The Arts of Vienna

The Arts of Vienna

A Proud History, A Painful Past


Symposiums organized to explore a specific period in history, seeking to inform current thinking and facilitate participation in a dialogue on current conditions and foster action on vital ethical choices:

  • What makes a community creative, dynamic, productive and comfort able? What can we do to inspire more of what was best about that legacy in our communities today?
  • What causes a society to become morally destructive? What constructive measures can we take today, some years and even generations of leadership later, to learn from past horrors
  • Are there signs of trouble around us? What are the prospects of doing what is needed for an ethical outcome?


Three Symposia centering around Vienna’s history and legacy of the past 150 years were held in February 2014 in New York City followed by similar discussions in Toronto and Calgary, Canada. The program owes its origins to two initiatives:

  • Carnegie Hall’s “Vienna: City of Dreams.” Festival celebrating its cultural history.
  • The steps taken by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra to discuss its institutional past during the period of the terrible wrongs of Nazism as well as to use its artistry to stir collective memory for communities to learn and not repeat such a distressing history anywhere.

It is incumbent on the rest of us, interested in a healthy society, to participate in a meaningful engagement in dialogue about:

  • creativity and the effective use of the arts
  • understanding moral failures in history and how to rebuild trust in shared values to avoid future atrocities
  • ways and places where societies and governments are engaging in practices that risk unfair or inhumane conditions and what we might do about it.

Scope and Agenda

The arts reflect and can lead their society. As free expressions, the arts enrich life. They support experimentation, tolerance of diversity and shared human experience within and between communities. Vienna in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries was a striking example. Its society was characterized by openness to immigration, diversity, interaction among disciplines and support for the arts and sciences. This proved a breeding ground for an outburst of creativity. The discussion will explore the causes of that creativity's demise, the politicization of the arts and the potential role and responsibility of arts and artists in constructive social initiatives to reduce tensions and divisiveness

After World War I and the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, the building of an Austrian national identity and pride was assisted by the arts. The Salzburg Festival, first proposed in 1917 and begun in 1920, was conceived by its founders with this among its purposes. UNESCO, discussed by allied world leaders during World War II and established in its aftermath, was intended to advance education and culture internationally as tools of peace. Current examples of explicit political and social purpose in artistic initiatives are seen in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the Venezuelan-originated El Sistema projects.

The history of Austrian cultural institutions and artists was a period of enormous creativity prior to World War I, and politicization or sentiment at the time in favor of war. Were there forebodings before the war of things to come? What was the position of art and artists during wartime conflict? What are the expectations and responsibilities of artists in such times?

Art serves, is supported by and reflects its society. It may be more or less independent of deliberate influences. This in itself does not make the result good or bad art. Is all art essentially propaganda for its community?

The media also reflect society but, in a democratic and pluralistic society, we expect the media to satisfy an ethical standard beyond promoting prevailing government views and practices. Should, we expect better or different behavior from the creative community than from the general public? Is the difference between the diplomatic or social bridging use of art and its propagandistic misuse solely in the eye of the beholder? What is the constructive potential of the arts as a tool of diplomacy and for the harmonious integration of diversities - healing, bridging and preventing conflict?

Conditions contrary to those that spawned a golden age of creativity in “fin de siècle” Vienna are in evidence in some parts of contemporary Europe. What should be expected from the arts community in that regard?

New York City Symposium
Toronto Symposium
Calgary Symposium