© Deuticke im Paul Zsolnay Verlag; © Suhrkamp Verlag; © Bärenreiter-Verlag/ Metzler
© Deuticke im Paul Zsolnay Verlag; © Suhrkamp Verlag; © Bärenreiter-Verlag/ Metzler

Art, Politics, Music and Economic Life. Participation, Intervention, Transgression of Competence, Obligation. Notes on Klangforum Wien’s Political Engagement.

In 1933, as National Socialist barbarism took control of Germany, it was a great disappointment that the intellectual elite, one after the other, instead of putting up resistance, made their pact with it. Owing to this fact, resistance in general was substantially weakened; those who were able to see clearly became increasingly isolated and impotent. It is the duty, at all times, of anyone surpassing the average, to act as a role model. Therefore, anybody who has given their services and their name to the cause of National Socialism is guilty. (From the grounds for the judgment of the Spruchkammer München-Land (German civilian court handling denazification), Mü-La 146/46/3636 of October 17, 1947 in the case Werner Egk vs. Kurt Arnold)

In its 2018/2019 season, Klangforum Wien plans an artistic analysis of the current state of international economic life; of mainstream economic science, which supports, on the basis of very thin scientific evidence, the current capitalist economic system; and of possible alternatives to the status quo. The project “To the Common Good!” represents one in a series of the ensemble’s political statements and alliances, which started in 2000 with the outright rejection of the pact between Wolfgang Schüssel (ÖVP) and Jörg Haider (FPÖ) and the resulting Cabinet Schüssel I, based on this agreement, which was ostracised and against which sanctions were imposed by all EU member states as well as by several nations outside the European Union.   

Instead of confining themselves to the mere interpretation of musical scores, the musicians of Klangforum Wien have time and again transformed the concert stage into a political forum – for instance in their repeated collaboration with the ensemble voix étouffées, whose members lend the victims of European fascism their voices; by performing, at the height of the international agitation, a solidarity concert for Greece with works by Greek composers; or, last but not least, with a major joint project in collaboration with netzzeit and the forum for experimental architecture, with which the ensemble pleaded the case for European integration and the foundation of a capital for the European Union.

Whoever dares to transform the temples of the arts – very often regarded as places of refuge against the impositions presented by reality – into spaces devoted to a lively discussion of the current conditions in human society, is obliged to answer to allegations and inquiries. These range from the accusation that an audience, which has paid for being entertained, is instead confronted with political agitation, to allegations of misuse of contributions from public subsidy.  

The quotation which precedes this article gives a very clear answer to questions and admonitions of this kind. It highlights the artists’ obligation and imposes on them a very high degree of accountability for the commonwealth. As personalities who outshine the average population, they authenticate and authorise the factual situation by their mere public appearance and their tacit functioning. For this reason, they must not stay silent, but are obliged to declare themselves or, if they can’t or won’t, to disappear from the public stage altogether. 

Of course – the self-righteous fervour with which those of later generations presumptuously denounced the composer Werner Egk, against whom, in fact, no charges of any substance can be brought, as “one of the vilest representatives of National Socialist music politics” – is equally derisory and repugnant. However this does not detract in the least from the validity of the quoted verdict’s general application. The artist who appears in the public domain has no right to act as an idiotes, a private person, who does not have to concern him- or herself with anything and anyone but their art. They are obligated to devote their knowledge, their expertise, and their artistic vigour to directing their audience’s thoughts and emotions towards a catharsis which may benefit the common good.    

At this point, we have arrived at the current engagement of Klangforum Wien. In collaboration with Musik der Jahrhunderte, Stuttgart and Amour Fou Film, Vienna, the ensemble has invited ten women film artists and ten women composers to create new works on a burning socio-political issue: Does an alternative exist to the prevailing capitalist economic system? Or is there no alternative to the prevalent economic order with its victors and its losers?

In September 2015, the Common Good Economy of the Austrian author Christian Felber was hailed as a “sustainable economic model for social cohesion” by the Economic and Social Committee of the European Union, and recommended for incorporation both into the European as well as the national legislative framework of all EU member states. Of course, opinions may differ in relation to the approaches adopted by this Common Good Economy; however its position as an influential economic theory cannot be gainsaid – if on no other grounds than owing to the detailed and expertly argued official statement by the responsible EU committee. It was therefore certainly appropriate for the Austrian publishers VERITAS to include Felber’s theory in its school book Geospots, together with those of Keynes, Marx, Friedman and Hayek, putting them up for discussion by pupils in the 7th and 8th grades of Austrian grammar schools. 

Felber’s model calls into question the scientific foundations on which the doctrines, currently taught at Austrian universities of economics, are based – as well as their problem-solving competence and their political credentials. It has become obvious that in such cases, academic practice at Austrian universities of economics does not provide for an objective discourse in relation to dissident theories, but instead prefers, simply and without good reason, to denounce such unpopular approaches as “unscientific”, openly calling for censorship. In a letter of April 7, 2016, around 140 employees at Austrian schools of economics demanded protection from the Federal Minister of Education: They applied to her to prohibit the dissemination of the textbook at Austrian schools, thus quashing any possibility on the part of the students to address the Common Good Economy - despite the recommendations issued by the European Union. As a consequence, the publisher finally – voluntarily – deleted all mention of Christian Felber and his economic model from the text.

At this point, the arts in general, the performing arts in particular, and music especially, come into play. In his “Dramaturgy”, as well as in other essays written in the last years of his life, which were recently published by Bärenreiter/Metzler under the title “The Theatre that Changes Us”, Gerard Mortier, whose 75th birthday, in memory of this great European, we will celebrate on November 25th, has emphatically pointed out the obligation, deriving from its history, under which the European music theatre must needs operate – an obligation to lend its voice to the suppressed, to the common good and to humanity. This is exactly what Klangforum Wien undertakes with its latest project. When civil servants, in the guise of teachers of economy, at our universities assert their claim to an exclusive or at any rate privileged right to participate in the political discussion addressing the forms and regulations guiding our economic life and, under the pretext of lack of qualification, attempt to exclude anybody else from sharing in this key area of social coexistence, suppressing the dissemination of alternative models with the help of state-imposed censorship, art is obliged – with all the means at its disposal – to expose this insolence, to provide a stage for “the other” and to actuate the dialogue so far withheld.    

In doing so, Klangforum Wien in no way exceeds its authority – it simply exercises its responsibility to participate, to take a stand and to intervene. On the contrary – the ensemble finds itself in good company; not least in that of the author Robert Menasse, whose major European novel “The Capital City” seems literally to be constructed towards its culmination in the grandiose address given by its secret hero. Prof. Alois Erhart confronts the officious apologists of the current order with their historic role models and boldly opposes their sardonic smiles, the presumptuous scorn of the prevailing doctrine and the denunciation of his theories as “unscientific”:

Had you been living at the times of the Greek slaveholder-society and someone had asked you whether you could imagine a world without slaves – you would have said: No. Never. You would have maintained that the slaveholder society was a precondition of democracy! Right? No, no, Prof. Matthews, wait! Please. I imagine you in Manchester, during the times of the Manchester capitalism. If one had asked you then what to do in order to secure Manchester’s position, you would have said: Under no circumstances may we yield to these unions who demand an 8-hour instead of a 14-hour-workday; who want to ban child labour and who go so far as to call for an old age and invalid’s pension, because that would compromise the attraction of the location – and, Professor Matthews, what have we now? Does Manchester still exist? And spare yourself this arrogant smirk, Mr. Mosebach. With the kind of radicalism with which you defend German interests today, you would have ended up as a culprit at the Nuremberg Trials, had you but been born a little earlier. Which is something you don’t even realise. But don’t tremble, dear Mosebach. People like you are always pardoned, because it’s completely obvious to any expert witness: you don’t mean any harm, you are simply deluded. You are a follower. And that’s the problem with all of you. You are all followers. You are filled with indignation when somebody tells you this today; but you are exactly the sort of people who tomorrow, when a catastrophe has happened, perhaps even followed by a trial, will say apologetically that you’ve only been followers, tiny little wheels. (Robert Menasse, „Die Hauptstadt“, S. 390 f., Berlin 2017)

Is it hyperbole to claim that the current economic order which, for its continued existence, obviously depends on unbridled growth, on unrestrained consumption of the limited resources of our earth (one earth!), on stock-market speculation on the price of basic foodstuffs, and on ubiquitous competition which, with increasing speed, will lead us to economic wars between corporations and states – that this general trend will result in catastrophic developments? And is it a mistake to assume that all the experts and scientists who have supported this order with their borrowed authority qua office will deny any responsibility for the results of their actions?

And is it not always the proper purpose of the arts, to point out these circumstances? And if this is not the purpose of the arts – what is?
—Sven Hartberger, 2018

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