Dispatch from Athens #5: Bread, education, freedom…and roses
Bread, education, freedom…and roses too
The impotence of the old political order in Athens found perfect expression this week in an eccentric intervention by the centre-left mayor of Athens, Giorgos Kaminis.
The decline of other social democratic figures more firmly associated with the parties of disrepute has made him a fairly prominent figure.
So was he gripped by the same kind of death wish that seems to possess so much of the rest of the political class when he bizarrely threatened to deploy what’s left of the municipal workforce to tear down every party’s election posters on the grounds that they constitute “pollution”.
Now — let’s put to one side the fact that quite a few derelict buildings in the centre of the city are standing thanks only to an exoskeleton of fly-posting.
Kaminis seems to have forgotten the fate of every other civic leader over the last 40 years who has promised to put an end to Athens’ posters, graffiti and street art.
They have disappeared into obscurity, while the riot of visual imagery has grown steadily richer — with new material provided through perennial, actual riots and street confrontation.
The resilience of street propaganda is testament to the inability of the political class — traditionalist and modernising — to roll back the immense social and political radicalisation of the 1970s years of Metapolitefsi.
The 2004 Athens Olympics brought a continuity of Herculean effort to clean up the city by the Pasok government and its New Democracy successor, which came in a couple of months before the jamboree.
I remember the public relations disaster of brand new Metro trains rolling into spruced up stations to pick up International Olympic Committee flunkeys, but covered totally in anti-system, anti-Olympics graffiti. The Greek taxpayer, incidentally, is still paying Siemens and other, largely German, corporations for the privilege of hosting the games.
The look and feel of the city is very different from London or even New York, which have seen a sustained clampdown on postering and graffiti. One result is that political posters continue to be a front line for artistic innovation.
There are, it must be admitted, a fair few Left organisations whose visual style makes no concessions to the advances in typography and design of the 20th century. You can find A0 posters in the style of a London Times front page from 1870 — with several thousand words at 9pt on a very wide column width.
I am convinced that the exotic anti-Moscow, erstwhile Maoist organisation which produces these screeds has done some backroom deal with the Greek equivalent of Specsavers.
But there are flashes of genius of the kind that John Heartfield and other graphic artists of the 1930s pioneered.
And there is routinely good, simple design like Syriza’s main campaign poster: Hope is coming: Greece is going forward, Europe is changing.
Less innovative, but ubiquitous, is the graffiti. Perhaps the most widespread now is the black spray-painted slogans of the considerable anarchist or autonomist currents.
Their graffiti began to predominate six years ago during the huge youth uprising which followed the police killing of school student Alexis Grigoropoulos in December 2008.
Alexis was hanging out with friends near one of the squares synonymous with the radical anti-capitalist scene — Exarcheia, at the back of the Polytechnic. The college’s buildings themselves bear witness to four decades of uninterrupted graffiti, largely from the Left.
And the old slogan “Bread, Education, Freedom” reverberated again in Exarcheia in memory of Alexis.
Neither painted nor postered sloganeering is new. What is noticeably novel is the development over the last few years — really since the imposition of the austerity memorandums — of a street art, and a performance culture, which imbue a much more demotic visual language than the set-piece political interventions.
It has always struck me as incongruous that the graffiti of the most libertarian tendency on the Greek Left — the anarchists — seems to have been written by the same hand or according to the strictest of style sheets.
The words and images that began to arise following the riotous Christmas of 2008 speak to the genuine flowering of individual expression which comes from mass participation in the public sphere.
So transient works of art now dominate large parts of the run-down city centre of Athens. It’s way beyond my competence to venture a critical assessment of them.
This one, just near the Metro station servicing the Acropolis has a lot going for it, in my view. Come to Athens and form your own opinion.
What I do feel able to say is that there is something persistent and authentic about this popular street art which is missing from what are now the hipster areas of London’s Shoreditch and Hoxton.
Those parts of London’s East End have followed the dreary fate of the once edgy Lower East Side in New York.
The drearification went something like this. Inner-city area, poor, immigrant, de-industrialised, cheap as chips and with semi-derelict warehouses and other spaces becomes through word of mouth home to hard up painters, photographers, art students and artists of all kinds.
The kaleidoscopic street scenes and clash of people and profit-seeking on the border of the financial district — the City of London and Wall Street — fuel creativity.
Pretty soon, the first galleries open. The place officially becomes hip. The hipsters move in. All sorts of art-hangers on drive up the property prices. A few artists are “discovered”. More are discouraged by the rampant commercialism, which they had thought they might escape.
The newly arrived “creatives” complain about the “immigrants” who, in fact, had been there somewhat longer than yet another Apple-imitation advertising or design company.
What you are left with is some highly stylised graffiti art which has become a pastiche of itself, the privatisation of once public space and the suffocation of the vital mix which made the area attractive and artistically fruitful in the first place.
The intersection of a street radicalisation and its visual artistry on the one hand with the catastrophic economic collapse which has ripped the heart out of commercial Athens on the other foreclosed any Shoreditch scenario here.
While no one would wish the economic hardship, the restricted space for commercial incorporation of oppositional culture is welcome.
Filmmaking is naturally more susceptible to commercial pressure and directives than street art. But the crisis years in Greece have brought a renaissance in Greek film — cinema and documentary.
This evening I caught again with some friends the pathbreaking 2009 film Kynodontas (Dogtooth). It is difficult to describe how it conveys the dislocation of the shock therapy imposed by austerity through a nightmarish parable of the patriarchal, upstanding, petit bourgeois family.
That it is disturbing is an understatement worthy of Sophocles — it makes David Lynch’s Blue Velvet look like Mary Poppins.
Its success at Cannes and its Oscar nomination presented the Greek bourgeoisie with a problem. How to revel in the national cultural recognition and at the same time ignore utterly the excoriation of Greek society that the film — and others since — haunted the audience with?
It decided to fall back on yet more very tired productions of classics of Greek drama.
But here too they remain ignorant of the irony, even as they pretend to be enjoying an Aristophanes’ comedy.
The Greek dramatic tradition was public, plebeian and musical. The poetry school students are meant to analyse like a mathematical equation was performed. It was rude, incendiary, political and popular.
Those are the qualities found now in impromptu street parties, performance poetry, spoken word, dramas and song.
One of the stars emerging from these dark years was rap artist Pavlos Fyssas. It was his murder in September 2013 by Golden Dawn fascists which brought tens of thousands of predominantly young people onto the streets in a turning point in the anti-fascist struggle.
Reeling from the impact of that movement, the fascists today tried to claw back some initiative with a libel action against Dimitris Psarras, a veteran anti-fascist journalist and researcher.
The case was brought by GD chief thug, MP and jailbird Ilias Kasidiaris. The judge, despite grotesque intimidation from Golden Dawn supporters who had packed the courtroom (an indication that they will not tiptoe from the stage of history) threw the case out and found Psarras not guilty.
It was particularly delicious to see the verdict delivered by a female judge. Kasidiaris notoriously assaulted two women MPs of the Left on television — one from the Communist Party and one from Syriza — and boasted that they needed “a good slap”.
So I have some qualms digressing today about culture and street art as people go cold tonight on the streets and the forces of barbarism continue to organise.
But it was Hitler’s poet laureate who coined the phrase, “Whenever I hear ‘culture’ I take the safety off my Browning.”
So as we turn later this week to examine the fascist Right and begin the more enjoyable journey of tracing the historical roots of today’s growing Greek Left, let’s remember that our survival in this crisis decade cannot be through bread alone — we need roses too.
- Left Flank exclusive: Daily reports on Greece’s election
- Dispatch from Athens #1: Rules of the game
- Dispatch from Athens #2: The Right cornered, but fighting
- Dispatch from Athens #3: Fear meets a movement of hope
- Dispatch from Athens #4: The ruins of the centre Left
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