Commentary On The New York Times article

“Austria Under Siege By

Artists (and Artifice)”


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By William Osborne

[Sent to various lists on February 17, 2000.]

I think many people have wondered why the two major music critics of  _The New York Times_, Bernard Holland and James Ostreich, have served as apologists for the Vienna Philharmonic's all-white male ideology. Their articles have presented arguments for both the protester's and Philharmonic's views.  Through this approach they moved political debate back 30 years or more, as if mainstream journalism still needed to ponder whether the exclusion of women and non-whites is justifiable in a symphony orchestra. 



Bernard Holland, "Feminist Protests and Vienna Musicians" _The New York Times_ (March 3, 1997) p. C11.

James Ostreich, "Even Legends Adjust to Time and Trend, Even the Vienna" _The New York Times_ (February 28, 1998) p. B9.


and by contrast see:

Jan Herman, "For Violist, the Rules Never Seemed to Change" _The Los Angeles Times_ (February 27, 1998).


Holland and Ostreich thus presented subtle forms of propaganda that strengthened the Vienna Philharmonic's resistance to change.   Unfortunately, recent events have shown that the orchestra's "traditions" are actually part of an ugly form of bigotry that  can even threaten European political stability.


I hope some of you will be able to see through the agendas in the article below by Donald G. McNeil Jr. which was recently published by _The New York Times_ on the front page of its arts section.  Instead of relying on factual presentation and reasoned arguments it emphasizes innuendo.  In some cases I have added short editorial comments since Joerg Haider's history is not well-known in the Americas.  After the article I include a very brief analysis of yet another article by McNeil that might help you locate the origins of his perspectives and goals. 


I would especially draw your attention to the eighth paragraph, which notes that Gerard Mortier, the Director of the Salzburg Festspiel, has called for a boycott of the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's Concert.  He is the first high official in Austria to make such a statement.  


I am sorry for this long post and the deluge of information of the last few days about Austria's politico-cultural life, but the situation is truly unusual and I hope some of you will find it interesting.


William Osborne



The New York Times

Austria Under Siege by Artists *(and Artifice)*



VIENNA, Feb. 14 -- Thanks to Jörg Haider's Freedom Party, Vienna has two new schools of art: the small and bitter Get-Out-Now movement and the larger, angrier Stay-and-Fight club. 


The first wants a complete art blockade of Austria to protest the inclusion of Mr. Haider's right-wing anti-immigrant party in a coalition government. The latter plans to stay and protest his ascendancy.  [Ed: The party is generally viewed as more than just "right-wing."]


For once artists are siding with the power elite. Although he is a partner in a government with a typical conservative platform, Mr. Haider earlier made statements, especially those seen as sympathetic to the Third Reich, that so upset the European Union that 14 countries have downgraded diplomatic relations with Austria.  [Ed: 14 out of 15 EU governments do not represent a "power elite" and Haider is not a typical conservative.]


However feared he is by liberals, it's not clear that Mr. Haider poses any threat to the arts. Although artists here are even more careless than politicians about tossing off blithe references to Nazism, no one in the public debate yet suggests that Mr. Haider's party would crack down on anyone he disliked -- or even cut the generous government subsidies that Austria gives artists. And there has been nearly as much snide slicing of rivals as there is bashing of Mr. Haider's politics.  [Ed: Haider's plaudits of National Socialism were neither "careless" nor "blithe" and his actions continue to show his sympathies-- as they have for the last 15 years.  His attitudes toward "avant-guarde" artists in particular is quite clear.  See the article that I am also posting by the distinguished Cornell U. musicologist, Michael Steinberg.]


Take the case of Gérard Mortier, the artistic director of the celebrated Salzburg Festival. Last week while traveling in the United States, he made headlines by announcing that he would resign early to protest the presence of Mr. Haider's party in the government.  


But as was known to everyone in Vienna who has followed Mr. Mortier's angry clashes with Austria's conservative president, Thomas Klestil, over the festival's avant-garde spin, he announced last March that he would depart in 2001, and his replacement was named two months ago.  [Ed: For the real facts behind the Festspiel and Haider see the Steingberg article.]


On Sunday, speaking at a public forum called "Go or Stay: Is Artistic Freedom Endangered?," the actor Klaus Maria Brandauer dismissed Mr. Mortier's beau geste: "I spoke to a French woman who said, 'Everybody should take the stand Mortier did.' She didn't know he was leaving anyway."  [Ed: In reality his contract is not being renewed due to his long and consistent stance against Haider's cultural politics.]


After today's forum, word reached Austria that Mr. Mortier had gone even further. In an interview with a Dutch magazine, he said he feared Mr. Haider would turn the Salzburg Festival into a mix of "Strauss waltzes and a yodeling contest."  [Ed: Again, see the Steinberg article for a more factual portrayal of the long-standing conflict.] He also called for a boycott of the annual New Year's concert by the Vienna Philharmonic. Since it is televised worldwide, that would "cost Austria millions," he said. But, the magazine reported, he also made a threat inimical to artistic freedom: if Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who has been invited to direct the New Year's concert, accepts, he will drop him from this year's Salzburg program.   [Ed: No mention of the "artistic freedom" of the women and Austrian-educated non-whites barred from the Vienna Philharmonic.]


Rainhard Fendrich, author of the pop video hit "I Am From Austria," which celebrates the beer-and-Alpine-scenery culture, is now so ashamed of being Austrian, the magazine Profil said this week, that "he is in Majorca and prefers to speak English."


More respectfully discussed at the forum, which packed the Burg Theater today, was the decision by Elfriede Jelinek, one of Austria's best-known playwrights, to refuse to let her works be performed in Austria while Mr. Haider is in the government. Ms. Jelinek was to speak, but sent word that she was sick, although she is also known to be very shy. An actor read her statement, which included the explanation: "My words will have an effect in that they won't be heard anymore."


In an earlier interview Ms. Jelinek said she would leave Austria if she didn't have to care for her aged mother. Her words have a certain influence because she is one of the few artists to have been directly attacked by Mr. Haider's party. Two years ago a Freedom Party poster in the campaign for the Vienna government read: "Do You Want Jelinek, Turrini and Peymann, or Do You Want Art?"


[Ed: Haider knew  that in Austria these posters would correctly be associated with the polemic and methods the National Socialists used in the 1930s against "degenerate moderns."  The Freedom Party also sent letters to many oppositional artists letting them know they were being watched and that their addresses were known.  This was especially intimidating since there was a rightwing extremist package bomb campaign going on in Austria at the time.  The recipients included an assortment of artists, feminists and leftists.  One blew off several fingers of the Mayor of Vienna.]


The three are modern writers and directors of works that upset Austrian nationalists. Ms. Jelinek's long, cerebral plays attack the materialistic, health-obsessed "body culture" that some see as an allusion to the tanned, narcissistic Mr. Haider and his yuppie followers. Mr. Peymann staged a production of Thomas Bernhard's "Heldenplatz," much of which was a monologue by an elderly Jew describing Austria's acceptance of Hitler and included the line "all Austrians are Nazis."


But the director Andrea Breth, who was in Ms. Jelinek's absence the only woman on stage at today's forum, said she thought Ms. Jelinek's decision was "exactly the wrong way to go about things."


Thinking one could fight a government with silence was "a bit vain," she concluded. She said she supported Luc Bondy, the well-known Swiss-German director sitting next to her, in his position: "Come to Austria and speak out, speak out, speak out!"


Reaction from outside Austria is still muted and individualistic, partially because Vienna is no longer the world cultural capital it once was. Some French painters have said they will not show here. On Sunday Lou Reed canceled the Vienna leg of his European tour, telling Austrian radio, "People have the right to elect someone like him, but that doesn't mean everyone has to get close to him."


Zubin Mehta, director of the Israel Philharmonic, has effectively ignored the Israeli government, which has recalled its ambassador to Vienna in protest. He said he would gauge the new government's acts before refusing to work here. 


Last week there was talk of the Oscar committee's canceling the eligibility of an Austrian entry, "Nordrand" ("North Skirts") for best foreign film. That saddened some who knew the film, directed by Barbara Albert, because its message is antixenophobic. It follows a young woman from a troubled, hate-filled lower-class Austrian family who is befriended and redeemed by a young Bosnian refugee woman living here -- exactly the kind of people Mr. Haider attacks. In the end, the committee decided to leave the film in the running.


Artists oppose the Freedom Party largely because of its stance on immigrants and race. Fairly characterizing its attitude toward art is difficult.  [Ed:  Actually, the stance is clear and that is why so many artists are protesting.  Again, see the Steinberg article.]


Peter Marboe, Vienna's cultural affairs counselor, said he had a "really horrendous" experience with Haider followers over a retrospective of the art of the Wienergruppe (Vienna Group), which was popular 50 years ago. In the show, he said, was a pioneering piece that he said attacked silence about child abuse and included pictures of naked children and erect penises. When he refused to remove it, he said, the Freedom Party group accused him of backing child pornography.   [Ed: McNeil's portrayal of the Wienergruppe work is very colored.] 


The party "is erratic" about styles, he said, and picks fights it thinks will win it votes. On the other hand, it simply ignored a Vienna musical that nastily satirized Mr. Haider, "1000 Suns, or Dr. Jockel in Power," even though it was staged with city money during the recent election campaigns.  [Ed: In reality, such political satire is a regular part of Viennese cultural life and generally covers the whole political spectrum.]


The party doesn't denounce huge state subsidies for opera as elitist, as populist parties elsewhere might. It favors classical and folk art but backed the Austrian Cultural Institute in New York, a sliver of a building whose architect likened it to a guillotine. It voted against a Vienna Holocaust memorial and against raising a museum to house the papers of Arnold Schoenberg but did not give an anti-Semitic reason, though their opponents suggested that was the case.


On Sunday at the forum, the novelist Robert Menasse denounced the Freedom Party the way nearly everyone else did -- but he said its appearance had been a blessing.


For decades, he said, Austrians have been too complacent about the cozy power-sharing between the two big parties that dominated their politics. "Not long ago," he said, "it would have been unthinkable to have a full house in this theater on a Sunday morning for a political discussion."


End of article.


A Brief Commentary


Last week the Times published -three- articles by Donald G. McNeil Jr. which directly or indirectly call for tolerance of Austria's rightwing extremist "Freedom Party."  I will briefly discuss one of these Times articles, "Why Austria Is Facing European Anger," (Feb. 5, 2000) and show its relationship to the patronage of the Vienna Philharmonic in the United States.


McNeil asserts that the EU's sanctions against Austria are hypocritical "diplomatic whipping" and "blackballing."  He begins with a questionable comparison between the current situation in Austria and one in Italy in 1994:


"The two weeks of diplomatic whipping that Austria has absorbed over the inclusion of Jörg Haider's anti-immigrant Freedom Party in its new government has been quite extraordinary. Today, that coalition government took office at a tense ceremony, as protesters clashed with riot policemen outside, and the diplomatic breach widened. Washington quickly recalled its ambassador 'for consultations,' and European governments began downgrading their relations with Austria.


"Yet Italy had a neo-Fascist party in its government in 1994, and Europe did not threaten to blackball its diplomats, nor did the Belgian foreign minister say it would be immoral to ski in the Italian Alps."   [End of quote.]


Most political analysts would not find the situation in Italy in 1994 comparable to the current rightwing extremism in Austria.  The Freedom Party is the largest member of the ruling Austrian coalition. Haider could have thus taken the Chancellorship if he had wanted it.  Instead, he anticipated the protests and sanctions and is waiting until a more opportune moment.  The Fascist party in Italy, on the other hand, was small and had no chance of actually leading the government.  It was also correctly assumed that the Italian coalition would be short lived.   In the 55 years since the war, Italy has had almost as many governments, but in German-speaking Europe ruling coalitions are generally long lasting.  In Germany, Helmut Kohl's recent government ruled for 16 continuous years.  If Haider is successful, it is likely he will become Chancellor and remain so for a long time.  His beliefs and power are far more extreme and destablizing than what Italy faced.


Using questionable logic, McNeil says it is hypocritical to censure Haider's praise for Hitler since European governments contain people who excused Stalin, and who have sympathies for Cuba, Libya, and Iraq:


"And many European countries -- to say nothing of the Eastern European ones lining up to join [the EU] -- have had Communists in government who have made excuses for Stalin or other dictators. Plenty have cozy diplomatic relations with dictators from Cuba to Libya to Iraq."


In reality there are no significant political parties in the EU or the former East Block that "excuse" Stalin--not even among the communists.  It should also be noted that Cuba, Libya, and Iraq are not European countries.  It is thus misleading to compare them with the totalitarianism that swept over Germany and Austria causing war and the deaths of 50 million people.  The rightwing extremism that has profoundly shaped the history of the EU's members is an entirely different matter than dictators in little countries on other continents who are in conflict with American interests.


McNeil is speaking from an -overly narrowed- perspective of the American right which limits his analysis of European politics and history. 


To a certain degree, the same biases influence the music section of _The New York Times_ when it writes about the Vienna Philharmonic.  New York's cultural climate is controlled to a considerable degree by the wealthy patrons who bankroll it.  The atmosphere in the city's classical music world is thus often one of wealth and capital, relatively antithetic to Europe's "socialist" support for the arts.  The Vienna Philharmonic, which insists it is a "private" orchestra and nominally rejects government funding, preserves the highly conservative, sexist and racist ideology of a romantically old and traditional Europe.  It thus has a special appeal to the wealthy, conservative patrons of New York's cultural life who donate lavishly for its yearly appearances in Carnegie.


The President of Columbia Artists, Ronald Wilford, founded a funding organization of New York patrons named "The Friends of the Vienna Philharmonic" which makes the yearly concerts in Carnegie Hall possible.  By contrast, most other European orchestras are entirely state funded and have little or no need of New York's financial elite.


The  views and biases of the wealthy are not unknown to Haider who is one of the richest men in Austria.  He inherited a huge land estate from his father who obtained it for a token price from a dispossessed Jewish family during the Third Reich.  The Vienna Philharmonic's conservatism endears it not only to wealthy New Yorkers, but also to Haider's supporters in Austria.  The two groups are not comparable, but due to their conservatism, neither has rejected the orchestra's sexist and racist ideologies. 


A more direct connection exists between Haider and the American far right.   Pat Buchanan (a popular American rightwing extremist) views the protests against Haider as nothing more than an attack on the right, in spite of the Austrian's extreme xenophobia and plaudits for Nazis.  During a speech in Richmond, Virginia, Buchanan told supporters, "I do not see any threat to Europe or the world or anywhere from Mr. Haider or that coalition government sitting in Vienna.  It is an indication, I think, that any candidate of the right can expect universal hostilities."


Buchanan has been unapologetic about statements in his book, _A Republic, Not an Empire_, in which he argued that Hitler's Third Reich was no threat to the United States after 1940.


In Richmond Buchanan also accused members of the European Union of hypocrisy and arrogance for freezing diplomatic relations with Haider's party.  Using exactly the same specious and misleading arguments that McNeil used in _The New York Times_, Buchanan said the EU had "willingly climbed into bed with genuine fascists and people who are Stalinists and Communists.''


Regardless of what attitudes Europeans might have about "communists," it is disturbing to see Haider, Buchanan and the music section of _The New York Times_ being so "cozy" with each other.  And given Austria's move to the extreme right, it is now more disturbing than ever that New York's wealthy patrons are bringing a sexist and racist orchestra to the city for yearly concerts in Amercia's most prestigious concert hall.


William Osborne


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