There is an old rule of media stating that, if something happens once, it’s a ‘phenomenon’; if it happens twice, it’s a ‘trend’; if it happens three times it’s a ‘law of nature’. We’re at the stage where the idea of Athens being one of the world’s modern cultural capitals has long surpassed the ‘trend’ status and has become a law of nature. If we believe all the reports in magazines and websites around the world, Athens is the place to be at the moment.
In just the first couple of weeks of May there were two news stories from established media (Travel + Leisure and the BBC), praising Athens’ status as the modern arts capital. “Despite the hardships it has weathered recently – from economic calamity to the refugee crisis – this ancient city is an astonishingly fun place to be right now, thanks to the young artists, dreamers, and entrepreneurs who have taken matters into the their own hands and started building the Athens they want to live in,” read the Travel + Leisure story, echoing dozens of similar articles written (and, by all accounts, currently being written) on the subject.
If we believe the reports, Athens is now flooded with international journalists, writers, and artists, coming together in this setting of dirty streets, empty shops and countless cafes and cocktail bars, to discuss politics and try to make sense of the world and the future of Europe.
This is not the first time, of course, that art-loving westerners have visited Greece to marvel at the country’s cultural significance. It happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when Athens became part of ‘Le Grand Tour’, the European elite’s rite-of-passage journey through the continent. Of course, Athens at the time was nothing but a small village, mostly inhabited by Arvanite shepherds, barely speaking any Greek, let alone being able to appreciate classical antiquity. This did not prevent the new monarchs of Greece – appointed by the great powers – to establish Athens as the new country’s capital, despite former capitals Nafplio and Aegina already being the places where the nation’s heart was beating. No, for all the European elite still under the Grand Tour influence, Athens was the place to be, it was the new – well, Athens. They wouldn’t let a few Albanian-speaking peasants spoil it for them, pretty much the way the art crowd does not mind a few (thousand) unemployed, desperate youth, homeless, refugees, and so on, ruin their idea of current Athens.
In fact, they love this ‘exotic’ aspect. Early on in the BBC story, British artist Michael Landy describes his experience dining outside at a restaurant in the Athens neighbourhood of Exarcheia – where the streets, home to anarchists, are thick with graffiti – when he was tear-gassed: “One moment, I was enjoying some vegetarian food, the next, there were all these guys with masks and wheelie bins, and a riot was taking place. It came out of nowhere. [. . .] The streets were barricaded, and then the police started tear-gassing everybody. [. . .] Athens is slightly lawless. But that’s one of the nicest things about it. It’s a really exciting place.”
Yes, some of us couldn’t handle this kind of excitement, so we opted to move to uneventful Melbourne instead.
All this talk of a newfound status is partly due to the fact that one of the world’s leading art events is taking place in the city. ‘Documenta’, usually held every five years in Kassel, Germany, chose Athens as its first co-host city, inviting the cream of the crop to present the cutting edge in contemporary art. Apparently, artists love a city plagued by poverty, unemployment, and political divide. It is under these situations, this kind of adversity, that great art thrives, so yes, the Art elite has its eyes focused on Athens at the moment, hoping that the city will become the incubator for the next ‘Dada’ or ‘Fluxus’ movement. After all, it took a massacre to create ‘Guernica’, no?
What is happening now in Athens is hardly a massacre, although some analysts already discuss a ‘sacrificed’ generation, deprived of any means to strive and advance. So, yes, a part of them decides to fight back. Some try their luck in start-ups, others become artists. Add to the mix a wave of migration, adding to the migrant communities that have inhabited the city for decades, and it is clear how Athens is transforming to a financially poor, but culturally rich city.
Its vibrant artistic community and underground scene has already made some proclaim Athens as being ‘the New Berlin’, a reference to the German capital’s status in the early 90s, after the tearing down of the Berlin Wall had made it a melting pot of communities and cultures.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Because, as useful as it might be for the media to describe something as ‘the new something else’, it is also misleading.
Proclaiming Athens as ‘the New Berlin’ is as valid as it is proclaiming it ‘the New Istanbul’, or the ‘New Tel Aviv’ (both cities which thrived culturally in the 2000s, sharing more cultural similarities with Athens than Berlin). Because by comparing it to any other city, these articles miss the point: Athens is just Athens. A modern, busy, dirty city, one of the ugliest in the world, with chaotic traffic and terrible planning, which is still, for all its ugliness, surprisingly welcoming to strangers and pleasant to walk through and discover its – scarce, hidden beautiful parts (apart from the obvious Parthenon). It has an energy of its own, which makes it what it is. It does not need approval from the art and leisure establishment.