"steirischer herbst. Or, Why Europe’s oldest new art festival must take place in Styria of all places"

Speech by Georg Friedrich Haas at the anniversary ceremony “50th steirischer herbst”
September 14th, 2017


Valued guests!

I have accepted the invitation to speak here today with great pleasure and gratitude.

More than 40 years have passed since the first time that one of my compositions was performed at steirischer herbst. It was a failed piece, a jury-rigged electronic composition, which, to make matters worse, was played at a venue that was supremely unsuited for this purpose: the Franciscan Church.

I remember a friend and myself going to the Main Square in Graz the next day to read the concert review. Back then, in the age before the internet, the next morning’s issue of Kleine Zeitung used to be displayed in a showcase of Pock’s music store from 10 pm. The review was brief. It read, “Among the pieces performed a single one has turned out to be of any use” (it wasn’t mine), “anything else has been a hodgepodge of blurred sounds.” I turned to my friend and asked him, “Hey, do you reckon they meant that in a bad way?”

Still, this experience was of great importance to me. I felt accepted – as a novice – into the circle of contemporary artists. Even though my work did not yet meet the requirements, the standards were set once I had heard Friedrich Cerha’s monumental orchestral work Spiegel I–VII. The year I debuted was a also the year György Ligeti’s Piano Concerto premiered. These were the scales I had the chance, the obligation to weigh my work on.

Now, a couple of decades later, I am returning to this place from the outside.

In that same year, 1976, a group of people standing pretty far on the right politically was planning a citizens’ initiative to disestablish steirischer herbst. One of the members of the proponents’ committee was my father. They did not succeed. They did not even manage to gather enough signatures to start the petition.

My father was one of the hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of Austrians who held on to the Nazi world view after 1945. For him, May 8th of 1945 was a day of defeat – or, as he called it, “breakdown”. He regarded the politicians of the Second Republic to be collaborators with the so-called “victorious powers”. He blamed the Prohibition Act for refusing him his right to freedom of expression in an undemocratic manner. He was proud to remain true to his so-called “cast of mind” “no matter what”. Until he died, he felt bound by the oath he had sworn to “the Führer” in 1942 as a Wehrmacht soldier. (He would never utter the name Adolf Hitler.)

My father was accustomed to a sense of illegality. Before 1938, he had been a member of the then prohibited Hitler Youth in Vienna. The techniques of the Hitler Youth were: first provoke, then hide, and in the end: deny everything.

No one has ever dared to call him a “Nazi”. He would have been indignant – and quite authentically so, albeit not at what the word stood for but at the word itself, because “Nazi” is a curse word.

He was also prepared to publicly declare that he was “not a National Socialist”, even under oath. Among kindred spirits, he would laugh and provide the following subtle explanation: “There hasn’t been a National Socialist Party since 1945, so I can’t possibly be a National Socialist, can I?”

It took me a long time to understand that not all people who oppose new art must automatically be Nazis. That said, the percentage of Nazis among those who fight new art is considerably high. Here was a topic on which they could act uninhibited. Making anti-Semitic comments or denying the Holocaust could get them into legal trouble easily. But they could agitate against “degenerate art” as much as they liked as long as they avoided the exact term and spoke of “charlatanry” or how “the concept of man was destroyed”.

Because they knew that art was dangerous for them.

Works of Austrian artists very often include aspects of the extreme, the violent, the dark. The Vienna Actionism, for example, is more aggressive, destructive and self-destructive than, say, the actionist art of the Fluxus movement by several orders of magnitude. Think of the so-called “University filth feast”, think of the transgression of the limits of personal physical integrity by Schwarzkogler and Brus and think of Valie Export celebrating her own vulnerability as a woman – and then think of the comparatively playful aestheticism of the works of Nam June Paik or Yoko Ono.

Hermann Nitsch works with blood – he could have chosen fat and felt instead, like Joseph Beuys. Thomas Bernhard’s work is exponentially sharper, tougher and more aggressive than that of Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass or Friedrich Dürrenmatt, for example. Texts by Ilse Aichinger are a cosmos of gloomy sadness. The provocative acerbity and brutality of language in the works of Wolfgang Bauer and Werner Schwab is unique. And if someone were to rank all Nobel literature laureates by bitterness, linguistic edge and aggressive resignation, Elfriede Jelinek would probably find herself at the top without a rival in sight.

I would like to add an example from contemporary music, one I know fairly well myself: myself. I am being generally being labelled as a “spectralist” along with Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail. While Grisey’s music is credited with “luminance”, mine is described as “dark”.

Why is this the case? Where does this significant focus on pain, embitterment, darkness and despair in the works of so many Austrian artists come from?

The history of National Socialism in Austria from 1948 onwards has yet to be written. And historical researchers will have to use new methods in doing so, because this history is without writing. Like the Stone Age.

When the former members of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party regained their right to vote, a race for their votes ensued. In some Austrian provinces, the outcome of this race settled the power structures: The Socialist Party, SPÖ, won Carinthia and Burgenland, while the People’s Party, ÖVP, won Styria, Upper Austria and Salzburg.

The Nazis were offered jobs in the public and semi-public spheres. Wherever necessary, new posts were created.

They were back. And they went as far as they were allowed to go.

Within a couple of years, they had infiltrated parts of public life. In secret. Or, better: semi-publicly.

My grandfather, the architect Fritz Haas, was one of the key characters of the veteran Nazi scene in Graz. He was involved in the establishment of the Alpine Cultural Association of Südmark and the reestablishment of the Association of German Students in Graz. His inner circle – so close that even his small grandson Georg would get in touch with them – included several active university professors (one of whom would later become head of the Austrian Rectors’ Conference), the President of the Copyright Collective and one bearer of the Peter Rosegger Literary Prize awarded by the government of Styria. All of them were Nazis by conviction and they knew very well where they had to hide their views and where not. And there were many others I never ran into, such as the managers of the Styrian electricity provider who had commissioned him to build power plants in undeclared work.

We have just heard a lot about how controversial steirischer herbst is. My grandfather’s blood-and-soil architecture is not controversial. Three of his works are officially protected in Styria as historic monuments.

This was not an organised network. It was the loose mingling of kindred spirits. One knew who was a so-called “decent person” and would promote that person. Of course, I could only see a small segment of this situation. And yet, we cannot help but assume that it has penetrated Austria as a whole. The Prohibition Act had failed. Austria would have had to become a surveillance state to be able to penalise the constant violations of that law. Had my father been sentenced to one year in prison for every time he committed the crime of Nazi re-engagement within family limits, he would have done a couple of tens of thousands of years. I am convinced that there are at least 70 persons in this room whose parents or grandparents – or maybe even they themselves –would have received a similar amount.

Government had proven powerless in the face of the Nazis.

And Austrian journalism either couldn’t or wouldn’t expose this.

The only ones who were able to talk about it were the artists. They did it using their own means. Some of them addressed it explicitly. Others implied it. That’s where the darkness, the pain, the ruthlessness have their origin.

When I compose, I have the dead standing behind me, and I can feel them stand behind me now as I speak: the Jewish family who tried to survive in Vienna by wandering the streets all day and ringing doorbells at night to beg for accommodation – my grandfather lead them into the kitchen and proceeded to call the Gestapo. The slave labourers – prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates – who had to grind away on my grandfather’s construction sites in working conditions that deliberately factored in fatal accidents. The residents of that French village (I don’t know its name) where my father sent an air-defence missile. The people my other grandfather had denounced who were then murdered in concentration camps. And those many others I do not even know about. For I cannot give in to the illusion that those horrible misdeeds committed by my parents and grandfathers which I learned about either by accident or through persistent inquiry were the only horrible misdeeds.

Sometimes I write funeral music about those murdered. Sometimes they are just there.

I don’t feel guilty. But I do feel shame and grief.

And I am particularly ashamed of what I myself used to think – and say. As a child, as an adolescent, as a young student. It took me much too long to be ready to see the truth.

The way I see it, the pre-history of steirischer herbst began in 1963. It was the year when Josef Papesch received the Peter Rosegger Literary Prize from the provincial government of Styria. Papesch had been the highest “cultural” functionary in Styria during most of the Nazi era. He believed himself to be a poet and he wrote plays and stories. I am probably one of the very few people in this room who have read some of his works. To be awarded an official literary prize for those constructs inferior in both language and literature would have been scandalous even if their author had not been a leading Nazi.  The prize, at least according to my family, was given to him only in order to create an incentive for Nazi voters in Styria to be included even more in the People’s Party. To satisfy the right wing of the province that had been scared off by the enablement of new art in venues such as Forum Stadtpark. The German Wikipedia entry on Josef Papesch reads, “In 1963, he was awarded the Peter Rosegger Literary Prize despite his National Socialist past.” This statement is false. In fact, the prize was awarded to him BECAUSE of his National Socialist past.

Wikipedia goes on to state that one of the jurors involved in this decision was Hanns Koren. I assume he realised pretty quickly what had happened there. He must have known that Styrian cultural policy was at risk of losing every last bit of moral integrity.  And that it was necessary to create a counterweight to the visible and tangible Nazi morass in this province. Four years later, in 1967, steirischer herbst was born. What had before been vilified as degenerate art was now placed in the centre of a festival designed to define part of the identity of Styria.

Yes, art can be put to ill use. The Nazis exploited Wagner, Bruckner and Beethoven for their purposes. But art can also be the Archimedean point at which the world of inhumanity can be lifted off its foundation. My personal development is an example of what art can accomplish: My occupation with the work of John Cage and my grasp of his radical concept of freedom have substantially contributed to guiding me out of the dark world I was born into. This has changed my life for the better by all accounts. Ultimately, I have become a happier person.

And it was much easier than I originally thought. That terrible Nazi sentence my parents had taught me – “Our honour is called loyalty” – just needed a little twisting to turn it into, “But my honour is called truth”. The music of Cage, of Schubert, of Schönberg, of Cerha, of Ligeti and of Lachenmann helped me do it.

Art is a ritual. A ritual of going to the limits. When we artists fathom the limits of our possibilities, when we keep reviving traditions by challenging them again and again, when we put our existence in the balance in unconditional expressivity, we will have the chance – never the certainty! – that the spiritual aspects of our work might unfold. This spirituality of art was, and has always been, rational. We think in sounds, in colours, in shapes, in narrative threads. And we have a right to be measured by the quality of our work – and nothing else.

One of the remainders of National Socialism is the idea still roaming about in many heads that modern artists were pushed by protectionism, business strategies or scheming. Thomas Bernhard did not become great because Claus Peymann sponsored him. It’s the other way around. Claus Peymann is great because he discovered and promoted Thomas Bernhard and enabled some of his pieces. Or, to name an example from the history of steirischer herbst, the author Händl Klaus has not been manipulated to greatness by Peter Oswald. It’s the other way around: Peter Oswald was ingenious enough to see the qualities of Händl Klaus.

It is amazing how disproportionately large the artistic output of the relatively small province of Styria is. We have Forum Stadtpark and the Neue Galerie, we have the first jazz academy in the German-speaking area and steirischer herbst. Most recently, our contemporary classical music has joined the ranks. In a profoundly arranged ranking published by music journal Classic Voice, listing the 50 most important composers of the 21st century, positions 1, 8, 10, 28 and 39 are held by persons who were either born and/or raised in Styria or teach at the Graz University of Art. That means ten percent of the world’s 50 most important composers are from here.

Personally, I believe that there is a connection between this creativity blossoming at such significant strength and the equally significant residues of Nazism still vibrant in Styria. The pain and the rage and the grief, they keep spurring us on. I therefore have no worries for the future of modern arts around here.

There is still much to do. And we will do it. Fascism and fundamentalism are on the rise globally. Our challenge as artists is to confront it by spreading the virus of humanity. In whichever way we try to accomplish that.

And the challenge cultural events like steirischer herbst must face is to find the next John Cage, who is capable of shaking up young fascists. And better yet, not ONE John Cage, but many John and Jane Cages.