Monday, March 4, 2013

The Viennese middle class chooses art and fun - not as an ornament of life or as a badge of status, but as the air they breathed

The little Austrian aesthetic Golden Age that was magically called into being by Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer is described in some detail by Carl E. Schorske in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980), particularly in Chapter VI “The Transformation of the Garden” (originally published in 1967), where Schorske actually begins with fifteen pages on Stifter’s novel.  The actual causes of Golden Age are political, social, and economic, the usual stuff – the 1848 revolution and counter-revolution, the perpetual rise of the middle class, changes in the nature and influence of the Austrian imperial court.

But it must have been strange, or satisfying, for a Viennese burgher, circa 1875 or 1885, to re-read Stifter’s idealistic account of moral and aesthetic development.  My son will be Heinrich, he could think to himself.  The parallels between Stifter’s character and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, an aesthetic Tiger Woods, trained from childhood to be a great artist, are especially striking.  As Schorske describes the time:

Beginning roughly in the 1860’s, two generations of well-to-do children were reared in the museums, theaters, and concert halls of the new Ringstrasse.  They acquired aesthetic culture not, as their fathers did, as an ornament of life or as a badge of status, but as the air they breathed. (298)

The Vienna State Opera (opening 1869), the Burgtheater (an 18th century institution, but in a new building in 1888), and the Kunsthistorisches Museum (1891) are still central to Viennese culture.

I have been going back and forth about the uniqueness of the period compared to earlier Golden Ages, or to contemporary cities all Europe and America that were also building museums and opera houses.  Heian Japan, for example, or Medici Florence, or the Ferrara of the Estes, depicted in Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528) – these were all court-centered, aristocratic.  So perhaps what Schorske calls “the aristocratization of the middle classes” (296) is a real difference, with what were once court institutions like the Burgtheater not exactly democratizing but at least opening up to the bourgeois or burgher or managerial class, which really was expanding at a new pace.

That expansion was happening everywhere, though, and only in Vienna did aestheticism swallow the middle class.   As Schorske describes it:  “Aestheticism, which elsewhere in Europe took the form of a protest against bourgeois civilization, became in Austria an expression of that civilization, an affirmation of an attitude toward life in which neither ethical nor social ideals played a predominant part” (299).  In France, Flaubert and Baudelaire and their descendants set themselves against the smug, philistine bourgeois.  In England, aestheticism was intimately tangled with social reform.  I am thinking of Ruskin and Morris and the pre-Raphaelites, all of whom were direct influences on Viennese art nouveau, but with all of the politics stripped out.

The anti-bourgeois protests come later in Austria, and take on a different character. It was a challenge to make an oppositional case for advanced art against an opponent who devoutly believed in advanced art.  Flaubert and Baudelaire would have found this frustrating.

I wonder how the spread of Arthur Schopenhauer’s ideas contributed to the Viennese ethos.  Ignored for decades, Schopenhauer began to attract followers in the 1850s and his writings rapidly diffused across Europe.  The important concept here is that he argued that aesthetic appreciation, however brief, was one of the few ways people can mitigate their ordinary state of suffering and misery.  Schopenhauer argued that the more effective, more lasting path is one of asceticism and renunciation.  But that is difficult and no fun, while dancing to Johann Strauss is easy and fun.

Good choice, Viennese middle class!

But tomorrow, I begin the case against.


  1. Is it worth retaining my individual, violent Will in order to waltz with my gal? Yes, it is.

    Hey, I just re-read big chunks of Castiglione’s book. It's a hoot.

  2. That's what I'm saying!

    The Castiglione book is amazing - the Ladder of Love business at the end approaches bliss.

  3. "Beautiful sky, beautiful earth, beautiful
    sea, beautiful rivers, beautiful lands, beautiful woods, trees, gardens; beautiful cities, beautiful churches, houses, armies."

  4. And beautiful soup, adds Lewis Carroll.

    If only someone would start that early modern book blog I am always yammering about.

  5. Will you reread Schopie Schop? I'd love to revisit volume 1 of the WaW&R. I think him brilliant. I think the best part of Western philosophy goes from Plato, through Spinoza, Hume and Kant, to Schopenhauer, and beyond him to Searle. Schopenhauer has some wonderful things to say about narrative form, too. Good stuff. And he's a fine writer, too.

  6. Reread him? I have barely read him.

    Scraps from one book. Puts me ahead of where I was, though.

    I might try to organize something about the little Essays and Aphorisms book, at least as regards literature. I think I have cleared up some of my fog about his "influence," which, again, is progress.

  7. In his book Eros and Inwardness in Vienna, David S. Luft devotes pp. 28-36 to Schopenhauer's influence in Vienna. Luft says that Schopenhauer began to influence 'the most distinguished minds of the liberal elite' in the 1860's. Schopenhauer's influence grew through the 1870's and was also important in Vienna around the turn of the century. According to Luft, some of Schopenhauer's views were combined with a growing materialism and 'scientistic' outlook which was esp. prominent at Vienna's medical school. Among the elite minds that gravitated towards Schopenhauer in the 1860's was Carl von Rokitansky, 'the dominant figure in the medical school' (p. 30). Other Viennese who championed Schopenhauer's philosophy included (says Luft) Ferdinand von Saar, Mahler, Victor Adler, and (much later) Heimito von Doderer.

  8. Next to music, literature fairs very well in Schop's aesthetic theory of relieving the metaphysical pressure of the will.

  9. Thanks, praymont, how interesting. I only knew that Schopenhauer was read by Freud, and could see how Schopenhauer would be attractive and useful to Freud.

    Musil knew Schopenhauer's philosophy well, but that is no help here. More relevant is the spread of Schopenhauer-lite, Schopenhauer for magazine readers.

    Yeah, literature fares relatively well. Boy, does he ever go after reading, though. Now that is a post I could write. "The result is that much reading robs the mind of all elasticity" and so on - "the surest way of never having any thoughts of your own is to pick up a book every time you have a free moment." Ouch!