Arts and Culture 2007-2015


HALF ART: Two sides to every Eurozone crisis

First appeared
Friday, 17 July 2015


The Eurozone is in crisis, but you wouldn’t know it along the banks of the Rhine. Here in Bonn, where the river follows a gentle north-western curve on its way from Koblenz to Cologne, daily activity continues pretty much unabated. On sunny days there is a gentle, pleasant bustle; on rainy days, tasks are completed with grim Teutonic determination.

Vessels of all kinds – cargo barges, ferries, tourist boats, rowing sculls – plough their way upstream, downstream and across the water. Cyclists and joggers track the contours of the river on pristine paths. Riverside bars and restaurants do a consistent trade: never quite brisk, never quite slow. The talks in Brussels earlier this week about what to do with Greece’s debt seemed very far away, even though Bonn is only two hours’ drive from the Belgian capital. 

There was a time when Bonn, as the seat of the West German government, was a hub for negotiations over all sorts of European political and economic sticking points. It still sees a bit of diplomatic action thanks to the United Nations (most recently with the UN’s attempt to secure a climate change deal in advance of the COP21 conference in Paris later this year). But when Alexis Tsipras side-eyes Angela Merkel, or Greeks curse German banks, it is the financial clout of Berlin and Munich that they have in mind.

Bonn is an inoffensive little city by contrast. Yet the people here are no less invested in the Greek bailout, and about the conditions that have been tentatively agreed upon. They know that, indirectly, a chunk of the money will come from their business and personal taxes; but they also know that a bankrupt Greece, or a Greece that leaves the Euro, threatens the regional stability on which German prosperity depends.

It is difficult to get a measure of ‘German sentiment’ about this issue – indeed, it is impossible, because there is widespread disagreement. When prominent magazine Der Spiegel joined other publications that have adopted an anti-Greek line, there was an immediate backlash from Germans who disavowed its ethnic caricaturing of Greek people and the nationalist tone of its suggestion that Germany ‘owns’ the indebted country.

Even Merkel and her rather unlikeable Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schauble, seem to differ in their views: she wants to ensure that Greece remains in the Eurozone, he is happy to toy with the idea – the threat – of a ‘temporary Grexit’. Or is this just a good-cop, bad-cop routine? If so, it may yet backfire on Merkel, who is increasingly looking like a bad cop by association. The German Chancellor has, over the last few years, built a reputation for sensible, pragmatic, non-egotistical politics; for decision-making by consensus and rule by coalition. Increasingly, however, she is seen as the face of German bullying.

Tsipras, for his part, also veers between being perceived as saviour of the German people and being labelled a ‘sell-out’ for accepting a deal that appears harsher on Greece than the austerity measures rejected by the ‘Oxi’ vote in the recent referendum. He is, as his former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis put it, “damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t” persuade his Syriza allies and other Greek parties to adopt the terms of the rescue package.

This ambivalence towards Merkel and Tsipras reflects other contradictory ‘truths’. If you read enough commentary on the situation, you start to believe that Greece both is and isn’t responsible for the extremity of its debt; that European banks both are and aren’t the greedy villains of the piece; that capitalism and privatisation are by turns desirable and deadly; that democratic socialism is at once absolutely necessary and desperately naïve.

This is where art can help, at least insofar as works of art constantly remind us (no less than quantum physics or philosophy) that two or more apparently mutually exclusive phenomena can manifest simultaneously. Two opposing interpretations of an image, text or performance can be sustained.

I discovered recently that the familiar optical illusion, “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law” – which is at once a picture of a beautiful young woman and an old crone – originated in Germany in 1888. Merkel and Tsipras might find this bit of trivia rather amusing. 



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