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Monthly Archives: March 2016

On Easter: Greek Migrations Now and Then

In our high-end junk mail was a glossy invitation to an autumnal Aegean Odyssey,  exploring  Island Life and Ancient Greece aboard an Exclusively Chartered Small Ship (an intimate 110 suites and staterooms, 95% with private balconies). Closer reading revealed that only the western Aegean islands would be featured, giving a wide berth to those near the Turkish coast.


On the deck of M.S. Lyrial. [ Note French flag and panama hat.]

In other nautical news, last August the Greek government chartered a ship large enough to evacuate several thousand  refugees, mostly Syrian, from the islands of Kos and Lesbos, to mainland Greece. The first headlines called it a luxury ship, headed for Thessalonica, or maybe Athens. Later, the “luxury ship” was identified as a car ferry, which dumped the refugees among thousands of others thronging Athens’port of Piraeus, waiting for passage to more prosperous venues.


Last week, the port of Piraeus had 5,000 refugees who had crowded into its passenger terminals since the beginning of the year. Reports vary as to whether the new EU-Turkey migrant exchange agreement has made any measurable difference.  Meanwhile,  Greek anger at the influx has mounted, not least among the Athenian chambers of commerce and industry. President, Constantine Michalos said pre-bookings in Kos, Rhodes and Lesbos, the islands most overwhelmed by the waves of refugees, were down by 60%. “A perfect storm is brewing,” he said. “Tourism is our heavy industry, our only hope. If the refugee crisis, this global crisis, escalates, and tourism–the only sector that is booming — is hit, then frankly we are doomed.”

When Piraeus fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1456, it was known as the ‘Lion Harbor’ after its guardian beast, sculpted in the fourth century BCE. This noble feline was looted by the Venetians in 1687 and still flanks the gate to the Venetian Arsenal.

Piraeus lion

Lion of Piraeus



Not the Lion of Piraeus .  

Viewing the Arsenal lions with a young Hungarian friend who had been on a humanitarian mission, before the Arab Spring, building a school and a library– in Burundi.

 Yes, another Panama hat



Some  three thousand years ago, delegations of Greeks, driven by famine and ambition, came to consult the current Delphic Sibyl about seeking a better life. Evidently, the oracle shrewdly directed them to colonize as far away as southern Italy and Sicily. The Greek colonists brought with them essentials such as the olive and weaponry, but also their Olympic gods and their alphabet.The city states in what was called Magna Graecia soon became as powerful as those on the Greek mainland.

Feckless students on winter holiday in Athens, we too made a pilgrimage north to Delphi and picnicked irreverently on the altar of the Sibyl above the laurel canyon. Somewhat later, we did the same with two of our grandchildren.


(If Alma-Tadema had painted either of our picnics)

We happened to arrive in Athens that second time just as the Greeks, according to our local guide, were choosing to abandon the euro rather than tighten their belts.The Greek government was forced, as part of the bailout conditions, to cut nearly $10 billion from public spending in 2013.   They had built a stunning new museum next to the Acropolis to house the Elgin marbles, which remained, of course, in London.  There were strikes on Omonoia Square, and more were feared. Germany suggested that Greece might sell off some of its delightful islands to reduce their staggering debt. A Russian oligarch paid $100 million for the island of Skorpios as a birthday surprise for his daughter.

But on other islands…


A mountain of discarded lifejackets on the island of Lesbos

Lesbos has seen other migrations.  An estimated two thirds of the island’s 90,000 residents are descended from Greek Orthodox Christians expelled from Turkey in the 1920s. This heritage helps to explain their compassion toward today’s refugees.  In any event, residents of the island are nominated for the Nobel peace prize, and the hotels are all full of NGO and  UN humanitarian workers.

Another bulletin from the lively port of  Piraeus:  a majority interest in the port facilities has just been acquired by a Chinese shipping company, Cosco, which will put some 368 billion Euros into improving the shipyards and cruise ship facilities.

Has anyone suggested commandeering  all available cruise ships (and car ferries) in the Aegean, for temporary housing of the refugees, to be financed of course by the European community?   Cruise shipping lines might be amenable to charging less per capita, since the Mediterranean/Aegean cruise trade is down.

Meanwhile, another sort of boat people are helping Syrian refugees, in the Canadian community of Cape Breton.  Vietnamese refugees, now educated and embedded, are giving real money to aid the new Syrian arrivals.


The Tran family,  Cape Breton

Back in Syria, survivors of the civil war have been forced across the seas into uncertain futures. Tourism was strangled by the civil war that has been destroying its ancient monuments as well as its population, forcing the survivors across the seas into dicey futures.In 2010, across from the most impressive of Syria’s Crusader castles, Krac des Chevaliers, we tried to sleep in a busy inn where they were scrambling to build rooms for the hordes of tourists expected in the next season. That was before the castle was taken over in turn by the rebels and the government.


Krac des Chevaliers March 2014

In pre-history, as students wandering around in the bare hills behind Thessalonica, we were hailed by an old couple who invited us into their little shack for tea. Seeing our loden coats, they must have thought we were German. And in German the old man told us about his work on the (…) canal during the war and the old woman gave us dusty almond cookies. This was a strange feeling, suspecting that we had been welcomed for the wrong reasons.

Question:  should we have admitted, as we never did, “Wir sind amerikanische?” And now, are  Germans any more welcome than Americans, in Greece–or anywhere?  Just wondering.


Art thou Art?

Yes, a splashy opener—


Pont Neuf wrapped by Christo

Pont Neuf wrapped by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 1985

Some of us can remember when the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude was as often ridiculed as respected.

Now we have slouched past the centennial of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, when he introduced a piece of shapely plumbing as a work of art called Fountain, and “signed” by R. Mutt, its manufacturer. Although Fountain was not admitted for exhibition, it created a great stir–even in 1917, in the middle of the so-called Great War. Duchamp meant to mock all things bourgeois, not only artistic pretense, but the materialism and nationalism which had led to the war. That urinal is often reckoned one of the most influential artworks of the twentieth century.

Much later, Duchamp claimed to have renounced creating any art, “retinal” or conceptual, and passed his days playing chess.  Not until the end of his life did he reveal his secret project,  L’Étant donné, an erotic peep show tableau now installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. My granddaughter, Frances Dorothy, then a student at Penn, took us on a tour of the museum and its Duchamp collection . “What do you think of this ?” she inquired slyly, pointing to the door with the peep holes.

LED (cropped) at Philadelphia Museum of Art

LED (tastefully cropped) at Philadelphia Museum of Art

Tempus fugit.  A dozen years earlier, during our whirlwind tour of the Uffizi Gallery, Frances Dorothy’s central concern had been finding the door marked Uscita. We were in Florence to attend the wedding. belatedly cancelled, of a dear old friend.  The ceremony would have been in the Palazzo Vecchio, but the actual supper was in a wonderful country restaurant featuring wild boar and beefsteak. Alas, Frances Dorothy had just become a vegetarian after touring the market at San Lorenzo adorned with gory carcasses.

Not at the Mercato of San Lorenzo

Not actually the San Lorenzo Market–obviously farther north











Quite recently, an old friend, a distinguished art historian, remarked that artists these days are not making art at all—at least not art for her.  She said this not acerbically, in fact rather wistfully.  I was trying to interest her in Sarah Meyohas, a young artist I had just met who was working on what seemed to me big questions of art and value.

Waiting for the return shuttle from the Frieze art fair on Roosevelt Island, Sarah and I had started to talk, and didn’t stop until the bus ejected us on Fifth Avenue. This small, fresh-faced young woman with a student’s fall of long brown hair, had degrees from Penn and the Wharton School of Finance, and was about to get her MFA from Yale. She had already had shows of her work and wide press coverage of a quirky concept she had developed called Bitchcoin, a cryptocurrency where virtual shares are sold in the work of an artist, in this case Sarah. She had also been toying, she said, with the idea of replacing the international gold standard with an art standard. This was on hold.

After her Yale graduation, she planned to open a gallery in her apartment, show her work in London, and prepare for a solo show in Chelsea, on stock performance and financial gambles as art.  For a week she sat at a computer in the middle of the gallery and invested each day in a chosen low-performing stock until her investment moved the stock value up or down and she could record its movement on one of the canvases in the gallery. She wore a specially designed investor costume of gold pinstripe over banker’s gray.

During that week in January, the stock market plummeted drastically. One of her brothers called to say, wryly, “Sarah, whatever you’re doing, stop it!”


That aforementioned art historian friend had written long ago a particularly controversial book, Rembrandt’s Enterprise:The Studio and the Market, describing Rembrandt’s “commodification” of himself, what he had done to brand himself and make ends meet. The arch-conservative critic Hilton Kramer said that Alpers’ s book made Rembrandt’s work seem “just another counter in the dialectic of material culture.” Many critics, however, welcomed her perspective as acknowledging the importance of the actual creation and marketing of art.

In his later life, the atheist Duchamp was more explicit in his contempt for art as well as religion. In an interview he says, “The word ‘art’ etymologically means to do”, merely indicating “making” of any kind, while our bourgeois western culture manufactures the “purely artificial” distinction of being an artist.

Duchamp readymades like the urinal were intended to skewer fake aesthetics. He is quoted as saying, “I threw […] the urinal [and the bicycle wheel and the bottle rack] into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.”

Interestingly, the original urinal was never in a public exhibition after its initial production in 1917.  Somewhere along the way it disappeared, and only handmade imitations appeared in the many exhibitions celebrating its influence on art in the last century. Duchamp noted in a New York interview that “People took modern art very seriously when it first reached America because they believed we [Europeans] took ourselves very seriously. A great deal of modern art is meant to be amusing.”


Marcel Duchamp, by Ai Weiwei                                                       


Recently Sarah Meyohas reminded us that her 2015 Bitchcoin concept was actually NFT before the fact. Carping the diem, she has been auctioning a new edition of her Bitchcoins,  backed by individual rose petals from her 2017 artwork, Cloud of Petals. Eventually she may get around to working out her developing views of art and land value, or even the replacement of the gold standard.   






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