Even the wave of art-world visitors from abroad seems to have waned. For two years curators Robert Fleck and Cathrin Pichler, working as advisers to Rudolf Scholten, the government's minister of education, invited European and American curators, critics, and artists here in an attempt to infuse the state's sagging cultural structure with new ideas. But their terms will be over soon and a successor is yet to be named. Meanwhile, recession has even caught up with the state-run Austrian Airlines, which can no longer afford to dole out free plane tickets for the program.
So the Viennese art world is focusing once again on its principal anxieties, its long-standing structural weaknesses. Since Austria has no viable private-patronage system, no developed university programs in modern art history or criticism, and few collectors, it is the government that provides the foundation for the country's art world. Now that the state is facing an economic crisis, it is increasingly less eager to subsidize an already dependent art market.
The Austrian state understood early on that in the modern world economy its role would be to subsidize nearly every area of the market, from agriculture to industry, to keep the country internationally competitive. But its art policy remained bound to a feudal idea of culture. In the early '70s this seemed as if it might change, with the supposedly liberal policies advanced under Chancellor Bruno Kreisky. But Austria was unwilling to relinquish the ideological principle of Social Democratic cultural policy: the notion that the state had to control culture, in a kind of enlightened absolutism, with a network of commissions, stipends, prizes, and purchases. Nor did it recognize the need to establish modern, market-oriented, and media structures if an active "art life" was to be maintained. It is only now, with the opening of the East, and with Austria's pursuit of closer ties with the European Community, that Vienna's potential as a strategic cultural relay station between East and West might be realized.
The struggle to modernize Vienna's art world goes well beyond that world's own small, exclusive milieu. The battles extend to the print and electronic media, which are closely tied to the state, so closely, in fact, as to be unique in Europe. In 1946, Austria had 33 daily newspapers with a net circulation of 2.5 million. Now, half as many newspapers have a net circulation of about 3 million. Until recently, a single paper, the right-wing tabloid Kronenzeitung, captured half of those readers. Quality papers like the conservative Catholic Die Presse, or the liberal Der Standard, teeter on the edge of survival. If cable TV and satellite dishes, which receive foreign stations, hadn't been installed privately in the past few years, Austrians would still have to be content with two television stations, both state-run, which enjoy a monopoly and are subject to meddling from the political parties. The country publishes not a single art magazine of international interest.
Vienna's most powerful culture critic is Hans Dichand, a collector of the work of classic Viennese artists such as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka, and the publisher of the Kronenzeitung. Claiming freedom of speech, his paper attacks artists, government ministers, and curators for promoting the new. Chief targets include Peter Weibel, a champion of art in new media who is one of Scholten's art advisers and was the commissioner of the Austrian Pavilion at the '93 Biennale, and Oswald Oberhuber, head of the traditional Hochschule fur Angewandte Kunst (Academy for applied arts) in Vienna. For the right-wing tabloid press, these two embody the enemy--the upstart art scene.
It is an unwritten rule of Austrian politics that political initiatives can succeed only if sanctioned by the tabloid press. One project that may die because of a consistent battering by Dichand and his allies is the Museumsquartier, a museum complex being designed by Laurids Ortner for the area in and around the former royal stables, near the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The goal is to create a coherent program of museum space for Modern and contemporary art. Vienna has only one modern-art museum, split between two provisional spaces. The city has long wanted a museum for 20th-century art--the federal government promised one back in the '60s--but ever since the architectural competition for the Museumsquartier, in 1987, conservatives and the media have been fiercely attacking the project, which is financed from both federal and city monies, and the design has had to be downscaled so as not to offend the public's conservative eye.
While such initiatives are hotly debated in the press, dialogue within the Viennese art world is never so open. Gossip circulates, but nobody goes public with their arguments. The consequence, for many, is that Viennese artists seem to be running in place. In the absence of productive dialogue, their work relies on an armature of theory and language in order to legitimize it. Viennese intellectuals in general have a tradition of being paralyzed by indecision; look around the city, for example, and you see that none of the great architectural projects--the Hofburg Palace, St. Stephen's cathedral, Otto Wagner's urban plans--was ever finished. It's an enormous challenge to carry something to completion in a culture that seems unequivocally to cling to equivocation, to find its apotheosis in the fragmentary.
On the other hand, strong esthetic traditions survive to motivate discourse, even among the youngest Austrian artists. First, the legacy of the Aktionismus artists--Otto Muhl, Gunther Brus, Hermann Nitsch--and their obsession with the body are powerfully felt. Austria's unique contribution to the avant-garde of the '50s and '60s, they remain an inspiration, because they were open enemies of the state. Today, young artists like Elke Krystufek and Richard Fleissner carry on their investigations of the body, articulating issues both public and private.
Within the fragmentary context of the city's fabric, and given the local history of artists working with the body as a kind of public field, some artists are carving private, self-reflexive markings into what we call "public space." To deal with public space in a fragmentary, subjective way has become a means of turning Vienna's own, physically visible history of incompletion against the stasis of the art world. The painter Herbert Brandl, for example, has created a new grammar for gestural painting; Walter Obholzer has transformed the ornament of Viennese architecture and wallpaper into a minimalistic language; the recently deceased Kurt Kocherscheidt made nature painting into symbolic abstraction; and Franz West, making objects and furniture designed for performative use, positions sculpture between the body, the subject, and the public space.
Another group of artists are advancing a kind of conceptual, inherently critical formalism. Heimo Zobernig creates sculpture, painting, and books with conceptual underpinnings; Peter Kogler modifies computer symbols and makes tapestries out of them; Gerwald Rockenschaub installs structures that aggressively disrupt space. Such work makes it clear that Viennese art is concerned not just with theoretical critique but with social context: the history, traditions, and contemporary life of the city.
It remains a joy to write letters from Vienna. Where else can esthetic discussion be politically correct yet hermeneutically formalist--formalist yet involved in ideological and institutional critique? Nowhere else in Europe can protest come so firmly from within the center of power.
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|Title Annotation:||the cultural climate in Vienna, Austria|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1993|
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