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The Gesamtkunstwerk as a Synergy of the Arts

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Edited By Massimo Fusillo and Marina Grishakova

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.

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Chapter 4 The Myth of Total Cinema: Perceptual Realism, Digital Artifice, and the Cinematic Imaginary: (Marina Grishakova)

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The Myth of Total Cinema: Perceptual Realism, Digital Artifice, and the Cinematic Imaginary1

Marina Grishakova

The concept of the total work of art was particularly important in shaping the identity of early cinema. The view of cinema as a new form of technological-aesthetic totality integrating other arts discloses the Wagnerian underpinnings of early film criticism and cinematic practices. Defining film as a total work of art was a legitimizing gesture “denying the fundamental disunity and imbalance” of the field (Paulin 77) and facilitating the conversion of what some critics saw as merely a means of mechanical reproduction or as a lowbrow entertainment into art. Other critics, on the contrary, perceived cinema not only as a new but also as a superior form of art that was expected to refine and integrate old arts and to replace old synthetic genres, such as opera. Early cinema absorbed old and new cultural mythologies and techno-utopias, and the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk offered a plethora of opportunities for cultural validation and political appropriation of the new medium. In his celebrated ←77 | 78→“Manifesto of Seven Arts” (1911), an early document in film aesthetics, Ricciotto Canudo called cinema the “Art of total synthesis,” “the total art towards which other arts have always tended” (253), “the total fusion of art” (254) that reconciles arts and science and epitomizes the highest aesthetic and spiritual aspirations of humankind. Early debates on the nature of cinema, considered as either a “seventh art,” a highest form...

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