January 22, 2022 - 7:00am


Full vaccination mandates exist in only a few countries around the world, including Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, but soon they will come into effect in Austria, the first European country to require all of its citizens to be vaccinated.

In my country one cannot even buy a pair of shoes or enter a cafe without showing a vaccination certificate and a passport. In fact, the focus on Covid here is so all-encompassing that even great pieces of art are now involved. In the famous Kunsthistorisches Museum, I came upon a Canova masterpiece, Theseus and the Centaur, with the former’s face covered by a black and pink mask.

Initially I put it down to the work of some overzealous visitor, but when I spoke to a museum employee at the desk office, she told me that the mask had been added with the approval of the director, in spite of many complaints — not least from a member of the Habsburg family (the Habsburgs originally purchased the artwork).

It is unclear what drove Mrs Sabine Haag, the General Director, to mask up poor Theseus. After all, the statue depicts Theseus slaying a centaur — did he really need to worry about catching Covid as well? Hailing from Athens, the birthplace of logic, democracy, free speech — his masking feels bittersweet.

Perhaps the director’s idea was to follow in the footsteps of Marcel Duchamp, who specialised in quirky adaptations of classic pieces of art. But where Duchamp wanted to scandalise the bourgeoisie and subvert dominant narratives, the director’s attempt at iconoclasm does the exact opposite: it simply reinforces the official narrative. Moreover, Duchamp only used reproductions; he didn’t toy with the original artwork as this director did. By using classic art to promote a contemporary political message, surely it cheapens the work (and the message)?  

Many people have grown tired of these strange instances of hygiene theatre. It strikes me as a symptom of a much broader malaise in Austria — one in which it is considered normal to put an entire section of the population under house arrest. Yet citizens are slowly starting to fight back; last weekend tens of thousands of Austrians took to the streets to protest against these mandates. Whether the Government will change course remains to be seen — but in the mean time, leave poor Theseus alone.