Greece bailout: How the crisis fuels the arts in Athens
- 2 December 2012
- From the section Europe
It may not have the grandeur of Paris or Vienna but Athens has its own oddly shabby beauty. Beneath the magnificent archaeological sites, tree-lined streets hide pockets of elegance.
However, the city is also drab and unsightly in large areas, buildings choked with the fumes of traffic and cigarettes. It is many of these walls - grey and crumbling - that have been transformed by a burgeoning trend in street art.
For as the financial crisis has transformed parts of the city for the worse - once-affluent areas now beset by crime and prostitution - it has also inspired a flourishing community of graffiti artists, brightening up the capital with their acerbic and colourful creations.
Among them is the mysteriously named Bleeps.
Often compared to the British artist Banksy, he keeps his identity secret.
On a driving tour of his work, he points out an image that shows a woman holding a sign that reads "hopeless", next to words such as "monetary system", "capitalism" and "corruption".
Another depicts a banker clutching a safe, pursued by a figure representing death. A third, entitled "Greece's economic model" shows a girl with an amputated leg.
"I was in a sense lucky to live in this difficult era, although it's difficult for me as well," he says.
"It gave me the opportunity to discuss it and create images about it. If there weren't this crisis, my art would be like a voice in the desert. Nobody would listen to it."
While Greece is strangled by the worst financial crisis in its modern history, an alternative cultural scene seems to be fighting back.
State funding for the arts has been slashed by 30% in the past two years but the experience of living through today's Greece has spawned new and exciting cultural ideas.
In a small theatre in the capital, a young group performs their new show called 10 Centimetres Up. They, like many, have done away with props and scenery as budgets are tightened and so they rely on their impressive physical expertise and wit.
The play portrays three eras of Greece: the 1930s, the 1960s and the modern day. It is a visual feast: the actors play different roles and brilliantly act out inanimate objects.
References to the crisis are clear: a scene from today depicts tear gas-filled protests. In another, a homeless person is shown begging for small change "because I'm hungry".
At one point, the actors form the figure of the pro-austerity German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hated by many Greeks.
"Ich liebe Griechenland, ich liebe Deutschland," says the fictional chancellor, before repeating: "No hospitals, no education, no pensions, no, no, no."
At the end, a character from the modern day decides to remain in Greece while others leave.
"The crisis gave me a push to come back to my country and do something," says director Sofia Paschou, "because I had a very clear vision of what I wanted to say.
"It's that whatever the very bad situation that we're in, we are going to stay and survive. We're going to continue living and working and solving and dancing."
She says the crisis has brought together like-minded people who want to respond through their art.
"Instead of being angry on the streets breaking things, let our anger make something more positive, interesting and useful," she says.
That anger has spread into music too.
Hip-hop has become the sound of the crisis, with groups such as Psychodrama hitting out against the status quo in their lyrics.
The lead singer, Giorgos Siatitsas, has released a track that criticises the government and the media for spreading fear. The video contains strong images of street demonstrations, heavy-handed police action and poverty.
"With the crisis, my music has become angrier," he says.
"That helps my fans to express the rage they feel too. Before, music was for entertainment. Now it has a political message. Music could inspire people to overthrow the system."
The recession has of course made things tough. Many galleries now struggle to sell their art. Big museums have cut back on security staff, leading to two major robberies this year and spending cuts have stunted important archaeological projects and excavations.
But Maria Vlazaki from the ministry of culture believes the arts scene can continue to prosper.
"This ministry always had limited funding," she says.
"Of course we have far more problems now but in difficult times, culture survives. We have a wonderful cultural heritage but we don't rely on that. We will continue to be not just a country of ancient culture but of an exciting modern one too."
With the theatre of Sophocles, the philosophy of Plato and the epic poetry of Homer, Greece's cultural legacy to the world is unrivalled.
Today, from the street to the stage to the studio, money is scarce but ideas are abundant and a new crisis culture is being born.