Total work of art: Nazi and Soviet revolutions
Issue 152, June 2019
All the manifestos for a ‘total work of art’ after Wagner were political programmes: political, however, in a sense directly antithetical to the modern idea of the political. The goal of the total work of art was the formation of the people as a homogeneous political body, as the other of the social and political division, conflict and uncertainty inherent in the whole movement of democratic revolution since the 18th century. In each case the union or synthesis of the arts prefigures the reconciliation of the classes as the condition of the unity of the people. But who is this people that will realize itself in the total work? Is it the same people for the artists of the Bauhaus as it is for the leaders of the Third Reich? These are the questions I try to answer through an interrogation of the continuities and breaks in the re-workings of the Wagnerian concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk in the programmes of the Bauhaus and the policies of National Socialism.
This article is an attempt to revise and extend two prior conceptions: Adorno and Horkheimer’s dialectic of Enlightenment and Murphy and Robert’s dialectic of Romanticism. It traces a developmental trajectory within German Kultur, starting around the mid-18th century, that goes through three moments or phases: the Grecophilia of Goethe and Schiller, the Grecomania of Hölderlin, Schelling and early Hegel, and the Grecogermania of Wagner, Nietzsche and Heidegger. The latter provided the ideological underpinning of Hitler’s Nazism. Thus the paper aims to show that Nazism had deep roots within the soil of German Kultur, for almost from the very start Classicism and anti-Semitism were integral aspects of the one cultural movement. Furthermore, this movement was the one surrogate form of a Neo-Pagan and anti-Christian trend in German modernity.
This paper’s core concern is Boris Groys’ theory of the total art of Stalinism, which is devoted to rewriting Soviet art history and reinterpreting Socialist Realism from the perspective of the equal rights between political and artistic Art Power. The aim of this article is to decode Groys and the total art of Stalinism, based on answering the following three questions: 1) why did Groys want to rewrite Soviet art history? 2) How did Groys re-narrate Soviet art history? 3) What are the pros and cons of his reordering of the total art of Stalinism? Groys offers an effective paradigm that could rethink two theoretical genres: a) other Socialist Realisms inside or outside the Soviet bloc, during or after the Soviet era; b) the aesthetical rights of political artworks before, during and after the Cold War, and the historical debates about art, especially about art for art’s sake, or art for political propaganda. However, Groys’ total art of Stalinism and its core theory of the Socialist Realism frame hides some dangers of aestheticizing Stalin and Stalinism.
The notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk as a modern political phenomenon – the merging of art and life and the artistic transformation of life in its totality – has been limited to public political spectacle and the theatrical enactments of state programs. In contrast, this article about the Soviet 1920s and 1930s looks at everyday life or, in Russian, byt, as the primary domain of modern aesthetico-political intervention. The successful ordering of everyday life according to the principles of communism would mean that even the most intimate aspects of citizens’ lives become part of a total work of art, which now encompasses not only the public but also the private sphere. The author traces the evolution of byt reform from the aesthetic associations between bureaucrats and artists of the 1920s to the 1930s mobilization of ordinary citizens as artists who mould their everyday environments in accordance with Stalinist politics.
The scope of David Roberts’ book on the Total Work of Art is daunting. It stretches from the French Revolution through to the modernist avant-garde and its dissolution in totalitarianism. If Wagner is its chief leader and artistic animator, it also echoes back to Robespierre, Napoleon and Saint-Simon, and through at least to Bolshevism and Futurism, Stalinism and Italian Fascism. The total work of art totalizes the world of the artwork, but it also adds in the politics of the sublime, turns politics into art and negates both as independent spheres of existence at the same time. In this piece I offer some observations on the thinking of a key switchman in this story: Leon Trotsky.
David Roberts has always had a keen, sharp and even mischievous eye for paradox, for pointing to what used to be termed in Hegelianese, ‘contradictions’ or ‘dialectics’ of modern society and its forms. Roberts’ keen eye has focused on the paradoxes (rather than negative dialectics) of aesthetic modernity and the forms that these paradoxes have taken within the historical time consciousness and self-understanding of modernity. This paper will suggest – although only sketchily and in outline – that Roberts’ keen eye notices and reconstructs three paradoxical models or forms of aesthetic modernity: 1. The total work of art of aesthetic modernism; 2. the contemporary postmodern plurality of the present which is captured as musealization; 3. interpretation, play and humour as the open acceptance of the contingency and paradoxes of the present.
Joe P.L. Davidson
This article examines the relationship between utopian production and reception via a reading of the work of the great utopian author and theorist William Morris. This relationship has invariably been defined by an inequality: utopian producers have claimed unlimited freedom in their attempts to imagine new worlds, while utopian recipients have been asked to adopt such visions as their own without question. Morris’s work suggests two possible responses to this inequality. One response, associated with theorist Miguel Abensour, is to liberate reception, with Morris’s utopianism containing an invitation to readers to reformulate the vision proffered. However, this response, despite its dominance in contemporary utopian theory, not only misreads Morris but also undermines the political efficacy of utopianism. Consequently, I suggest that Morris responds to the problem of utopian inequality by constraining production, proposing a historical control on utopianising; new utopias are directed by an archive of visions articulated in past struggles.