Workshop: Vienna 1900: Current Discourses on Fin-de-siècle Vienna

Where: International Center, University of New Orleans (UNO)
When: October 24-25, 2016

Center Austria: The Austrian Marshall Plan Center forEuropean Studies, UNO
Haus der Geschichte, Vienna

Open Program

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From October 24-25, UNO’s Center Austria had the pleasure of hosting the workshop “Vienna 1900: Current Discourses on Fin-de-Siècle Vienna,” sponsored by the University of New Orleans, the Haus der Geschichte Österreich and the Austrian Cultural Forum. The workshop centered around two major areas: firstly, a critical evaluation of modern perspectives on Carl Schorske’s tremendously influential Fin-de-siècle Vienna (1980), including a wider discussion of Habsburgian modernity; secondly, the question of how results from this particular research field can best be integrated in the Haus der Geschichte (HdG), at this time scheduled to open in Vienna in November 2018. Ever since the idea for a HdG devoted to Austrian history was raised in the 1980s, debates surrounding it have been contentious. The project was put on hold several times and only in November 2014, when the Austrian National Library stepped in and the Neue Burg was chosen as primary location for the museum, the Fayman government finally gave the project the green light. National and international experts have been asked to work out the details of the various parts of the exhibitions in numerous workshops going on, “Vienna 1900” being one of them.

A breakthrough of sorts in the negotiations on the HdG occurred with the suggestion to abandon the original plan, focusing exclusively on the history of the Austrian republic. Experts advised the planners that the late Habsburg imperial period needed to be included. To answer the question of how the complex field of “fin-de-siècle Vienna” and Viennese modernity might be represented in the HdG, the University of New Orleans’ Center Austria (Günter Bischof) and the HdG (Oliver Rathkolb) invited the leading experts in the field to share their ideas on the subject. The New Orleans workshop participants included William Johnston, Allan Janik, Steven Beller, John Boyer, Leslie Topp, Gary Cohen, Alison Frank Johnson, Hans Petschar, Suzanne Marchand, Malachi Hacohen, and Friedrich Stadler.

William Johnston, Professor emeritus of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and author of the foundational work The Austrian Mind (1972) started off the workshop by introducing three core concepts that needed to be taken into consideration when discussing Fin-de-siècle Vienna. The first of these concepts evolves around “estranging perspectives” that are created when approaches from one field of research are employed in a second field that shares no obvious connections to the first. Johnston’s main argument is that one major goal of the workshop, and indeed the HdG itself, should be to generate such “estranging perspectives.” His second concept he termed the “glass bead game” (based on Hermann Hesse’s 1944 novel Glasperlenspiel). From Johnston’s perspective cultural elites are the ones who manipulate existing parts of cultures (“glass beads”) in their own creative work. In Johnston’s view, this has become increasingly problematic due to a certain lack of coherence and degeneration. He pleads for a more creative way to play the glass bead game, and argues for a necessity to rank objects by importance. Johnston’s third concept revolves around the idea of “unclassifiables.” He argues that what he calls “Habsburgia” produced an extraordinary number of artists that are hard to classify. Not creating new genres, they are hard to place into existing ones. Johnston includes people in this category that he calls “marginocentric.” For some reason or other (mostly due to voluntary or forced mobility), they are no longer considered “Austrian”, even though they were clearly part of the Austrian cultural scene. As was highlighted during the discussion by Alison Frank Johnson, especially this last point could pose a problem for the HdG. At this point in time the future HdG has only solved the problem of having a coherent timeframe and not yet that of an arbitrary setting of borders.

The second session featured Steven Beller and Hans Petschar. Beller proposed alternatives to what some consider Schorske’s outdated fin-de-siècle concept while Petschar called upon the spirit of Schorske, advocating for a renewed look on the source materials. He exemplified this with Franz Joseph’s status as the first “mass media monarch,” which he illustrated with examples from this year’s blockbuster exhibition “Der Ewige Kaiser” at the Austrian National Library, curated by him. Petschar closely analyzed Franz Joseph’s use of postcards and his “An Meine Völker” manifesto, which initiated World War I. The ensuing discussion circled around the fact that all historiography is deeply shaped by the current political and cultural landscape. Rathkolb highlighted parallels between the Habsburg monarchy and the EU in terms of bureaucracy and pointed out the role of the first true globalization. Multiple participants noted the importance of the concept of mobility.

 In the third session, Malachi Hacohen (skyping in from Oxford University) and Allan Janik both discussed European modernities. Hacohen suggested an “imperial constitutional narrative” and focused on the role socialism played during the late Habsburg Monarchy. This point was taken up in the ensuing discussion and some participants raised concerns about the socialist-focused approach proposed by Hacohen. Allan Janik took the discussion in a different direction. Delving into an analysis of the term “modernism” itself, Janik highlighted the fact that a plurality of modernisms is located in different social strata. In the following discussion, the participants elaborated further on the pitfalls that come with using the very broad term “modernism.” Gary Cohen pointed out that some postmodern ideas cannot be dismissed as quickly as Janik had proposed in his talk. The discussion inevitably turned to the centrality of Wittgenstein in “Vienna 1900” thinking (Janik and Toulmin defined the field “Vienna 1900” with their classic  Wittgenstgein’s Vienna [1973], another foundational text in the field). Maybe the entire prominent Wittgenstein family might be included in the HdG?

            Alison Frank Johnson and Gary Cohen “decentered” the focus on Vienna by looking at Trieste and Prague, focusing on cities that seemingly played junior roles to the capital city (a paper had been planned on Budapest but this specialist was unavailable). Johnson pointed out how Trieste turned from a major gateway to and from the Habsburg Monarchy in the late empire, suffering from the clash between capital and culture, to a struggling city on the periphery of Italy after World War I. Cohen highlighted specific types of problems Prague faced when compared to Vienna. He also noted that Vienna’s importance as a “modern” city tends to be slightly exaggerated, especially when compared to cities such as Paris, Berlin, Budapest, and New York. Cohen stressed the importance of nationalism in the bilingual city Prague, where culture and the arts were vehicles for expressing identity. William Johnston came back to the prevalence of nationalism during the discussion, when he noted that both in Prague and Trieste, consciousness of ethnic diversity trumped modernity. Cohen picked up the term “orthodox” proposed by Johnston, to express how political mobilization put pressure on artists to serve both political and ideological purposes. This created notions of what allegedly was the proper national style. Leslie Topp then came back to the idea of globalism and argued that in this respect, Prague and Trieste were much more modern than Vienna, albeit for very different reasons.

Leslie Topp and Friedrich Stadler discussed interdisciplinary models in their roundtable. Topp, a London-based art historian, advocated for a materialistic renewal, a renewed focus on objects. Carefully chosen objects in a museum can be magnificent generators of those very connections that had been mentioned throughout the workshop. She put emphasis on the “agency of the object” and showed through a close reading of a poster for the psychiatric clinic “Am Steinhof”, how an interpretative approach that also considers the context of the object can provide the “estranging perspectives” Johnston called for in his opening keynote address. On the one hand it can limit the number of connections, but it can also reveal hidden ones, as was made very clear by Topp’s detailed analysis of the poster. During the discussion, Suzanne Marchand raised the question of canon again. Topp noted that no object could be too trivial and that only close reading opens up the possibility to look past distractive factors, such as Otto Wagner’s involvement in the Steinhof advertisement, for instance.

Friedrich Stadler also highlighted the importance of interdisciplinarity and argued for the need to cover all sciences (natural sciences and humanities) under the umbrella of (Austro-Hungarian) culture. The absence of such interdisciplinary approaches seems to him the main deficit in the related historiography. To illustrate his point, he discussed four case studies: Peter Weibel’s exhibition catalogue Jenseits von Kunst, the four-volume Festschrift 650 Jahre Universität Wien – Aufbruch ins neue Jahrhundert, the exhibition “The Vienna Circle: Exact Thinking in Demented Times,” and the life and work of Ernst Mach – the central figure of the “Vienna Circle.” As participants before him, Stadler strongly recommended integrating exile and migration studies in the museum since many “Vienna 1900” figures ended up in exile in the United States of Great Britain in World War II. The discussion also circled around the question of visualization and how best to popularize the abstract concepts that defined the complex thinkers of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Proper visualization, of course, is a central issue for the HdG project.

The concluding workshop session was designed to focus the ideas collected in the various sessions and narrow them down to concrete suggestions for the museum. Nick Mueller, President and CEO of New Orleans’ successful National World War II Museum, provided insights into the making of a highly respected museum such as the importance of a basic and clear narrative throughout the museum galleries. John Boyer, the doyen of political historians of the late Habsburg Empire, introduced new concepts such as the importance of regionalism and mass parliamentarism, and patterns of political management in the late Monarchy and the continuity of these concepts in the post-World War I Republic of Austria. Suzanne Marchand pointed out the importance of having concrete questions – even more important than providing all the answers – in the making of the HdG. Before everybody offered their last thoughts on the project, Rathkolb highlighted some of the more practical aspects of creating a museum, so contentiously debated in Austria, and how the rich results of Workshops like this one can shape the HdG. He also pointed out the pitfalls of extreme regionalism (so inherent in the Austrian federal system), which he sees as a main political issue regarding the future of the museum.

In a final round of brief suggestions, William Johnston noted that women had been largely absent as topics of discussion. He also addressed the problem of having a museum for something as dynamic as the Austrian nation. Stadler highlighted the friction that exists between diversity and complexity. Cohen gave concrete suggestions by advocating for presenting selected moments or stations that could be swapped out individually instead of closing down the whole exhibit.

Despite all the diversity of topics covered and the variety of methodological approaches suggested by the experts, there were a number of concepts that many of the talks and discussions kept gravitating back to. They included mobility, the importance of the object as a generator of connections, the tensions between center and periphery (borders), and the connection between complex ideas in intellectual and Habsburgia history. In addition, it was noted how current political issues were reflected in the research of its time, which in turn influences other aspects of cultural life, such as canons. Similar to the way the present always shapes research about the past, the past always shapes the present, as can be seen in the way the Monarchy continues to shape the Republic that came after it. The HdG will have to deal with all of these issues and continue to incorporate a plurality of voices if it wants stay relevant. Workshops like “Vienna 1900” ensure that all the people involved are up to the task.


Rapporteur Tobias Auböck (New Orleans, 2. Nov. 2016)