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The Aesthetics of the Total Artwork: On Borders and Fragments (review)
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The Aesthetics of the Total Artwork: On Borders and Fragments. Edited by Anke Finger and Danielle Follett. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. Pp. viii + 469. US $90.00. ISBN 978-0801895821.

For many years now, concepts of visuality have stood at the fore of German cultural studies, centered on film, architecture, digital media, and so forth. As a result, visuality has tended to decenter script/writing/book culture from its traditional role as the hegemonic purveyor of aesthetic value, truth, and morality. Visuality seems also to have overshadowed its disciplinary Other, the aesthetics of music, and more generally, of sound. Only more recently has music left its comparatively marginal position in cultural studies, with musicologists assuming a more prominent role in fields outside their own academic discipline. (The German Studies Association Conference, for instance, every year features an impressive number of music-related panels.) Conversely, literary and cultural critics have steadily ventured into musical terrain, addressing interrelations between language, hermeneutics, and music (Albrecht Wellmer), Gustav Mahler and Jewish identity (Carl Niekerk), the Second Viennese School and New Music in twentieth-century fiction (Florian Trabert), and even the cultural perception and erotics of four-hand piano playing (Adrian Daub).

The present volume on the aesthetic legacy of the total artwork is another welcome [End Page 413] addition to the field of musical culture studies. It traces the multiple and often contradictory affiliations of Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk concept with a wide range of other musical forms, literary movements, and political ideologies. The case of Wagner, of course, has become a synecdoche for the highly productive but deeply troubled trajectory of German music. Pushing late-romantic chromaticism beyond itself through a utopian program of artistic redemption and aurally overwhelming audience effects, Wagner’s multimedia art renewed musical language and performance practices in lasting ways even while suffering the fate, despite the composer’s own socialist leanings, of being misappropriated by the fascist aestheticization of political ideology. Responding to such contradictory tendencies within Wagner’s artwork project, the editors’ introduction outlines some of the volume’s guiding principles.

The total artwork is seen as an internally dynamic and self-proliferating set of aesthetic possibilities, rather than as a strict program confined to Wagner’s own intentions and cultural context. It has no stable identity, but “describes an uneven cluster of aesthetic elements that can be regarded as common to some quite disparate artistic endeavors” (2). Although rooted in romanticism and its dialectic preoccupation with the fragment, as well as the infinite reunification of the dispersed forms of individual arts, the artwork concept reappears in “recurring debates on the autonomy of media and on the relation of art to life” (2), displaying an “aesthetic ambition to borderlessness” that encompasses a variety of artistic, political, and metaphysical levels (3–4). Ably discussed by the contributors, the reappearances, actualizations, reversals, and echoes of the artwork in other contexts seem to turn the Gesamtkunstwerk almost into a veritable master-concept of (post)romantic and (neo–)avant-garde aesthetics. It relates to romanticist variations of totality (Olivier Shefer) and the aesthetics of the fragment from Friedrich Schlegel to Thomas Bernhard (Justus Fetscher), but also inspires a passionate plea for new aesthetic unity (Jürgen Söring) even while being affiliated with the aesthetics of chance (Danielle Follett). It resounds in conceptual art (Anke Finger), interactive multimedia (Randall Packer) and avant-garde theatre (Christiane Heibach), in the image totality of Carl Einstein and Paul Klee (Reto Sorg), Expressionist architectural utopias (Maria Stavrinaki), the avant-garde projects of László Moholy-Nagy (Joyce Tsai), and even in polyglot poetry (Rainer Guldin). Last but not least, the Gesamtkunstwerk idea has of course affected newer developments in musical aesthetics itself, such as Arnold Schönberg’s (Simon Shaw-Miller) and, mostly in negative terms, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s (Ivanka Stoianova).

The volume reflects the challenge besetting all such reception studies: how to perform a methodological tightrope dance between the open sea of salutary border-crossings and the abyss of complacent anything-goes relativism. Anchored, on the one hand, in a precise reconstruction of Wagner’s aesthetics in the revolutionary context of his time and the architectural...