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Austria's right tries to crush dissent in the arts

A dozen desperados huddle around the pungent wood fire, swaying to the blues pumped out by the ghettoblaster. Hundreds of riot police watch from the comfort of their vans. But tonight they can relax. It looks
like one of those peaceful Thursdays when no attempt will be made to storm the presidential palace across the square.

By Imre Karacs in Vienna
"Independent"-online, 18.03.2001

The people of Ballhausplatz have been converging here every Thursday night since Jörg Haider's Freedom Party swept into government. But a year on they come in ever smaller numbers. The Freedom Party is here to stay, while resistance, in the streets at least, is crumbling.

Although next Sunday's regional elections in Vienna are expected to confirm a sharp decline in Freedom Party support, the protesters' optimism has faded. Despite the weekly demonstrations, Mr Haider's
appointees are still in power.

The battle for the hearts and minds of Austria has shifted backstage, to the corridors of ministries and to the theatres and studios where the "resistance" movement began. The most spectacular protests arose from
the artistic community, and it is they who are struck hardest. "This government is at war with the arts," said Virgil Widrich, an independent film-maker. Public funding has been severely cut back in film production by 37 per cent. The performing arts, which had a high profile in the anti-Haider protests, are being torn apart.

"To the Freedom Party, artists are enemies that have to be silenced," Mr Widrich said. In a democratic country that's no easy task, but the government has found a weapon: offenders against the new aesthetics have their money cut off.

There have been numerous examples of this clampdown. Officials swooped on Public Netbase, an internet-based cultural forum used by "resistance" groups. After the inspection, its funding was cut. The Salzburg authorities tried to introduce a rule forcing artists to hand back subsidies if "guilty" of opposing the government. At last year's Diagonale festival in Graz, the People's Party Mr Haider's coalition partners attempted to withdraw a prize won by an artist, saying they did not want to reward any anti-government propaganda.

The Graz incident shows the Freedom Party is not wading alone in cultural currents. The national arts budget is controlled by the People's Party, which has been as ruthless in stamping its mark on the country's artistic output as Mr Haider's officials have been in his home region of Carinthia.

One civil servant spoke of "paranoia" in the ranks, and political masters who have persuaded themselves that the artistic resistance is being led by "pinkos" within government.

In the past three months, the axe has begun to fall on this "fifth column". One of the most prominent victims was Herbert Timmermann, the head of the Chancellery department, which gives money to film producers.
A card-carrying Social Democrat, Mr Timmermann was ousted from his job. Eight hundred leading Austrian artists and intellectuals signed a petition in his support, but still he will be replaced by a right-wing member of the People's Party.

"Hard times are coming," Mr Widrich said. "The government might still support its most prominent opponents, but the rest are in trouble. The conservative idea of art is to show the beauty of the country, so they want Mozart and Lippizaner. What they do not want is modern artists who criticise the government."

What they want, they will probably get in the end. The most rebellious artists have either been driven abroad or found alternative funds. Some who depend on state hand-outs are toning down their work. This year's
submissions for funding are said to lack the cutting edge of last year's crop. In eastern Europe they used to call this "self-censorship".

updated: 19.03.2001 by werner
artists communication theory information organizations network
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