Opinion | When Art, Students and Politics mix, the Universities Need to Recognize their Role in Fostering Change

Art & Politics at the Angewandte Austrian art and politics have always been entangled in an interdependent, uneasy relationship – often the more uneasy the better, as far as the quality is concerned. And current political trends suggest this is likely to continue.

The artists of the Wiener Aktionisten were particularly (in)famous, defying both authorities and good taste, setting out to break taboos and unsettle their audiences with practices replete with violence and gore. One of their “happenings,” labelled Kunst und Revolution (Art and Revolution) at the University of Vienna in 1968 was designed to shock – on-stage nudity in an orgy of school-boy scatology, while singing the Austrian national anthem. Was this art? Was it a conversation worth having?

Universities, seen as stalwarts of the status quo, have often been the target of politically charged art – accused of preaching obsolete knowledge in the stuffy lecture halls of the ivory tower. And yet, they are also the places where the seeds for productive discussions are most often sown.

As institutions dedicated to the process by which a Zeitgeist can find its form, art academies are particularly important. They become spaces for fostering a response to social change beyond simplified talk of “us vs. them,” engaging with the staggering complexity of today’s world.

Citing academic freedom – called Wissenschaftsfreiheit in Austria, literally the freedom of research and teaching – the Angewandte (University of Applied Arts Vienna) has taken the first step in this direction.They believe Wissenschaftsfreiheit is not just a fundamental right, but a responsibility that needs to be taken seriously. At a recent press conference, Rector Gerald Bast announced a new Proteststruktur, a mechanism for protest, as a way of systematically addressing current social and political issues such as cuts in the social welfare system, xenophobia or threats to democracy, in artistically and academically meaningful ways.

While the details still need to be worked out, a program of this kind could launch a renewed and fruitful dialogue between young artists and their mentors, and invite a larger conversation with the museum-going public. Works of art can, and should, question the status quo; they can make us see the possibilities between binary choices and open up spaces for collective reflection, celebrating, rather than reducing, complexity. And this is definitely a conversation worth having.

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