On 18 December 2017, Austria’s new right-wing coalition government was sworn in. Ever since, local and international onlookers have wondered what this pivot means for Austrian culture in general and its visual arts in particular.
Last month the government presented its five-year programme in an 182-page tome. In the document’s Art and Culture section, the coalition – a union of the centre-right People’s Party and far-right Freedom Party, the latter founded in the 1950s by former Nazi officials – laid out its culture points. Many are straightforward and optimistic: ‘The foundation of our cultural politics is that of guaranteed freedom of art and culture in the constitution,’ but one passage states that ‘engagement with our common cultural heritage […] contributes significantly to Austria’s sense of identity.’ The document also uses the phrase ‘To every time its art, to art its freedom.’
The last bit is the motto of Vienna’s Secession – the venerable artist-run exhibition space founded in 1897 by Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffmann, and other artist-mavericks. Still in its original Art Nouveau building, Secession remains one of Vienna’s top venues for international contemporary art (on view until 28 January are shows by R.H. Quaytman and Olga Chernysheva). The Secession board promptly issued a public statement, including the following:
‘Freedom of the arts is necessarily premised on internationality, pluralism, and dialogue. The notion that art’s purpose is to buttress a national collective identity presses it into a service that runs counter to its thematic diversity […] An open society is the air that art needs to breathe.’
Considering the Freedom Party’s history of overt nationalism and recent anti-immigration fearmongering, one can only wonder what its notion of the Austrian common heritage, or freedom in general, might consist of. ‘When you use [a motto] like this, which sounds very snappy, you should also know what it means for the people it comes from,’ Secession president Herwig Kempinger told me. ‘If you agree, no problem. If you don’t agree, perhaps agree to not use it anymore.’ No one from the government has responded to the statement thus far.
In mid-December, too, the rectors of all of Austria’s art schools found it ‘necessary’ to issue a collective statement; its ten points outline a ‘plea for a democratic concept of art and culture.’ Art and culture in a democracy, among other things, are ‘an expression of societal, political, and economic processes that (have always) develop(ed) beyond nation-states’s borders’ and ‘promoting with public funds means not limiting funding to the preservation and reproduction of artistic and cultural heritage but also allowing the development of contemporary and experimental artistic and cultural areas with a look to the future.’ A panel discussion titled ‘Is Austria’s Culture in Danger?’ featuring the outgoing culture minister Thomas Drozda took place the same week.
Hesitant to speculate on Austrian art’s future until facts emerge, Kempinger says this government ‘might not be so bad’ (the new Minister for Art, Culture and Media, the People’s Party’s Gernot Blümel, has little visual arts experience, but a blank slate isn’t necessarily a bad thing). But in my own exchanges with local artists and curators, the prevailing moods seem to be aversion, fear, and (like Kempinger) a ‘wait and see’ trepidation.
Aversion comes from those who remember the effects of the last Freedom/People’s Party coalition government, led by Wolfgang Schüssel and Jörg Haider, in the early 2000s (which resulted in brief EU sanctions and shifts in cultural funding allegedly based on political neutrality). Fears of redirected or curtailed funds in Austria’s exceedingly generous arts funding structures are not unfounded; 31-year-old chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s agenda is the most neoliberal postwar Austria has ever seen. Already, some sources have told me that applications for project-space funding are ‘on hold.’
The ‘wait and see’ faction is perhaps the most prudent, although, as Kempinger says, whatever happens, ‘you can try to catch it early, but once it’s done, it’s too late.’ Many Viennese worry about subtle shifts in institutional programming toward ‘safe’, less provocative shows (perhaps not at first, and not everywhere – and if the current mood of resistance continues, maybe not at all). Some artists speculate that the Viennese art world’s ‘less critical’ stance from the 2000s until now, compared to its go-go 1980s and theoretically innovative 1990s, might be an extended effect of the Schüssel/Haider era.
What won’t likely happen is obvious censorship. But we might see the vilification of provocative aesthetics in favour of conservative ones.
What won’t likely happen is obvious censorship. But we might see, through populist media channels, vilification of provocative aesthetics in favour of conservative ones. Example: 2016’s Freedom Party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, now infrastructure minister, has long claimed his favourite artist is Odin Wiesinger (whose real first name is Manfred – Odin is a Germanic god). Wiesinger’s figurative paintings often feature soldiers and fraternity brothers, and in an older interview he denounced the current art world as ‘a dictatorship of the ugly, inferior, worthless and self-indulgent.’
I think back to autumn 2016, when between that year’s two arschknapp (‘ass-tight,’ as in skin-of-the-teeth close; a Freudian Austrianism if there ever was one) Austrian presidential elections, I spent 90 minutes in the office of H.C. Strache, the Freedom Party chairman and now Austria's vice-chancellor.
Beyond art criticism I work as a journalist and I was there with a colleague for Time, the American newsweekly. The interview was political, but I couldn’t help noticing the art: glossy glamour photographs of Mr. Strache hung on the walls, as did Burschenschaft (fraternity) sabres. On a plinth stood a ceramic sculpture in the form of a Siamese-twin rabbit (a two-headed, double-bodied bunny with one flank black, the other red) facing off from a separate blue ceramic rabbit. Mr. Strache couldn’t remember the artist, but the symbolism was simple – the Freedom Party’s blue ‘David’ bunny was challenging the black and red ‘Goliath,’ representing Austria’s then grand coalition (the People’s Party in black, the Social Democrats red).
Then there was a bust of Strache, created long ago, he said proudly, by a ‘master student of Gustinus Ambrosi.’ I later told my colleague that Ambrosi worked closely with Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, and created a bust of Benito Mussolini in 1924. Who his master student was, I don’t know, but I got to thinking: no matter how cleaned up the rightward leg of this coalition now appears to be, a little Nazi dust always seems to stick, somewhere.
The players in Austria’s art world will need to muster the courage and cohesion to not only issue statements but also act if and when necessary, even when it’s uncomfortable and (gasp) unprofitable. In this fin de siecle moment (exactly a century after the Austrian monarchy fell, the end of World War I, and the year both Klimt and Egon Schiele died – the latter commemorated by numerous institutional exhibitions throughout the year), putting Secession’s motto into action is more important than ever.
Main image: Gustav Klimt, Death and Life, 1910/11, reworked 1915/16. Courtesy: © Leopold Museum, Vienna; photograph: Leopold Museum, Vienna