by Barbara John

1 Prior History of the Term Gesamtkunstwerk

2 Universal Poetry

3 Visual Imagery as Poetry

4 Wagner and the Art-work of the Future

5 Exhibition and Stage as Gesamtkunstwerk

6 Abstraction and Atonality

7 Intermedia and the Fraying of the Arts

8 From the Gesamtkunstwerk to the Gesamtdatenwerk


The term Gesamtkunstwerk refers to the utopian aspirations beginning in the early nineteenth century toward the union of all the arts into a single work of art. Its insufficient treatment in terms of art history is one of the main reasons for the sustainedly arbitrary use of the word.[1] Lexical definitions which define the Gesamtkunstwerk as a term for the synergy of all the arts (poetry, music, dance, visual art, architecture) in a work for the stage,[2] or as the German art-theoretical term for the synthesis of all the different spatial arts (including architecture, urban development, garden design, ornament),[3] provide only vague information about the actual relation between the arts in the Gesamtkunstwerk, the form this relation takes, and for what purpose.

The concept of a universal poetry first emerged in early romanticism, having received its theoretical foundations by philosophers such as Friedrich Schlegel and Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling. In his essay Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Artwork of the Future, 1849), Richard Wagner brought the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk to fame. The new, leading genre was the musical drama, which was meant to unite all the other arts. Abstract tendencies in visual art and the emergence of atonal music led to a new, commensurable relationship among the arts. Since the 1970s, the use of digital media has accelerated the process of the dissolution of art genre boundaries.

[1] Harald Szeemann, ed., Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk, exh. cat. Kunsthaus Zürich et al. (Aarau: Sauerländer, 1983), 16–17.

[2] Henning Mehnert, Harenberg-Lexikon der Weltliteratur: Autoren, Werke,Begriffe, vol. 2, Gesamtkunstwerk (Dortmund: Harenberg, 1994), 1086. Trans. R. v. D.

[3] “Gesamtkunstwerk,” in Lexikon der Kunst, ed. Harald Olbrich, 7 vols. (Leipzig: Seemann, 1996), 2:717. Trans. R. v. D.


1 Prior History of the Term Gesamtkunstwerk

There is evidence that the earliest use of the term Gesamt-Kunstwerk (synthesis of the arts, or total work of art) was in a piece of writing by the late-romantic author and philosopher Karl Friedrich Eusebius Trahndorff (1782–1863).[1] In his Ästhetik oder Lehre von der Weltanschauung und Kunst, published in 1827, he wrote that the four arts, … the art of the sound of the word, music, mimic art, and dance, bear the possibility of coalescing to become a single production.[2] He bases this idea on the unity of their inner life.

The origins of Trahndorff’s thoughts reach back to the early romantic era in Germany, when at the end of the eighteenth century the idea of a universal poetry emerged. With poetry the leading art genre, a melancholic quest began for a universal order; in the wake of the social upheaval brought about by the French Revolution, there was a longing to make up for the metaphysical isolation of the artist by means of unifying all the arts.

2 Universal Poetry

The focus of early romantic ideas is on poetry, which as song in particular is closely related to music. In the discussions led by literati and philosophers, the poetic performance embodies the highest level of ambitions toward the Gesamtkunstwerk. In contrast, the visual arts are afforded a subordinate role: they may inspire the external senses but do not reach the inner mind. Novalis formulated it this way in a fragment: One should never see painting or sculpture without music — whereas music should be heard in beautifully decorated rooms. But poetry should never be enjoyed without the plastic arts and music at the same time ... and the resulting mixture of everything beautiful and vivifying in many different kinds of overall effects.[3]

Poetry is ultimately nothing more than an inner painting and music.[4]

In his Geschichte der europäischen Literatur (1803/1804), the philosopher Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829) defines the status of poetry as the art of the arts, in accordance with the Greek thinker Simonides; architecture, sculpture, and painting are only silent poetry.[5] Thus one of the primary tasks of romantic progressive, universal poetry is to reunite all the separate pieces of poetry and put poetry in touch with philosophy and rhetoric.[6] With respect to a new epoch of sciences and artists, Schlegel speculates that it would no longer be anything extraordinary for several complementary minds to create communal works of art.[7]

The philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling (1775–1854) also confirms this evaluation of poetry. At the end of his considerations in Philosophie der Kunst (1802/1803), he describes as the most perfect synthesis of all the arts ... the combination of poetry and music through song, of poetry and painting through dance, even resynthesized the most composed theater occurrence is, such like the ancient drama was, of which only a caricature has remained for us: the opera.[8]

Schelling sees the embedding of the ideal drama in public life in the church service: The only kind of genuinely public action, that of the new age, and this later on also remained only very narrow and constricted.[9] With that, the early romantic notion of the autonomous individual determined by his feelings is transformed into a collective metaphysical experience. Schelling theoretically substitutes the ancient drama as the highest totality for early romantic poetry and thus anticipates one of Richard Wagner’s central postulates.

3 Visual Imagery as Poetry

In the aesthetic reflections of the early romantics, visual art is subordinate to poetry. At the time, one of the primary reasons for this secondary status within theoretical concepts on the union of the arts had to do with its function as providing a lifelike reproduction. Epistemologically, the mimetic work of art is subordinate to abstract words and musical motifs. One of the most important pioneers in the overcoming of this academic ranking was the painter Philipp Otto Runge (1777–1810). For his painterly output he drew on an inner connectivity with the universe; the representation of feelings produced symbols of our thoughts on the great forces of the world.[10] He described symbolism as the real poetry, i.e., the inner music of the three arts by means of words, lines, and colors.[11] The inner affinity of pictography (which he also calls hieroglyphics) with poetry and music presumes a superior conception: They are the images of God or the gods.[12]

4 Wagner and the Art-work of the Future

The term Gesamtkunstwerk is generally attributed to Richard Wagner.[13] Spurred by his political commitment as a barricade fighter during the Dresden Revolution in 1849, he called for a fundamental shift in the role of the arts in society. In his essay Art and the Revolution, which was published that same year, Wagner, like Schelling before him, considered ancient drama to be the highest imaginable work of art.[14] According to Wagner, the political decline of the Athenian state also marked the beginning of the cultural decline of the tragedy: So, when all national solidarity had split into a thousand egoistic severalities, did the separate art-branches cut-off themselves from the proud and heaven-soaring tree of Drama.[15] Wagner encountered the disintegration of the drama into constituent parts, a process that had gone on for two thousand years, with a longing for a perfect work of art: the great united utterance of a free and lovely public life.[16] Not until a revolutionary change of humanity would the Greek tragedy be allowed to be reborn: If the Grecian Art-work embraced the spirit of a fair and noble nation, the Art-work of the Future must embrace the spirit of a free mankind, delivered from every shackle of hampering nationality.[17] Wagner sensed this time approaching.

The second essay written during the revolutionary years, The Art-work of the Future (1849), expands on these utopian thoughts on the Gesamtkunstwerk — thoughts which are charged with political wishful thinking. Wagner demanded that egoistic ambitions be overcome by means of a collectively generated Art-work of the Future.[18] He called for a return to the trinitarian utterance of human Art: dance, tone, and poetry.[19] For Wagner, the musical drama embodies the highest union of the individual arts: But only where eye and ear confirm each other’s sentience of him, is the whole artistic Man at hand.[20] He regarded the poet — both the poet of language as well as the poet of sound — as the artist of the future. Yet only several years later, after reading the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), did Wagner change his attitude toward music — quite to the anger of his longtime admirer Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), who accused him of betraying the old ideals and who saw in Wagner’s propagated appropriation of all the arts a means of reaching the masses.[21] Wagner’s ambitions received their final impulse through Schopenhauer’s conclusion that music is the true universal language which is understood everywhere.[22] In 1870, Wagner announced in a Festschrift: Through this musician Beethoven, who speaks in the purest language of all peoples, the German spirit redeemed the spirit of man from profound disgrace.[23]

Furthermore, through Richard Wagner, theoretically formulated ideas on the Gesamtkunstwerk were for the first time extensively converted into practice. With the building of the Bayreuth Festival Theater (1872–1876), Wagner succeeded in creating a permanent site for the performance of his works. One of the most important structural requirements for the adequate realization of his operas is the hidden orchestra pit, which allows a novel, almost cinematographic experience of the stage drama and opera music. Music could be perceived as something that transcends empirical reality.

5 Exhibition and Stage as Gesamtkunstwerk

Well into the twentieth century, the opera and theater stage remained the preferred venue for the performance of artistic concepts that work with a synthesis of sound, music, text, and performance. However, around 1900 there were already trends in the visual arts to stage the exhibition space designed by artists as a Gesamtkunstwerk, for example within the scope of a group exhibition by the Viennese Secession in 1902, the focus of which was Max Klinger’s (1857–1920) sculpture Beethoven.[24] The missionary urge to convince the masses of his own artistic-religious vision tempted the theosophically influenced Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915) to develop monumental, utopian architectural concepts. A pioneer of atonal music, he designed a temple-like hemisphere in India in which thousands of people were to be led to salvation by the performance of his (unfinished) piece Mysterium. Scriabin developed a messianic notion of collective ecstasy: All elements are mixed, but all that can be is there. It exudes colors, feelings, and dreams.[25]

6 Abstraction and Atonality

At the beginning of the twentieth century, abstract tendencies in the visual arts and the concurrent break with traditional functional harmony in music led to a new relationship between these art forms. In art and music influenced by esoteric and anthroposophic thought, the move away from naturalism opened up both formal analogies and a spiritual connection.

As opposed to traditional literary theater, experimental stage performances exploring a new relationship between word, image, and sound were developed. One of the protagonists was Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944). His intense interest in the links between color and sound as well as his contact to the young Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) prompted Kandinsky to theoretically examine this subject early on. In his central written work, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), Kandinsky postulated the beginning of a general tendency toward the nonmaterial, the abstract. Of all the arts, for him music is the most nonmaterial of the arts today.[26] He saw the common goal of the arts in the aspiration to express the inner world of spiritual forces: Out of this combination will arise in time a new art, an art we can foresee even today, a truly monumental art.[27] In his stage piece Der gelbe Klang (1912), Kandinsky created a homogeneity of the components music, dance, and color, a pure play between color, motion, and noise.

7 Intermedia and the Fraying of the Arts

Even after World War II, music again provided an important impetus for the further development of artistic concepts into a Gesamtkunstwerk. In the 1950s, the phenomenon of the happening and the network of artists Fluxus emerged in the circle around the American composer John Cage (1912–1992). The end of specialization in isolated genres and the propagation of new artistic intermedia works led to the practice of multimedia performances, environments, and happenings in which the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk lived on not in an ingenious, but in a collective sense. Their venue was no longer the classical theater stage or concert hall but a location or space selected or determined by the artists themselves.

In his essay Die Kunst und die Künste from 1967, Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969) described the dissolution of genre boundaries as a recent development that, unlike the total Gesamtkunstwerk, was motivated by the developmental logic of the individual arts themselves. He spoke of a fraying … of their demarcation lines.[28] The more the context-forming media of the individual art genres spread out beyond the traditional store — formalize themselves, as it were — the more the genres will be subordinated to the identical.[29] In the case of Kandinsky and Cage, Adorno polemicized against a questionable spiritualization of art through the sensual aspect. However, in general he saw a strong tendency in the phenomenon of fraying that breaks open the genre boundary from within. Accordingly, it would hardly be possible to identify a distinct genre: The more a genre allows in of that which its immanent continuum does not contain, the more it participates in its estrangement … . It virtually becomes … something of which we cannot say what it is.[30]

8 From the Gesamtkunstwerk to the Gesamtdatenwerk

The dissolution of genre boundaries has been accelerated by the use of digital media. In his article Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision, the British artist Roy Ascott predicts: There is reason to suppose that the unity of art, science, and human values is possible; there is no doubt that it is desirable. More specifically we propose that an essentially cybernetic vision could unify and feed such culture.[31]

Digital technologies enable artists to assemble images, sounds, and texts into interactive environments. Borrowing from Richard Wagner, Ascott calls this synthesis of the arts in digital space the Gesamtdatenwerk — the integrated data work.[32]

all footnotes

[1] See Alfred R. Neumann, “The Earliest Use of the Term Gesamtkunstwerk,” Philological Quarterly 35, no. II (April 1956), 191–193.

[2] Karl Friedrich Eusebius Trahndorff, Aesthetik oder Lehre von der Weltanschauung und Kunst, 2 vols. (Berlin: Maurer, 1827). Richard Wagner, „Beethoven,“ in Die Hauptschriften, ed. Ernst Bücken (Stuttgart: Kremer, 1956), 259–300, here 282.

[3] Novalis, “Logological Fragments I” (1798), in Philosophical Writings, trans. and ed. Margaret Mahony Stoljar (New York: State University of New York Press, 1997), 47–66, here 58.

[4] Novalis, cited in Ernst Behler, “Early German Romanticism: Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis,” in A Companion to Continental Philosophy, ed. Simon Critchley and William R. Schroeder (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998), 68–82, here 77.

[5] Translated from Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, 35 vols., vol. 11: Wissenschaft der europäischen Literatur, ed. Ernst Behler (Munich: Schöningh Verlag, 1958), 51.

[6] Friedrich Schlegel, “Athenaeum Fragments,” in Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde and the Fragments, trans. and ed. Peter Firchow (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), 161–240, here 175.

[7] Schlegel, Athenaeum Fragments, 178.

[8] Translated from Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Ausgewählte Werke, 10 vols., vol. 10: ”Philosophie der Kunst“ (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1990), 380.

[9] Schelling, Philosophie der Kunst.

[10] Translated from Philipp Otto Runge, Die Begier nach der Möglichkeit neuer Bilder, Briefwechsel und Schriften zur bildenden Kunst, ed. Hannelore Gärtner (Leipzig: Reclam, 1978), 94.

[11] Runge, Die Begier nach der Möglichkeit neuer Bilder, 140.

[12] Runge, Die Begier nach der Möglichkeit neuer Bilder, 94.

[13] See Dieter Borchmeyer, “Gesamtkunstwerk,” in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Allgemeine Enzyklopädie der Musik, compiled by Friedrich Blume, 2nd ed., Ludwig Finscher ed., 9 vols. and 1 index (Kassel: Bärenreiter-Verlag, 1994–1999), subject group 3, 1995, cols. 1282–1290, here col. 1285ff.

[14] Richard Wagner, “Art and the Revolution” (1849), in Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, trans. William Ashton Ellis (Furnas Press, 2007).

[15] Wagner, Art and the Revolution, 105.

[16] Wagner, Art and the Revolution, 53.

[17] Wagner, Art and the Revolution, 53–54.

[18] Wagner, Art and the Revolution, 53.

[19] Wagner, Art and the Revolution, 95.

[20] Wagner, Art and the Revolution, 125.

[21] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Äußerungen über Wagner,” in Nietzsche und Wagner: Stationen einer epochalen Begegnung, 2 vols., Dieter Borchmeyer and Jörg Salaquarda ed. (Frankfurt and Leipzig: Insel, 1994), 1:303–719, here 497ff.

[22] Arthur Schopenhauer, “On Aesthetics,” in Essays and Aphorisms (London: Penguin, 1973), 155–165, here 162.

[23] Richard Wagner, cited in Glenn Stanley, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Beethoven (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 278.

[24] See Barbara John, Max Klinger: Beethoven (Leipzig: Seemann, 2004), 59.

[25] Translated from Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk, Harald Szeemann ed., exh. cat. Kunsthaus Zürich et al. (Aarau and Frankfurt: Sauerländer, 1983), 280.

[26] Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. M. T. Sadler (Dover and New York: Dover Publications, 1977).

[27] Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art.

[28] Translated from Theodor W. Adorno, "Die Kunst und die Künste," in Ohne Leitbild. Parva Aesthetica (Frankfurt a. M.: Edition Suhrkamp, 1968), 168.

[29] Adorno, Die Kunst und die Künste, 176.

[30] Adorno, Die Kunst und die Künste, 189.

[31] Roy Ascott, “Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision” (1966/1967), in Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality, Randall Packer and Ken Jordan eds. (New York and London: W. W. Norton Co., 2001), 95–103, here 101.

[32] Roy Ascott, “Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?” (1990), in Multimedia, Packer and Jordan eds., 305–316, here 307.

List of books in this text

Aesthetik oder Lehre von der Weltanschauung und Kunst
1827, Author: Thrandorff

Art and the Revolution (1849)
2007, Author: Wagner, Richard Publisher: Furnas Press

Athenaeum Fragments
1971, Author: Schlegel, Friedrich Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

1956, Author: Wagner, Richard Publisher: Kröner

Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision: (1966-1967)
2001, Author: Ascott, Roy Publisher: Norton

Concerning the Spiritual in Art: Translated and with an introd. by M. T. H. Sadler.
1977, Author: Kandinsky, Wassily Publisher: Dover Publ.

Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk : europ. Utopien seit 1800 22. Dezember 1983 - 19. Februar 1984, Orangerie d. Schlosses Charlottenburg DAAD-Galerie [Beih. zur Ausstellung Der Hang zum
1983, Publisher: Berliner Künstlerprogramm d. DAAD

Die Begier nach der Möglichkeit neuer Bilder : Briefwechsel und Schriften zur bildenden Kunst
1978, Author: Runge, Philipp Otto Publisher: Reclam

Die Kunst und die Künste
1997, Author: Adorno, Theodor W. Publisher: Suhrkamp

Early German Romanticism: Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis
1998, Author: Behler, Ernst Publisher: Blackwell

1995, Author: Borchmeyer, Dieter Publisher: Bärenreiter [u.a.]

Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace: (1990)
2001, Author: Ascott, Roy Publisher: Norton

Logological Fragments I
1997, Author: Novalis Publisher: State University of New York Press

Max Klinger - Beethoven
2004, Author: John, Barbara Publisher: Seemann Henschel

On Aesthetics
1973, Author: Schopenhauer, Arthur Publisher: Penguin

Philosophie der Kunst
1990, Author: Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Publisher: Wiss. Buchges

The Cambridge companion to Beethoven
2000, Publisher: Cambridge Univ. Press

The earliest use of the term Gesamtkunstwerk
1956, Author: Neumann, Alfred R.

Wissenschaft der europäischen Literatur : Vorlesungen, Aufsätze und Fragmente aus der Zeit von 1795-1804
1958, Author: Schlegel, Friedrich von Publisher: Schöningh

Äußerungen über Wagner
1994, Author: Nietzsche, Friedrich Publisher: Insel-Verl.

see aswell

  • Theodor W. Adorno
  • Roy Ascott
  • John Cage
  • Wassily Kandinsky
  • Max Klinger
  • Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Novalis
  • Philipp Otto Runge
  • Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling
  • Friedrich von Schlegel
  • Arnold Schönberg
  • Arthur Schopenhauer
  • Simonides
  • Aleksandr N. Skrjabin
  • Karl Friedrich Eusebius Trahndorff
  • Richard Wagner
  • Works
  • Art and Revolution
  • Ästhetik oder Lehre von der Weltanschauung und Kunst
  • Beethoven
  • Concerning the Spiritual in Art
  • Cybernetic Vision in Art
  • Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft
  • Die Kunst und die Künste
  • History of European literature
  • Mysterium
  • Philosophy of Art
  • The Yellow Sound

  • Timelines
    1790 until today

    All Keywords
  • Bewußtseinserweiterung (Chap. 5)
  • Intermedialität (Chap. 7)
  • Performativität (Chap. 5)
  • Wechselspiel der Künste / Paragone (Chap. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8)
  • universalism (Chap. 1, 2, 4)

  • Socialbodies
  • Bayreuth Festival Theater