This is what has caused a major diplomatic row between Athens and Skopje yesterday. A billboard announcing an exhibition of a young Macedonian artist, Atanas Botev, showing the Greek flag “enhanced” by a swastika and by members of his family, who have been expelled from Greece at the end of the 1940ies. Had this come at any other time, the Greek embassy probably wouldn’t have bothered. Or it would have been one of many minor incidents. In other words, it is not the work of art in itself, but the context – the hopefully final phase of this absurd name dispute – that defines the amplitude of the event.
It is bordering stupidity to think that this type of billboard will do nothing but provoke in this period of heightened sensitivity. There is no doubt that it produces damage to the Macedonian cause, offering additional arguments to Greek opponents of a deal. Cheap arguments. The organisers of this exhibition should be aware of the consequences of their deeds, especially as state employees, which they are.
But: it is not up to the Greek government to judge them, the artist, or the Macedonian government for that matter. A democracy as strong and tolerant as Greece claims to be should be able to stand beyond this small act of provocation. I remember numerous demonstrations of anarchists on Athens’ Eleutheria square, where the Greek government was denounced as “fascist”. Greek society survived those provocations. How much less should it feel challenged by a work of art?
Not all art is good art. Far from it. But we have to stand firmly in favour of the right of artists to express themselves, whether we like what they have to say or not. The Danish Mohammed caricatures are miserable as pieces of art. Nevertheless the newspaper had a right to publish them and to withstand pressure from a bunch of medieval-minded imams. The film on Islam by Dutch MP Geert Wilders is ridiculously simplistic and poor in quality. Nevertheless he has a right to publish it if he chooses so. And LiveLeak should be applauded for bringing it back on-line, after initially succumbing to threats.
Atanas Botev as an artist has a right to deal with his family’s history in which ever way he chooses fit. It is up to us as public or critics to judge his works. It is the right of a gallery to organise an exhibition and produce advertising billboards for it. It is their right to misjudge the political impact of their deed. The right to express ourselves freely is a human right, intelligence isn’t.
Vision? Hiding again, come on…