Provocation: Athens, a Work-in-Progress

Stephe Harrop


This provocation contests the familiar construction of classical Athens as an ideal exemplar of democratic politics through a focus on the city’s material fabric, its visual artworks, and the performances which took place within its public spaces. It highlights the city’s ongoing process of material re-building (particularly following the Persian invasion of 480 BCE), during which process many of its old artworks were appropriated or re-purposed to express democratic aspirations and anxieties. It also foregrounds the ongoing tensions given articulation through the city’s new showpiece building projects and performance events, including theatrical tragedy and comedy. The aim, throughout, is to challenge clichéd (and idealising) views of classical Athens as a unified and serene white-marble vista. Instead, this provocation cultivates an alternative vision of the democratic city as unfinished, insecure, and frequently disunited: a permanent “work-in-progress” in both a material and a political sense. In conclusion, the Athens of the fifth century BCE is re-positioned as a timely (though not a “timeless”) reminder to today’s politically-engaged artists, educators, and activists that democratic self-definition and practice can only be sustained through a vigorous, ongoing, and open-ended process of debate, confrontation, and contestation within the civic and creative spaces of the city.


fifth-century Athens; democracy; Greek tragedy; Greek comedy; Parthenon; classical sculpture

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