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Modernism After Wagner

Modernism After Wagner

by Juliet Koss
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, London, USA, UK, 2009
416 pp., illus. 100 b/w, 14 col. Trade, $88.50; paper, $29.50
ISBN: 978-0-8166-5158-0; ISBN 978-0-8166-5159-7.

Martha Blassnigg
Plymouth University


In Modernism After Wagner Juliet Koss aims to recover Richard Wagner’s seminal conception of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) to its original interdisciplinary idea as conceived by Wagner in order to show how its principles lie at the very heart of modernism. Contrary to the frequent retroactive assessments of Wagner’s work, Koss situates it in the historical and political context of the period between the 1890s and the 1930s in Germany. In doing so, she proposes that the common opposition of the Gesamtkunstwerk to the central themes of modernism, such as autonomy, medium specificity and artistic purity, does not hold once the concept is liberated from uncritical associations with fascist aesthetics and from misleading interpretations of the spectators as entirely passive and engulfed in an overpowering force conveyed through a blurring of creativity among a variety of artistic disciplines. The Gesamtkunstwerk, as conceived by Wagner, on the contrary, retained the specificity of the single discipline but enforced its strength through an interdisciplinary collaborative effort. As quoted in Koss (p. xii), Wagner declared that art forms:

[E]ach attain the capacity to be and do the very thing which, of their own and inmost essences, they long to do and be. Each, where her own capacity ends, can be absorbed in the other, … proving her own purity, freedom, and independenceas that which she is.” [1]

Departing from Wagner’s focus in the arts in poetry (which he conceived as foremost and the art of the future) music, and dance, Koss draws out the historical specificity of the wider implications of his conception of the Gesamtkunstwerk in art and especially architecture (as well as some sidelines into the areas of theatre, music and film) with a focus on the active co-creation of the artwork on behalf of the spectator’s involvement. This chosen focus on the spectators’ involvement in the co-creation of the artwork sets up a framework to address core questions around politics and aesthetics as well as the relationship between form and content. This focus is carried through the book, starting with chapter 1, with the exploration of Wagner’s original conception of the Gesamtkunstwerk against the backdrop of the failed revolution in 1848-49 in the German Confederation as a ‘radical means of encouraging audiences’ active engagement.’ Chapter 2 contextualises the exemplification of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk in the establishment of the Bayreuth opera-house, which is drawn into the wider theatrical arena in chapter 4 through critical reflections on the applications of the idea of the total artwork among other in relation to Nietzsche’s conception of the festival in case-studies of the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony and the Prinzregententheater in Munich, as well as in chapter 5 the Munich artist’s theatre. Chapter 3, most crucially for the perspective of the audience’s engagements, discusses some of the core investigations into the subject of empathy and the sympathetic relationship between spectator and perceived (art)object in 19th century psycho-physiognomic approaches in the sciences and aesthetic theory. This chapter provides the foil for the apparent break between the 19th century understanding of an active spectatorship (as present in Wagner and for example in Robert Vischer’s work) and the 20th century conceptions of the passive spectator as part of a mass audience. Whilst Koss posits among others the technological media developments as key context in the shift from the individual artwork to a mass audience, particularly in chapter 6 with a brief sidestep to some discussion of the emerging cinema, the controversies of contradictory models of the empathetic engagement of the spectator in chapter 3 intrinsically reveal some of the prevailing paradigmatic shifts at the turn of the century that reshaped the understanding of subjectivity in most fundamental ways, which Koss further epitomises with regard to Hildebrand’s and Worringer’s conflicting approaches to theatre and empathy in chapter 5. It is on this more philosophical level that Koss provides an intriguing starting point to further explore some of these tensions that have, in recent decades, been addressed among other through a resituating of the historical roots and drivers of the concepts of embodied vision, enacted perception and the dissatisfactions with design theory that resulted in equally unsatisfactory conceptions such as co- or experience design. Koss, however, remains within the book’s argumentative framework in her discussion in chapter 7 of Bauhaus theatre and dolls as object par excellence to reflect on the previous aspects around the tensions between empathy and estrangement and Weimar models of subjectivity and spectatorship and concludes in chapter 8 with critical reflections on the placement of Wagner’s work in the German history of nationalism in particular the associations with National Socialism.

Koss successfully restores the original conception of Wagner’s ideas on the Gesamtkunstwerk and shows their relevance for the understanding of modernism in its very own interdisciplinary efforts in the development of visual abstraction and its rhetoric of purity. At the same time, she calls for a reconsideration of how modernism itself had to be understood more fully in relation to the theoretical and historical development of the Gesamtkunstwerk by which she counters the body of literature conceived by retroactive prescriptions of modernism from the perspective of mid and late 20th century theory that excluded, as Koss argues, the historical specificity and wider context of interdisciplinary engagements. [2]

In doing so Koss convincingly recovers the original intentions of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk from its historical oblivion, not least caused by Wagner’s own attempts to obliterate any connections with his involvements during the revolution. The particular relevance of Modernism After Wagner lies in a recognition of the significance of this concept for today’s central collaborative method of interdisciplinarity in many fields, not only in the academic arena. It contributes to the theoretical foundation to build sustainable and productive interdisciplinary collaboration and exchanges, whereby the specificity of the disciplinary methods and strengths remain distinct but are put into service for a greater whole and in this process are strengthened by return. It can be concluded that only through a thorough understanding of interdisciplinarity (perhaps in a similar way in which Wagner conceived of the Gesamtkunstwerk), drawing from Koss’ insightful treatment, cross-disciplinary collaboration can successfully lead to investigations of a transdisciplinary character aimed at the emergence and identification of new topics and concerns that otherwise remain uncovered. [3] Modernism After Wagner provides a rich framework to investigate more thoroughly into some areas of the arts; aesthetics, philosophy and psychology of perception, and in this sense provides a transdisciplinary foil for further research into the active participation of the spectators in mass media — a significant area to address in relation to contemporary media environments (e.g. games and online technologies) in particular as they reveal the complex relationships between politics and aesthetics with regards to users’ engagements.


1) Translated by Koss from Wagner, Richard. 1849. ‘Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft’. In Samtliche Schriften und Dichtungen, 3: p. 156.

2) We can here also see a connection with Aby Warburg’s attempts to innovate art-history at the turn of the century through interdisciplinary methods, by which he conceived the very foundation of interdisciplinarity in the disciplinary strength and integrity of the interacting frameworks. Koss mentions Warburg only briefly in the introduction (p. xxi) in relation to recent art-historical approaches to open the disciplines to other fields with Warburg as paradigmatic forerunner for such attempts that at the same time foreground the discipline’s central preoccupations.

3) This particular approach to transdisciplinarity has been developed by the International Network of Transdiscipinary Research, led by Michael Punt at Plymouth University, drawing in particular on Helga Novotny et.al’s work, i.e. Nowotny, H., Scott, P. and Gibbons, M. 2003. ‘‘Mode 2’ Revisited: The New Production of Knowledge — Introduction’, Minerva, 41(3), pp. 179–194.

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