Art against nationalism

Artist John Baldessari’s contribution.


Soon after Austria’s new Government – the far-right coalition of Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party (FPO) and Wolfgang Schlüssel’s People’s Party (OVP) – took power in February 2000, the people of Vienna began to be entertained in rather unusual ways. There was nothing unusual about the small knots of folksingers that appeared – in traditional _lederhosen_ – around Vienna’s key cultural spots. Or there wasn’t until they began to sing. Instead of the standard songs about edelweiss and Alpine pastures, they’d deliver blistering attacks on the black-blue coalition, all of them set to music. By the time the police arrived, the singers would be long gone.

Haider’s policies are, if not confused, then certainly conveniently ill-defined. He is not anti-European integration _per se_, it is just that he favours a certain type of European… and so on. It’s an oddly passive type of nationalism that is, given Austria’s Nazi past and its present proximity to the Balkans conflict, absolutely explosive.

When the Freedom Party entered into a governmental coalition, echoes of the pre-War intolerance reverberated around the world. Political reaction was swift and the local public response, especially that of the intelligentsia, was unambiguous. Austria, and Vienna in particular, had in recent years prided itself on a raft of political and social initiatives designed to allow the city to take a prime position in a multicultural society. Communities from Turkey and former Yugoslavia were being welcomed into the social processes of the country.

Within days of the coalition being formed a group calling itself ‘die Botschaft der Besorgtenbürger’ – the ‘Embassy of Concerned Citizens’ – set up a little tent on Vienna’s Heldenplatz outside the Federal Parliament. Round the clock and in all weathers activists offered information on the Government and solicited support against it. Anti-Government demonstrations became a weekly fact of life. Like the guerrilla folksingers, live art groups would stage impromptu ‘performances’ on Viennese streets: one, which involved the performers falling to the pavement to scrub the flagstones with toothbrushes, provoked uneasy memories of the Nazi years.

The far-right Government meanwhile attacked contemporary art and championed the idea of ‘national’ art – though no-one knew exactly what that meant. The art world was unwilling to collaborate. ‘If you say nothing then you agree,’ stated Gerald Matt, director of the Kunsthalle, an impressive modern art gallery relocated to a prime position in Vienna’s new Museums Quarter. Consequently the museum immediately organized exhibitions and campaigns which made their position clear: ‘I’m sick of your views about immigrants’ read one.

Matt was walking a tightrope in terms of the gallery’s funding. Over at the Secession, one of the city’s grandest galleries, there was no such problem. The gallery was founded at the end of the 19th century as an independent artists’ association. The Federal Government has no power over it. Moreover, the building has, within its architecture, a billboard space built purposely for façade art. With this in mind the gallery commissioned 16 artists to produce an incisive and stunning array of posters. Louise Bourgeois’s contribution – a collage of ‘nos’ was succinct. John Baldessari painted Smiley faces that turned into Hitler icons and Paul McCarthy made an upside-down image, à la The Sound of Music: ‘Meine Lieder, meine Träume’, [My life, my dreams]. It subverted the right wing’s folksy fetishism beautifully.

Such initiatives demonstrate a forceful imperative to speak out against intolerance. But it is the conjunction of two things at the city’s historic Judenplatz that, in their balance, say most. Yards away from Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust memorial, an inside-out library, a house bears a 15th-century Latin inscription that celebrates the destruction of Vienna’s Jewish community in 1421. It’s an uneasy, but necessary, alliance. A memorial with no memory, after all, means nothing.

Recent elections, in both Austrian provinces and Vienna itself, have seen Haider’s share of the vote fall. Maybe the message of artists – among others – is getting through.

New Internationalist issue 335 magazine cover This article is from the June 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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