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Interview with the Epochi newspaper

1. The Left's relationship with culture has experienced a gradual decline. Although members of the Left had great expectations from the government in this field, these have been largely unfulfilled. Why did this happen and how can it be reversed?

I don't share the view that there has been a decline, which draws on a fatalistic, politically pessimistic mentality that is right-wing at its core, essentially reactionary and has been diffused in recent years by intellectuals and contributors in conservative newspapers and lifestyle magazines. On the contrary, I consider the field of culture to be a secular, modern, dynamic field of hard negotiation and clashes over hegemony or, at least, this is what we were taught by Gramsci and the Marxist theorists. You know, after the dominance of the well-known, barren paradigm of base and superstructure in leftist thinking for many years, according to which culture was absolutely dependent on relations of production, a time came for the spell to be broken; within Marxism a discussion arose about the Gramscian concept of hegemony, and the resistance of the subordinate classes. That is how popular culture, which was hitherto nonexistent, came into its own and became worthy of interest. The intellectual progress and class benefits resulting from this shift were enormous and we owe them to Gramsci's English translations and to British Marxists such as Raymond Williams, who in the 1970s pioneered the overthrow of the old, restrictive school of thought. 

Certainly, it would be very interesting to start a discussion to specify what it was the Left expected in the field of cultural policy. It is worthwhile to again look at and analyse the imperatives of Syriza's pre-electoral agenda, on which I had myself had commented in Chronos magazine and Avgi newspaper. The experience of my three predecessors in the Ministry of Culture, just like my own in the present, would have much to contribute to an open dialogue with members and friends of the party, as well as a wider circle of progressive creators, producers, intellectuals and artists. This is a period when all voices deserve to be heard, without preconceptions and party-line distinctions, so that a new environment of critical reflection on matters of culture can be formed. Indeed, let us lend an ear primarily to youth, the unconventional, the vexatious, those who are off-key, those to whom the crisis of the past decade has lent prominence.

2. You have stated that "the concept of cultural democracy, confronting the new and old inequalities and discrimination, is a steadfast goal of mine". How do you intend to pave the way to that goal?

I do indeed consider cultural democracy as a fundamental conceptual reference which we need to include in our critical reflection as progressive, thoughtful members of the Left, and one that intimately relates to political democracy. The latter cannot evolve in the limited and shallow framework in which it frequently operates, within the framework of simple representation. To face the problems of society and the culture of everyday life, political democracy needs the background context of cultural democracy, so that inequalities and discrimination do not go unchallenged but are exposed in all their extent, forms and operations, so as to require the political system to fulfil its obligation to intervene. Otherwise, it remains a parallel, foreign reality that does not touch people's lives and in which the citizens are interested less and less. The new social movements have brought to light this very asymmetry, by articulating not only the class-specific demands for which the working class has struggled but demands in the field of discrimination, such as those concerning race, gender, sexual orientation, religious freedom, language, etc.

In the coming period, we will initiate that dialogue because it is paramount to understanding why culture and, by extension the Ministry of Culture, is by right interested not only in supporting the arts and in the maintenance and showcasing of cultural heritage, but also in inequality and discrimination and what exactly they consist of. We will need to call them by name, see how they operate, how they connect with the perceptions, mindsets, attitudes and behaviours of our daily life, our daily culture.

In parallel, we will attempt to add certain sociopolitical criteria to the ministry's funding guidelines, which up until now have been primarily oriented to aesthetics. For instance, how funding is connected to the critical reflection of a cultural or arts agency in relation to their audience. Because agencies must develop for the sake of their audience and in dialogue with it, and that audience cannot be made up exclusively of the middle and upper classes but also of the common folk and the lower classes. Hence, they need to consider the non-audience, those who for many reasons never enter a theatre or concert hall. Funding can affect the ticket price of a performance up to 50%, hence we need to be mindful of who benefits, which strata of the population are favoured by it and which are not. Public cultural organisations ought by definition to be thinking about the many absentees, the different absentees, and ask themselves about the reasons keeping them isolated, jettisoning the simplistic, now thoroughly outdated explanation of "indifference". Moreover, the ministry will announce certain programmes targeting children and youth, and also vulnerable groups facing discrimination, in order to restore a greater balance in the asymmetries traditionally embedded in the state funding of culture. Needless to say, much more time would be needed than is available, much discussion and a plan for structural changes in order to attain more satisfactory results that would release society's creative powers in terms of expression and participation.

3. With supervised legal entities, state theatres and orchestras, you've said there is an issue with which audience they address – mainly the middle and upper social classes, as you have found out. So, the question arises as to what kind of culture is subsidised for the remaining classes and if the ministry does not cater to them, then who?

Yes, the things we mentioned earlier are so. To be more specific, we intend to do a qualitative survey of the public, which is necessary in order to understand the situation that has evolved and become established up to the present. Working hypotheses are not enough, nor are general impressions or one-sided numerical surveys that have been conducted from time to time; we need to plumb greater depths, as Bourdieu did in the past and discovered extremely interesting data about museum publics, which significantly changed prevalent perceptions.

4. There are the private institutions along Syngrou Avenue which, during the crisis, have to a large degree determined the cultural product. On the other side, that of the state, what plans exist to ensure this "domination" does not persist? In this regard, could you expand a little on the Acropole Pallas project?

The crisis has caused the shrinking of the state's scope and not just as regards financial subsidies and grants, but staff cutbacks, the suspension of organisations such as the National Hellenic Book Centre, and the overall ideological assault on the state's governance and operations. Thus, for artists and society the initiatives of private organisations functioned as a lifeline while also being embellished with broader ideological philanthropic parameters as well as contemporary marketing appeal.

I do not consider there is a domination, though there is indeed a need for dialogue and setting of boundaries, if the public sector is to play the role that behoves it, which also goes for private institutions. There has been a hesitation to discuss all of this openly, but I think it's necessary so as to avoid misunderstandings and because, in any event, it doesn't only bear on what you call a "cultural product" but on the very formation of the cultural subject, cultural citizenship, the outlook of the young, the orientation of societal values. We don't want to see either dogmatic statism or competitive neoliberalism in the sensitive field of culture which, as already mentioned, not only concerns the arts but mainly the attitudes to life and choices of the young, their visions and expectations.

We want the Acropole Pallas to be an open meeting place for dialogue between new producers, artists, creators and their public. A hub of exploration where it will be possible to test innovative ideas, experimental applications, utopian concepts that will express the dreams and fears of the most creative and daring artists. Without strict boundaries between art forms but intuitive, collaborative, participatory projects that will elicit our awe and wonder, allow us to raise objections, start discussions, enter into processes which will effect changes, in our mind and our emotions. 

5. Are you concerned at the ease with which young people have adopted xenophobic and nationalistic attitudes, such as around the Macedonia issue and the occupations? How might the ministry intervene in these developments?

It is not the ease of the young that worries me but the chronic lack of addressing similar sociopolitical phenomena and the absence of intervention either by the state or any other responsible social agents. Whether it concerns sexism or bullying in the school community, violence in sports stadiums or xenophobic, racist and nationalistic attitudes, one sees an ineffectiveness in planning and forming alliances to deal with them. Yet, they poison the lives of thousands of young people and we need to become aware as a society that the cost of prevention is much smaller than the huge cost of their remedy. We need cultural policies with robust and speedy reflexes to such phenomena, we need a regional organisation of culture that is robust at the grassroots level. We are working on just that at the moment and we will soon make available for public consultation the relevant legislative draft on the Regional Policy for Contemporary Culture. 

6. You have stated, and in some cases also acted on it, that there is need tο renew the boards of directors of supervised institutions in terms of age and to wipe out discrimination starting with gender. Yet, the way boards of directors operate almost by definition excludes the young, the employed and/or parents. How can this issue be dealt at its root, across the board in public administration? 

This needs to be the subject of a wider discussion, yet I do subscribe to this need and am aware of the great benefits that can accrue from pursuing this course. In a stricter framework, this is what we practiced in the Network for Children's Rights, which I have served as its head and an activist for 15 years, every time we organised an action or convention – to secure for mothers their children's participation in creative groups so that they themselves were free of obligations. But participation in boards of directors presents other issues, too, which need to be discussed, such as matters of competence, the recycling of members, modes of operation and decision making etc, which are important. Equally important is the need for public notices to be issued for the positions of artistic director of cultural organisations, for the maximum term of office to be stated, for the positions of the financial and administrative directors, the question of exclusive engagement and so on. I promised from the outset of my term in the ministry that I would not appoint artistic directors and that positions would be advertised. I have put this into practice and will continue to do so.

7. How can culture be productively matched with tourism? Often, the latter threatens to swallow the former in its voracity.

You speak of matchmaking but you describe tourism as a voracious beast… so they'll give birth to monsters? I find it useful not to turn either side into victim or culprit; no one is perfect and no one is innocent. The dynamics involved in this challenging field of economic development need to balance out every time, so that jobs are created, wealth is generated, quality of life improves and, realistically speaking, we steadily move out of the crisis. It is important to plan a model of financial development with insightfulness and perspective, one that needs to simultaneously guarantee short-term returns as the country has just managed to exit the memorandums. How does one respond to this? By defending, on the one hand, culture and, on the other, tourism with patriotic fanaticism? I think a common middle ground exists for the benefit of both sides. The Acropolis and its Museum generate a large income for the Greek state and a part of that goes to contemporary culture. I mention this as an instance of felicitous management that synthesises needs, rather than raising barriers. On the other hand, AirbnB has almost ousted from my neighbourhood in Exarchia the students and the low-income earners and this is negative, no matter that the apartment owners benefit and the neighbourhood has become more cosmopolitan. Here is where serious planning and political will have a role to play, which is a necessary prerequisite for more socially fair solutions.

8. For the Left, culture has been a privileged space, operating at specific historical moments as a factor of cohesion and even as the basic focus of identification during the dictatorship period and the Lambrakis movement. Today, its discourse, as well as that of the student movement, is thinned down by cultural interventions and references. What does that tell us and how can it be remedied?

Greater boldness is needed and greater knowledge, more admissions and less nostalgia, that is what I think. In recent decades, there has been a flourishing of cultural studies throughout Europe and the USA, in Canada, in Australia. The concept of culture has been enlarged, and so has its social significance and the employment sectors that make reference to it. Its relation to new technologies has caused the creative economy to skyrocket. We can't only have postgraduate cultural management departments, that isn't enough; we need undergraduate  cultural studies programmes that will provide the solid context and the epistemological prerequisites for cultural management, which is largely spoken of in a rather superficial and shallow way. Yet, there are several new academics, both men and women, who studied mainly in the UK and have made contributions to this sector in recent years. Along with the international congresses, this makes me more optimistic, just as long as there is also an indigenous processing so that we find our own discourse and path to the cultural management which the country needs today. We have a cultural capital at our disposal that, as long as it is considered a fixed entity in a traditional way, will not yield; hence, we need to reappraise from scratch its composition, the investment and the added cultural, financial and social value. 

9. During the the military dictatorship, which you experienced actively yourself, there was the conviction that we were pretty much done with certain matters. I'm referring, for instance, to the use of torture and, more broadly, the operation of democracy. That conviction was refuted. Is it possible to construct plans for countering that refutation and how?

I'd like to make the distinction between the use of torture and democracy expressly and unequivocally. We are indeed done with torture, even though nothing is ever finished as completely as we might like. Yet, today the use of torture would be an extreme circumstance that would be stigmatised and punished in the majority of cases. This does not at all mean we should be complacent, whether with regard to the prisons, the police stations, the borders or with regard to Greeks, refugees, criminal prisoners, Roma, etc. Every abuse or case of torture sets alarm bells ringing, but it is not the same as during the dictatorship. We now have many safeguards and the present government has stood up to the test when it was required.

As far as the functioning of democracy is concerned, the conditions do exist for its continuous improvement; that doesn't ever stop. Besides we saw the difference with the first government of the Left which did not hide scandals, did not cover up illegalities but advanced legislative measures and, overall, defended social and human rights. The difference is ostensible. Apart from these considerations, I consider the issue of democracy within parties as important, indeed critical, for the immediate future, as there is a shortfall and it is impeding the political system. The political milieu which will decisively undertake this will gain a clear lead because society is expecting this; it has reached that level of maturity. 

10. It appears that the modernisation of society which was the political plan of the Simitis government has failed. Is there anything left over from that in the social and political field?

If by leftovers you mean changes that need to be made in public administration, in the institutional realm, in society itself then, yes there are numerous and important ones, which I wouldn't even call leftovers but, rather, significant goals. Certain steps were made with the Syriza government but the crisis did not allow for bigger changes up until now. I hope there will be the opportunity for these to happen, based on the accrued experience of governance, within the next four years.

11. On the other hand, the Left today is attempting to transform society. How do you view this attempt?

Unfortunately, I see it as weak, timid and uninspired, speaking overall and not just for Greece, which, in the final analysis, had survival as its primary concern and could not look to an open horizon of greater transformations. For some years now, a bewilderment has prevailed, especially within the social democratic parties, and on the other hand, a radicalism with no exchange value, more rhetorical and with little bearing on actual governance. More democracy is needed within parties and in every manner of initiative, in order to have better results. In conditions of globalisation, you can't effect all the changes needed on your own but you can't remain impassive either. We need an indigenous example of financial, social and cultural reconfiguration that will be inclusive, participatory, technologically advanced and merit-based. That is why, politically, I believe in the coalition of all the progressive forces of the Left which possess a vision and a cogent discourse. After the Syriza government, it is time that a plural, progressive line up is created for the country that will keep conservatism from making a comeback, with its reactionary aspects.

12. Do you think that society will manage to emerge wiser from the adventure of the memorandums? What might guarantee this goal?

What does a wiser society mean, really? The citizens vote once every four years but they experience the fears and hopes, the problems and delays, the frustration or political anticipation every day and in every relationship in the public sphere, at many levels. Public administration, work relations, intergenerational and gender relations, education, health, public transport, security – they all transmit their own political message. At a time when newspapers are being read less and less, public opinion is formed on the strength of a network of impressions from the internet. Manipulation becomes easier. Many issues have become instrumentalised, they have assumed a monstrous scale, truth and lies are often confused. Cultural biodiversity is endangered by the spread of the unchecked and unmediated fauna of a neoliberal jungle of interests seeking to expand at all costs. A war is being waged in the field of conscience recruitment, often with a reassuring vocabulary of neutrality and decency. As a result, citizens' resistance to the various attempts at domination, the shaping of their own specific outlook and stance in the face of organised propaganda campaigns, the aspect of the public sphere as a space of meritocracy, trustworthiness and a guarantor of social justice, have all become rather more complex. This maturation and the terms of governance of the symbolic universe, that is, the way we, as citizens, analyse and reflect on social phenomena, is what the state must safeguard and not just the correct counting of votes at elections. Political time is not electoral time, it is sociocultural time. The totalitarian mindsets and behaviours, the xenophobic and racist formations and their political expression nestle where the social fabric forfeits the basic ingredients of solidarity, justice, trust. This is why contemporary art is important, because it succeeds in bringing to light what remains unconfessed, the intuition of that which is gestating and is happening. And that is why it is worthy of support, so that it shows us the things we cannot yet see, and which, when we do see them, will be difficult to change. In conclusion, the guarantors for the future and are the citizens themselves, the youth with their keener insight and more independent attitude to life, who are not captives of the present but look to the future.​

Issue Date:

1/5/2019 6:00:00 PM

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