- The Transformative Aesthetics of the Gesamtkunstwerk/Total Work of Art as the Specter Haunting Modernism
In recent years, the concept of postmodernism and its related theories seem to have lost explanatory strength and value. Do we really live in a postmodern age? Or have we merely entered a new stage in the still ongoing process of modernization? Just as there is no agreement as to whether modernity began in Europe around 1500, with the emergence of secularism, rationalism, and capitalism, or whether its beginnings are to be dated much later, coinciding with processes of industrialization and urbanization in the nineteenth century, there is also no consensus regarding its end. The situation becomes even more complicated when we shift our attention from Europe and the Western world to cultures in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where “multiple modernities” (Eisenstadt) coexist. Even if opinions still vary on the definition of modernity, there seems to be a shared view on [End Page 593] modernism as applied to certain developments in the different arts of the Western world between 1890 and 1930. What, however, came after 1930, if we take modernism to have ended at that point? Was it not still modern, if not modernist, art? And if we include the various “–isms” of the historical avant-garde, we have to provide good reasons for why particular artistic developments are or are not subsumed under the concept of modernism. John Cage’s performances, happenings, Fluxus, or the Viennese actionists serve as examples here, since they clearly took recourse to the historical avant-garde, albeit changing it in the process. What are passed off as characteristic features of postmodernist art mostly apply just as well to the historical avant-garde. The question about modernism’s, as well as modernity’s, periodization thus remains open.
The three volumes under review address this question through a common focus, the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), even if they deal with it in different ways. Although not coined by Richard Wagner, the term immediately conjures up his name. In fact, all three volumes take as their starting point the concept as it was developed by Wagner in his two early writings, The Art-Work of the Future and Art and Revolution, both published in 1849—in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution. In this regard, the three books could also be seen as a tribute to Wagner on the 200th anniversary of his birth, even if published two to three years earlier. The main context to which they refer and within which they should be discussed, however, is modernity and its cultural expression in modernism.
There is a third, albeit somewhat hidden context that frames the three books in my reading. They prominently discuss the question of whether and to what extent the aesthetics of the Gesamtkunstwerk, as well as of modernist and postmodernist art, are to be characterized as transformative—that is, as being able to bring about a transformation, however temporary, in the spectator. Referring mostly to European, particularly continental, artists and theorists who were obsessed with the question of aesthetics and its potential, the three publications contribute to what Marvin Carlson in his introduction to my book The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics (2008) called an “aesthetic turn” in Anglo-American scholarship on performance. Such a turn, he suggests, promises to trigger a new debate on the function of art—one that would challenge a utilitarian perspective emphasizing social and political efficacy with an approach that includes possibilities opened up by processes of individual cognition and reception.
As we will see, each book engages the idea that art is transformative, even if in different ways and with regard to varying time spans, per the discussion of periodization above. David Roberts, in his The...