The history of Art is also a history of Autonomy

Written by Alexandros Schismenos

“BERNANDA – Then why are we on strike?
MOHAMET – Listen to her! Because they too are a step.
LUCAS – Like a step after a strike, it’s a squat.
CROWD – Go on then. Go get ’em, and we’ve got ’em!”

Skourtis, “Strike or the struggle of the classes by those who struggle” (1975)

Are you listening? In Greece the people of the arts are on strike, in a direct clash with the government’s effort to degrade their degrees formally and art itself politically.

Their demands call for the withdrawal of Presidential Decree 85/2022, the recognition of arts degrees and the creation of Higher Schools of Performing Arts. The means of their struggle are diverse, self-organized and escalating, from protest performances to marches to strikes to theatre occupations.

Theatrical improvisation becomes a way of social struggle.

The marches become impromptu musical celebrations. Strikes fill the streets with art. Squats become autonomous spaces of culture. What is this?

A pedagogy of resistance, a pedagogy of embodied, experienced art, but also a collective, directly democratic, public political pedagogy. This transcends the demand, makes the social struggle a historical event and, like any socio-historical event, gives birth to the present. What does it give birth to? Consciences. That is, a future. A future for real democracy.

What do the mobilisations of artists, performers, and thousands of solidarity workers on the street suggest to us? Beyond their immediate demands, something broader, socially and historically, is emerging. A historicity of subversive artistic creation and social coexistence.

A past, present and future linked to the wider social struggles for emancipation and autonomy.

Let’s look at the recent present, first.

The occupations began at the Chiller building and the second stage of the National Theatre, the Rex Theatre on Panepistimiou Street, the Drama School of the National Theatre, the Drama School of the National Theatre, the Royal Theatre in Thessaloniki, the Drama School of the Patras Theatre, the Apollon Theatre in Patras, the School of Fine Arts of the University of Peloponnese.

What do these squats do? Let’s look at the activities of the National Theatre occupation of the Chiller Building.

On Wednesday, after a march of tens of thousands towards the Parliament across Syntagma square and back to the squat of the National Theatre, a live concert was held by the Open Orchestra, on Thursday another concert by Sourloulou, on Friday a third concert with Marina Satti, Spyros Grammenos, Magic De Spell, Delivoria etc., which filled the whole avenue with thousands of people in the freezing cold, warmed by social solidarity.

Every day improvised theatrical and musical events were organised in the surrounding streets, followed by open assemblies! Now all the residents of Athens have seen how an uninhibited occupation brings public space to life when it is not crushed by the violence of batons and drowned by tear gas.

Occupations are autonomous spaces of culture, whereas violence against social movements is always, and by definition, primarily exercised by the state. But the state does not dare yet to unleash its repressive battalions against the National Theatre, not because it respects the actors or the National Theatre or history or even the art of theatre. It has no respect at all for the culture it degrades.

The Drama School of the National Theatre was founded in 1930. It was taught by Hurmouzios, Roderis, Paxinou, etc. On Wednesday 8 February, under the sole responsibility of the Mitsotakis government, after the resignation of all the professors as an act of protest and the loss of a year of students, for the first time in history it ceased to function. The teachers who resigned, as well as the struggle of their students, found support from the Board of Directors of the National Theatre.

Let’s read their historic announcement:

Athens, 8 February 2023



We, the teachers of the Drama School of the National Theater of Athens, Greece we have voiced our opposition to the recently passed law (Presidential Decree) ΠΔ 85/2022, which officially downgrades the performing arts studies, creates a series of issues in the professional labour of our field, and devalues our sector. We announced that on 24 January 2023, we stated our decision to resign from our duties as teachers, on 8 February 2023, if there was no substantial amendment of the Presidential Decree in the meantime. This has been the way we have chosen to support the basic claims of our students who have occupied the National Theatre Drama School.

At the expiration of the deadline we imposed on February 7th, 2023, the Deputy Minister of Culture, Mister Yatromanolakis, called an urgent meeting with a delegation of us and presented the initiatives he had already taken recently on the relevant issue (including the recent amendment decrees), as well as a series of intentions for future improvements.

We consider that these suggestions do not satisfy our basic requests. For up to now, there is no public statement committing to a substantive amendment of the Presidential Decree ΠΔ 85/2022 concerning the integration of the graduates of Performing Arts Schools in the category of having completed an undergraduate degree of T.E. (Technological Education) category and the recognition/grading of their studies.

Therefore, being aware of the critical situation and the importance of this decision, we regret to inform you that we proceed to resign and terminate our cooperation with the Drama School of the National Theatre, Greece. We renounce both our current contracts and/or their renewal for the second semester according to the curriculum of the year.

The State should take its responsibilities towards the students who are at the risk of losing their academic year, but also towards the dignity of the Drama School of the National Theatre of our country, which is subverted by this Presidential Decree.

Anestis Azas / Io Voulgaraki / Alexandros Voulgaris / Charalambos Gogios / Christos Dimas / Fokas Evagelinos / Evita Zimali / Thalia Istikopoulou / Grigoris Ioannidis / Alexandra Kazazou / Simos Kakalas / Alexia Kaltsiki / Dionysis Kapsalis / Chara Kefala / Maria Kehayioglou / Katerina Kozadinou / Rinio Kyriazi / Panagiota Konstantinakou / Georgia Mavragani / Yannis Metzikof / Thomas Moschopoulos / Konstantinos Bouboukis / Yannis Dalianis / Vicky Panagiotaki / Thanos Papakonstantinou / Aglaia Pappa / Konstantina Pitsiakou / George Sabatakakis / Petros Sevastikoglou / Angeliki Stellatou / Sylla Tzoumerkas / Ioanna Toumpakari / Angelos Triantafyllou / Prodromos Tsinikoris / Lena Filippova / Taxiarhis Hanos / Nikos Hatzopoulos / Argyro Chioti

The next day, the Drama School of the Theatre Theatre ceased to function, with the resignation of all its professors.

No, the state simply cannot unleash the truncheons against the showcase of culture, the theatre that fills the coffers of tourism in the country where theatre was invented. But that is as far as it goes. That is the only limit of the state. And not an absolute one.

Let’s go back to the past. Let’s go to this birth in ancient Athens, by Thespis. It was not an accidental event, it was an integral part of democracy. The philosopher K. Papaioannou identifies in ancient Athens, in the “audience of the theatre of Dionysus”, an inner and indissoluble relationship between the tragic theatre and the political institution, a unique socio-historical situation where the distinction between the tragic and the political has been removed, where theatre has been integrated into the social organization and political functions, which he calls “Theatrocracy”.

It is a society that confronts the institutions of power as a tragic problem, a problem that it confronts publicly and explicitly through the expressive means of tragedy in the context of public dramatic struggles. Tragedy thus emerges as a central institution of political education, public reflection and the internalisation of responsibility by citizens. The thinker finds there a place of pre-formation of the mass into a collective political force, recalling the role of the theatre as the place where the municipality participated in the historical life of organised society, before the radicalisation of Athenian democracy, i.e. before the handing over of the powers of the Supreme Court to the Parliament and the Church with the reforms of Ephialtes in 462/1 BC. There, in the context of the dramatic struggle, the people, the municipality and indeed the people beyond the municipality, the women, could exist as a ‘Dionysian Chorus ecstatic […] with Justice’ (Papaioannou 2003, 99) before acquiring full historical self-awareness and self-activity in the political field.

On the other hand, Castoriadis identifies in the evolution of tragedy the movement of human self-knowledge from “the idea of a divine anthropogony to the idea of human self-creation.” (Castoriadis 2001, 37) And he also identifies an institution of self-limitation of the municipality itself, a basic institution of self-knowledge and self-criticism in public space and time where citizens judge the poet and are judged by the inner emotion he creates for them. But also, where the poet creatively judges tradition, transforming myths by drawing new meanings, new meanings that communicate directly with the historical movement of the time and, above all, with a public that collectively makes political decisions in a similar way. An institution of autonomy in the field of public discourse.

Let us leave the gap of centuries that separates us from the birth of tragedy, let us come to the birth of modernity. We also find an actress, a female protagonist in the French Revolution.

Claire Lacombe was born on August 4, 1765 and when the French Revolution broke out she was an actress in an itinerant troupe. In 1792 she made a speech to the National Assembly: And you, mothers, while I do my duty by fighting the enemies of the country, fulfill yours by instilling in your children the love of freedom and the hatred for tyrants!”

She led the uprising of August 10 1792 where the crowd occupied the Palais des Tuileries and arrested the king – during the occupation she was shot in the arm but continued, winning popular admiration and the nickname “heroine of August 10”.

With the ideal of direct democracy and full equality of the sexes, she founded the women’s association Société des Citoyennes Républicaines Révolutionnaires in May 1793, and collaborated with the Lyssamenes in planning a new democratic uprising. The group was disbanded in September 1793 by the Jacobins of the government, of which Anaxagoras Chaumet declared: “I want my wife to look after the house while I am involved in politics.”

Lacombe publicly accused the Committee of General Safety of its “wicked policy of imprisoning the best”, and was imprisoned until 1795 when she briefly returned to the theatre before being committed to a mental hospital for five years until her death in May 1826, at the age of 61.

But the struggle between social autonomy and state power does not end there, as we know. Art flourishes with the revolutions of modernity and becomes modern itself through the revolutions.

I remembered what Professor Kristin Ross was telling us about the Paris Commune that abolished the separation between artists and craftsmen:

“In 1871 Eugene Pottier and the Federation of Artists under the Commune overturned the hierarchy at the core of the art world, the hierarchy that granted enormous privileges, prestige and financial advantages to those who practiced the ‘fine arts’ (painters and sculptors) – privileges, prestige and financial security that decorative artists, theatre actors and skilled craftsmen simply could not obtain under the Second Empire.

Why shouldn’t the work of craftsmen have the same value as the work of artists?

The Federation, which brought together “all artistic geniuses, in complete independence from the state”, issued a manifesto that ends with the phrase: “We will work cooperatively for our rebirth, the birth of communal luxury, future splendour and world democracy”.

Let’s move on to Greece’s recent past.

In September 1919 the first big strike of actors in Greece began, which lasted two weeks. The newspapers of the time, unlike the silence of the media today, dealt with this serious issue that disrupted the social life of the capital:

“Yesterday a strike of the actors broke out, since their demands for improvement of their position, submitted by their petition to the employers’ union, were not accepted”. (Acropolis newspaper, 13/9/1919) –

The Greek Actors’ Union, founded in 1917, demanded better wages, a minimum percentage of profits and improved working conditions. The striking actors staged their own improvised shows while the thespians tried to hold out with scabs: “The theatres of Kyveli and Kotopouli, continue performances as usual” – Two weeks later, Athens had experienced days of theatrical revolt and the strike ended with a compromise. As a secondary consequence of the strike, the first Professional School of Theatre was founded in 1923, the forerunner of today’s drama schools.

The rest is known from the news, as the saying goes.

And the future of this temporality?

The future is written in the occupations of theatres and drama schools.

On February 14 the theatre students made the following call for global solidarity:

“Dear colleagues, friends and the members of international artistic community outside of Greece,

On the occasion of the recent voting of the Presidential Decree 85/2022, dated December 17, 2022, it is urgent to address the international artistic community in order to inform you about the country’s current situation regarding the cultural and political state of affairs.

The implementation of the Decree 85/2022, downgrades the status of graduates from drama, performing arts, conservatories, cinema, and dance schools by equating them with ordinary high school graduates. There has long been a strong request for the strengthening of the cultural sector. Among the demands were and still are: the request for higher education in the arts; setting up more public institutions that keep in line with the contemporary identity of the field; the reinforcement of the infrastructures; increase of the funding for the artistic work.

In contrast, the actual Decree disregards the already precarious educational and working conditions. Αt the moment, we are forced to confront the devaluation of obvious educational and professional rights.

In the wake of this situation, a series of massive and collective actions have been undertaken against this governmental act:

General Strike and Demonstrations of the artistic sector 2/2/23
General Strike and Demonstrations of the artistic sector 8/2/23
Resignation of teachers of the Drama School of the National Theatre of Greece
Resignation of teachers of the Drama School of the National Theatre of Northern Greece
Occupation at the Drama School of the National Theatre of Greece
Occupation at the main stage National Theatre (Ziller Building)
Occupation at the Main stage theatre REX of the National Theatre of Greece
Occupation at the National School of Dance (KSOT)
Occupation at the School of the State Theatre of Northern Greece
Occupation at the National Theatre of Northern Greece
Occupation at the Drama School of the Patras Theatre
Abstinence of students and faculty members from art classes all over the country
Occupation at the University of Peloponnese-School of Arts

We ASK our colleagues from the cultural field abroad to sign, as an indication of concern and support for the Greek artistic community. WE ASK YOUR SOLIDARITY AND ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT. We will be grateful, if you could distribute the letter among your communities. RECLAIM WITH US! 

➔ You can support it by sending an email to : please keep in mind that we would like to include your signature in a public list (either you can sign as an institution or as individual artist/cultural worker)”

Let’s respond: We are listening!!

February 15, 2023

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