Zembylas, Tasos: Dual Commitments in Art and Life – the case of Otto Mühl

The separation of art and life is especially in European cultures rooted in the positioning of the arts in a particular social system from the 18th century onwards and it is associated with the discourse about the autonomy of arts (from state power, from traditional moral conventions, from religious and ideologies, from market logics etc.) However, from the romantic era to the late avant-garde several artists were committed in societal experiments and utopias. Although there is a great diversity between the singular cases, I believe, that is justified to speak of some common aspirations, e.g. social equality, socialist ideas, counter-cultural attitudes, shared housing and privacy etc.

As a starting point for my discussion I will present a particular case: the commune Friedrichs-hof, which was founded in 1972 by Otto Mühl (1925-2013), an Austrian artist and central figure of Viennese Actionism. The commune positioned itself as a radical experiment of social transformation and soon enlarged, so that in the early 1980’s it had around 600 members living in several associated communes in various Western European countries. In 1990 the commune failed due to a series of internal and external conflicts foremost in relation with accusations of sexual abuse of teenagers and emerging social inequalities. This particular case can help to illustrate some of the difficulties and challenges for socially engaged art projects.