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Monday, June 02, 2003

Our Opinion

All-Around Mediocrity


The assignment of the year’s 2004 Olympic Games to Athens is radically different from previous ones. For a main characteristic of the 2004 Olympics is its [sic] cultural dimension.

Greece does not consider the Olympics just to be the foremost athletic event that lasts for a few days every four years. Because Greece wishes to revive the idea of the Olympiad. Therefore, it is desirable to organize not just one cultural event but a cultural program of global scope which will develop and culminate during the four years period [sic] between two successive Olympic Games.

Our country undertakes the responsibility to organize the 2004 Olympic Games in a manner that will incorporate this new cultural dimension and feels committed to set a new vision of the Olympic idea which will have a permanent effect.

The Cultural Olympiad: The general framework, Greek ministry of culture

There’s a lot that’s been said (although much more remains unsaid) about the staggeringly incoherent concept of the “Cultural Olympiad 2001-2004” confected by the less-than-Olympian bureaucracy of the Greek ministry of culture — in particular, in regard to the selection process and preparation of its various cultural and educational programs. (Our first comment, on the basis of the excerpt quoted above, would surely be to inquire if there’s anyone at the ministry who knows English.) In the event, the production entitled All Around Is Light presented by the Cultural Olympiad on May 20 in New York was instructive. The problematic nature, lack of focus, and utter non-existence of any strategic vision that characterize the conception and organization of the Cultural Olympiad is now manifest even to the most credulous partisans of the ministry of culture.

What is important here is not so much the actual performance (see All Around Is Nostalgia by Anastasia Tsioulcas in this issue) but rather the rationale and, even more to the point, the politics of culture that motivated this particular production. Conceived and promoted as a “production redolent with Greek myth and Greek music,” the performance reeked in the end of tendentiousness, middlebrow sentimentality, and provincial pomposity. The purpose of its uneven pastiche of past, present, and future Greek all-stars was obviously to drown unsuspecting Greek Americans in the Greek ministry of culture’s transparently engineered — and blathering — notions of “Hellenism” (a much-abused term that continues to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous intellectual misfortune).

Despite self-important proclamations that the Cultural Olympiad is “an event of global significance that goes beyond any national and, indeed, Helleno-centric program,” All Around Is Light was clearly conceived with a Greek American audience in mind. And while there’s nothing wrong with the desire to address Greek Americans, one would have expected that a one-shot, $2,500,000 production would at least have tried to aim at a broader audience. Preaching to the converted, however, is what the Greek ministry of culture does best (it is increasingly evident, in fact, that it’s the only thing it really knows how to do), which is why it has become standard operating procedure for many years now, at least as far as promoting Greek culture outside of Greece is concerned.

Nevertheless, the Cultural Olympiad sees itself as an international institution with a (civilizing?) mission for the world. If that were genuinely the case, however, it would have sought to organize even this pathetic production within the context of an established festival or as part of the programming of an established cultural institution, an approach that would have obviously attracted a much broader audience. As it was, All Around Is Light was presented as an isolated event; as a result, it was bound to be ignored and get lost in the cultural landscape of a city such as New York. For those familiar with the insularity of Greece’s culture ministry, this does not come as a surprise.

Furthermore, one would assume that part of the Cultural Olympiad’s role is to actually promote the Athens Olympics. In other words, an event such as the one held on May 20 should possess an innate rationale as a vehicle communicating the fact of the 2004 Athens games. At a time when the conspicuous lack of promotion has made those games a non-event in the American media and public, All Around Is Light should have been used to focus attention on them. In the end, of course, this “production redolent with Greek myth and Greek music” was so hurriedly organized and poorly promoted that it received little media attention.

The serious absence of a coherent and well-planned publicity campaign about the Athens games in the United States (and, apparently, throughout the world) is now common knowledge. With only one year left, when advertising should be in high gear, the silence is deafening. The lack of funds for the Greek National Tourist Organization is an open secret. Under these circumstances, spending $2,500,000 for a single mediocre event attracting an overwhelmingly ethnic Greek audience verges on misfeasance. Indeed, with the Foundation for Hellenic Culture, the Greek government’s “official agency” for promoting Greek culture in the United States, in a state of permanent hibernation due to lack of proper funding and staff, the point to All Around Is Light is increasingly incomprehensible.

In an article in greekworks.com last year (see Cultural Capital, October 1, 2002), Peter Pappas discussed the Edinburgh International Festival and the cultural vision that motivates it in comparison with that of the Athens Festival. Reflecting on Edinburgh, it is evident that the Cultural Olympiad could have developed into a singular concentration of cultural events with significance far beyond the Olympic Games in 2004, if anybody had actually given the concept any serious thought. The Edinburgh paradigm would have helped significantly in shaping such a vision.

Unfortunately, to judge by All Around Is Light, the Cultural Olympiad has become so entangled in bureaucracy (involving, at last count, the Greek ministry of culture, the Athens 2004 Committee, the International Olympic Committee, the UN, and UNESCO) that it is irredeemably cursed. As for Greece’s ministry of culture, it has confirmed once again that all around it is seemingly endless night.

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