I don’t normally agree with Niall Ferguson, neo-liberal America’s idea of an English intellectual. But while reading my briefing notes for a debate at Hay on the notion of progress in the arts, I was suddenly distracted by the latest salvo in Newsweek from Dubya Bush’s pet historian. Ferguson claims that contemporary Britain is a mirror image of the Habsburg Empire a century ago as depicted by Joseph Roth in Radetsky March. Having spent much of last year in Roth’s company, I was looking forward to disagreeing with Ferguson but – oh dear – I rather share his view. He takes a very annoying route to reach his destination but it’s worth the journey.
Briefly, he contrasts the anxiety of austerity Britain in 2012 with the orgy of cultural celebration planned for the Jubilee and the Olympics. He compares all this dancing on the volcano with Austria between the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of war a few weeks later. Hence the reference to Radetzky March, one of literature’s two greatest evocations of the end of the Habsburg Empire. A bit hysterical? Well this is Newsweek and he’s short of space. Not so short though that he can’t add Karl Kraus’ celebrated description of fin-de-siècle Vienna as “a test-bed for world destruction.” Kraus diagnoses the sickness of his world through the collapse of language. Roth symbolises it through the squabbles of Czech, Hungarian, Ruthenian and Croatian officers banged up in a frontier garrison. That other great Austrian novelist Robert Musil reflects Vienna’s moral chaos in the futile plans of a group of etiolated intellectuals to celebrate the Emperor’s jubilee
In the words of BAFTA’s latest honorary fellow Rolf Harris, “can you see what it is yet?” Yes, the warring Mitteleuropa minorities are our Welsh and Scots and Ulstermen. The Kaiser’s jubilee is echoed in the extended celebration of our own dear monarch. Today’s equivalents of Roth and Musil’s marginalised Austrian Jews are the Moslems of Rochdale. And so on. He doesn’t let us know exactly where a revolutionary is lurking with an improvised explosive device but I’m sure that was also due to lack of column inches. Not being a historian, I won’t take issue with Ferguson on a few of his more far fetched parallels. Was the Habsburg Empire in 1912, still ruling all of Central and Eastern Europe, really just like our nation today with only faded memories of an empire that’s been dead for half a century? And why 1912? The touchstone year was surely 1908, when Franz Joseph celebrated 60 years on the throne by annexing Bosnia.
But let that pass. I’m shoulder to shoulder with him on the quote from Karl Kraus. Apart from anything else, the idea that great art is born from destruction gives me something useful to say in response to the question “are there times when culture seems particularly susceptible to change?” It certainly was in Vienna in 1908. And all that creativity was born from destruction. Schoenberg was dismantling functional harmony, Wittgenstein was pulling apart linguistic philosophy, Schiele was eviscerating portraiture, Kraus was blowing up journalism and that’s only for starters. Michael Frayn described it perfectly when we made a film together about the city in its intellectual high season. He said that “the Empire was going out with the brilliance of a star burning itself up.” What inspired all that feverish innovation in Vienna was the collective sense of a huge gulf between appearance and reality. Here was an imperial capital paying homage to continuity and prosperity while bits of Bohemia, Slovenia, Hungary and Ruthenia kept threatening to fall off the edge. Here was the gleam and glamour of Jugendstil art and design in the Secession building while just round the corner there was prostitution on an industrial scale.
All those great Viennese thinkers and creators were testing the imperial proposition to destruction. For a century and a half, the symphony had been a musical model of cultural order. Then first Mahler and subsequently Schoenberg and Berg pushed the form to its limits. Out of its destruction emerged the new language of 20th Century music. Adolf Loos did the same with his buildings and his windows “without eyebrows” which appalled Franz Joseph but are now the default of all contemporary architecture. These seismic shocks followed three decades of cultural complacency. And perhaps Niall Ferguson is right for all the wrong reasons. He doesn’t just describe the parallels with fin-de-siecle Vienna, he embodies them. After all, his recent television series lauded the triumph of the West just as the East was overtaking it. He’s still stuck in the neo-con 90s when history was supposed to have ended. I recall artists complaining then that there was nothing left to react against. Well there is now.
Does this mean that the political and economic paralysis which seems to afflict our coalition of the unwilling is the prelude to cultural rebirth? I’m not putting money on it. The theatres may be full but with the exception of the National, the Arcola, the Tricycle and a few other subsidised good deeds in a naughty world, they are mainly packed with musicals. London is a centre for the visual arts but largely so that they can be bought and sold. And this is at the end of a cultural blaze ignited by Chris Smith in happier economic times. Jeremy Hunt’s custody of the DCMS may soon be terminated by the curse of Murdoch but the legacy of his cuts will be with us for a few years yet. Meanwhile I don’t detect many seeds of new artistic endeavour in the jubilee festival or the cultural Olympiad. These will be planted as usual by the awkward outsiders who aren’t invited to the party. But then, “artistic progress” isn’t linear – it’s dialectical. I suppose that we need Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull to provoke genuine iconoclasts into creative destruction.
This is just one question we will be required to answer in Hay at 10.30 a.m. on June 5th (http://www.howthelightgetsin.org/tickets/all-sessions) I’m still pondering the others. Is progress desirable or necessary for quality? For whom is it most crucial – commentators, artists or the audience? Are the arts a reflective rather than a proactive medium? If we accept that the arts cannot progress what would we lose? And all that in forty five minutes. But at least the questions are being asked. If you glance across the Atlantic to where the Jeremy Hunt model of private patronage holds sway, you’ll find scarcely a single arts executive prepared to risk such a discussion. For a decade or more, on and off Broadway, America has looked to the subsidised UK for cutting edge theatre. The Metropolitan Opera, which Professor Ferguson compares unfavourably with Covent Garden, gets most of its new work from ENO, which in turn finds its future talent on the fringe. As usual the dialectic cuts both ways. Vienna needed the smug establishment painter Hans Makart to provoke Egon Schiele. Adolf Loos wouldn’t be the same trail-blazer without the reactionary bulk of the Ringstrasse. So I’m happy for London to cheer the jubilee flotilla as it passes through the raised platforms of Tower Bridge, while I head off to the Welsh marches to raise a glass or three to the awkward squad.