“Cultural policy for election”
18/09/2019 | Written by Michael Wimmer. This blog reflects the personal opinion of the author.
or Cultural policy as a contribution to the establishment of a right-wing cultural hegemony
It had to come. Already in her first speech at the panel discussion “Cultural policy for election”, the cultural spokeswoman of the New People’s Party Maria Großbauer once again evoked the concept of the “cultural nation of Austria”, which needed to be defended. Apparently, the best way to do this would be to let the children sing more at primary school. Otherwise, a gloomy end of the country of the “singers and violinists” (Anton Wildgans) threatens on the horizon. Großbauer never addressed that the invention of the “cultural nation of Austria” owes its existence to Austrofascism and that it still gives Austrian conservatism an anti-democratic bias.
There was a great deal of interest, especially among freelance cultural workers, in finding out what cultural-political priorities the representatives of the electioneering parties would put forward this time. And so the hundred or so visitors were pelted by the political anticipation of a wide variety of proposals from the scene, ranging from transparency and predictability in the awarding of funding, the associated reduction of bureaucracy, the annual valorisation and multiannuality of the funding contracts, an increase in funding to a museum reform including the introduction of collective agreements for those employed there.
With such a euphoric list of possible/necessary measures, the obvious question of why much of this had not already happened long ago and why precisely the next federal government would tackle this could be overlooked. Instead, there was a growing suspicion that events of this kind were a ritual that had to be repeated at regular intervals right down to the choice of words in order to assure each other that culture was still on the political agenda at any rate.
While Großbauer mainly served conservative reflexes (for which there was probably not too much demand in the audience), the SPÖ culture spokesman Thomas Drozda at least began with an analysis of Austria’s political development in the direction of “Orbanisation”. In the course of the evening, however, he did not develop from this any coherent cultural-political concept, which would be able to counter the loss of cultural hegemony of right-wing forces. At the very least, it became more fundamental with the representative of the Green Party, Eva Blimlinger, who pointed out the fundamental changes on the labour market. These changes would assign the cultural sector an exemplary pioneering function in the elimination of traditional employment relationships. Such logic would lead to more and more cultural workers finding themselves in precarious conditions, without cultural policy having found a satisfactory answer to this question.
The social situation of most cultural workers is devastating – cultural policy is limited to combating symptoms.
Speaking of precariousness: After a first round in which the cultural spokespersons reflected the expectations and wishes of the scene in the form of promises (“Please name your three most important projects”), Yvonne Gimpel from IG Kultur recalled the results of the recently published study on the social situation of artists. This had produced an almost catastrophic picture of the income situation of people in artistic professions. With a median income of Euro 4,500 per year, very few people can make a living from their artistic income. This is associated with an increasingly inadequately connected network of social security that leads straight to poverty in old age. Maria Kollmann of the Cultural Council pointed out the unsatisfactory copyright position of artists; all in all a devastating finding that forces large parts of the scene into a struggle for survival that most people cannot win in the long run.
Asked by the presenter Monika Mokre about reactions, the cultural politicians praised the various adjustment measures on the existing funding system. I couldn’t hear a convincing declaration of intent to sustainably improve the social situation of artists from the speeches. On this occasion, Eva Blimlinger also questioned the assessment of the growing depravation of the cultural scene. As Rector of the Academy, she pointed out the six art universities that offer many artists a good basis for existence, so that one cannot speak of a general finding.
The growing social inequality is reflected in the cultural sector
On this basis one could not avoid addressing “class contrasts” in the cultural sector. After all, in the cultural sector in particular, a few beneficiaries of very privileged employment relationships in the state face a large number of cultural workers who have to make a living at a level below the minimum level. Since Claudia Schmied’s term in office, we have heard the warning that there should be no dispute about financial resources within the cultural scene. Instead, it would be a good idea to make more money for the sector as a whole (Maria Großbauer proudly pointed out in this connection that Art Minister Gernot Blümel had increased the art budget by around 2 million euros in the last federal budget; however, it remained unmentioned that this increase (which was practically peanuts) was not even enough to compensate for the annual inflation rates and also that the adoption of a budget path intended to bring the art budget to around 81 million euros in the next few years was not enough. This balance of payments did not include the freezing of the Euro (the funds for cultural promotion exceeding the promotion of contemporary art amount to a total of around 450 million and include not only the federal museums and the federal theatres but also the art universities).
In view of the intensification of competition and the accompanying solidarity reduction in the cultural sector as well, it was almost refreshing when Eva Blimlinger came up with the slogan of “just not avoiding a dispute” and facing up to the struggle for resources in her own sector as well. On this occasion, at the latest, it is worth remembering the special cultural-political ignorance of the former Chancellery Minister Josef Ostermayer, who in 2015 succeeded in merging the two sections responsible for promoting art and culture. He thus frivolously adopted the cultural-political intention of the 1970s to establish his own “art section” in order to enable a state representation of contemporary art. It was associated with the demand for better advocacy vis-à-vis the big tankers for the administration of cultural heritage, which more than ever claim the majority of state cultural funding. With this decision, the free creation of art and culture in an unequal competitive situation was exposed to the ever-growing demands of the large institutions, which were far better protected by law and contract. And it is to be expected that this contradiction will intensify year after year without corresponding cultural-political resistance and with budgets remaining constant.
We don’t talk to right-wing extremists!
Already at the beginning of the event, Monika Mokre made clear why the FPÖ culture speaker Walter Rosenkranz did not appear on the podium. The organizers did not want to talk to right-wing extremists and offer them any forum for agitation. As insightful as this reasoning may seem, for the time being, it can make people blind to the dramatic changes in the political framework, to which cultural policy is also currently exposed. With the duration of the event, an “elephant in the room” became increasingly widespread – at least for me – that made everything that was spoken in this political discussion increasingly degenerate into a conscious act of denial of reality.
This is not the first time that Austrian cultural policy has suffered from an emptying of its contents, the exponents of which believe that they can be shortened to pragmatic instructions for action in the field of cultural management. They are essentially limited to negotiating the (re-)distribution of (mostly financial) resources between the state actors and the art establishment. They find their most eloquent expression in the rhetorical figure of “Strukturen Schaffen” without referring once again to the respective political context in which these structures are to prove themselves. It is quite obviously a matter of maintaining a collective phantasm of the self-referentiality of a cultural enterprise with state resources
As much as this may refer to claims to autonomy – formalized in Austria only in the 1980s – the cultural sector threatens to lose its socio-political relevance with such an approach of political ignorance. This may well be desired by conservative forces if they can build on a reactionary mood in the country and spare themselves criticism of their politics with a culture industry that is empty of content and only revolves around itself. This particular form of restraint on the part of the progressive forces, which are apparently no longer in a position to express their expectations of what the cultural sector is capable of achieving for the development of society, is already less understandable without immediately falling into suspicion of intervening dirigistically and pretending what artists should be doing quite specifically.
Progressive politics takes itself out of the game: the artists who are in a precarious state should instead offer utopias so that everyone can feel well. In the meantime, a new right-wing cultural hegemony is conquering people’s heads and hearts.
I was overcome by doubts in reaction to Eva Blimlinger’s political modesty, in particular, that it was no longer the task of politics to define perspectives on the social relevance of the cultural sector, because this was reserved for the cultural sector. On the one hand, it acknowledges the completely inadequate working conditions of the majority of those involved in art and culture, whereby simultaneously demanding that they form comprehensive social viewpoints in an apolitical space (one could also say “within a bubble”).
Instead, it is feared that such a humiliated, structurally neglected free scene without any connection to a political project will continue to lose its connection to realities and, in its growing irrelevance (with the exception of its economically useful parts), will increasingly migrate to the margins of society. As such, it could soon prove to be an open game for those political forces that show no inhibition whatsoever in using the cultural sector for their illiberal, anti-Enlightenment and authoritative purposes. Orbán and his entourage send their greetings. After all, Thomas Drozda made himself strong to publicly defend artists who were attacked by right-wing forces.
Cultural Policy as Democratic Policy – Never Heard of It or All Remaining Attention focused on the Producers
The fact that the cultural spokespeople of the parliamentary representatives did not sufficiently recognise the signs of the times can also be seen in the one-dimensional production burden of the discussion. It is understandable when one can assume that the producers were the predominant audience. While Norbert Hofer had already spoken out in favour of free access to music schools before the event, Maria Großbauer reserved the right to at least mention the recipient side with the demand for more music lessons in elementary school. She promptly had to make a sardonic comment, suggesting that her statement could be interpreted as meaning that more singing in the family would lead to an improvement in the social situation of cultural creators. After all, the “promotion of musical and musical education” was one of the few cultural-political signals set by FPÖ members in parliament.
Even though Airan Berg of Liste Jetzt spoke out in favour of an expansion of participatory art forms, the comments revealed a miraculous exchange of supply- and demand-oriented cultural policy priorities. Even in the 1970s and 1980s (and again during Claudia Schmied’s term of office from 2007 to 2013), it was a particular concern of the left forces to perceive (potential) recipients as important cultural-political actors and to actively integrate them into cultural events through a variety of measures of cultural education and mediation. Today these intentions seem to have moved far into the camp of political reaction. It is quite obvious that today the right has a much better feeling for the significance and influence of cultural moods in broad sections of the population. The descendants of the left, on the other hand, confine themselves to distributing harmless calming pills to an increasingly frustrated artist community, without even linking this in the slightest to demands for social effectiveness for all those who are supposed to be the recipients of the cultural industry’s offerings.
And so we experienced a fateful coincidence of events on this day, when this dialogue between around a hundred politicians and cultural workers took place simultaneously with a television interview with the FPÖ General Secretary Harald Vilimsky, in which that audience, which was a thousand times larger, defended the honourable role of Ursula Stenzel, Vienna’s non-official city councilor, in a manifestation of the cultural movement of the identities. There is no need to ask who is currently exerting more influence on the public climate.
Let us return to the pragmatic proposals on cultural policy measures, even if there was no indication how these could be implemented in the given power relations. Yes, there should be more money, at least the subsidy amounts should be adjusted to the annual inflation rates. The only original proposal for the acquisition of the funds was the introduction of a “Goethe-Groschen” (in Austria rather “Grillparzer-Groschen” than “Wildgangs-Groschen”) in order to be able to gain royalties for contemporary art even after the expiration of the protection periods. Institutional funding applicants are to be obliged to comply with the social standards of employment (which promptly led to the comment from the audience that the realisation would immediately lead to a collapse of the free scene offer). Copyright issues should be clarified, the collecting societies should be put on a new footing, the guidelines for the reform of the federal museums should finally be implemented … the list could be continued for a long time to come.
“Retrotopia” is not a right-wing domain – progress also seeks its future in the past
It fits well into this scenario that central social challenges such as digitisation and mediatisation, migration and flight (after all, Airan Berg called for cultural institutions to become more diverse), economisation and social inequality have not even been addressed in part.
I admit that the event left me rather helpless: A number of political functionaries appeared who are either unwilling or unable to present social visions of the future, who would be more or less persuasive in inviting a sector that is increasingly under existential pressure to “go some way along the way” (the only ones currently successfully doing so were the right-wing ones, who were not invited).
Instead, the cultural spokespeople were primarily politically disillusioned state administrators whose primary task would be to ensure “that nothing happens”. Instead of promoting a common political project in which art and culture could unfold their social power, they were content with proposals to somehow muddle on. That, in view of this form of rampant political fatigue in an increasingly neoliberal climate, the market has long since taken over the real power in the field of culture, too, remained completely unmentioned.
The venue “Das Depot” celebrates its 30th anniversary in a few days. One could interpret the event as an early celebration of the “museumization of the free scene” (nothing makes this assessment more vivid than a look at the Depot’s website, which sums up the “Retrotopia” (Zygmunt Baumann) of once progressive forces). And we took part in a political attempt to bring a once effective social force to its end in terms of cultural policy. The apologists inside the “cultural nation” will be delighted.
The people outside the nostalgic venue “Depot” may not care, they have other worries, and they are currently served primarily by the politicians who were not invited.
But take a look for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8tvGqXx7SM&feature=youtu.be