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July 6, 2014

The politics of contemporary art censorship in modern Greece

Written by Maria Spanoudaki

The declaration that in a democracy, artistic creation should enjoy complete freedom may be considered given. However, when several artistic practices are prohibited in liberal countries like Greece, one cannot be categorical as to whether freedom of artistic ideas is a prerequisite. Two recent cases of censorship exemplify the Greek skeptical mindset regarding the contemporary subversive artistic production.


In June 2007, the International Art fair Art-Athina took place at Helexpo Palace. One of its exhibitions included a video by Eve Stefani, named National Anthem, which was violently seizured. The police stormed in the venue unexpectedely, retrieved it and arrested the general manager of Art-Athina.[i] Five years later, in October 2012, the premiere of Terrence McNally's controversial play Corpus Christi (1998) was cancelled by a number of homophobic members of the far-right party Golden Dawn and some religious groups.

It seems that from a historical perspective, as culture and consequently art is a derivative of public controversy[ii], censorship is also profoundly linked with forms of power and social structures. Until today it can be detected in every society, regardless of their political systems.[iii] In Greece, the government monopolises the implementation of cultural policies and their priorities.[iv] Censorship practices are delivered by the state, but are often the aftermath of public demanding. The Greek Constitution recognises the freedom of artistic expression as well as the state's obligation to support artistic creativity according to Article 16, paragraph 1.[v] The state is also committed to aesthetic and artistic neutrality.[vi] The constitutional provision for freedom of art does not impose boundaries against certain individuals or certain artistic practices. Thus, art may only be restrained in the case of protecting legitimate public or private property.[vii] Art also differs from all other human activities since the law is unable to regulate its scope because of the vagueness of the term and its incompatibility with the legal rhetoric that looks for objective definitions. Nonetheless, considering the recent censorial incidents, it can be presumed that artistic freedom is rather not self-evident in Greece.

The video National Anthem combined two different narratives. It referred to the exploitation of the national symbols by the authoritarian policy of the Greek state during the 1960s and 1970s and to the spreading use of pornography in film as an outlet for repressed instincts. According to the art critic Manos Stefanidis:

Eve Stefani mounts a visual picture (nude woman masturbating (...)) and a melody (the Greek national anthem played by the band of The Junta of 1967–1974, which symbolizes the totalitarian state and its empty rhetoric). The masturbation and the state symbol are opposing one another and speak of the private and the public, the exclusion and the arbitrariness.[viii]

The video referred to political and personal history but it was accused for insulting national symbols and for public indecency due to obscenity. Similarly, the play Corpus Christi was accused of blasphemy because it satirically depicts Jesus and the Apostles as homosexual men living in Texas[ix]. The highlights of the play include Judas betraying Jesus out of sexual jealousy and Jesus administering gay marriage between two apostles.

The Greek censorial demand in these cases sprung initially from sections of the public, and then from the state. In the first case, by an anonymous phone call to the police and in the second by members of the far-right party Golden Dawn and a number of religious groups. From a legal point of view, restrictions on freedom of expression can only be imposed in the case of protecting human rights.[x] In this case there is no such concern, since the aim is not to protect a specific right but to protest and incriminate for personal reasons, under the excuse of obscenity, blasphemy and homosexuality.

Civil society is a contradictory and competitive arena, and can embody resistance to censorship, but at the same time can be the censorship itself, especially when it comes to nationalists, religious fundamentalists and puritans.[xi] Regarding the discussed cases of censorship, the need for art to create its own world conflicts with the religionists’ absolute truth regarding the existence of a single world. In their view, the insults towards dominant religious views imply a collision with the church. Nevertheless, the criminalization of blasphemy is an anachronistic practice which jeopardizes the core of the civil liberties and exacerbates the religious character of a state.[xii]

Evidently, art that engages with sensitive social issues in a groundbreaking manner or refers to the fairly recent exculpation of various minorities, like the gay community, is in most cases rejected as threatening by greek society. One reason for this reluctance may lie in the fact that a large part of the public is indifferent to politics[xiii] and social affairs, and rely on mainstream-values and the mass media as sources to increase their knowledge. Only very few update themselves about new ways of thinking around gender and sexual identity or questions raised by contemporary art. Hence, since we do not refer to an authoritarian regime, the censorship measures could be a product of social apathy and ignorance.

Secondly, Greek society is witnessing an ever-growing complexity and diversity of needs, and the reinforcement of particular organised groups at the moment. The Golden Dawn party exerts effective pressure to satisfy its political purposes, by appropriating public indignation and by claiming that its practices identify with the interests of the commonweal. Greek neo-fascists are assuming the power of censorship and ‘are exploiting local fears[xiv] about the internationalisation of labour’ in order to honour old-fashioned views,[xv] which jeopardise equality, freedom and societal progress. These conflicts are not only the outcome of the traditionalist past of Greece that based its prosperity on the values of patriotism, religion and family[xvi]or the result of the weakness of the Constitution to protect artistic freedom. They were fostered in an uncertain present of social change and precariousness, which was brought about by social, political and economical deformation. Hence, censorship incidents are bound to persist until the alterations that the Greek society currently faces can be dealt with. If not, then the very future of artistic expression could be at stake. Contemporary productions which encourage political, ideological or social change will be limited and artists may face difficulties or even prosecution, in their attempt to reflect their experiences and express what matters to them.

Censorship is an anachronistic and unsuitable mechanism of mediation between individuals' preferences and the dominant taste. Artistic freedom cannot, either, be reduced to a personified violator that is supposed to yield to the judgments of its opponents. What is needed is an intellectual community that will evaluate contemporary cultural practices to shed a broader light on why phenomena are considered permissible or shocking in the first place:  An assembly of artists, theorists and policymakers who would stimulate public dialogue about the societal meaning of art and culture, with a primary goal of eliminating dogmatism.


Maria Spanoudaki is a project coordinator and curator based in London.



[i] Ziogas et al., 2008, p. 309

[ii] Lewis & Miller, 2003, p. 25

[iii] Jansen, 1988, p. 4

[iv] Dallas, 2011

[v] Chrisogonos, 2002, p. 305

[vi] Chrisogonos, 2002, p. 306

[vii] Tsakirakis, 2005, p. 193

[viii] Stefanidis, 2007

[ix] Mcnally, 1998

[x] Tsakirakis, 2005, p. 119

[xi] Kurtovik, 2005

[xii] Christopoulos, 2008, p. 81

[xiii] On the critical elections of June 2012, the abstinence reached 34.91% (Georgiopoulou, 2012).

[xiv] “As the crisis deepens [..] violent scenes erupting even in parliament – there is a smell of fear in Athens, as well as one of numb depression.” (Margaronis, 2012).

[xv] Penny, 2012

[xvi] Tsakirakis, 2005, p. 76



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