Simultaneous Equations: Early Cold War Cultural Politics and the History of Art in Greece

“We belong to the West” was the most famous motto of Konstantinos Karamanlis (1907-1998), a fervent supporter of the idea of European unification in post-1945 Greek politics. This declaration of belonging was not only a political statement; it also indicated a commitment to furthering the Westernisation of the contemporary Greek society and culture. Although Greek cultural identity was perceived as European and thus Western when the Greek nation-state came into being in the 19th century, the country’s cultural (and political) identity was redefined in the 1950s and 1960s, when the term ‘West’ acquired a particular ideological signification. As I will argue in this chapter, Cold War ideology, in the specific shades it acquired in Greece, became the frame for the development of a Greek ‘Western’ consciousness which, in turn, shaped discourses and practices in the cultural domain.

It is in this context that we can trace the appearance of art history as an academic discipline in Greece. To be more precise, it was in these circumstances that art history became an appropriate, almost necessary, and even desired field of study to be included in Greek universities. Although a discourse on art flourished in the interwar period, and the ‘birth’ of the discipline cannot be attributed to any one or direct political decision, I will maintain that it was the newly constructed Cold War Greek identity that fuelled the development of art history studies in Greek universities. In this chapter I will not discuss in depth art trends or art exhibitions in Greece, neither will I focus on specific authors or books on art. I will, however, explore this historical context to explain the appearance of art history in Greek higher education, perceived and defined as the history of Western European art and of the art produced in the modern Greek state.

Greece After the 1939-1945 War

Greece entered the post-Second World War Western world at a different time and in a more violent way than its allies. Although on the victorious side, the country found itself torn apart by a civil war that delayed the return to peace and devastated social unity. The ideologies of the Cold War, in combination with inter-war internal political problems, created an explosive situation that affected all aspects of life.1

The Greek Civil War of 1946-1949 is regarded by historians as the first episode of the Cold War. It was fought between the government army and the National Liberation Front (NLF), which was organised in 1941 by the Greek Communist Party. During the occupation of Greece by the Axis (1941-1944), the NLF had acquired significant influence throughout the country, in contrast to the monarch and the established politicians, who fled to Egypt and co-operated with the Allies. By the end of the Second World War the antithesis of right- and left-wing politics acquired a distinctive ideological dimension, which corresponded to the emerging rift between the United States and the USSR. The Greek Civil War attracted the interest of Britain and the United States, which understood that its outcome was bound to affect their strategic interests in the region.2 Britain, until 1947, and since then, the United States, intervened in order to achieve political stability and supported the king and the prevailing Right-wing governments. Greece was seen as an important link to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East and its connection to the West helped control access to those areas. In the ideological field, British and American intervention in the Civil War was seen as an antidote to USSR expansionism. Under these circumstances, Greece became the first testing ground for the US-USSR strategic antagonisms.’ After the war the country became a mainstream recipient of Marshall aid.4

The Greek Civil War ended in 1949 leaving the country financially and morally devastated. In a most crucial sense Greece entered its post-war period in the 1950s, and did so as a ‘Free World’ country. This Western orientation formed the basis on which Greece’s national identity was re-structured. In the 1950s and throughout the 1960s cultural politics were geared towards advancing Greece’s integration in the Western European frame. This process was by no means uniform, simple, or overtly controlled by a single source or centre. Different and often competing factors, such as the international French, German, and British cultural politics, the then-emerging Euro-American lifestyle of consumption, and the Greek intelligentsia, were shaping a contemporary European cultural profile for Greece.

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