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The Total Work of Art in European Modernism

The Total Work of Art in European Modernism

David Roberts
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    The Total Work of Art in European Modernism
    Book Description:

    In this groundbreaking book, David Roberts sets out to demonstrate the centrality of the total work of art to European modernism since the French Revolution. The total work of art is usually understood as the intention to reunite the arts into the one integrated whole, but it is also tied from the beginning to the desire to recover and renew the public function of art. The synthesis of the arts in the service of social and cultural regeneration was a particularly German dream, which made Wagner and Nietzsche the other center of aesthetic modernism alongside Baudelaire and Mallarmé.

    The history and theory of the total work of art pose a whole series of questions not only to aesthetic modernism and its utopias but also to the whole epoch from the French Revolution to the totalitarian revolutions of the twentieth century. The total work of art indicates the need to revisit key assumptions of modernism, such as the foregrounding of the autonomy and separation of the arts at the expense of the countertendencies to the reunion of the arts, and cuts across the neat equation of avant-gardism with progress and deconstructs the familiar left-right divide between revolution and reaction, the modern and the antimodern. Situated at the interface between art, religion, and politics, the total work of art invites us to rethink the relationship between art and religion and art and politics in European modernism.

    In a major departure from the existing literature David Roberts argues for twin lineages of the total work, a French revolutionary and a German aesthetic, which interrelate across the whole epoch of European modernism, culminating in the aesthetic and political radicalism of the avant-garde movements in response to the crisis of autonomous art and the accelerating political crisis of European societies from the 1890s forward.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6097-5
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    This is the first book in English to treat the total work of art as a key concept in aesthetic modernism, and, as far as I can see, the first to attempt an overview of the theory and history of the total work in European art since the French Revolution. It is therefore both an ambitious and necessarily preliminary undertaking, in which my guiding concern has been to demonstrate the significance of the idea of the total work for modern art and politics. The term “total work of art” translates the German Gesamtkunstwerk, coined by Wagner in the wake of...

  5. Part I The Artwork of the Future

    • 1 Refounding Society
      (pp. 15-33)

      Rousseau stands at the beginning of what we might call the passage of modernity. In Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique (The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right) (1762) he constructs the imaginary history of the foundation of society through an act of association that effects “the passage from the state of nature to the civil state” (1.8). This founding act, through which the “Republic or body politic” gains its unity, common identity, life, and will, points to a second act of self-institution: the recovery of the republic, of the sovereign body politic, through the refoundation of...

    • 2 The Destination of Art
      (pp. 34-53)

      The birth of the total work of art from the spirit of revolution cannot be separated from the fundamental break in the function, purpose, and meaning of art brought to consciousness by the French Revolution. The will to create a new civil religion that directly challenged the hegemony of the Catholic Church found practical and symbolic expression in the expropriation and secularization of church property. The remodeling of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris into the Pantheon of the heroes of the Revolution went together with confiscation and collection of church treasures destined to form the core of the national patrimony. Jean Starobinski...

    • 3 Prophets and Precursors: Paris 1830–1848
      (pp. 54-76)

      If we take Wagner’s manifestos Art and Revolution and The Artwork of the Future, inspired by the 1848 revolutions, as summing up the will to social and aesthetic regeneration of the whole period from the French Revolution to the year of European revolutions, it is important to add that his role as revolutionary prophet was anticipated and prepared by the social doctrines of the French age of romanticism.¹ Between 1830 and 1848 writers and artists built on the victory of the romantic generation to establish themselves as a social force in their own right. We observe on the one hand...

    • 4 Staging the Absolute
      (pp. 77-98)

      If we define modernism (with Heidegger) as the epoch of the rule of aesthetics, the corollary of this definition is the loss of a nonaesthetic relation to art, which Heidegger understands as the inevitable consequence of the decline of great art. This decline cannot be measured aesthetically. It is not a question of the style of the work or the qualities of the artist. Artworks are great when they accomplish art’s essential task: to make manifest “what beings as a whole are,” by “establishing the absolute definitively as such in the realm of historical man.” There is thus a direct...

  6. Part II The Spiritual in Art

    • 5 Religion and Art: Parsifal as Paradigm
      (pp. 101-122)

      With Parsifal (1882) Wagner accomplished the return to the stage of religious cult, thereby fulfilling what Thomas Mann called “the secret longing of the theatre, its ultimate ambition”: to return to “that ritual from which it first emerged among both Christians and heathens.”¹ When Mann adds that this closeness to the sacred origins of the theatre makes Parsifal the most theatrical of Wagner’s works, it is clear that what is at stake is the very idea of theatre and that this is not simply a theatrical question. The secret longing of the theatre, we are to understand, expresses a secret...

    • 6 The Symbolist Mystery
      (pp. 123-143)

      Wagner’s Parsifal may be thought of as both an end and a beginning. As the completion of Wagner’s programme of recovering and renewing the tradition of religious theatre, it was meant to signify the last stage of overcoming opera. As the paradigmatic example of a new cultic theatre, of art religion in the full sense of the term, it provided a model for the avant-garde search for a synthesis of the arts. How this played out in the theatre, from the Ballets Russes to Brecht and Artaud, will be the subject of the following chapters. In the present chapter I...

    • 7 Gesamtkunstwerk and Avant-Garde
      (pp. 144-164)

      Resisting translation, both avant-garde and Gesamtkunstwerk have retained their original linguistic inflexion: the one the expression of Gallic dash and daring, the other the expression of Teutonic profundities. These subliminal associations reflect two very different senses of aesthetic modernism, or rather, contribute to the valorization of a French-oriented as opposed to a German-oriented history of modern art, in which French painting rather than German music plays the leading role. This parti pris is so self-evident that the last crucial stage of European modernism, from the 1880s to the 1920s, is comprehended in terms of avant-gardism, that is to say, in...

    • 8 The Promised Land: Toward a Retotalized Theatre
      (pp. 165-186)

      The sources of the theatre reform movement in the first decades of the twentieth century drew their inspiration from Wagner, in particular Parsifal, and from the theatre of the symbolists: “In the history of the modern theatre it is possible to trace a tradition from Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk to the second generation symbolists (Appia, Craig, Meyerhold) and from them to the entire movement of the ‘retheatricalization’ of theatre, with the director as the master artist uniting the arts.”¹ The symbolist theatre of shadows and halftones is perhaps best exemplified by Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), based on Maeterlinck’s...

  7. Part III The Sublime in Politics

    • 9 National Regeneration
      (pp. 189-206)

      In chapter 1 the concept of the sublime in politics or the political sublime was introduced in relation to the founding moment of political modernity: the dissolution of institutions and the return of the social to its origins in the French Revolution. This is the abyss of political foundation, as theorized by Marc Richir: the liminal experience of the passage from the old world of absolutism to a new world, in which the utopian image of community emerged as in a dream from the anarchy of liberty, equality, and fraternity. This dream experience, this popular enthusiasm, constitutes for Richir the...

    • 10 Art and Revolution: The Soviet Union
      (pp. 207-231)

      Alexander Blok responded to the Bolshevik Revolution by delivering his own version of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy in a lecture in Petrograd in April 1919, entitled “The Decline of Humanism.” His musical theory of history recalls Saint-Simon’s alternation of organic and critical epochs but is much closer in mood to the basic topos of cultural pessimism, the decline of culture into civilization, elaborated in Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West (1919): “Every movement has its birth in the spirit of music, through which it acts, but after a lapse of time it degenerates and begins to lose the musical, the...

    • 11 The Will to Power as Art: The Third Reich
      (pp. 232-254)

      For all that Rolland and d’Annunzio took opposite positions in relation to the French Revolution, they both claimed to speak in the name of the “people” or the “nation.” Moreover, they foreshadowed the ultimate expression of the new mass politics, inaugurated by the French Revolution, in the rival revolutionary movements that emerged from the chaos and carnage of the First World War. The Bolsheviks in Russia and the Fascists in Italy both recognized the importance of mobilizing the masses through the elaboration of a civil religion. This “aesthetics of politics,” pioneered in the French Revolution,¹ had a theatrical, performative character,...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 255-266)

    In his memorable parable of the downfall of art since the spiritual synthesis of the Gothic cathedral, Adolf Behne captures the sense of loss that haunts modern art (see chapter 7). He charts the spirit’s descent from collective creation to the individual artwork as a progressive materialization that finally imprisons art in the picture frame, apt symbol of the framing of art as aesthetic object and valuable commodity. The frame, with its separating and isolating function, appears as the antithesis of the lost unity of the arts—the recurrent reminder that the commercialization of production and the privatization of reception...

  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 267-282)
  10. Index
    (pp. 283-292)