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The Total Work of Art in European Modernism
by David Roberts

Reviewed by Caroline Waight


Published:

Published by Cornell University Press, 2011   |   304 pages

Wagner is a problem. Adored, despised, mocked and emulated, he is one of the most controversial artists of the last two hundred years. From Hitler to Woody Allen, everyone has an opinion. His influence in the twentieth century is everywhere to be found, even — or perhaps especially — where it is most emphatically disowned; hence, though The Total Work of Art in European Modernism does not focus solely, or even primarily, on Wagner, his presence is felt throughout. The notion of a ‘total work of art’ — or Gesamtkunstwerk, in German — is closely associated with him (indeed, he coined the term), and it functions as a unifying thread that runs throughout the book. In this, David Roberts is not alone. He is one of a number of contemporary scholars to identify the Gesamtkunstwerk as a pivotal concept in twentieth century culture: Matthew Wilson Smith’s The Total Work of Art: From Bayreuth to Cyberspace (2007) and Juliet Koss’s Modernism after Wagner (2009) are both premised on this idea. Their project, like Roberts’, is to navigate Wagner’s complex and often troubling legacy, using the idea of the total work of art as a compass.

Roberts’ book is the final installment of a trilogy that seeks to reevaluate our prevailing understanding of modernism, that most contested yet enduring of artistic categories. It falls into three main sections, focusing, respectively, on history, metaphysics and politics. The first four chapters are ambitious in scope, attempting to map the prehistory of the total work of art from Rousseau to Nietzsche by way of Hegel and the French Revolution. Roberts traces French and German lineages for the Gesamtkunstwerk, keeping the two strands separate but closely intertwined. Without resorting to simplified metanarratives, he anchors the French side of the equation in the reformist zeal of the eighteenth century, and characterizes its German counterpart as fundamentally aesthetic. Part II continues in this vein, offering a panoramic view of the total work of art as it was manifested in various avant-garde movements throughout the first four decades of the twentieth century, from the mysterious alchemy of Symbolism and the decadence of the Ballets Russes to the violent immediacy of Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’. By opening this section with a discussion of Parsifal, in which Roberts lays out the ways that Wagner sought to use the Gesamtkunstwerk to reunite art and religion, he frames the works of such disparate figures as Brecht, Scriabin and Stravinsky as responses to this utopian, even mystical, endeavor. The final section — which deals with totalitarianism in Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union — provides a dark counterpoint to these utopian dreams. Here the Gesamtkunstwerk is realized in public rallies, show trials and propaganda, unity becomes absolutism, and the socially transformative power of art is put to horrifyingly pragmatic ends.

Roberts argues that — contrary to the dominant scholarly narrative — the idea of artistic synthesis has always been more than merely aesthetic; from the first it was also political and spiritual, bound up with the desire for social and cultural renewal. Key to his argument in Part II is the contention that the prevailing “formal-progressive” model of the avant-garde is inadequate. This model, he argues, uses purely technical or stylistic characteristics to define different artistic movements, and as such is problematically apolitical. By approaching modernism from the perspective of the total work of art, Roberts emphasizes the political idealism that has underlaid it since its inception. In doing so he offers five distinct types of avant-garde Gesamtkunstwerk: the “organic”, “primitive-orgiastic”, “synaesthesic”, ”estrangement” and “futurist-constructivist” models, exemplified by Wagner, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Mallarmé, Brecht and Moholy-Nagy, respectively.

Appropriately enough, The Total Work of Art in European Modernism is not limited to any one art form. Roberts weaves together discussions of music, literature, visual art, architecture and theatre to create a multidimensional portrait of the early twentieth century. He builds up an intricate web of connections between different people and places, often referring back to the first four contextual chapters to create overarching historical narratives. The way in which he traces Nietzsche’s pervasive influence is particularly thorough, and the implied connections he makes in Part II between such seemingly dissimilar figures as the aristocratic playwright Hofmannsthal and the would-be proletarian Brecht are imaginative. Though this flexibility is one of the book’s strengths, it is also a weakness. While it produces an astonishing sense of breadth and a number of valuable insights, the various inferences are not always fully fleshed out: for instance, Roberts’ provocative suggestion, repeated several times, that “the spirit of the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s is already present” in Brecht’s didactic plays demands more evidence than he provides. Can we really say that Brecht “anticipated the logic of the show trials”? Here Roberts flirts with asserting a causal link. Likewise, his seemingly off-the-cuff remark that a celebratory performance of Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire at the first anniversary of the October Revolution in Moscow “marks the momentary and short-lived meeting of mysticism and revolutionism” is a bold statement that invites more questions than it answers — how did this performance come about? How was it received? Why was this “meeting” so short-lived? Roberts is fascinated by these points of contact between aesthetics and politics; indeed, a core part of his argument is that art is never politically innocent. This in itself seems incontrovertible, but the exact nature of this connection is always fluid and particular. Roberts uses the Gesamtkunstwerk to shed light on it from many different angles, but in making his tool so flexible he runs the risk of limiting its usefulness — in pulling together so many threads, he of necessity generalises, abstracts and draws unexpected connections at the cost of specificity.

The book’s conclusion brings us back to where we began — with Wagner. He perfectly embodies the manifold contradictions and sometimes uncomfortable concordances between aesthetics, ideology and the sacred that Roberts finds in so many avenues of modernism. Wagner wore his politics on his sleeve; many have argued that he wove them into his art. His music — beautiful and powerful though it undeniably is — cannot and should not blind us to the ugliness of his beliefs. Despite increasing scholarly attention being paid to the Gesamtkunstwerk, clearly much work remains to be done to refine our understanding of how this critical concept shaped the struggles and tumult of the early twentieth century. In doing so we return inevitably to Wagner, situated at the heart of the labyrinth between the utopian and the dystopian, the sublime and the terrible.


Originally from the UK, Caroline Waight is a graduate student at Cornell University. Her work focuses on music in the early twentieth century.

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