Art and Politics
von Dieter Ronte, 2007
With her sculptures, the Austrian artist who lives and works in Georgia and Bavaria, is striking out along new paths in the politicization of the aesthetic, all the way to her work as an ambassador and concurrently as a sculptor, as a politician and artist in one. She asks the questions about the relation- ship between art and politics in a new way, as if this were the most natural thing in the world.
In Germany and Austria, countries which as a result of fascism and, in Germany, also of the communist GDR, have a particular propinquity to political art as a problematic legacy, Gabriela von Habsburg is opening up new approaches. As a pupil of the Danish sculptor Robert Jacobsen (1912–1993) and the Italo-Scottish artist Sir Eduardo Paolozzi (1924– 2005), she grew up at the Academy of Arts in Munich with a “will to art” in the sense of Alois Riegl, which is characterized by the freedom and independence of art as the basic precondition of its formative effect. And yet this autonomy in the arts has always at the same time given rise to a complementary opposite, namely the question of whether art can or should ever completely slough off its political character. Or does art’s actual political, social and historical importance lie in its abstraction, particularly at times in which social upheavals are becoming ever more manifest worldwide? Can art position itself differently? Is art almost automatically always political, must it always be political, or must it never be political?
Does the instrumentalization of art devalue its intrinsic values and the specific structures that have been formulated from within it? Is its autonomy vis-à-vis society still valid, as Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969) formulated in his considerations regarding a critical aesthetic theory, or is it dominated by the implementation of the societal, as Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998) proposed in his system-theoretical considerations? Is art, in the spirit of Jacques Rancière’s (b. 1940) idea of political philosophy and aesthetics, a regime of the sensory in its own right, which bears within itself an inherent political character?
The theme is topical once more. It was heatedly debated at an event staged by the Goethe-Institut at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin (11–13 June 2015) under the title Politics of Art: How to Think Aesthetics in a Political Context. These questions have, since the “Darmstadt Dialogues” between 1950 and 1975 at the latest, put their stamp on the historical considerations of the post-war period intensely and polemically, and almost split the interested community. On the occasion of the first such dialogue in 1950, the exhibition The Human Image in Our Time was staged, arousing very intense discussion in the immediate post-war period. The great adversaries were the abstract artist Willi Baumeister (1889–1955) with his famous book Das Unbekannte in der Kunst (“The Unknown in Art”) and the art historian Hans Sedlmayr (1896–1984) with his volume Art in Crisis. The Lost Centre. Today, standing on the pillars of the German constitution, the questions revolve more and more around a greater variety, and greater acceptance and tolerance, of different aesthetic positions, especially as the market supports this pluralism. In the process it is apparent that, regardless of the abovementioned problems of a political art, it is, time and again, the artists themselves who, irrespective of theories, develop their own specific and valid standpoints. As is demonstrated by the art of Gabriela von Habsburg.
The artist comes from a politically active family, to which the world owes great collections and many museums of the visual arts, without which our spiritual and intellectual lives would be very much poorer. At the same time, it was also the Habsburgs who liked to deploy visual arts as political messengers. The motto “Tu felix Austria nube” (“You, happy Austria, marry! [while others wage war]) was always linked to the supplement: “The portrait is enchanting”. Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) was active both as a visual artist and at the same time as a diplomat on behalf of the Spanish Habsburgs. Gabriela von Habsburg was the Georgian ambassador to Berlin and an active artist in her studio on Lake Starnberg. She thinks, like her father Otto von Habsburg, in European dimensions. Art for her is not “L’art pour l’art”, in other words a self-referential assertion by an individual, but the occupation of a space with a new definition and expansion of existing visual conventions, combined with an open- ing of the eyes and the mind, in order to better understand the future by implicitly taking account of the past.
Sprechender Stahl (“Speaking Steel”) is the name she has given to her 2015/16 exhibition in the Meininger Museen. And she knows that steel has a catastrophic political and military past and present, as well as a global economic importance. For her it is a formable material, one that is durable out of doors too, which she uses not only for sculptures in the private context, but also, and to particular aggressive effect, in numerous public monuments. The easily transportable smaller stainless-steel sculptures are, as in no other modern artistic œuvre, accompanied by immovable sculptures whose locations are to be found not only in Germany, but also in Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Britain, Kazakhstan and Georgia.
These immovable sculptures take the old memorial concept a step further. They are site specific, because they always relate to the history of the place or the country in which they stand. Gabriela von Habsburg does not shy away from commissions. Her art is not only a purely aesthetic position, as was attempted time and again in the post-war period by so-called abstract artists – and in most cases only to escape the precarious economic situation. For this purpose there is even a law in Germany stipulating that a certain proportion of the cost of a public building must be devoted to art in the public space. These positions, however, almost always soon turned out to be a kind of decorative urban furnishing, because in their concern for their own aesthetic problems they were unable to grow along with changes in the surroundings.
Gabriela von Habsburg is well aware of the importance of her family name, of tradition and responsibility. But she also knows the limits of traditions, which, when they are not respected, lead to the repetitions and lies of the present. As an artist she breaks clear and does not argue on the basis of the past, but as a modern individual member of society, one who devotes herself entirely to her talents in the field of art. It is this self-related release which allows her to strike out along new paths. They can be understood as gender discussion or as self-discovery alike.
I should like to discuss the political implications of these artworks by referring to two sculptures. The sheer monumentality of Memorial to the Opening of the Border in the Hungarian town of Sopron (1996, height: 9 metres), which robs the work of any claim to be anything other than pub- lic, bears clear witness to its integration into the political events of the time, events whose geopolitical echo is felt to this day. In Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, the artist re-invents the classical equestrian statue as the image of the ruler. Traditional, historical solutions are not repeated, but questioned and visually reformulated.
The Rose of the Revolution in Tbilisi relates to the blood- less Georgian “Rose Revolution” of 2003. Because of this important work for the country, she was granted Georgian citizenship and later appointed Georgian ambassador to Berlin. For the memorial, von Habsburg used stone blocks which students of the academy in Tbilisi worked according to their own ideas, so that the political dimension of the memorial is supplemented by a social, communal aspect. Georgian inscriptions recall the country’s achievements and personalities. The complex, a public open space, consists of a stylized rose-shaped ground plan. In its circular form, with groups of stones arranged segment-like around the empty centre, the sculpture recalls a modern Stonehenge.1 It is not an aesthetic command to the public, but a call to dialogue, altogether in the spirit of the “open artwork” (Opera aperta, 1962) of Umberto Eco (b. 1932), which integrates the beholder as a partner who mentally completes the work. Also, the work is financed by sponsors, so that it is not subject to dictation by the state. With the Rose and the 60 different stones from the country’s provinces in the form of seats, what has been created is a living sculptural metaphor of the lively social changes that Georgia has undergone. At the same time, it is a walk-in meeting-place for the country’s citizens and their visitors. In that sense it is reminiscent of another equally large memorial, albeit one created not by a sculptor but by an architect, Peter Eisenman (b. 1932): the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, which triggered major public debate in 2005, the year of its completion.
In the visual arts, the rose is, iconographically, strongly endowed with religious references and in many fields of thought, past and present, it plays an important role as a visual symbol. It is a radiant, elegant but at the same time thorny flower in numerous artificially bred colours, but it can also wither. Joseph Beuys, an artist who likewise, in spite of great resistance in the Düsseldorf of the 1960s, which liked to formulate things in an abstract French way, thought and acted in political structures, named one of his early multiples Rose for Direct Democracy (1972). A living rose stands in a tall test-tube from a laboratory. Fresh water must be added every day if democracy is not to wither. However if the rose itself withers, it is replaced by another. No one, and no rose either, is irreplaceable.
Concerning the oversized rose in Tbilisi, Matthias Frehner writes: “It is the people who “use” it that make it complete. In their confrontation with the stones created by the art- ists and her collaborators, a new rose appears every time in the political and social reality. This democratically “open” memorial points to the future.”2 This is reminiscent of the changes on a chess board as a process of thought. Was it not Marcel Duchamp, who painted his last picture in 1917, who saw that art had reached the end of the road and raised the game of chess to the status of art?
Carla Schulz-Hoffmann writes of Gabriela von Habsburg’s new strategy of action: “Sculpture in the public space thus matches the artist’s idea of a democratic, open art, potentially accessible to anyone. In this way she insists at the same time on the potential effect of artistic work; not in the sense of concrete strategies of action, but as a call to critical, open thought.”3
Gabriela von Habsburg is an abstract, and yet very political and socially conscious artist. She can implement history in free, non-figural artefacts with real objets trouvés, a nail, for example, and project the respective political occasion for the work onto it. She understands how to charge the free and abstract forms in such a way that they take on and convey a socio-political comprehensibility. She understands her art not as a self-referential process, but as a bearer of an historical, political statement.
This makes her a highly topical artist, who accompanies the change in our society not only visually but also by endeavouring to shape it through art. She does not accept the commission as a contribution to the whole. But she seeks the contribution and the visual as visions in transforming societies. Knowledge is followed by the construct. Her art neither searches for the beauty of the work, nor does it condemn it. The harmonies of abstraction are not ends in themselves, they are often almost casually contrasted with figuration to which one could easily put a name. The site-specific nature of the works demands a great deal of “sensitivity and pragmatism as well as a fair measure of playful nonchalance”.4 A balance between the recognized contents must be evoked with the dictates of the site.
Gabriela von Habsburg continues an important idea of our time, which declares that it is the individual that enriches the collective, a principle around which artists of all stripes can actually unite. In the process it is irrelevant whether the artist seeks the avantgarde confrontation with society, or deliberately uses a comprehensible language in his or her personal aesthetic. Gabriela von Habsburg in this sense pro- duces artworks with a strong exemplary character.