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The Art of the Hour

Valie Export / Peter Weibl
From the "Mappe der Hundigkeit" [Folder of Doglike-ness], Vienna 1969
© Josef Mandl

"Artistic creation, the way art is presented as well as the way it is taught, this is free." ( Basic law of the state, Article 17a, Bundesgesetzblatt [Federal Law Paper, 262/1982)

One event in June 2000 provoked a "storm of outrage." Christoph Schlingensief, known for his provocative art-happenings, set up in the heart of Vienna, right near the State Opera, a prefabricated container and adorned his "reality-soap" with the cynical invitation, "Please love Austria," as a title. The main actors of the "Big-Brother"-clone were foreigners, those people about whom the Freedom Party, the second biggest party in Austria, likes to issue warnings, especially at election times. A one-meter-long banner with the inscription, "Foreigners Out," made the intent of the play unmistakably clear. This racist slogan was removed by a group of activists, a reaction that the initiator welcomed when it finally came to the point. The play in the container housing people ear-marked for deportation provoked heated debates. Many people in the country may well think this way, but it is really not supposed to be so publicly and centrally presented for so long that the other kind of foreigners whom the country needs, namely the tourists, can hand it down to posterity in their vacation photographs. This was a direct hit on a sensitive nerve in the social system, a nerve that is instantly inflamed when art really claims freedom for itself.

The declaration of belief in the freedom of art was set down in 1982 in the Austrian constitution. The formal application for this initiative came from the Socialists as early as 1979, and they also asked for the "commitment" of public funds to the promotion of art. This passage was however rejected by the opposition. "Precisely this point would have represented a change of course for a new liberal art policy," summarized Karl Blecha who was the administrator of artistic and cultural concerns for the Socialists and who fought for three years to include the freedom of art in the constitution. (In: Der Standard [newspaper], 2./September 3, 2000, p. 19) Certainly this freedom had de facto been secured long since through other provisions in the constitution, but by analogy to the freedom guaranteed to the sciences art was also supposed to enjoy a right to freedom.

Yet how free really is art? Where are its boundaries set? It certainly provides a target for political, legal and moral disputes. A whole host of decrees, ordinances and laws make sure that its guaranteed freedoms will not be free to get out of control. Determining what is allowed and what is forbidden, shaping, in other words, the content of what art is and delineating its barriers, this is the task of the courts.

Thus the prevention of pornographic content in art works rates a whole lot of paper in the Austrian legal system. And efforts at censorship like to refer to the pornography law in order to pull critical or politically undesirable works out of circulation. An artwork is on the other hand not allowed to contain any incitement or racial discrimination. Thus Hubsi Kramer was arrested when he appeared in a Hitler-outfit in the Opera Ball 2000. He was said to have violated the Nazi-ban law. The authorities did not understand his provocation, or chose not to understand it.

In much less sensitive areas, however, parody and irony can be a disaster. Thus in the Austrian Criminal Code (√Ėsterreichisches Strafgesetzbuch: BGBl, no. 60/1974, Paragraph 248), the following statement occurs: "Whoever slanders or belittles the Republic of Austria or one of its federal provinces in a spiteful way so that the deed becomes known to a wider public, that individual is to be punished with a prison-sentence of up to a year..." Whoever therefore in his or her artistic work grapples with the Austrian flag, the national anthem, the national coat of arms, is running the risk of being accused of "high treason."

Who in Austria is allowed to call himself or herself an artist? According to the dominant teaching and established legal language of the Administrative Court, an artist is a person who develops a uniquely creative, personal activity in a branch of art on the basis of artistic ability. Who in Austria has a claim on benefits from the Artists' Social Insurance Fund? The person "who creates works of art in the areas of the fine arts, the performing arts, music, literature or in one of its contemporary forms (in particular photography, the art of film, multi-media art, literary translation, music production, on the basis of his artistic capability in the framework of an artistic activitiy."

A generally valid definition of the concept "artist" does not exist. Bureaucrats often decide who may count himself or herself one of the professional group of "artists." Or in the case of the Artists' Social Insurance Fund, its own internally created "curia" makes the decision. Criteria for the definition of an artist are to be found in criminal law, commercial law, tax law, labor law and social law. For the decisive judgement in the case of the Artists' Social Insurance Fund, successful completion of an artistic course of studies at the higher education level is also a relevant criterion of proof of artistic capability.

How artists finally fare in Austria depends however not only on the legal situation. To take a position politically, art needs above all a liberal socio-political climate. Its breeding ground is not the need for harmony but the delight in conflict. And so wrestling for the "freedom of art" is a permanent process which declares provocation to be the "art of the hour."

Station: The Art of the Hour
(Last update: 03/2006)

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