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PRINT April 2000

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the Austrian Boycott Debate

THE VIENNA SECESSION has put its distinctive facade—one of the most photographed tourist attractions in the city—at the disposal of artists like Franz West and Renée Green for work critical of the new Austrian government, a coalition formed by the conservative People’s Party (known by its German initials ÖVP)—the hitherto dominant Social Democrats’ long-time partner in the Austrian government—and the openly racist, far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). Encouraged in part by the harsh international reaction to this dismaying coalition, almost every noteworthy Austrian intellectual, artist, filmmaker, writer, actor, and critic has signed one of the numerous petitions against it and personally distanced him- or herself from the new government. Artists have also played an instrumental role in the almost daily demonstrations, which reached their climax when 250,000 Austrians took to the streets of Vienna on February 19.

The right-wing-populist FPÖ had been growing in strength for years under the guidance of Jörg Haider, but it was the international media that transformed this provincial politician into a notorious superstar. The not wholly unexpected assumption of power by Haider and his fellow radical anti-politicians has forced the politicization of the artistic community. In Austria’s art scene, strategies for resistance against the inclusion of the FPÖ in the government have dominated recent discussion: A number of forums have addressed such issues as the tenability of artists’ accepting government grants, the need for some kind of moral codex to prevent the state’s misuse of artistic production, and methods for clearly dissociating oneself from the government. Institutions such as Vienna’s Generali Foundation, the Kunsthalle Wien (whose director, Gerald Matt, has been an outspoken voice in the media), art schools, the Künstlerhaus, the Secession, and even the state’s Museum für Moderner Kunst have participated in these dialogues. Many prominent Austrian artists reacted immediately to the inauguration of the new government. Raimund Abraham, for example, architect of the Austrian Cultural Institute in Manhattan, has applied for American citizenship. Media artist Valie Export refused to allow the country’s most highly endowed art award, the Oskar Kokoschka Prize, to be bestowed on her by a member of the government, as is customary. The prominent writer Elfriede Jelinek imposed a ban on the staging of her plays in Austria. Salzburg gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac moved his headquarters to his Paris branch.

One hotly debated topic is the boycott threatened by Austrian cultural producers living outside the country and foreign artists refusing to work in Austria. In contrast to the visceral response of activists within the artistic community, many Austrian celebrities and institutions—their declarations of anti-racism and cosmopolitanism notwithstanding—seem to be primarily concerned about a return to the Waldheim years and the intensified isolation and damage to personal careers that such a regression would entail.

The boycott debate was triggered by an emotional and dangerously undifferentiated call to action by Austrian curator Robert Fleck, who resides in France. Portraying Austria as a “Nazi country” and thereby radically oversimplifying the situation, he demanded to break off all non-personal relations to Austrian artists and institutions. Other calls for boycott have been voiced by film director Constantin Costa-Gavras; the head of the Franco-German cultural TV channel Arte, Jerome Clemen; and the European Parliament of Writers.

The consensus reached after intense international debate on the Internet as well as in the print media seems to be that a boycott would only strengthen the position of the right by driving out critical voices from the public discourse. In particular, artists from Eastern Europe and the former Yugoslavia, pointing to their own historical experiences, called the appeal for boycott counterproductive. Certain prominent figures who had announced their departure from Austria in protest of the new government—including the artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, Gerard Mortier, and conductor Sylvain Cambreling—have now decided to continue their work in the country.

Despite the fears of celebrities and the larger institutions, a boycott would primarily affect critical artists and threaten the initiatives that have transformed Austria and its capital into one of the European centers of advanced artistic discourse. And it would hurt the artists’ networks that developed during this transformation, groups that stand for anti-racist, anti-sexist, and culture-critical work. These organizations, such as “gettoattack,” continue to play a central role in the current protest movement.

The danger of artistic isolation is real. Austria has never had an “art world” in the sense applicable to most European and American cultural centers, where the arts are largely isolated as an autonomous social system. A significant private market for contemporary art does not exist in Austria; artists and galleries continue to sell major works primarily beyond the border.

The significance of government funding of the arts is perhaps greater in Austria than anywhere else in the West, especially since Austria lacks the private foundations that take on this responsibility in countries like the United States. A politics that attempted to balance public and private interests by providing public support for cultural producers as well as for marginal projects in order to guarantee their survival has continued to work in Austria despite the obviously aggravated climate of recent years. But this configuration has made it difficult to differentiate between official, public, private, and alternative structures. This situation has been complicated even further by the government’s past willingness to fund a broad spectrum of practices, including work critical of it. But such support could be threatened by the new government’s plan for federal cultural investment, which doesn’t even acknowledge the term “contemporary art.” The plan concentrates solely on the “promotion of regional cultural expressions.” The only object of research is Volkskultur—a parody of the European Union’s principle of maintaining the regional variety of European culture. This is a provocation, especially in light of contemporary art’s marginal status among the majority of Austria’s citizens and even its institutes of cultural studies. Ethnicity, minority, social diversity, and feminism are still foreign words in mainstream Austrian discourse.

The Volkskultur program, for which the conservative ÖVP bears primary responsibility, plays into the far right’s hands. Its exclusions bolster the FPÖ’s critique of advanced artistic positions—an attack that had long served the party as a tool for promoting its neo-conservative nationalism during its years as an oppositional force in the parliament. (That strategy will be familiar to Americans, who have witnessed similar attacks on “elite” art by populist right-wing culture warriors.) The defamation of artists and intellectuals as social parasites and government-supported demagogues hostile to the state that had already begun in the early ’90s would be voiced with increasing frequency. The FPÖ launched poster campaigns against Elfriede Jelinek, theater director Claus Peymann, and social-democratic cultural politicians, and went on to accuse members of the Vienna Group of being child pornographers. The party mobilized demonstrations against Hermann Nitsch’s six-day Orgien Mysterien Theatre action and, appropriating Nazi jargon, called the work “fecal art.” The party’s electoral successes stem from not only its openly racist verbal attacks against refugees and immigrants, but also its malicious campaign against intellectuals.

There are historical reasons for this politics’ appeal beyond the party’s usual supporters. The years of Austrofascism and Nazism between 1934 and 1945 bled the Austrian liberal potential dry in the most horrific sense of the phrase. In a textbook example of collective self-delusion, Austrians after the war considered themselves the first victims of Hitler’s politics of aggression, managing not only to forget Austria’s very questionable role as a Hapsburgian colonial force in southeastern Europe (in opposition to the positive cultural mythos of fin-de-siècle Vienna) but also to repress the Austrian support of Nazi politics. The nation never confronted the burdens of its history, as Germany did, and so Austria failed to arrive at a socially accepted consensus of “never again.” Consequently, race baiting had remained “acceptable” in mainstream Austrian politics in a way unthinkable in Germany. Haider merely took advantage of the available option.

If there is something positive about the current situation, it is the re-politicization of the Austrian public and the palpable rejection of a racist, sexist, and asocial politics. Henceforth, the main question for the art scene remains that posed by Artforum correspondent and International Association of Art Critics president Christian Kravagna: In what way, different from before, will the Austrian artistic community contribute to the framing of the discourse around the problem of racism? Cultural producers will only be able to take the initiative if the problem is reappraised locally without losing sight of its international dimension, and if those most directly affected—that is, the likely targets of the hate-mongers—are given the opportunity to speak out. International engagement is crucial as well. Any boycott would only strengthen those who do not want to deviate from business as usual and weaken those who oppose a further solidification of right-wing positions. And it would deny its very participants one important opportunity: to study the media tactics of one of Europe’s most unscrupulous and media-savvy right-wing figures (whose resignation as party leader on February 28 is merely a tactical step out of the spotlight)—a figure who has understood how to construct a new media reality for himself, a virtual reality that had for the longest time successfully deflected every ideological and moral counterstrategy. The time for such a study is growing scarce.

Translated from German by Philip Glahn.