Conservative – Right Wing Coalition and Cultural Politics in Austria
07/03/2019 | By Michael Wimmer. This interview reflects the personal views of the interviewee.
An interview with Michael Wimmer comparing state cultural policies of the recent past as well as similarities and differences in the cultural understanding of the black-blue government.
IG Kultur: Did the black and blue takeover in 2000 initiate a change in cultural policy? Has anything changed?
Wimmer: Yes, something has changed. In 2000 there was still an impressive potential for resistance in the cultural scene, which formed an offensive front against the xenophobic policies of the new rulers. The Burgtheater actor and rock singer Franz Morak was a conservative cultural politician from the scene who took on a decidedly political mission. Andreas Kohl, then President of Parliament, said it was time to “clean up the left-wing trash”. Morak was influenced by a revanchism that grew from his bad experiences with the Burgtheater director Claus Peymann and his left-wing friends. The mastermind of the FPÖ, Jörg Haider, said at the time that the hand that feeds you should not bite.
Of course large parts of the cultural business could not be “cleaned up” overnight. But the critical parts of the independent scene found it much more difficult to take advantage of subsidies. There were demands from the rural base of the conservatives to regionalise cultural policy and support measures more intensively. Franz Morak himself concentrated his “culture machine” on initiatives within the cultural and creative industries. He wanted to quicken the economization of the cultural sector in order to gradually withdraw from project-related federal art funding. A course that would also be adopted by future governments. Something was set in motion here that remained effective well beyond his term in office.
IG Kultur: Black-Blue in itself was relatively short-lived back then. Was the cultural policy that was heralded at the time continued by the subsequent social democratic cultural policy? Did the red-black subsequent governments pick up this thread?
Wimmer: The continuation of the red and black party from 2007 onwards was strongly influenced by Claudia Schmieds legacy, to whom the new Federal Minister for Art and Culture had jointly entrusted art and culture, and also by the education sector. This allowed her to focus on the field of art and cultural mediation. She borrowed from the 1970s concept of a “culture for all”. But she did this under different circumstances. The intention was no longer to facilitate political emancipation through culture, but to broaden the cultural sector by involving previously neglected target groups and to anchor it more firmly in the market in the hope of once again contributing to the legitimation of state prioritisation.
This policy of economizing the cultural sector then shaped in particular the term of Josef Ostermayer, who succeeded Claudia Schmied as Minister of the Chancellor’s Office and assumed responsibility for art and culture from 2013 on. This strategy is now also being pursued by the new black (turquoise) – blue federal government; hence, the delivery of the cultural sector to the forces of the market was thus already set in motion in 2000. The current quota battles, which are presently being fought primarily by the major federal museums, demonstrate the result of this development.
To the extent that the public cultural sector has taken on a commercial form, it seems to me that its political potential has been lost. Accordingly, the forms of resistance in the new formation of the conservative, increasingly right-wing extremist federal government last year were weak. So far, it has shown little ambition to pursue symbolic politics with the means of the culture industry. It differs in this respect from Black-Blue I, which wanted to make the accusation of rampant xenophobia forgotten by celebrating a Mozart year, for example. The current Minister of Art, Norbert Blümel, is not very interested in the cultural sector.
In his symbolic politics he only too gladly follows the FPÖ strategy of the “culturalisation” of social policy. New cultural contrasts, especially those with ethnic and religious connotations, are being constructed in order to promote social division between “us” and the “others”; between the real Austrians and the migrants. This seems to be the new field of profiling in which the modern cultural-political battles are being fought. This can also be seen in the counter-movements. When, after 2000, large parts of the cultural industry stood up to demonstrate against the government migrant groups dominated the images of the demonstrations. Yes, individual artists still play a certain role in maintaining resistance, but the changed venue of cultural politics on the battlefield of migration and immigration is unmistakable.
IG Kultur: If you now consider that this cultural policy of economization has continued under almost ten years of red culture ministries and has also contributed to the fact that the resistance in the sector against the current black-blue government is weaker, does one have to say that they made it easy for the black-blue actors?
Wimmer: Yes. Social democratic cultural policy has increasingly forgotten the political potential of cultural policy in the final phase of its government activity. But, more gently than in other countries, it has devoted itself to an economic paradigm and subjected the major cultural institutions to the logic of the market. At the same time, it has further weakened the free sector, which has recently been quite depleted. I now see some effort on the part of free artists and cultural workers to rise up again in the current political climate. But the emaciation over the last ten to fifteen years is unmistakable. A misguided social democratic cultural policy has contributed to this. One would have had the chance through strategy to adapt large institutions more strictly to the logic of the market society in order to benefit the regional appeal and the associated tourist requirements. This would have created enough room for manoeuvring in order to compensate for the further development of a strong free sector that could maintain a political vision of cultural policy. Instead, communication between federal cultural policy and the free sector was completely abandoned, especially with the Minister of Art Josef Ostermayer. Von Ostermayer also issued clear declarations of intent to give individual grants to provinces well into the future. The ministry should concentrate on regulatory matters and public institutions.
IG Kultur: Could it be a solution adopt the model of cultural policy from the 1970s for social policy once again? At least where progressive forces still have political influence?
Wimmer: I hope I’m not too pessimistic now, but I fear that the significance of the cultural sector as a whole has declined considerably in the last thirty years. It does not seem to be of any great significance either for the formation of national identification or as an essential element of personal and collective emancipation. I do not see the forces that would potentially be in a position to give the cultural sector the socio-political explosiveness it actually deserves once again. Today, most people perceive his offer as a possible leisure activity among many others. Beyond that, political hopes are hardly associated with it any more. This is also connected with digitisation, which has created completely new cultural spaces and forms of interaction, a dimension of Austrian cultural policy that has so far been criminally underestimated. In this context, it is devastating for an emancipatory cultural policy that the right forces can utilize these mediums much better. This is where the decisive cultural agreements are made. If there are still emancipation potentials and socio-political dimensions, then they take place in migrant contexts. This is the central playing field of the new government. Artists and cultural workers could also play an important role here, but only in the context of current migration and integration policy issues.
The interview is a summary of a contribution by Michael Wimmer “Staatliche Kulturpolitiken im Vergleich – Über Ähnlichkeiten und Unterschiede des Kulturverständnisses schwarz-blauer Regierungen” (“State Cultural Policies in Comparison – On Similarities and Differences in the Cultural Understanding of Black-Blue Governments”) for an anthology by Emmerich Talos (Ed.): Schwarz-Blau, which will be published in autumn 2019.
An audio and written version in German can be found at: http://www.igkultur.at/artikel/michael-wimmer-educult-sozialdemokratische-kulturpolitik-hat-auf-das-politische-potential
Picture: “Burgtheater_Weitwinkel”, Thomas Ledl, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0