“Notions of artistic purity and autonomy were central to Wagner’s initial formulation in 1849. In uniting the arts the Gesamtkunstwerk would allow each to achieve its full potential, growing stronger in the struggle to define itself against the others.” (Koss 2008).

The Gesamtkunstwerk was coined in 1849 by German composer, Richard Wagner, although the term was earlier used by K.F.E Trahndorff in 1827. Even during Wagner’s lifetime, his study of the Gesamtkunstwerk received popularity that was far out of proportion to its status within his oeuvre. The term is loosely translated to ‘Total work of art’ and is discussed in Wagner’s 1849 essays – ‘Art and Revolution’ and ‘The Artwork of the Future’ in which he argues that works of art that unite media forms strive to give a greater experience.

Juliette Koss commented that the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk would simultaneously sustain and destroy the autonomy of the individual arts. (Koss 2008). Wagner focused primarily on the fusion of three sister arts- dance tone and poetry and argued that that “the […] arts unite their forces in one collective operation, in which the highest faculty of each comes to its highest unfolding.” (Wagner year: 78). He stated that In essence all media could combine to give enhanced aesthetical properties. Wagner materialised this notion by having the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, an opera house north of Bayreuth in Germany built under his supervision, albeit from adapted plans from an architect. The theater was built solely for the performances of Wagner and was constructed in such a way to allow the composer to implement his vision; a performance enhanced by visual illusion, superior acoustics, a perfected balance of sound and an ambience to succeed other performances by the overall aesthetic experience offered to the audience.

Figure 1. Wagners opera house; the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

Figure 1. Wagners opera house; the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

The notion of Gesamtkunstwerk supports that by fusing together the arts, each medium did not lose its individuality or distinctiveness but rather each was given the platform to predecess what it could achieve in singularity form. The combination of media would complement each other and give audiences an experience which appealed to not just one sense, but many. Wagner stated “that the three sister-arts unite their forces in one collective operation, in which the highest faculty of each comes to its highest unfolding. By working in common, each one of them attains the power to be and do the very thing which, of her own and inmost essence, she longs to do and be.” (Wagner 1849: 78).

This was the very notion that the Bayreuth Festspielhaus made real, and like many other examples that we are so familiar with, you could argue that this concept is overlooked, or not easily recognised because of the way media fuses together in such a subtle and refined manner. Disney World for example combines all of the arts – literature, paintings, sculptures, dance, drama and singing and instrumental performance. It is compiled together in a sense which gives audiences the complete experience; and whilst it is easy to be unaware of this idea, if those mediums were separate, the whole experience changes. We can look past the arts and consider how the whole park with its design and architecture are created with a simultaneous vision, a brand. It is important to highlight that the Gesamtkunstwerk whilst considers the arts can also apply to the bigger picture and in every aspect that can appeal to an individual’s senses. Sven Lutticken supports this notion when he argues that the Gesamtkunstwerk “aimed not only at uniting the arts, but also integrating art and society again[…]a place where individual people became an organic whole of believers” (Lutticken 2004: 12)

Of course this idea of the total work of art can very much so be applied to the contemporary practise of digital media. The technological integrated devices we use are complete collaborations of a set of mediums that were once separate. Patrice Pavis Defines the Gesamtktwerk’s as “a synthesis of music, literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, stage design and other elements” (Pavis 1998: 179) but this concept could be applied directly to smart phones for example. It could be argued that in their simplest forms the music is the vast array of sound we hear, painting and sculpture the image we see, literature the text, architecture the physical design and stage design the interface. This idea can be developed when we consider how many mediums a phone encompasses. – a camera, a torch, an alarm clock, a hub to email and the internet, a music player, a marketplace, the list goes on and on. Wagner argued that it is essential for the arts when combined to have the same common goal, for him it was that the Drama’s aim be fulfilled. For apple and the iPhone 6 “It’s one continuous form where hardware and software function in perfect unison, creating a new generation of iPhone that’s better by any measure.” (Apple.com). The way Apple discuss the concept of perfect unison is uncannily similar to Wagner’s statements and goes some way in illustrating how the idea of the Gesamtktwerk is very much present in modern society.

Figure 2. Is Apple’s iPhone 6 the perfect representation for Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk in the digital age?

Figure 2. Is Apple’s iPhone 6 the perfect representation for Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk in the digital age?

The belief of the Gesamtktwerk and this notion that art is at its strongest performing ability when different media combine and allow each other to flourish is one that is not wholly accepted and there is indeed scepticism that the concept is at all true. It could strongly be argued that the disagreement of the total work of art is a minority, especially in this age when you consider the celebration of modern technology and the collaboration of all media into one. However, enter G. E. Lessing.

Lessing argues against the conflation of media by taking example from the origins of the Greek sculpture, Laocoön. Lessing used the sculpture as a symbol of aesthetics. He was concerned with the differing effects offered by literature and visual art. He argued that the former is received via its content – their words whereas the latter could depict meaning through imagery and both forms are absorbed differently. He goes on to discuss whether literature and arts are independent or whether they can co-exist interdependently. Lessing recognises that each medium has distinct differences, although they do share some common parallels but ultimately he states that both mediums have significant qualities which are elevated when produced in a singularity form.

Figure 3. The sculpture of Laocoön and his two son's.

Figure 3. The sculpture of Laocoön and his two son’s.

Furthermore Lessing took favour to written text over the visual art as he believed it was a medium that required a deeper creative process and that could depict far greater meaning (Lessing year). In Literature there is a heightened sense of time and location that can evolve whereas in the visual arts the work is singular and static; there is no room for dynamic narrative progression.

To develop this idea of how different mediums facilitate different experiences because of their architecture it is important to also consider the content. William Schupbach identifies that “literature could describe horrible things without using horrible words, while the visual arts could only represent the horrible by showing us the horrible. As that would produce not a noble work of art producers […] visual representations tend to tone down the unpleasant features.” (Schupbach).

Going back to the discussion of contemporary media devices and their collaborative nature, bringing together all mediums; there is a counter argument that in essence what happens is that we end up with a device which gives us a limited experience of these tools, almost like a demo. For example, the camera on a phone is in some ways intuitive; it does not inspire the need to learn about the medium or take truly outstanding photography. The Internet is another example which is limited in the sense that it is not a practical tool like using the platform on a computer; there are certain tasks which become redundant. For example I would struggle to research a particular interest on my phone, with efficiency at least, whereas on my computer I have a completely unrestricted version of this medium. This supports Lesssing, in that yes media can lose its profound abilities when combined with other platforms. Arild Fetveit recognises that medium specificity in this case is important and that despite its success, it does have limitations and argues that these devices would be far more powerful if they were singular, stating “The scope is impressive considering its small size, but many of its functions offer a quality that is rather limited, much like the scissors on a Swiss Army knife. Regarding its photographic and web-browsing capabilities, for example, it remains more of a toy than a serious media machine. Thus, on a number of such levels, we need more specialized devices.” (Fetveit 2007: 58).

Figure 4 & 5. Does the application of a smart phone undermine the power of what is capable with photography?

Figure 4 & 5. Does the application of a smart phone undermine the power of what is capable with photography?


Both Nicholas Carr (2010) and Andrew Keen (2007) argue similar points in their work; they recognise that the combination and collaboration of media tools is increasing the output of work, but decreasing the quality. For Keen he believes that the combination of media tools facilitates individual users to produce work that is lacking in superiority; like Fetviet he believes that platforms which offer all media correlate with an outcome of amateur creation that makes no use of specialised media.

Whilst these points are very valid and relevant, there is clearly a distinguished difference between the Gesamtktwerk and Lessing’s notion of Medium Specificity and it would be impossible, or rather possible but wrong to discredit either, for they both in some way make a sustained and powerful argument. However I am defiantly inclined to agree with the idea that in the digital age we are and should be committed to the Gesamtktwerk. As I previously discussed, the phone is a platform which offers a vast array of media but in a restricted form, I.e the internet. I couldn’t do certain tasks because there is not the right conditions that would allow me to so, however should I want to pursue options unavailable on the phone I can always use a computer. I do not like to view this as a separation between two mediums but rather mediums which can be used in conjunction with each other, that complement each other’s weaknesses and I believe this is the case for many combined works of art.



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 Figure 1.Wagner’s Bayreuth Festspielhaus Available at: http://www.wagneropera.net/Images/Bayreuth-Festspielhaus545.jpg [Accessed on 21/10/14]

Figure 2. Apple’s iPhone 6. Available at: http://i1.wp.com/cdn.bgr.com/2014/09/iphone-6-mock.jpg?w=952 [Accessed on 21/10/14]

Figure 3. The stature of Laocoon. Available at: https://screeninculture.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/e13ef-1376461_615950575117888_1108152481_n.jpg [Accessed on 21/10/14]

Figure 4. Sony camera phone. Available at: http://cdn4.mos.techradar.futurecdn.net//art/mobile_phones/Sony/XperiaZL/Sony_Xperia_ZL-580-100.jpg

Figure 5. DSLR Camera. Available at: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/03/32/93/68/dslr-photography-courses.jpg [Accessed on 21/10/14]