Art, Culture and Borders – Why boundaries are necessary for a thriving coexistence
07/09/2023 | Written by Michael Wimmer. This blog reflects the personal opinion of the author.
Contribution by Michael Wimmer for the symposium Borderless, May 4-5, 2023, at Beykoz University, Istanbul
There has been a long-standing relationship between Austria and Turkey, particularly between the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This relationship has often been marked by significant tensions, with borders being constructed and torn down, especially in the Balkans, which has been a major site of conflict. However, beyond the political power struggles, there has always been an economic and cultural exchange that has enriched local communities and allowed people to connect across borders.
Let me begin by focusing on a place in the heart of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy. Let us turn our attention to Lugeck, named after a building that provided a vantage point for observing ship traffic on the Danube River. It was here that the poet Wolfgang Schmeltzl wrote a poem titled “Praise to the City of Vienna in Austria.”
I came to the Lugeck by accident, /
Merchants went back and forth /
In strange clothes colorful things, /
And spoke foreign languages /
I thought I had come to Babylon /
Where confusion of tongues began, /
And heard a strange chatter, shouting, /
Many beautiful languages too. /
Hebrew, Greek and Latin, /
German, French, Turkish, Spanish, /
Bohemian, Windisch, Italian, /
Hungarian, good Dutch, /
Of course Syrian, Croatian, /
Serbian, Polish and Chaldean.
In Schmeltzl’s words, we witness a diverse array of people from different backgrounds coexisting in the middle-European city of Vienna. This depiction, dating back 500 years ago, portrays Vienna as a hub of goods exchange and a place of diversity long before the celebration of concepts like multitude by Hardt and Negri.
While we do not have information on how the indigenous population reacted, this description paints a picture of a “melting pot” that gained particular significance in the 19th century when Vienna’s population grew from around 80,000 to 2 million, making diversity a valuable resource.
Personally, I come from a small state in the heart of Europe where the world holds its rehearsal, as Friedrich Hebbel put it. The establishment of this political entity was not self-evident after the First World War and the collapse of the monarchy. Only through arduous negotiations did it find its political representation within the forced borders stipulated by the Versailles treaties.
Allow me to provide a brief overview of Austrian history to emphasize that culture and borders are intertwined. Moreover, they are intertwined with unequal power relations.
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Picture: © Michael Wimmer