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The Total Work of Art in European Modernism

by David Roberts

Publication Year: 2011

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.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book forms the third part of a trilogy on European modernism that drew its original impulse from dissatisfaction with Theodor Adorno’s reading of cultural modernity. The first book in the trilogy, Art and Enlightenment: Aesthetic Theory after Adorno (1992), set out to show that Adorno’s theory of the rationalization of the arts, ...

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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, ...

Part I: The Artwork of the Future

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1. Refounding Society

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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). ...

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2. The Destination of Art

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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. ...

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3. Prophets and Precursors: Paris 1830–1848

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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 ...

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4. Staging the Absolute

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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. ...

Part II: The Spiritual in Art

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5. Religion and Art: Parsifal as Paradigm

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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 ...

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6. The Symbolist Mystery

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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, ...

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7. Gesamtkunstwerk and Avant-Garde

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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, ...

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8. The Promised Land: Toward a Retotalized Theatre

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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) ...

Part III: The Sublime in Politics

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9. National Regeneration

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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: ...

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10. Art and Revolution: The Soviet Union

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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, ...

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11. The Will to Power as Art: The Third Reich

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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. ...

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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, ...


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pp. 267-282


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pp. 283-292

E-ISBN-13: 9780801460975
E-ISBN-10: 0801460972
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801450235
Print-ISBN-10: 0801450233

Page Count: 292
Publication Year: 2011

Edition: 1