New dividing line appears in the heart of Athens

By Harry van Versendaal

“The only good thing about graffiti is that it pisses off the liberals. Which is good enough, I suppose.”

Of the dozens of comments on social media about the controversial graffiti that appeared last week on the walls of the historical Athens campus of the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA), better known here as the Polytechnic, this one appeared the most sincere. Put in other words, the enigmatic mural is not necessarily appreciated because it is beautiful. It is appreciated because it provokes. The argument may sound politically adolescent, but it is at least sincere.

Because it’s hard to see how the artistic intervention on Stournari Street can possibly remind somebody of Picasso’s “Guernica,” or a painting by Jackson Pollock, as some on social media have suggested. Similarly, it’s hard to see how one can feel repressed by bourgeois order and cleanliness, as it were, when they live in the otherwise fine neighborhood of Exarchia, where there is not a clean wall to be seen.

Nor is it possible to interpret the work as a Foucauldian “heterotopia,” that is, as an unconventional space that exists in opposition to the dominant mode of social ordering. The truth is, a clean and tidy public building in the heart of Athens would make a more fitting heterotopia.

Polarization simplifies classification. Anyone annoyed by the scrawls on the marble of an – already neglected – historic monument such as the Polytechnic so often get labeled, in the best case as a prig or at worst as a misanthropic champion of (neo)liberalism. Expressing one’s concern or indignation about what happens to the city’s walls is interpreted as a dividing line between humanitarians and the rest.

Who are the rest? “Those who complain about the graffiti on the Polytechnic are the epitome of Greek fascism.” The same people who see fascism everywhere perceive the black-and-white mural on Stournari Street as freedom of expression.

Too bad for the tasteful among the ideologues who feel obliged to declare their appreciation for the work.

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