Contemporary Art, Classical Learning and Charity Auctions

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I was amused on a number of levels to read a little feature in this morning’s @g2theguardian section about the inevitable banknote challenges for Greece if it is forced out of the Eurozone.

Four artists (comprising a fine artist, a cartoonist, an illustrator and an art critic) were invited to come up with suggestions, and Jonathan Jones, the paper’s art critic, decorated a 20 euro note with the words (in Greek to boot) “This is not €20”. I loved it. In my case, it appealed not only to the artist within and the philosopher within, but also the would-be classicist, the lover of languages and aspiring learner-of-Greek-some-day… Need I go on?

I don’t know if Jonathan Jones sees himself as an “artist” as such (I think his writing on art is insightful, thought-provoking and always interesting) but since anyone can make art anytime they choose, I don’t see labels as of any importance. But I do find it fascinating when people known in one sphere turn their hand with assurance to odd challenges in another, albeit related, sphere.

Of course, in this day and age, he needed to translate the Greek and explain the reference to Magritte’s famous artwork. I don’t say that in a patronising way: it’s just an observation reflecting my perception of how times change.

The g2 readership I expect is reasonably well educated. And yet how many graduates today can even read Greek, let alone understand it?

I fairly regularly buy ancient tattered editions of old books, and I’m always intrigued by the frequency with with 19th and up-to-mid 20th century writers used Greek, Latin, and French quotations and references in the body of the text without translation. The first few times I encountered this phenomenon and searched in vain for a translation, I was mystified by the absence of explanation. Then it dawned that none was necessary because the readership in those days was expected to just know. I found it pretty weird to think of a time within living memory when classical learning was the norm for a non inconsiderable proportion of people: at least in terms of a probably small class of readers.

I’m pretty envious of that era, actually. I love learning languages, and never miss an opportunity to acquire a couple of words in a new tongue.

So I’m forever grateful to the teacher at my lowest-common-denominator egalitarian seventies comprehensive who offered crash course O-level Latin to the Lower Sixth. And imagine my delight when at a charity auction, Himself bid for and won for me three hours of Greek tuition. You can just imagine how eagerly I embraced that learning session.

Regretfully, crash courses and an intensive three hours of learning have not provided me with much to go on. Easy come, easy go. In one ear and out the other.

But I persevere. I persevere.

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