Anthony S. Papadimitriou

published 3.10.2017

Onassis Foundation President Speaks at Exhibition Opening Dinner March 8, 2017

by Anthony S. Papadimitriou

Your Eminence, Honorable Minister Koniordou, Excellencies, Professors, Colonel Bogdanos, Mr. George Tambikos, distinguished guests, and dear friends, we are proud to present A World of Emotions, an exhibition with over one hundred and thirty artifacts on loan from twenty Greek museums and nine prestigious European and North American institutions, an exhibition that emphasizes their artistry as well as their profound emotional meaning.

In their keen selection, our curators have envisioned an exhibition that attests to the excellence of ancient Greek artists while providing a window into the complex world of emotions. Taken together, all the works on display at the Onassis Cultural Center New York invite the public to reflect upon the significance of emotions and their ubiquitous presence in ancient and modern life.

More importantly, the artifacts appeal to the visitor’s empathy, our inborn ability to understand and share experiences and emotions. While we might not be able to decode the complex spectrum of emotions that shaped the ethos, philosophy, and politics of ancient Greek society, we can relate to it, as our interactions with the outside world are still dictated by the universal human urge to reveal, disguise, or suppress emotions.

The catalogue of the exhibition includes some very interesting and learned articles. I would like, if I may, to add that Emotions are very much an economic factor. In the first place, economic efficiency has to do with the maximization of the happiness of the greatest number of people. While it is true that money does not make happiness, it does go a long way towards it. Secondly, to a very large extent economic activity is driven not so much by rational decisions but by emotional reactions. Thus we describe the financial markets as being in panic or in euphoria. We think that financiers are driven by greed, etc. We would like to think that modern finance is a purely rational matter. In fact there is a lot of irrationality, whether it is irrational exuberance, panic, or not wanting to be alone when an important decision is made. It is often more comforting to be wrong in company than correct alone.

As to politics, again, emotions do play an important role. Most voters do not make rational decisions at an individual level. There is a debate about whether voters collectively will mysteriously make the correct decision at a basic level. If that is so, this would be a good reason not to ask voters complex questions! Politicians who put convoluted questions in referendum, usually get the correct answers to the wrong questions. It will not be, most of the time, the answer the politicians would have expected.

On a more fundamental level, I would ask the question whether emotion is really the opposite of LOGOS. In Greek the opposite of παθος would be απάθεια. Εμπάθεια, or empathy, is different. But are emotions binary, are they analogue and, to stretch the analogy, can they be digital? Μέτρον is another word that comes to mind. Can we have emotion, can we be a person with emotions and not lose the μετρον? As my wife Afroditi quoted to me: “Moderate emotions make life livable, extreme emotions make life interesting.” We have a very interesting life together.

This brings me to my last point. Emotions are really one of the defining and unifying factors of humanity. It is more likely that we differ from the rest of the living beings because we have emotions which we eventually rationalize, than because we have rationality. In any event, humans across the world are more unified by their common emotional responses than by any rational choices.

As we walked into the Onassis gallery tonight, we took a step toward a better understanding of the world of ancient emotions, and we were reminded of their importance in the contemporary world and society. It is through this comparison that we hope our visitors will leave the exhibition with a more profound awareness of the ancient Greek life and culture as well as of the modern social and cultural environment.

The contemporary approach to the theme of Emotions is highlighted by our new special commission, Black Frames, by artist Yannis Varelas. The impressive diptych that is displayed on the Art Wall will be a companion to the exhibition in the gallery below and yet another entry point into the world of emotions; this time from the perspective of contemporary art.

The Onassis Cultural Center New York also invited other cultural organizations in the city of New York to approach their programming through the lens of emotions. The Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New York Public Library, and Carnegie Hall, all long-standing partners of the Onassis Cultural Center, are participating in the world of emotions through specific events or, in the case of Carnegie Hall, in the curation of an emotions playlist.

I would like to extend my gratitude to the Hellenic Minister of Culture and Sports, Ms. Lydia Koniordou, for her institution's generosity in lending so many masterpieces of the Greek past, and the directors of the Greek, European, and North American institutions who supported this project with such important loans.

My gratitude goes to the curators of the exhibition, Angelos Chaniotis, a member of our Board in the US, who also provided the theoretical foundation of the exhibition, Nikolaos Kaltsas, a longstanding collaborator, and Ioannis Mylonopoulos, who organized such an original and intellectually engaging show. A warm thank you to the scholars that contributed to the catalogue accompanying the exhibition for their inspiring contributions to the understanding of ancient and modern emotions, and for their insights into the translation of feelings into art. I would like also to compliment the contributors of the explanatory panels of the artifacts. They provide a truly interesting narrative. In fact part of this exhibition’s originality is due to the underlying ιστορία, narrative, or story. We may owe this, to some extent, to my better half.

Finally, I wish to thank the team of the Onassis Foundation USA ably led by Amalia Cosmetatou,  for their work, dedication, and enthusiasm in organizing yet again another meaningful and stunning exhibition that furthers our knowledge and appreciation of the ancient Greek world.