Book Review: Between Avant-Garde and Mass-Market High Culture

The Austria described by the scholars at the Austrian Studies Conference in Waterloo had little to do with the culture today

TVR Books | Michael Burri | September 2013

Cultural ­historian Michael Burri ­challenges the ­relevance of Austrian Studies that has lost touch with contemporary culture (Photo: M. Burri)

How do foreigners think of Austria? Ask a German or an Italian – as the Federal Ministry of Economy did in 2005 – and the top two responses are "Mozart" and "Sissi & Franzl", the icons of music and monarchy. In fact, nearly all the figures named in the study – Freud, Klimt, Schiele, Strauss – are drawn from what is called high culture. Such clustered consensus around widely-recognisable names is a tourist manager’s dream and continues to be the focus of Austrian mass-marketing campaigns around the world.

But the image of Austria as a Kulturland delivers other benefits as well, opening other doors in the EU and abroad that might otherwise stay closed to a small central European country.

So with so much at stake, what does export No. 1 look like when professional scholars of Austria convene abroad to discuss Austrian culture?

That question and some tentative answers were the subject of the Austrian Studies Association conference on "Belief Systems," held May 2-4 in Waterloo, Canada, the largest meeting of Austrianists in North America during 2013.

One answer is that Austrian culture does not resemble the clichés of high culture marketing campaigns. "The Austrian Cultural Forum supports the work of North American scholars and the Austrian guests who present their work here," said Ulrike Butschek, who directs the Austrian Cultural Forum in Ottawa and attended the conference. "We never anticipate a tourist event."

Another answer is that real Austrian culture does not look like the product of Austrian state cultural policy in North America. As Walter Seidl describes it in Zwischen Kultur und Culture, a history of the representation of Austrian culture in the United States, that policy was conceived as a modest rejection of a mass high culture marketing campaign in favour of promoting progressive and avant-garde artists and traditions from Austria.

The founding impulse of that policy is to be found in a 1967 U.S. survey of 200 faculty and students at German-speaking summer schools. The study was carried out by Gottfried Heindl, then director of the Austrian Cultural Institute in New York. Even Americans with some previous contact with Austria, Heindl found, had virtually no awareness of the cultural achievements of contemporary Austria. They saw Austria as the land of the 5Ms – "mountains, music, Mozart, Metternich and Maria Theresia." This was the view of Austria that future cultural policy would correct.

A central conference topic, implicitly or explicitly, was Carl Schorske’s seminal book           Fin de siècle Vienna, first published in 1961. That well-known thesis argues that the failure of Austrian liberalism provoked a cultural crisis among the (largely Jewish) Viennese bourgeoisie whose resolution in art, politics, and philosophy places Vienna among the 20th century capitals of modernism. In his paper, ASA President Robert Dassanowsky challenged the theory that the crisis of the liberal bourgeoisie was the crux of the Viennese fin de siècle.


Fantasy politics on the Ringstrasse

For Dassanowsky, the private Palais along the new Ringstrasse may have recorded the rise of an emerging bourgeoisie and an endangered liberal politics. But this story is also a mis-, or at least a partially understood reading, as it ignores the Ringstrasse project’s more immediate purpose. Ringstrasse construction, Dassanowsky argued, was designed to "elevate the Hofburg to a Mecca-like pilgrimage site that in lieu of a contemporary nationalism would offer the urban equivalent of the churches of the Counter-Reformation."

With its tribute to the achievements of Habsburg rule, the Kaiserforum – the subsequently only partially realized project running from Heldenplatz to Maria-Theresien-Platz – would constitute its heart. Far from being a testament to liberal uncertainty, the Ringstrasse would repackage traditional Austrian and baroque visual aesthetics in a "fantasy sociopolitics."

The work of a North American university professor and presented in a series of academic essays and a best-selling book, Schorske’s concept of the Viennese fin de siècle fits squarely in the niche between high culture mass marketing and Austrian state cultural policy. Indeed, Steven Beller has argued that prior to the triumph of the Schorske model in Vienna (marked by record attendance at the Traum und Wirklichkeit exhibition in 1985), there had always existed lingering doubts about the relevance of the fin de siècle for contemporary Austria. Behind this were the "serious problems in establishing the connection between the people who had created the culture of fin-de-siècle Vienna and the current population of Austria."

The Waldheim Affair of 1986, linked perhaps only indirectly to the questions raised by the success of Schorske’s thesis, provided a context for addressing some of these anxieties. Thus, Dassanowsky’s paper represents both a challenge to Schorske and a certain "post-Waldheim" examination of the importance of Catholic and baroque traditions on the fin de siècle period.

Eric Anderson subtly challenged another premise of the fin-de-siècle model articulated around the Ringstrasse, namely, that all battles were fought in stone. Indeed, even Dassanowsky agreed with Schorske on this point. In his presentation on a period interior by the celebrated Hans Makart, an apartment at Parkring 4 of the liberal Viennese bourgeois Nicolaus Dumba, however, Anderson argued that the self-confidence of the bourgeoisie literally radiated outwards. Dumba often lit up his study facing the Ringstrasse at night, and left the windows uncovered, so that the Makart murals were visible from the street below. It became a landmark. "The Makartzimmer," wrote critic Ludwig Hevesi in 1889, "is there anyone who doesn’t know it?"


Far from the concerns of today’s Austria

At roughly 7,000 kilometres from Vienna, the Austria described by the Waterloo crowd was scarcely the avant-garde Austria of state cultural policy and still less the 5M second Austrian Republic. Edward Muston showed how sport becomes an erotically charged object in Michael Glawogger’s documentary film on Austrian fans attending the 1998 World Cup in France, France We are Coming (2000), with unhappy consequences for the emotional lives of its fans. Similarly, Antje Riethmüller explored the boundaries of narrative in The Weather Fifteen Years Ago (2006), the novel of best-selling Austrian author Wolf Haas.

But as far as contemporary Austrian cultural polemics go, this was a place where departing Salzburg Festival General Manager Alexander Pereira, partially-acquitted lobbyist Alfons Mensdorff-Pouilly, and Vienna society diva Jeannine Schiller might have enjoyed a quiet mélange together without hearing their names, a place where Hans Moser made more headlines than Ulrich Seidl.

Allan Janik once argued in these pages, that "to understand Austria, ask a foreigner". The clichés of the mass media marketing campaigns are surely here to stay, and in the age of tight budgets, state cultural policy will carry on with less.

But to what extent is Austrian Studies abroad also guided by its own habits and clichés? Steven Beller subtitled his recent essay "A Letter of Remembrance," as an announcement of the passing of the fin-de-siècle model.

Can Austrian Studies Abroad flourish without the fin de siècle? If so with what? Tune in to next year’s event in Austin, Texas, U.S.A.


Michael Burri teaches European Studies in the Critical Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania and has published in Czech dailies, Lidové noviny, MF Dnes, and Právo.  


Other articles from this issue