep interest in the substance of the art he buys, rather than one of those speculators who sees art as merely an asset category. He’s rightly proud of the fine essay he contributed to a publication on the photographs of Thomas Struth several years ago. We meet him at a restaurant whose terrace has a fabulous view of the Acropolis. Joining us is his Turkish-born wife, Nilüfer, and two of their friends, an economics professor and a member of the Greek Parliament from one of the small centrist parties.
The four of them are even more skeptical of Syriza than Apostolos, and all four likewise support staying in the euro at all costs. But it’s not only economics that worries them. They speak darkly of threats to the Constitution, of “Stalinists” in the government, of the suppression of opposition journalists. As for Yanis Varoufakis, the leather-jacketed economist who a few days earlier had resigned as minister of finance, they consider him a grandstanding narcissist who made no serious attempt to negotiate with his counterparts in the eurozone lending institutions known as “the troika.” Worse still is Syriza’s speaker of the Parliament, Zoi Konstantopoulou, whom they dismiss as a rude and intolerant. Someone mentions that as an attorney she had acquired a reputation for using delaying tactics to help accused rapists evade prosecution. Attempting to put the personality issues aside, I try to tease out what their own counterproposal might have been: Would they have signed on to year after year of back-breaking austerity with no end in sight, and with the International Monetary Fund, one of the troika’s members, already having acknowledged that the Greek debt is unpayable? But none of them have a clear answer to propose, apart from absolutely staying in the eurozone. They reserve particular opprobrium for the likes of Paul Krugman, who sees the common currency as unworkable in the long term. “He might even be right that Greece never should have joined the euro,” the economist tells me. “That’s open to discussion. But now that we’re in it, pulling out would be a disaster. It’s like being on a train moving at high speed. Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten on, but if you jump off, you’ll be killed.”
Like nearly every Greek I’ve talked to, my dinner companions are all convinced that the Greek case is exceptional, or rather that the Greeks themselves are exceptional, at least in their flaws, so that foreigners—whether Nobel economists or naive art critics—can’t easily fathom the way things work or don’t work in this country. It’s a Greek complex, this idea that their system is uniquely corrupt and clientelistic, at least by European standards; having lived in Italy, I’m not so sure that’s the case. Perhaps sensing that tensions at the table are getting too high, Nilüfer nods toward the ancient citadel looming above the city. “Look,” she says. “That’s Jupiter right over the Acropolis!” We briefly discuss how to distinguish a planet from a star and decide that she must be right about the identity of the almost eerily bright light in the sky above the city. “And next to it, that’s Venus,” she continues. “This must be a good sign for us.”
Meanwhile, the parliamentarian is urgently checking her cellphone. She explains that the government is about to introduce a motion to make an offer to the troika that must be voted on the next day, so that the proposal will have already been approved by the Parliament before the eurozone leaders meet over the weekend. She’s waiting for a PDF of the bill to arrive. We ask her how she’ll be able to read an 800-page bill before the vote tomorrow. “Of course, no one will be able to read the whole thing, but we’ll vote on it anyway,” she replies.
Nilüfer’s calming influence seems to have worked. Conversation has mostly drifted into matters other than Greece’s economics and politics. Somehow we’ve gotten into talking about movies. Nilüfer and I agree that Visconti’s The Leopard is absolutely one of the greatest films ever. “Yes,” she says, “and in times of crisis, we should think of Tancredi.” I’m taken aback: She’s referring to the most notorious line in the film, which is set during Garibaldi’s takeover of Sicily in 1860. Burt Lancaster stars as Don Fabrizio Corbera, the prince of Salina, and Alain Delon plays the old man’s dashing nephew, Tancredi. Realizing the momentousness of the changes taking place, Tancredi declares: “In order for everything to stay the same, everything will have to change.” But perhaps Nilüfer is right, and, for some Greeks at least, everything will remain the same.
We know what happened the next day: The legislature voted “yes” on an agreement that essentially reproduces the one that the electorate had rejected in the referendum just days before. How Syriza would continue in government as the enforcer of an austerity program that seemed to violate all of its principles was the new question, but at least people could start to feel that they knew what might come next—until a few days later, when the IMF declared the plan unworkable, given the inadequacy of the debt relief being offered to Greece. This was a good turn for the country, but would the deal be upended? Everywhere I went, a television was on, featuring continuous analysis of the multiple peripeties of a situation both constantly changing yet somehow frozen.
* * *
As I flew out of Athens, it struck me that Greece’s current situation might be described as Albert O. Hirschman’s nightmare: no voice, and no exit either. I can’t say I answered my own question about how one continues to make art in a crisis. Is it the wrong question? After all, painting is notoriously a creature of luxe, calme, et volupté, so maybe it’s just natural that it go into abeyance when survival itself is at stake. Having read of the jump in the Greek suicide rate since the imposition of austerity, on the one hand, and the rise of collective self-help initiatives among the newly impoverished, on the other—not to mention the warnings that if Syriza fails, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn is waiting in the wings with its own toxic remedy for the country’s suffering—I too understand that the art of placing colors on a surface may become a subordinate concern even for the artist himself. Still, I cannot forget what the painter Adrian Stokes wrote in a London still bearing the scars of wartime bombing: that “art may bestow another luxury in the enshrinement of even the greatest misery, a luxury gained from the putting together of fragments of experience that have been dispersed, so that even pain coheres, owns features.” What Stokes is explaining, really, is Apostolos’s belief that his paintings are not depressing—that by confronting us with our self-contradictions, he is rendering a service worth paying for. And if no one any longer has the means to pay? I suspect he’d paint on an empty stomach.
Maybe that’s what makes someone an artist in the deepest sense: a feeling of profound necessity, of a calling, that would compel that person to continue somehow, even if the economic basis for making a profession of it had been annulled. “The way we read art makes it political or not,” Apostolos once said. “Isn’t it the same in life, generally? Many of us need to overcome, or at least distinguish, injustice and inequality, whether we are the victims or the abusers…. Either we see this or we pretend that it doesn’t exist.” A jazz lover, Apostolos has spoken to me of his admiration for the way certain black American musicians of the 1960s infused their work with anger.
Later, in an e-mail, Konstantinos warns me that Greece has become “a kind of dystopian Arcadia in the global media, an Arcadia constructed by phantasies and desires of very disparate agents and coalitions of interests.” This “would be fine as fiction or art,” he continues, “but it becomes grotesque and dangerous when it seeks to create its own reality.” He’s directing Walter Benjamin’s old accusation against fascism—that it aestheticizes politics—against the present-day left. Have we just been gawking, perhaps, at a self-generating fantasy of what Greece can be, like tourists admiring some ruin whose significance they hardly grasp? I wonder. And I recall his praise, in a text published earlier this year, of Vlassis Caniaris, the late Greek artist who’s been applauded for his “agitprop Arte Povera.” Konstantinos admired his restraint, his avoidance of “messianic proclamations and the rhetorical excess of an intemperate diffusion of materials—in my view a problem that plagues our time, and not just in art.” If we knew how to find the boundary between our art and our times, we might be better off, but we’d be different people. We’d be living in a non-dystopian Arcadia.