Last revised July 23, 2017.

In the years that followed Athens often had to fight for its independence and the restoration of its system of democracy. Even during those times in which it was successful, however, the city’s autonomy was nominal, limited by outside forces and events, and supported by the benefactions of wealthy individuals. Nevertheless, Athens was able to survive, thanks to the brilliance of its past.

Signage in the Akropolis Museum, Athens, referring to the period after the death of Alexander the Great.

I once made the mistake of quoting to my undergraduates a French critic’s comment that Ingres was “a Chinese painter lost in the ruins of Athens.” This won me a lot of good ratings among the students, who liked that I’d discussed an artist other than the usual white men—and a lot of sideways glances from my colleagues, who thought I was going overboard with the multiculti.

Well, I’m happy to say that we’re all lost in the ruins of Athens now, and none more so than Documenta 14. This is the first time the international exhibition is scheduled to run at once in its usual setting of Kassel, and in Athens. Which is to say it’s the first time Documenta has moved outside the stultifying atmosphere of a Modernist Petrie dish that you get in the cultural vacuum of a small town in Germany—or the cultural vacuum, for that matter, of any number of art departments, anywhere.

Except for Athens, which since Cicero has provided the inescapable aesthetic and ethical foundation against which all cultural production in the West has been measured. “They are what we are; they are what we should be again,” wrote Schiller. To which Karl Marx wisely responded that no, we cannot be again what the Ancient Greeks were, and a good thing, too; that in any case the Greeks never were what we imagine them to be; instead, the Greeks help us confront what we shall be, based on what we’re not. Their intractable sense of the concreteness of material reality is something needed more than ever, now. This is not about imitating, it’s about measuring up, and there’s no more pathetic instance of this than the Greek entry for this year’s Biennale in Venice, sponsored among others by the Onassis Foundation and something called European Finance and Aerospace Ventures: a bunch of academics get together for a “scientific experiment” based on Aeschylus’ The Suppliants, a play about refugees “which poses a dilemma between saving the Foreigner and maintaining the safety of the Native.” Catharsis by committee.

I wandered into Athens’ National Archeological Museum to check out the contemporary piece or pieces placed there as a part of Documenta, but I somehow got lost between the bronze Poseidon/Zeus and the Artemision Rider. None of the staff knew where the works from Documenta were, until one burst out laughing and pointed me to the area by the cafeteria. There ought to be a special category for artworks that end up on display in the museum cafeteria…

Close by is the airy, verdant Epigraphic Museum. This time I was greeted at the door by a member of the “Documenta Chorus” as they call themselves. At least the Documenta contribution tried to address the exhibitions in the Museum itself: here and there among the regular displays of ancient tablets and inscriptions were a few black-and-white photographs of children’s graffiti from India. But why photographs? Is it the artist’s contention that the mere abstract presentation of reproductions somehow acts as a moral counter, let alone an aesthetic match? Knowing a few things about inscriptions and graffiti, Greek or otherwise, I could only regret that the photographer showed so little interest in her own material or that of the museum. Another artist lost among the lost. The working title for Documenta 14 was “Learning from Athens.” There are some forty sites throughout the city that are supposed to show contemporary artists' work, but I truly wonder how much “learning” “the artists demanded of themselves, as opposed to the “learning” they have the pretension of demanding from their audiences. The whole thing holds a whiff of the intolerable Situationist hubris by which a city becomes aestheticized from the mere fact that some artiste has deigned to walk through it.

Better to visit EMST, the National Museum of Contemporary Art, located in a former commercial building in a perfectly unpoetic area behind the Acropolis. This is where the bulk of Documenta is shown, and a lot of the work is interesting, neither particularly new nor particularly ambitious, just solid twentieth century Modernism.

Or, as some hubristic hack for the New York Times explains, “Every Documenta, since the first in 1955, has served as a manifesto about art’s current relevance and direction.” Bingo.