European Architectural History Network: Modernism after Wagner

By Mechtild Widrich
European Architectural History Network

Koss_modernism coverRichard Wagner is one of the most controversial figures in art: a genius for some, a charlatan for others, for others a dangerous sorcerer infantilizing his audience in a proto-fascist manner. The latter view, propounded by Theodor Adorno, has certainly convinced art historians to neglect Wagner. In art theory, however, the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or ‘total work of art’, is firmly associated with his name, and this is where Juliet Koss begins her attempt to revive Wagner, not as authoritarian anti-modernist, but as architect of a revolution in the way spectators approach art. Modernism after Wagner ‘addresses a series of conceptual appropriations concerning the Gesamtkunstwerk and spectatorship to demonstrate that aesthetic theories themselves have a history’ (p. xviii). Koss presents a lively history of the Gesamtkunstwerk, whose origins precede Wagner (chapter 1) and whose largely Wagnerian echoes enlivened Bauhaus theatre and a variety of immersive avant-garde practices of the twentieth century.

Throughout the historically precise but sometimes loosely connected case studies, two theoretical claims remain in focus. First, Koss contends that the Gesamtkunstwerk is not the muddled antipode to medium-specificity and thus to high modernist self-understanding, but, at least in Wagner’s ideal vision, a precise interrelation of poetry, music and dance, taking into account their specificities and potential for collaboration. ‘In joining the Gesamtkunstwerk, each art form grew stronger in the struggle to define itself against the others and became more independent in the process’ (p. 17). Second, Koss insists that the study of the Gesamtkunstwerk can tell us much about a central problem in contemporary art discourse, namely, the role of the audience. She vigorously opposes the superficial ascription of passive spectacle to Wagner. Wagner’s theoretical, musical and theatre-architectural efforts to establish a ‘mystic abyss’ between works of art and the public Koss reads as a complex interaction between immersive closeness and the distance required by Adorno and other modernist theorists.

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