If I think of a culture as a person and then overlay a seasonal metaphor, both of which are misleading ideas, the period from 1860 to 1890 begins to look like Vienna’s Indian summer. Stifter’s novel again provides a strangely prophetic model (“My collections are getting more complete, the building projects are increasingly receiving their finishing touches”). The Indian summer is followed by winter, and death.
As attractive as the values of the period can seem to me, I have to ask the same questions I asked about Stifter. Are we sure that the connection between aesthetics and ethics is so strong? Is collecting as meaningful an activity as Stifter argues? Are there risks in an aesthetic focused so strongly on the past? And fundamentally, are the answer to questions like these the same for individuals and for society?
Aestheticism easily becomes decadent, empty, sterile. Collecting is almost necessarily neurotic and, like art appreciation more generally, can become, or always is, a device for signaling social status – how good a catch is the guest at my artistic dinner, how visible is my box at the theater.
So were the aestheticized Viennese more like Green Henry, reading and re-reading their second-hand collected Goethe until it is torn from their hands, or more like Törless’s family, who store Goethe “in the bookcase with the green glass panes” that “was never opened except to display its contents to a visitor”?
Hermann Broch, in his critical study Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time (1974)*, argues for the latter, vociferously: “Was this really nothing but the roast chicken era, a period of pure hedonism and sheer decoration of life?” (59). Vienna and its “gelatin democracy” (78) was the purest example of the European “value vacuum.” It “was really far less a city of art than a city of decoration par excellence” where “[p]oetry was an affair of gold-edged books on the parlor table” (60).
Broch, born in 1886, is describing the generation of his parents. I have written admiringly about the artistic institutions they created, the art museum and the opera. Exactly the problem, says Broch:
In fulfillment of its duty to tradition, Vienna confused culture with “museumness” [Museumshaftigkeit] and became a museum to itself (unfortunately not in its architecture, where it was guilty of the most outrageous devastations). Because Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert had miraculously converged on this spot, had been treated badly and nevertheless composed, Vienna set itself up as a musical institution… The “museumish” was reserved for Vienna, indeed as a sign of its ruin, the sign of Austrian ruin. For in despondency decay leads to vegetating, but in wealth it leads to the museum. (61)
The tone of this passage should look familiar to readers of later Austrian literature. I feel bad about omitting any of it. Unfortunately, or maybe not, the entire book is not made of this kind of rhetoric.
Broch’s indictment, written from the far side of the horrors of World War II, is ethical. The Viennese did not achieve the kind of ethical and aesthetic balance Stifter described, but rather used false aesthetic values to “mask” an ethical crisis. The inevitable aesthetic result was not art but kitsch, and “as the metropolis of kitsch, Vienna also became the metropolis of the value vacuum of the epoch” (81). And kitsch leads to, well, to Nazis (“the dance of apocalyptic ruin,” 175). Art can also the source of ethics, though, true art, of course, not kitsch.
Hugo von Hofmannsthal and other artists, Broch and his generation. are thus engaged in a kind of struggle to fill the ethical vacuum created by their parents. They mostly lose.
Broch has an outstanding definition of kitsch, by the way - “music in which cowbells ring is kitsch” (16, from “Artistic Style as the Style of the Epoch,” 1919).
* Written 1947-50 and published in pieces.