Art, Culture and Borders – Why boundaries are necessary for a thriving coexistence
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.”
Ans Lugeck kam ich von ungefähr,
Da gingen Kaufleut’ hin und her,
In fremder Kleidung bunterlei,
Und sprachen fremde Sprachen dabei,
Ich dacht’, ich wär’ nach Babel kommen,
Wo Sprachenwirrniß Anfang genommen,
Und hört’ ein seltsam Geträtsch, Geschrei,
Auch schöne Sprachen mancherlei.
Hebräisch, Griechisch und Lateinisch,
Deutsch, Französisch, Türkisch, Spanisch,
Böhmisch, Windisch, Italienisch,
Ungarisch, gut Niederländisch,
Natürlich Syrisch, Croatisch,
Serbisch, Polnisch und Chaldäisch.
Des Volk’s war da die große Menge…
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.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire is often seen as a precursor to the European Union due to its multicultural nature, encompassing various languages, religions, and cultures. This can be observed in the title of Emperor Franz Joseph:
“Franz Joseph I, by the grace of God Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary and Bohemia, King of Lombardy and Venice, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria, and Illyria; King of Jerusalem, etc.; Archduke of Austria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Krakow; Duke of Lorraine, Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, and Bukovina; Grand Prince of Transylvania; Margrave of Moravia; Duke of Upper and Lower Silesia, of Modena, Parma, Piacenza, and Guastalla, of Auschwitz and Zator, of Teschen, Friuli, Ragusa, and Zara; Princely Count of Habsburg and Tyrol, Kyburg, Gorizia and Gradisca; Prince of Trent and Brixen; Margrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia and in Istria; Count of Hohenems, Feldkirch, Bregenz, Sonnenberg, etc.; Lord of Trieste, Cattaro, and over the Windic March; Grand Voivode of the Voivodship of Serbia, etc., etc.”
This culturally complex empire in the middle of Europe was held together by the claim of German supremacy. Growing claims for self-determination led to increasing centrifugal forces within this “Vielvölkerstaat.” It gave birth to several national cultures used in the power struggle against a superior German elite. These cultures established borders through the use of different languages, music, behavior, and customs, with the hope of gaining political influence.
We learn that culture can be politically utilized to create new borders and serve as a means to assert political interests. I won’t delve into the details of the extreme escalation in the 20th century, when totalitarian tendencies in Austria represented an extreme form of societal division. The objective was not inclusion but segregation, and even the destruction of those who fell outside predetermined attributions.
After the Second World War, a small, devastated country in the heart of Europe managed to initiate a unique cultural policy success story. By leveraging the cultural heritage of the former multi-ethnic empire, culture became a defining characteristic of its political identity. This was done to obscure the deep involvement of Austrians in the atrocities of Nazi terror. Austria positioned itself as “the land of singers and violinists,” offering national reassurance and presenting an attractive Unique Selling Proposition (USP). This demonstrates another instrumentalization of culture, not for politization, but for depolitization.
However, behind this idealization of political innocence, it becomes evident that the majority of Austrians were excluded from what was then referred to as state culture. Clear divisions existed between different social groups: culture was primarily dedicated to a small group of affluent, educated citizens—the self-proclaimed elite bourgeoisie. On the other side stood the vast majority of so-called uncultured workers, who were offered cheap entertainment industry products—what we now refer to as cultural industry products. This highlights how culture constructed boundaries between different social groups, or classes, as they were referred to at that time.
This separation began to change in the 1970s with a left-wing democratic reform policy that promised “culture for all.” New concepts in cultural policy aimed to break down cultural barriers rooted in existing power relations within society. The underlying political-conceptual approach was to establish a cultural state achieved through the welfare state, both materially and immaterially redistributing resources. The goal was for everyone to eventually rise to the middle class and recognize each other culturally.
The political expectation was for society to homogenize, with an increasing number of people sharing a common set of cultural values that would be accessible to all without hindrance. Overall, there was a prevailing cultural-political expectation of integration, which at the very least entailed a relativization of cultural differences and, at best, mutual understanding, appreciation, and enrichment.
Ironically, during this period, trains carrying Yugoslav and Turkish workers, known as “Gastarbeiter,” arrived in Vienna, yet their cultural particularities went unnoticed by the broader public. At that time, the focus was on the ability of ancestral minorities, such as Slovenians, Croats, or Jewish people, to integrate.
By the 1980s, at the latest, these reform hopes came to an end. Austria belatedly succumbed to neoliberal dynamics, leading to the increasing economization of all aspects of life and work. This was accelerated by its accession to the European Union in 1995. The state gradually retreated while competitive conditions intensified.
This market-oriented economy permeated the publicly funded cultural sector, causing it to lose its function as a symbolic representation of communal bonds across social groups. Instead, it became part of an expanding supply structure within a target group-oriented leisure industry, transforming socio-politically charged culture into a collection of cultural goods and services. Culture seemed to lose its political potency.
As a main cultural policy result, a new classification for the relevance of culture became dominant, not alongside the politically defined class structure, but alongside different consumer behaviors. All those who deal with consumer relationships will know about “Sigma-Studies,” which combine different consumer behaviors with particular cultural preferences.
The emancipatory dimension of the slogan “More market, less state” consisted in overcoming corporate structures. Fewer boundaries, also between different cultural peculiarities alongside respective social backgrounds, was the message. Anyone and everyone – regardless of ethnic, religious, gender, age, or other demarcations – could and should take advantage of the constantly expanding range of cultural offerings, provided that they are able to raise the funds to do so.
At the same time, the relevance of what we used to negotiate as culture changed. No longer politically loaded, it became increasingly arbitrary when it was now available for everybody as a product like soap or nails.
Fewer and fewer people agreed that culture could once again be used to create something like a common agreement beyond societal hierarchies, influencing political debates. The public good culture, in all its manifold expression forms stimulated by cultural institutions, was increasingly relegated to the market and thus to the private relationships between supply and demand.
From a transnational point of view, this development was exacerbated both theoretically and practically. After all, global exchange conditions ensured that cultural goods were widely available across existing geographical borders. Correspondingly, the cultural offer lost its potential to structure society. With the help of new technological possibilities, unimaginable cultural spaces became available to everyone in an equal way, largely without barriers, and suggested the existence of a global culture that eludes any demarcation.
This significant cultural transformation culminated in great euphoria around 1989 and the fall of the Iron Curtain. The end of history seemed near, along with the possibility of global fraternization and sisterhood on a common marketplace, where all boundaries that had previously been drawn for reasons of maintaining power would disappear.
Theoretically, this development found its counterpart in the concept of postmodernism, which was about the end of the grand stories that people should rally around as a common basis. Instead, they were left to create their own stories, to split up into all sorts of groups that would happily exist next to, above, or alongside each other. In this new context of “anything goes,” diversity became something positive, making us forget the political claim for growing together and seemingly leaving behind inequality caused by cultural differences.
It was the time when individualism flourished, the more differences, the better. Attention became the new currency. The market should function as the only remaining link, where everyone – regardless of their cultural characteristics – should come together, recognize their different values, and cultivate exchange relationships.
Additionally, a lack of alternatives was propagated, which interpreted every cultural behavior, no matter how different, as a special form of one and the same capitalist worldview within the framework of more or less democratically constituted conditions. (Maybe one of the biggest cultural diplomatic mistakes in the relationships between Europe and Russia: While the Western mainstream still believed that there is no alternative to “change through trade,” in Russia, the alternative “Russki Mir” became the cultural basis for Russia’s renewal of its imperial claims.)
This transformation of theory and practice was further loaded by a post-colonial discourse, which made evident that the Western concept of universality was and still is part of a claim to power, discriminating against all those who are not unconditional supporters of respective practices, thus producing new boundaries alongside inclusion and exclusion.
It is not surprising that this form of world interpretation has not gone unchallenged. The opponents of these new relationships, such as comparability, measurability, quantifiability, superficiality, or even uniformity, also in the field of culture, should gain prominence, at the latest with the increase in the growing crisis, particularly evident since the global financial collapse in 2008.
Since then, the representatives of modern Western characterized nation-states have started working on their restoration. Their main aim is to deal with the negative consequences of the liberalization tendencies that had been implemented up to that point, which have become increasingly visible and noticeable.
The uncertainty faced by those who were not among the winners of these market-driven signs of dissolution has become too great. People are feeling increasingly isolated and betrayed by the promises made to them by advocates of a full-scale demolition of all boundaries that have hitherto guided their actions.
Their living conditions have deteriorated massively, and their future prospects are increasingly overshadowed by apocalyptic end-time scenarios. The fear of climate catastrophe, the next pandemic, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, inflation, financial collapse, the next wave of migration, and the approach of war dominates us as “earthlings” (Nelson Goodman).
In my opinion, a comprehensive – culturally interpreted – process of differentiation on a common market has come to an end. Instead, we are experiencing a political response that aims to produce new boundaries, fueling the political agendas of a new generation of mainly right-wing populist decision-makers. Re-homogenization, re-nationalization, de-democratization, and re-authoritarianism herald a backlash that was unimaginable a few years ago.
And in little Austria? Like in most other countries, this social change has gone hand in hand with the emergence of a large number of more or less unmediated cultural scenes. Their bearers are all searching for identity – trying to find handles to locate themselves in a society that is unsettling because it is collapsing. We no longer speak of “culture for all” but of “a culture without a center” (Enzensberger). In this new context, the description of Austria as a “representation of a former civilization” has become just a tourist branding, which has nothing to do with the fragmented realities of the Austrian people.
This drifting apart is often treated euphemistically, with diversity purely portrayed as positive, in order to disguise unequal power relations that still exist behind culturally mediated hierarchies. This development is exacerbated by growing heterogenization through migration, which challenges the state and society to maintain a thriving coexistence despite all the differences in origin, life, and work skills, values, or future expectations for which the autochthonous population was not prepared. Altogether, it is a highly contradictory process, where the claim for emancipation coexists with growing fragmentation and new boundaries.
Overall, we find ourselves in a complex and contradictory situation, engaged in a deep political controversy between democratic attainment and authoritarian restoration. Therefore, it is tempting to follow simplistic interpretations.
The clearest answers so far have come from right-wing populist to right-wing extremist parties, calling for the return of old conditions in which a homogeneous culture of an autochthonous society was decisive, and all other influences appear to be potentially dangerous and not integrable. Astonishingly, their speakers can make us forget that this past never existed in reality (that is why I told you about the “melting pot” of the early 20th century). The problem is that these politicians can count on societal amnesia, which produces a wishful uniform past that has never existed.
In doing so, they refer to a nativist concept of culture that refuses any process of negotiation.
To ensure this culture of simplicity, a strong state is going to be established again, if necessary with authoritarian means, that can draw clear boundaries between those who belong and those who are excluded. The dilemma of European migration policy, erecting new fences around “Fortress Europe,” highlights the full extent of the dilemma.
A look at Austria’s EU neighborhood, such as Hungary, shows what such a cultural policy is all about: not only the culture and media industry are mercilessly aligned with politics.
Not to mention Putin’s claim to power, which is currently breaking borders – physically and mentally – by denying Ukrainians not only their linguistic and cultural right to exist but also their physical right to exist. In this context, you are more knowledgeable than I am about the situation in Turkey a few days before a crucial election.
Before I conclude with some remarks on how to address this cultural crisis, allow me – in a short theoretical deviation – to make a few remarks on the complex relationship between culture and art.
For me, a distinction between the terms culture and art seems necessary. I even see them as a pair of opposites, albeit closely related.
Culture tends to interpret, if not exacerbate, what is (and what has been – in reality and in transfiguration) in the eyes of the powerful. It always contains a confirming, reassuring, and limiting element.
On the contrary, art refers to what is not or not yet, and thus to what could be or should be. It opens up a space of possibilities (Austrian author Robert Musil speaks of a “Möglichkeitsraum”) in which not only the power-related interpretation of the existing is celebrated, but it also reflects on possible futures to be anticipated.
Art thus proves to be the ultimate medium for crossing borders, rather than eliminating them. As a critical authority, it constantly refers to traditional boundaries as starting material, but the work of artists is about questioning them, overcoming them, and inevitably creating new boundaries.
It would be a great misunderstanding to attribute limitlessness to art. In its claim to create something new, art is inevitably dependent on predetermined boundaries that artists try to overcome with aesthetic means. Anything else would be an expression of arbitrariness that refuses any qualified judgment.
Since the 1970s, Austrian cultural policy has initiated a comprehensive funding system to promote a wide variety of artistic creations, including their mediation and reception. By doing so, artists should be able to meet not only the expectations of the market but also pose uncomfortable and critical questions to society and its regulatory structure, independently of politics and the market, in order to contribute to enlivening public conversation.
With such an attribution towards art, it refers to an interpretation of “culture” that is not limited to a set of fixed components from a supposedly better past but rather uses them – with the help of its special aesthetic means – as a starting material for the design of progress, as we used to describe it.
We should keep in mind that there is no such thing as culture per se. My proposal would be to use this term only in relation to otherness. This means, however, that we cannot avoid drawing boundaries, not only because they provide deceptive security for us but also to find an opposite that is a prerequisite for recognizing the cultural uniqueness of myself as well as others. For such a progressive definition of culture, which is aware that it is embedded in power relations, the question “Who speaks?” (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak) is crucial.
The Indian-American cultural scientist Homi K. Bhabha opened up a “Third Space” that might lead us a step further. Growing out of the post-colonial discourse, he proposed the creation of spaces in which people from different backgrounds can and want to come together in order to engage with one another. Cultural institutions are particularly suitable as neutral places for this purpose.
This means that Third Spaces are not only suitable for productive encounters between colonizers and the colonized but also for anyone around whom higher fences of tradition, language, work logic, or expectations of results have been erected within the framework of the prevailing division of labor, and who still wants to communicate with one another – and can.
There is still a long way to go, even in our sector, for example in arts universities. To give you a practical example, when I recently visited a rehearsal of musicians at an Austrian art university, jazz musicians and classical music students came together to improvise together. It became evident how difficult this endeavor is when artists from different traditions, languages, logics, practices, and expectations come together to co-create. My advice in this regard is to give students the opportunity to experience otherness. Allow them not only to remain within their exclusive circles but stimulate their curiosity to face the unknown, which enriches what they see as their own. In short, encourage interdisciplinary action.
Cultural institutions, as public spaces, can make a significant contribution against the maintenance and even reinstallation of old power relations. As public spaces open to everyone regardless of their social background, they can function as political factors again, interpreting differences as a starting point to bring the concept of diversity in unity to life.
And we could return to the Lugeck as such a space, where very different people from all parts of the world come together and have something to say to each other.
Bild: ©Michael Wimmer