The Gesamtkunstwerk as a Synergy of the Arts

by Massimo Fusillo (Volume editor) Marina Grishakova (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection 286 Pages


Conceived by Wagner as a way to recover the synthesis of arts at the core of Greek tragedy, the Gesamtkunstwerk played a significant role in post-Romantic and avant-garde aesthetics. It was designed to regenerate and defend the public function of art against mass culture and technology, yet at the same time depended on them in an ambivalent relationship manifested by its various realizations. The book reconceives the "total work of art" as a variation of intermediality, a practice that subverts any essentialist vision of artistic languages through complex interplay and blending of perceptions, amplified by new media and the syncretic nature of the cyberspace. The Gesamtkunstwerk can no longer be considered a Hegelian synthesis of arts or a Romantic and Wagnerian fusion of languages: it involves a synergy of different arts and media and captures the digital age’s principle of open textuality without any hierarchy and any organicist connotations. This book reveals the vitality of modern and contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk by mapping its presence in various arts and media.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Contributors
  • Introduction: The Gesamtkunstwerk as a Synergy of the Arts: (Massimo Fusillo and Marina Grishakova)
  • Literature/Graphic Novel
  • Chapter 1 Perception and (Literary) Description of a Cultural Landscape as a Gesamtkunstwerk: (Beatrice Nickel)
  • Chapter 2 « L’Admirable Féerie »: La signification du genre théâtral et du Gesamtkunstwerk wagnérien dans le roman de Marcel Proust: (Kirsten von Hagen)
  • Chapter 3 Graphic Divas: Reframing the Gesamtkunstwerk in Contemporary Italian Graphic Novels: (Beatrice Seligardi)
  • Film/TV
  • Chapter 4 The Myth of Total Cinema: Perceptual Realism, Digital Artifice, and the Cinematic Imaginary: (Marina Grishakova)
  • Chapter 5 Musiques du film et réception du roman: (Yves Landerouin)
  • Chapter 6 The Total Work of Entertainment: Transmedia Expansion and Participatory Viewing in Contemporary TV Series: (Gianluigi Rossini)
  • Chapter 7 Anatomies of Totality: Peter Greenaway’s The Tulse Luper Suitcases and the meta-Gesamtkunstwerk: (Mattia Petricola)
  • Visual Art/Performance
  • Chapter 8 Icons of America: Pulitzer Prize Winning Photos as a Gesamtkunstwerk: (Mauro Pala)
  • Chapter 9 Video Art Facing Wagner: (Massimo Fusillo)
  • Chapter 10 (De)gendering Genres: Androgyny and the Total Work of Art in Matthew Barney’s Work: (Francesca Agamennoni)
  • Interactive and Hybrid Narratives
  • Chapter 11 Gesamtkunstwerk in Digital Games: The Palimpstine Aesthetics of Dead Space: (Hans-Joachim Backe)
  • Chapter 12 The Intermedia Fiction in the Age of Convergence Culture: An Endless Travel within the Polytextual Dimension of S. by J.J. Abrams and D. Dorst: (Mirko Lino)
  • Chapter 13 The Gesamtkunstwerk and the Nonhuman in Digital Media: (Marco Caracciolo)
  • Chapter 14 The Organic Gesamtkunstwerk: From Lewis Carroll to Westworld: (Asunción López-Varela)
  • Postface: (Matthew Wilson Smith)
  • Index
  • Series Index

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List of Contributors

Asunción López-Varela

Universidad Complutense Madrid

Beatrice Nickel

Ruhr-Universität Bochum

Beatrice Seligardi

University of Parma

Francesca Agamennoni

University of L’Aquila

Gianluigi Rossini

University of L’Aquila

Hans-Joachim Backe

IT University of Copenhagen

Kirsten von Hagen

Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen (JLU Gießen)

Marco Caracciolo

Ghent University

Marina Grishakova

University of Tartu

Massimo Fusillo

University of L’Aquila

Matthew Wilson Smith

Stanford University

Mattia Petricola

University of Bologna

Mauro Pala

University of Cagliari

Mirko Lino

University of L’Aquila

Yves Landerouin

Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour

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Introduction: The Gesamtkunstwerk as a Synergy of the Arts

Massimo Fusillo and Marina Grishakova

Coined by Richard Wagner as a means of reshaping musical theatre and of recovering the synthesis of the arts at the core of Greek tragedy, the concept of the total work of art played a prominent role in the practices of Symbolism and Aestheticism, for instance, in the poetics of synesthesia as cultivated by Baudelaire, Mallarmé, the Parnassians, and Rimbaud. Similarly, avant-garde experiments blurred the borders between the verbal and the visual arts and introduced multimodal artistic forms which made use of typography, colors, typefaces, and texture, and which emphasized the material and visual aspects of language. The strategy of blending artistic languages, when welded to political and existential functions, sought to create a new relationship between art and life and to restore the public function of artistic creation, in opposition to mass culture, technology and entertainment, and yet, at the same time, dependent on them. Although Wagner used various technological innovations in order to implement his aesthetic program, he nonetheless defined the Gesamtkunstwerk as an organism that stood in sharp contrast to the mechanized nature of industrial modernity and, thereby, he revealed the Romantic roots of his aesthetics. The utopian impulse inherent in the conception of the total work of art as a vehicle for mass participation and social reorganization was used by certain totalitarian regimes in order to propagate ideas of national unity and homogeneity. Wagner’s work profoundly influenced various controversial forms of the Gesamtkunstwerk in the 20th century – from the delirious aestheticism of Nazi and Stalinist propaganda to Eisenstein’s cinema, Brecht and Artaud’s theater, and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens, to Stravinsky and the Ballets ←15 | 16→

Russes Kandinsky and the Blaue Reiter, and on to Walt Disney’s theme parks and Andy Warhol’s camp recycling of mass culture (see Wilson Smith, The Total Work of Art; Roberts, The Total Work of Art in European Modernism; Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism). As Wolfram Bergande observes, “[t]oday… the whole of the industrial consumer culture of globalized capitalism with its magic world of marketing and advertisement, so abhorred and condemned by the early Wagner,” becomes the actual Gesamtkunstwerk (131). The Gesamtkunstwerk is thus a perfect example of how utopia can easily be transformed into dystopia, of how the avant-garde can be absorbed by the mass media, and ultimately, of how the sublime can so easily become kitsch (see Colombi and Fusillo).

In his critique of Wagner, Theodor Adorno (In Search of Wagner, 1952) argued that in the context of capitalist modernity, the artwork loses its autonomy, is ascribed an exchange value and becomes a commodity. Similar to the commodity, the artwork conceals traces of its production and appears as though the result of spontaneous performance. For Adorno, Wagner’s music is an epitome of the modernist anesthetization of commodity. Matthew Wilson Smith has pointed out that Wagner’s conception of the “total work of art” was related to the technological aspects and functions of the theatre as he conceived them, representing a radical reconceptualization of performance and of the tensions between the organic and the mechanic, nature and the machine. Smith distinguishes between two forms of the Gesamtkunstwerk in the 20th century: the “iconic” Gesamtkunstwerk that is “dependent upon the concealment of mechanical production so that the artwork as a whole may shine forth as a pseudo-organic synthesis and a totality,” and the “crystalline” Gesamtkunstwerk, which, on the contrary, exposes the mechanisms of its production and thus lays bare its artificial nature (Smith 79). An example of the latter, montage, which Brecht considered the chief aesthetic principle of modern art, serves as both a device of estrangement (a work of art displaying itself as an artefact) and as a means of achieving unity through juxtaposition and mixture. Smith discusses the Gesamtkunstwerk’s metamorphoses in 20th-century mass culture and refers to the characteristic combinations of entertainment and arts as a “total entertainment.” In this way, the “total work of art,” refashioned as a theoretical concept, is applied by Smith to different but typologically and functionally similar phenomena of modern and postmodern culture.

After Smith’s study, research on the Gesamtkunstwerk was further developed in a collective book edited by Danielle Follett and Anke Finger, ←16 | 17→

The Aesthetics of the Total Artwork (2011). The authors trace the genealogy of Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk to Romanticism, and especially to the brothers Schlegel’s concept of “progressive universal poesy” (Athenaeum 116), which would bring together philosophy and art, nature and society. Their definition of Gesamtkunstwerk involves three levels, aesthetic, political and metaphysical:

On a primary and material level, this merging may refer to the lack of boundaries between the different arts and genres, as in multimedia, operatic and synaesthetic creation, as well as to the blending of “poesy” with philosophy and criticism. This first, aesthetic level is necessarily intertwined with the next level, the political: the transgression of the borders between art and life or between art and society in a creative endeavor often conceived as collective and interactive, that invites creative “audience” participation, and often aims towards some kind of societal transformation and indeed is sometimes outright utopian and/or revolutionary. Finally it may involve an aspiration toward a more metaphysical sort of borderlessness, a merging of present, empirical reality with a non present, or not-yet present, envisioned totality, unity, or absolute – an aspiration that is manifested, among other ways, in the often ritualistic nature of many total artworks projects. (4)

Naturally, the three levels cannot be present at the same time and with the same degree of consistency: the keyword in this passage is “aspiration.” As the art curator Harald Szeemann argues, the Gesamtkunstwerk does not exist as a matter of fact: it is a trend, a commitment, an obsession (“ein Hang, eine Bekenntnis, eine Obsession”: 16; also Imhoff, Meininger and Steinhoff) which characterizes the entirety of Romantic and post-Romantic aesthetics. A crucial related question is the concept of totality: Oliver Schefer clarifies that the German expression Gesamtkunstwerk designates the “gathering,” the collection of various, different parts, or a collective work, and not a harmonic unity, a coherent wholeness (the term gesamt is quite different from the term total); of course this feature will be especially prominent in modernism, in its aesthetics of the collage and bricolage, but even in Wagner’s more organic vision, totality and the fusion of the arts are always a utopia, a never-ending process. If we think of the long and complex story of his theater in Bayreuth, and of his theoretical writings of 1849 (Art and Revolution, and The Artwork of the Future), full of socialist and utopian thinking taken from Proud’hon and Bakunin, Wagner’s idea of totality appears as still the Romantic (and sublime) search for infinity.

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Follett’s and Finger’s conception of the Gesamtkunstwerk as “an aesthetic aspiration toward borderlessness” (3) implies different typologies (immersive versus self-ironical) and is applied to various artistic genres (polyglot poetry, avant-garde theater, music, visual arts, architecture, cinema), and various artists (Mallarmé, Schoenberg, Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, Klee, Gene Kelly). Openness, chance, fragmentation and contingency play an essential role in this brilliant portrayal of the 20th-century Gesamtkunstwerk, which, however, does not engage adequately with the contemporary transformations of the digital age, and with the dynamics of intermediality and transmediality.

The total work of art has been reconceived as a peculiar version of intermediality – a practice that subverts any essentialist vision of artistic languages, that aims at a complex fusion of perceptions, and is amplified by new media and the syncretic and hybrid nature of cyberspace (Schröter; Colombi and Fusillo). In his essay “Four Models of Intermediality” (2012), Jens Schröter relates “synthetic intermediality” (16) to a genealogical tradition of artistic synthesis of the Gesamtkuntswerk and the artistic practices of the 1960s (notably Happening and Fluxus). Schröter defines synthetic intermediality as a process of “fusion of several media into a new medium – the intermedium – that is supposedly more than a sum of its parts” (16). One can identify once more something similar to the utopian tension characteristic of the concept: the fusion between art and life that goes back to the Romantic revolution and that animates any avant-garde experience, or, in Schröter’s words, “a revolutionary and utopian attitude regarding the triumph over ‘monomedia’ as a social liberation (or at least its preliminary stages) in terms of the return to the ‘holistic types of existence’ ” (16).

The slippery concept of totality thus becomes twofold, subsuming the complex web of perceptions, energies, and stimulations that alight upon the spectator of performance art, video art, and installations, while simultaneously evoking a comprehensive, anthropological vision of human identity. A fusion of arts, media, and cultural practices becomes a distinctive feature of “the total work of art,” as it is conceptualized and discussed in contemporary critical discourses.

In the contemporary mediascape, the dissemination of media features across different platforms is so sophisticated and articulated that even typical postmodern concepts, such as hybridity, are no longer able to capture this phenomenon. Media share common (transmedial) features, such as narrativity or fictionality, they quote and thematize ←18 | 19→other media, and various artefacts are remediated and transferred across media. Whereas new technologies (photography, film) made available new forms of reproduction and dissemination of images during the 20th century, the avant-garde experiments highlighted the material (graphic, acoustic, visual) aspects of language and the interplay of verbal and visual elements in painting and graphic arts. Furthermore, digital technologies have now intensified the interplay of old and new media and the circulation of images. This is “convergence culture,” as defined by Jenkins – a new category, very different from the simple juxtaposition explored in Follet’s and Enger’s book.The study of new inter-, trans- and multimedia forms reveals the undiscovered or unexploited potentialities of media as vehicles of aesthetic, cultural and social functions.

Narratives are conceived to be adapted, remediated or “rewritten” by various media. To analyze various new forms of media and narration, a “media-centred” (Grishakova and Ryan, 3) or “media-conscious” narratology (Ryan and Thon) is needed. Ryan and Thon adopted the term “storyworld,” coined by David Herman, to describe the continually expanding transmedial narrative worlds. Being a representation that transcends media, the term offers a new point of convergence and a new narratological potential, since we face now “serial storyworlds that span multiple installments and transmedial storyworlds that are deployed simultaneously across multiple media platforms, resulting in a media landscape in which creators and fans alike constantly expand, revise, and even parody them” (Ryan and Thon, 1). Platforms, sites, and spaces where storytelling takes place (narrative environments) foster different types of narration. By offering affordances for, or putting restraints on, storytelling, various media and communicative channels avail of different narrative forms and features (Grishakova and Poulaki, 15–6).

Transmediation is not a homogeneous process, however. It may refer to transfer and transmission of media-neutral features across media or, in other words, demediation (Baetens and Sánchez-Mesa, 5), or to proliferation and multiplication of narrative and other media-sensitive forms. Specific meanings of “intermediality” and “transmediality” depend on a specific understanding of the “medium” as a material or technology; a semiotic (communicative) platform or format; a cultural practice; a system of aesthetic expression, or an artistic (semiotic) “language.” Respectively, the constituents of inter- or transmedial relation, interplay and transfer, will be different in each of the four cases. “Media,” whether as material and communicative formats or expressive aesthetic systems, ←19 | 20→recruit micro-level resources (paint, clay, marble; letters, music notation, graphic elements and figures, electronic signals, iconic, indexical, and symbolic signs), whereas “media” as cultural practices (film, literature, theater, photography) are realized in macro-level (institutional, social) formats, frameworks, and systems.

In all its various forms and guises, intermediality manifests itself as both an impulse for integration and synthesis – and as a conflicting tendency towards disintegration, fragmentation or dissemination. In these new media configurations, the Gesamtkunstwerk can no longer be considered a Hegelian synthesis of arts, or a Romantic and Wagnerian fusion of languages: that is the reason why we prefer the term “synergy,” which implies an interplay and cooperation of different media, without any hierarchy and any organicist connotations and which, thus, captures the digital age’s idea of open textuality.

This book aims to reveal the vitality of modern and contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk by mapping its presence in various arts and media. The first of these areas is literature. We start with a concept which is at the core of contemporary culture: the landscape, and which involves aesthetics, ecology, anthropology, agricultural economics, as well as several other fields. Travel literature and the plurimedial representation of Tahiti offer an interesting example of the Gesamtkunstwerk avant la lettre (the first occurrence of our term being in Trahndorff’s Aesthetics, 1827), showing multiple intersections between art and life. Our next step involves a Wagnerian and a profoundly intermedial writer, Marcel Proust, who exploits a popular performative genre, the féerie, while our third step involves a contemporary genre, the graphic novel, which displays the permeability of artistic boundaries and the cultural relevance of the Gesamtkunstwerk in our age through the critical category of the “diva.” The second area is the moving image: the starting point is the theory of cinema, which is often considered a technological realization of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Its obsession with realism, and with a perfect reproduction of reality, coexists with a contrasting, self-reflexive drive: this tension assumes new paradoxical dynamics in digital cinema, whose intensified aesthetics deals with impossible, sublime issues, and exploits the neuropsychological reactions of the audience. After this theoretical overview, the next chapter analyzes a particular case of synergy of arts in cinema: the interaction between sound and image, and in particular between the non-original musical score and the literary source, with a special focus on the dynamics of reception. TV series are certainly a key product of contemporary imagery, ←20 | 21→and their new configurations in so-called post-TV produce a form of total entertainment, which can evoke the aura of shared experiences and events in a complex tension between authorial projects and transmedial dissemination. The impressive interplay between cinema, theater, and painting which characterizes Peter Greenaway’s Tulse Luper Project (a very self-reflexive Gesamtkunstwerk) offers an ideal passage to the section on visual arts: first photojournalism, with its web of allusions to canonical images and works of art, and then video art, a highly idiosyncratic intermedial genre, and a polar opposite to narrative cinema. On the one hand, video-art shows how vital performances of Wagner’s opera can be nowadays, oscillating between a Gesamtkunstwerk which is sublime, metaphysical and iconic (Bill Viola’s Tristan und Isolde) and one which is postmodern, fragmented and crystalline (the Fura dels Bauls’ Ring der Nibelungen). On the other hand, a famous video artist like Matthew Barney expresses in his works which are at the same time installations and cycles of movies, and most especially in Cremaster, the powerful ambivalence of the Gesamtkunstwerk as a form, made up of nostalgia for a lost, androgynic unity, and, at the same time, disintegrating into mass culture. Finally, the last section is about digital and hybrid narratives, dealing with some key topics: video-games and their immersive, totalizing, Wagnerian orchestration (the case study is Dead Space); a unique example of a book, S., which is a mix of highbrow fiction and entertainment, and in which the old media acquires new, interactive and immersive, features; the nonhuman turn, and the expansion of our understanding of inanimate dimensions through the nonlinear totality of digital media (again a video-game serves as the case study; Everything). Finally, as a last step, self-reflexivity, meta-representation, and recursion characteristic of the Gesamtkunstwerk as an immersive and playful technopoetic form. The postface by Matthew Wilson Smith concludes the book.

The work presented here can be seen as a multifold and multifarious interdisciplinary itinerary: the synergy of arts inevitably requires a synergy of methods, approaches, gazes; an eclectic and diffractive perspective. Certainly, our purpose is not to provide a new definition of such an elusive concept as the Gesamtkunstwerk: it is, instead, to show and analyze its metamorphoses in different media and arts from modernity to contemporary mediascapes.

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Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W., In Search of Wagner. Translated by Rodney Livingstone (New York: Schocken Books, 1981).

Baetens, Jan, and Sanchez-Mesa, Domingo, “Literature in the Expanded Field: Intermediality at the Crossroads of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature,” Interfaces 36 (2015), http://preo.u-bourgogne.fr/interfaces/index.php?id=245. Accessed 3 Oct. 2020.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (December)
Bruxelles, Berlin, Bern, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 286 pp., 11 fig. col.

Biographical notes

Massimo Fusillo (Volume editor) Marina Grishakova (Volume editor)

Massimo Fusillo is Professor of Literary Criticism and Comparative Literature at the University of L’Aquila; he is also a member of the Academia Europaea. He is the author of The Fetish: Literature, Cinema, Visual Art and the coeditor of Imaginary Films in Literature. Marina Grishakova is Professor in Comparative Literature at the University of Tartu, Estonia, and a member of the Academia Europaea.  She is the author of The Models of Space, Time and Vision in V. Nabokov’s Fiction and the coeditor of Intermediality and Storytelling and Narrative Complexity: Cognition, Embodiment, Evolution.


Title: The Gesamtkunstwerk as a Synergy of the Arts