Zeitung Heute : The Myth of the Gesamtkunstwerk

Approaching Wagner’s dumbfounding impact on modernity

Juliet Koss

References to the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, abound in modernist discourse in the disciplines of art and architectural history, as well as in theater, film, music, and in contemporary criticism in each of these fields. The term is used with regard to such disparate environments as the cinema palaces of Berlin in the 1920s and Andy Warhol's Factory scene in New York in the 1960s, operating as shorthand to describe a seamless melding of a variety of art forms that overwhelms spectators' emotions, impedes the possibility of critical thought, and molds a group of individuals into a powerless mass. Yet as a model of artistic interrelation, the Gesamtkunstwerk both supports and inverts modernist principles as they have been traditionally understood. Addressing a series of linked episodes in German aesthetic discourse and artistic practice – and attending primarily to the visual arts and architecture, particularly as the relationship played itself out in theater architecture, My project explores the history and legacy of the concept, placing it, and the idea of interdisciplinarity more generally, at the heart of European modernism.

The Gesamtkunstwerk is often conflated with "Wagnerianism," as if Richard Wagner,who famously promulgated the exalted unification of the sister arts in two essays of 1849, held a consistent theoretical view for more than three decades until his death in 1883. Moreover, the Bayreuther Festspielhaus built in 1876 to present his music dramas is often thought to represent this view in architectural form. In the discipline of art history more specifically, scholars regularly invoke Wagner and the Gesamtkunstwerk as a counter-model for the "advanced art" of European modernism, conveniently erasing the concept's revolutionary origins. The composer's status as Adolf Hitler's favorite and Theodor Adorno's scathing analysis of Wagner and fascism have encouraged critics and scholars to construct retroactive assessments of his achievements that ignore their historical and political context. Such assessments invariably oppose the Gesamtkunstwerk to such basic modernist principles as artistic purity, autonomy, and medium specificity. These principles remain central myths of modernism, rendering the Gesamtkunstwerk "anti-modernist" and, consequently, easily dismissed.

Invocations and disparagements of the Gesamtkunstwerk tend to accompany a particular understanding of the role of the audience that is both present at the scene of artistic interrelation and created, it is sometimes believed, by its presence there. Loosely associated with synaesthesia, phantasmagoria, and psychedelia, the term "Gesamtkunstwerk" often stands for an artistic environment or performance in which spectators are expertly maneuvered into dumbfounded passivity by a sinister and powerful creative force. It is often mistaken for a hazy mixture of art forms that intoxicates those who gather in its presence, encouraging the kind of passive aesthetic response also ascribed to the spectacle culture famously articulated by Guy Debord in 1968. Scholars and critics of German history and culture tend to treat such a manipulation of passivity, implicitly or explicitly, as fascist, proto-fascist, or neo-fascist, depending on the historical moment in which it occurs. Where the modernist work is thought to aim for a bracing autonomy, forcing spectators to sit upright in their proverbial chairs to concentrate on the difficult activity of aesthetic reception, the Gesamtkunstwerk is believed to know no such vigilance. It is thought, instead, to let down the guardrails between the art forms, allowing them to intermingle in a kind of vague interdisciplinarity that is equated with a lack of discipline.

Yet notions of artistic purity and autonomy were central to Wagner's initial formulation in 1849. In uniting the arts the Gesamtkunstwerk would allow each to achieve its full potential, growing stronger in the struggle to define itself against the others. "By working in common," he declared, the art forms each attain the capacity to be and do the very thing which, of their own and inmost essences, they long to do and be. Each where her own capacity ends can be absorbed into the other, proving her own purity, freedom, and independence as that which she is.

The effort to unite the different art forms was thus predicated on their individual refinement and purification, with the purity of each dependent on the others' proximity; the Gesamtkunstwerk would simultaneously sustain and destroy the autonomy of the individual arts. I follow this theoretical model to argue that modernism itself must be understood in reference to the theoretical elaboration and historical development of the Gesamtkunstwerk.

While discussions of the interrelation of the arts did not originate with Wagner, his presentation of the Gesamtkunstwerk became the central reference point for later artistic practice and theory. Indeed, even during his lifetime, interest in Wagner's discussion of the concept remained far out of proportion to its status within his oeuvre, while other themes in his writings received far less consideration. Writing to Franz Liszt in 1853, Wagner bemoaned the emphasis that others had placed on the Gesamtkunstwerk in the schema of his thinking; misjudgments were rife, he lamented: "Otherwise it would be totally impossible that this unfortunate particular art and Gesammtkunst would in the end emerge as the fruit of all my arguments."

Since then, the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk has become both infamous and nebulous. My book on the topic, Modernism after Wagner, presents its history from the Revolution of 1848-49 to the Bauhaus and beyond, attending particularly to such theories of modern spectatorship as empathy, abstraction, estrangement, and distraction to argue for the concept's centrality to modernism in the visual arts and architecture. Juliet Koss

The author is Professor of Art and Art History at Scripps College. Excerpts from Modernism After Wagner (University of Minnesota Press, 2008)

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