restricted access The Total Work of Art in European Modernism by David Roberts (review)
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The Total Work of Art in European Modernism. By David Roberts. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011. ix + 292 pages. $37.50.

The term Gesamtkunstwerk or “total work of art” inevitably and understandably conjures associations of sinister conceptual holism and dubiously inflated aesthetic projects. At least in its English form, the term “total” seems to unfold into “totalitarian,” and cultural phenomena such as the Nazi Wagner-cult or the party rallies at Nuremburg only reinforce the association. This impressive and important book, however, presents a far more complex story about the total work of art: a story that places the notion at the heart of modern cultural and political thought.

Roberts identifies “twin lineages of the total work of art” (2): the first, largely French and primarily political, begins with the caesura instantiated by the French Revolution; the second, largely German and essentially aesthetic, encompasses subsequent attempts to generate normative ideals for the refoundation and regeneration of society. The strength of Roberts’s analysis is that he does not present these two lineages as competing alternatives: rather than presenting a dichotomy of the political versus the aesthetic, the revolutionary versus the restorative, or utopia versus nostalgia, Roberts identifies the total work of art as the site of convergence of the two lineages. The tensions between these lineages are less significant than the shared origin in the loss of religious legitimation: the total work of art emerged from the fact that [End Page 321] politics and art in the modern sense both “laid claim to the inheritance of religion” (3).

Thus Roberts portrays the total work of art not simply as a particular and peripheral genre of modern culture but rather as a fundamental ideal that responded to the experience of desacralization in modernity. Roberts is particularly good at showing how the political lineage of the French Revolution gave rise to an “aesthetic” tradition of the revolutionary festival that sought to express a spontaneous yet collective experience. (The irresolvable tension in the ideal of the festival between spontaneous free expression and indissoluble social unity is an important theme in Roberts’s account.) Similarly, the aesthetic lineage, especially in its Wagnerian and post-Wagnerian incarnations, aimed to overcome both the desacralized experience of life and the autonomous experience of the artwork through the political vision of an “aesthetic public sphere” (71). Ultimately, both the political and the aesthetic variants of the total work of art presupposed an analogous and ambivalent mode of historical consciousness, which aimed both to break decisively with a “fallen” past and to posit a redemptive vision of the future—a vision that the total work of art would be called upon to represent or even bring about. Roberts’s discussion of figures such as Wagner (naturally), Berlioz, Nietzsche, Mallarmé, Scriabin, and others anchors these claims in specific cases.

The broad framework of Roberts’s account is compelling enough, but perhaps the most original aspect of his argument is the fundamental affinity he describes between the total work of art and radical artistic avant-gardes. Most observers intuitively set these trends in contrast, and while the total work of art may be seen as an important category of nineteenth-century culture, the heroic rise of the twentieth-century avant-gardes is usually cast as centered on opposed “impulses of experimentation and innovation and/or radical iconoclasm.” As Roberts points out, “[t]he synthesizing, religious-redemptive, mystic or socially utopian intentions of the various [avant-garde] movements are constantly registered and just as constantly discounted” (144). Roberts, by contrast, insists that “the avant-garde and the total work of art belong together” (147), thus emphasizing the “totalizing impulse of the avant-garde” (5). Crucial to this claim is his distinction between the total work of art and the absolute work of art: while the latter may appear superficially opposed to the former through its insistence on purity, materiality, abstraction, and fragmentation, the two categories in fact share the basic impulses Roberts describes as emerging from the twin lineages arising at the end of the eighteenth century.

Roberts explores these tensions and affinities through detailed discussion of a range of figures and movements, such as Kandinsky and...