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Reviewed by:
  • Modernism after Wagner
  • Beth M. Snyder (bio)
Juliet Koss : Modernism after Wagner Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010 416 pages, $29.50

The project of art historian Juliet Koss's recently published monograph Modernism after Wagner is a double genealogy of sorts. To a lesser extent, Koss is interested in revisiting and reexamining the history of the term Gesamtkunstwerk, most famously (or infamously) associated with the theoretical and artistic work of Richard Wagner. It is this association that, in Koss's estimation, contributed to the devaluation of the Gesamtkunstwerk in twentieth-century aesthetic discourse. She claims that, due to the growing association of Wagner's oeuvre and thought with fascism, the term became adopted as shorthand in modernist discourse for an artwork that demands a passive and emotionally overwhelmed audience response.

Far more, however, Modernism after Wagner proposes a reconsideration of the range of ideas that underlie Wagner's formulation of the "total work of art," ideas that, over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, become increasingly dissociated from the composer and the label Gesamtkunstwerk. Koss identifies what she takes to be the two most significant of these ideas: the unification of different art forms in a total artwork (one that still retains each art form's distinctness) and a model of spectatorship that requires empathetic and active engagement. Her thesis is that these ideas remained central not only to late nineteenth-century aesthetic discourse and artistic production but also to modernist debates and artwork in the first decades of the twentieth century.1 She is, in essence, constructing an alternative history of the Gesamtkunstwerk, one that looks beyond terminology in order to unearth conceptual affinities and that seeks to move the Gesamtkunstwerk from a peripheral and disreputable position to a central (if often obscured) place in German modernist artistic production and discourse.

Koss's goal, then, is to demonstrate the continual working through of these two most significant ideas behind Wagner's concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Yet the two ideas are not given equal attention. The notion of an artwork that unifies different art forms is a significant element of only a few of Koss's case studies—most notably, perhaps, in her discussion of the Bauhaus theater in chapter seven. [End Page 318] Far more attention is paid to models of spectatorship and specifically empathetic engagement, or Einfühlung. In fact, this book could be read as a genealogy of Einfühlung and its changing relationship to dominant models of spectatorship, at least as much as a genealogy of the Gesamtkunstwerk as a "total work of art." It is clear that Koss's interest lies foremost in theories of reception rather than artistic creation. A scholar of art and architectural history, she focuses above all on the relationships between perception as an embodied experience and the spatial context of that experience.

The first two chapters explore Wagner's formulation of the Gesamtkunstwerk through analyses of both his aesthetic treatises and the architectural plans for the Bayreuth Festival Theater. In chapter one, "The Utopian Gesamtkunstwerk," she examines the political and philosophical influences on Wagner's thought, before turning to Wagner's own development of the concept in his midcentury aesthetic treatises, Art and Revolution and The Art-Work of the Future. Contrary to accounts that give credence to Wagner's late denials that he ever had revolutionary political convictions, she argues that the composer was in fact committed to the democratic and utopian political project of the Dresden revolutionaries prior to the ultimate failure of that project in 1849 and that these revolutionary political leanings significantly influenced his formulation of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Koss also identifies philosophical influences on Wagner's aesthetic theories, notably Schopenhauer's (double-aspected) monist metaphysics of the Will and Schelling's model of Greek tragedy as a paradigm of the unified artwork. She traces the influence of these philosophers on Wagner's formulation of the Gesamtkunstwerk as a work of art that, in its marriage of distinct art forms, gives rise to an irresolvable tension between the purification and the dissolution of its constituent forms of art. The influence of Wagner's democratic utopianism is felt most strongly, according...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1476-2870
Print ISSN
0736-0053
Pages
pp. 318-325
Launched on MUSE
2012-03-02
Open Access
No
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