Thursday, July 31, 2008

Gesamtkunstwerk; The Artist As Messiah

The world was broken, so many thoughtful people concluded by the middle of the 19th century. The new modern world was a brutal wretched realm of banks, factories, and slums, a world driven by greed, fear, and boredom. Worse still, it was a world where individuals were divided against themselves, their inner imaginative life having no relevance, no meaning in the universe of industrial capitalism and scientific rationalism. Work in the age of mass production no longer had any meaning or dignity. The products of the machine age were tawdry and soulless.
By the middle of the 19th century, some artists and thinkers decided that the task of art was no less than the spiritual reintegration of the individual and of the whole world. The brutality and ugliness of the modern world would be redeemed through the power of aesthetic experience. The work of art would be totally embracing. It would not just be limited to single pictures, sculptures, pieces of music, books, or buildings. It would be all of those things working in concert toward a common aim, a total work of art, Gesamtkunstwerk in a term coined by Richard Wagner to describe the new kind of opera he pioneered. The purpose of art would be nothing less than redemption. This idea would have a huge influence on the ambitions of all kinds of artists, designers, and architects down to the Second World War. It would inspire artists as widely varied as Vincent Van Gogh and Walter Gropius.
The idea begins simultaneously in Britain and Germany with 2 very great and sharply different geniuses. In Britain, it comes out of the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood in the person of William Morris, a Gothic Revival architect who joined the movement in its later days at the invitation of Edward Burne Jones. Morris is mostly famous outside of Britain for his wallpaper (a sample appears above), and for being the husband of the beautiful Jane Burden who appears in many of Rosetti's works (and with whom Rosetti had a famously adulterous affair).
William Morris was a man of many talents and great ambition who accomplished much as an architect, a painter, a designer, as a poet and translator of Icelandic and Classical epics, as the virtual creator of the fantasy genre in fiction (his influence on JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis was profound), and as the founder of British Socialism together with Friedrich Engels. All of Morris' projects in art, design, literature, and politics were driven by a conviction that spiritual life had disintegrated for individuals and communities. He remained convinced all his life that mechanization and mass production were catastrophes for humankind, alienating people from their work, from each other, and from the world. His solution was some kind of revival of earlier craft traditions and the social organizations founded upon them. He took medievalizing nostalgia several steps further than either Pugin's Gothic Revival or the PreRaphaelite artists. He turned it into a program for both social reform and spiritual renewal. He founded a company for the production of household goods like furniture and textiles made entirely by hand by skilled craftsmen intended, very quixotically, to compete with mass produced items. Like all things created by skilled labor, they were far too pricey for the proletarian market Morris wanted to reach. He wanted to somehow revive the old medieval guild system, those trade organizations of craftsmen and shopkeepers, to replace the modern corporation and factory with its impersonal rational organization along the lines of mass production. Morris' enterprises were always a struggle to maintain, and arguably ended in failure. But his ideas would have an immense influence on a lot of later artists and architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, the early German Expressionists, and the Bauhaus.
Though music is outside of my expertise, the composer Richard Wagner would have a similar influence on all kinds of composers, writers, poets, and on artists and architects. Wagner's influence would also be more directly political and much darker. In the mid 19th century, a romantic German nationalist movement sprang up around Wagner and his music. He formed the spiritual core of an even bigger Pan-German racial movement after German unification following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Wagner's proposed solution to the fragmentation and alienation of modern industrial capitalism was in the creation of great unifying myths that joined all classes together in a common national identity. It was the mythic identification of Blut und Boden, blood and soil, that the German people had a kind of spiritual bond with each other and with the German landscape. A very ugly central tenet of this nationalism was antisemitism. The Jews were the landless people, the ultimate parvenus; personifications of all the rootless cosmopolitanism of modernity that Wagner and his worshippers hated.
The advent of the expected redeeming art messiah ended in the coming of the Lord of the Flies, Adolph Hitler (who began his adult life as an artist).

Below is a small sample of Wagner's work, the opening of Das Rheingold (a musician friend of mine, who is no fan of Wagner, said of this opening prelude with its repetitive overlapping melodies, "Phillip Glass, eat your heart out!")


Davis said...

Morris took his obsession so far as to design his own wagon upon which his hand made coffin would be carried to the churchyard for burial.

Counterlight said...

I'll bet it was magnificent. I really love so much of the furniture, books, and textiles that came out of his shops. I also really like the houses he designed.

Davis said...

It was a magnificent madness...