Austria’s Far Right Adopts the Motto of Vienna’s Artistic Avant-Garde—and They’re Not at All Pleased

The government's new cultural policy cites the motto of the storied artists' association Vienna Secession, founded by Gustav Klimt.

Detail of the Secession building in Vienna, with the movement's motto emblazoned in golden letters on its facade. It is one of the best known examples of Jugendstil architecture. Photo courtesy Vienna Secession.

The independent museum and storied artists’ association Vienna Secession has come out with a statement against the new right-wing Austrian government after it discovered that the group’s own motto was being used to buttress the government’s cultural program.

Austria became the only western European country with a far-right nationalist party in parliament when the coalition government was sworn in this week. Politicians from the Freedom party, which was founded by former Nazis shortly after the end of WWII, managed to cut a deal with the new Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the conservative People’s party to build a coalition. At 31 years old, Kurz is the world’s youngest head of state.

Now, the newly formed government has released its agenda, the Regierungsprogram 2017-2022, titled “Together. For our Austria.” In the section outlining the government’s culture policy, the 182-page document cites the motto of the Vienna Secession, which was founded in 1897 by Gustav Klimt and other artists who sought to break with the conservative Austrian Artists’ Society.

The government’s document states: “The basis of our cultural policy is the freedom of art and culture guaranteed in the Federal Constitution. We are fully committed to this freedom, especially that of contemporary art, as expressed in the motto of the Vienna Secession, ‘To every time its art. To art its freedom (Der Zeit ihre Kunst, der Kunst ihre Freiheit).'”

The text goes on to state that “engagement with our common cultural heritage… contributes significantly to Austria’s sense of identity.”

The independent Viennese institution was surprised to learn that its quote had been used by the government. In an email sent to artnet News, the board of the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession rejected any association with the government’s official program.

The group sates that “[f]reedom 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.”

“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,” they add.

Read the Vienna Secession’s letter in full below.

 

Vienna, December 20, 2017
A STATEMENT FROM THE SECESSION

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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