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Detail of the Secession building in Vienna, featuring its motto in gold lettering. Photo: Vienna Secession.

Association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession Rejects Government’s Use of Its Motto

The association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession, the renowned independent arts institution and artist association founded by a group of artists led by Gustav Klimt in 1897, has spoken out against Austria’s newly elected government. Last week, Austria became the only country in western Europe to have a far-right presence in government. Led by chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the conservative People’s party formed a coalition with the Freedom Party, a nationalist group founded by former Nazis. In the October elections, the People’s party secured sixty-two seats in the country’s cabinet and the Freedom Party gained fifty-one seats. The latter’s growing influence has been meet with protests across the country.

On Friday, December 22, the artists’ association released a statement after it learned that the government had adopted the Secessionist motto, “To every time its art. To art its freedom,” in its new five-year plan, titled “Together. For our Austria.” In response, the organization wrote, “Our motto affirms our faith in continual renewal, diversity, and openness and is incompatible with any political interference with the contents of art and its forms of expression.” It also denounces the government’s use of the motto “to buttress a national collective identity,” and continues, “When a government does not champion a free society, its promise to respect the freedom of the arts is no more than a rhetorical exercise.”

The full statement from the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession reads:

The program drawn up by the new Austrian coalition government quotes the Secession’s motto, “To every time its art. To art its freedom.” As the board of the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession, we would like to use this opportunity to spell out our understanding of the freedom of the arts: Ever since our artists’ association was founded one hundred and twenty years ago, we have sought to live up to our motto, which affirms our faith in continual renewal, diversity, and openness and is incompatible with any political interference with the contents of art and its forms of expression.

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. We are persuaded that it is only in the horizon of this freedom that art can attain relevance and quality.

The freedom our motto demands extends far beyond the individual creative articulation: the exchange of ideas in a larger, pluralistic, international context is what endows the individual voices with cultural significance. That is why culture cannot be reduced to art objects or musical compositions. Nor can it be assessed on the quantitative scales of visitor figures, market values, or the circulation of works. An open society is the air that art needs to breathe.

When a government does not champion a free society, its promise to respect the freedom of the arts is no more than a rhetorical exercise.

The board of the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession

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