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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Why artists have a duty not to ostracise Austria

by Norman Lebrecht / February 10, 2000

TO boycott or not to boycott? That is the burning question. Whether to ostracise Jörg Haider's Austria until it returns a government we can approve of is one of those conflicts of conscience and self-interest that bring out the best and worst in cultural leadership.

Gérard Mortier has led the exodus, resigning this week a year early as artistic director of the Salzburg Festival and precipitating instant withdrawals from a leading sponsor and conductor.

More painful is the loss of Betty Freeman, who helped pay for new-music concerts and this summer's operatic premiere by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Also quitting is Sylvain Cambreling, Mortier's former music director in Brussels.

Are they doing the right thing? Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra have decided to press ahead with Vienna concerts later this month, giving their view of the situation in the music they play. The CBSO programme includes Blood on the Tracks by Mark-Anthony Turnage, a gritty, jazzy reflection of a drugs culture that Haider's supporters would prefer to blame on immigrants, the historic scapegoats.

Scottish Opera have a costlier dilemma. They have been invited to open the Vienna Festival in May with Luc Bondy's production of Verdi's Macbeth. For a devolved nation trying to make an independent mark, the Viennese showcase would have been a priceless opportunity. Should they still go ahead? "We are taking advice from the Government at this moment," I was told.

The case for and against boycotts is as old as Haider's heroes. In 1933, many cultural figures fled or boycotted Hitler's Germany, which was openly oppressing, suppressing and expelling artists on grounds of race, creed and ideology. Two exceptions were the conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler, who held his Berlin post from start to finish, and Thomas Beecham, who did business with the Nazis up to the war. Both maintained that their duty was to preserve culture as a counterweight to tyranny.

In 2000, the resistance cause is flimsier. Haider has committed no crimes. The views he has expressed are barely distinguishable from the nostalgic xenophobia voiced by Bavarian members of recent German coalitions. Haider is perceived as a greater threat than Bavarians because he is fit, good-looking, intelligent, rich and avoids wearing silly hats.

But Haider is less of a menace to humanity than the KGB types running Russia and committing war crimes in the Caucasus. Few cultural protests have been heard in support of the Chechens, perhaps because Grozny never had the foresight to stage an international music festival. Typically for tinpot Austria, the issues are clouded by more than a sniff of self-concern.

Austrians in the cultural sector are begging their colleagues to refrain from sanctions that can only play into Haider's hands by inflaming nationalist resentment. "A boycott would be the worst thing they could do," said Hans Landesmann, co-director of the Salzburg Festival and himself a Holocaust survivor. If artists abandon Austria, it is feared, the high ground would be yielded to reactionaries. In times of crisis, the arts are a vital force that can touch people's hearts and change their minds.

The effectiveness of an artistic embargo is questionable. Haider would not lose a single vote if Salzburg were turned over to yodellers in lederhosen. It took 30 years of economic and sporting sanctions to overturn apartheid in South Africa. There was also a cultural boycott, in case you didn't notice.

When Italian governments in the 1970s included diehard Stalinists who defended the gulags, the arts raised no objections. Protests against parties of the opposite extreme are instinctual, lopsided and not always guided by logic.

The lavish and much-loved Betty Freeman is entitled to pull her money out of Salzburg if she fears that the festival is falling into the wrong hands. I would do the same myself at Covent Garden if Mayor Livingstone threatened its independence. Givers can be choosers, as beggars can't.

But artists and directors have a responsibility for the integrity of art, the needs of their audience and the small print of their contract. Gérard Mortier has acted, not for the first time, impetuously and without regard for long-term consequences. He jumped ship before it was holed and has left the festival dangerously exposed to the very extremism he aimed to protest at.

In the present transitional state, there is little the arts can do except watch, wait and warn. The best we can offer is continued support for Austrian culture until such a time as decency triumphs, or darkness falls.



Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999