PRINT September 1983


LIKE THE PREVIOUS EXHIBITIONSLe macchine celibi” (The bachelor machines, 1975) and “Monte Verità” (Mount Truth, 1978), Harald Szeemann’s latest expository tale, “Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk” (The tendency toward the total art work), offers prodigious riches. In this case Szeemann’s complex variations are on the subject of the “Modernist” esthetic of Total Art, whose beginnings were marked in the mid-19th century by German Romanticism and the works of Richard Wagner. Those endeavors proposed an indissoluble link among the components of “spectacle” (dramatic action, music and sound, color, words, and so on), a link which reinforced the relationships among the various sensory languages. The goal was an optimal unity of the arts. This sort of fusion of components—from orchestra to stage, audience to actors, costumes to sets, musical score to singing—created a continuity among separate entities, a coordination of all elements, and broke the reigning hierarchy of the arts. In fact, if it was the total structure that mattered, the boundaries that had formerly divided the whole into distinct compartments—music, theater, dance, drawing, stage design, painting, scenery, etc.—no longer made sense.

The new axiom would be that of concentric circles, suffused with a creativity that ordered the entire space. Everything was reduced to the elemental, the primary; actors became marionettes or automatons, as in the work of Heinrich von Kleist, and all the constituent parts related to each other like the parts of a machine. Thus an interchangeability was implied between reality and stage, doubt and certainty, history and illusion; the parts actually lost their individuality and were organized in molecular groupings that filled up the entire space. According to this concept of interweaving and expansion, brutal distinctions gave way to a narrative that suggested a structurally and culturally broader presence; the borders of the spectacle were no longer confined to the stage, but encompassed the world.

With this exhibition, which opened earlier this year in Zurich,1 Szeemann sought to stage the history of this interdependence among the arts from the dawn of Modernism to the present. He set up a line of development with no allowance for a “post-” era. Naturally, to suggest the cultural and poetic climates of artworks created by all for all, he had to construct a “circus” of a show, almost a museumlike stage where the protagonists, or “spirits of collectivity,” could move about, supported when necessary not only by their works but by such rational mysticisms as those of theosophy and anthroposophy.

But a risk is inherent in Szeemann’s subject matter. Do the individual creators, obsessively seeking beauty, weaving the threads of magnificent and grandiose projects, prophesying the imponderable and the immense, appear superior to law and history? The interpretation that emerged from “Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk,” if not idealistic, was in the realm of the “ideal.” Instances of antihistoricism insinuated themselves, fruit of a submission to the mystique and seductiveness of the total art work. Such works are univocal, they move in the sphere of the metaphysical; but the danger of the enfeeblement of historical analysis (necessarily dialectical) by his subject does not seem to have bothered Szeemann. Once he had determined his topic he became its prisoner, favoring it to the maximum. Lacking any doubts about the capacity of art to “express” and therefore to change reality, Szeemann aligned figurative, musical, theatrical, and architectural statements; thus art movements and creators in different modes reappeared in his conglomeration of examples, their concerns seeming to hinge on the confusing together of their individual art forms and a consequent unleashing of humanistic ideals.

In this way the show leaned toward the Wagnerian theme of the “art work of the future,” essentially a metaphysical ambition. Szeemann is indebted to Wagner for the concept the latter published in 1849 of a creative communion among artists, whose “passion” could be brought to the formulation of a “total work,” one capable of creating a “new world.” The languages of individual art forms would be burnt up and a “lost paradise” reborn from their ashes, its component parts a morphology of the ideal city of art. In combining forms and signs Wagner sought a working archetype, a sort of tabernacle of creativity, to which first the initiates and then the larger public would be admitted. The goals of the Wagnerian Wortondrama reveal a yearning for perfection and an anxiety for salvation which might be justified by the failure of the 1849 revolution; nevertheless, the impulse for Wagner’s origination of his illusory mirage cannot be completely attributed to that social catastrophe. A clue lies in Szeemann’s inclusion of King Ludwig II of Bavaria in the exhibition. His presence among the “artists of universes” suggests an interpretation of the aristocracy as identified with the “creative god,” and perpetuates the reading of palace culture as a positive, semimythical phenomenon in which was fostered a disinterested transformation of life, society, and of course art. This hypothesis is decidedly ambiguous, and it indicates a hidden desire to define art in terms of an aspiration to shape the world.

It is here that the exhibition risked reflecting a “totalitarian” vision, or at least a reactionary one. The doctrine of a new world does not in fact justify the grand illusion that the creative absolute on its own can outline a program for social reform. To resort for a prognostic solution to a “super-artist,” whether king, theosopher, or whatever, is to ignore the grinding down of lesser beings as they are affected by social and practical conditions and other such matters. It is time that art attacked closed ideological systems and the structures of cultural domination; to make these into an astral realm, as Szeemann did in Zürich, is to flirt with the creation of an artistic temple apart from history, to court the affirmation of that artistic paranoia whereby an artist’s obsessions threaten to become his or her only reality.

To increase that danger, the show did not discuss its artists’ political and social connections in the worlds in which they moved—the relationship between Gabriele D’Annunzio and fascism, for example, or that of Constructivism to Bolshevism. “Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk” would have been more meaningful if there had been some acknowledgment of synchronic and diachronic relationships, of temporal context; such an inclusion would also have helped one understand and distinguish the radical differences between Etienne-Louis Boullée and Bruno Taut, between Wagner and Arnold Schönberg, between D’Annunzio and Joseph Beuys. In other words, the symbiosis between the concept of a projected work and its end result cannot be understood without establishing a dialectic between the idea and its opposite, the reality. To lose oneself analytically in the specifics of the work only serves to preserve contradictions without resolving or questioning them.

It seems that for Szeemann the practical rationales of Walter Gropius and El Lissitzky are equivalent to the flight from the world in the work of Philipp Otto Runge and Ferdinand Cheval. This interchangeability between reason and spirit leads to the concatenation of, for example, Taut’s visionary crystal cathedrals and the mystical prophecies of Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical faction. While certain connections do exist between the two—in mystical and esoteric ideas for building a “sky house” and in ideas of a “cosmic dome,” for example (I am thinking here of analogies between Taut’s Haus des Himmels project and Steiner’s Goetheanum building)—the ideology of a faith in universal progress as a promise of esthetic transformation of the world nevertheless assumes a constructive will of a different kind from that of either. While Steiner proposes the creation of a “lodge,” a spiritual community, such esotericism is only a marginal element in Taut’s work, not a fundamental component of architectural culture.

Again, although the Wortondrama is perpetuated in a decisively critical manner in the ineluctable total art works of Schönberg and of Oskar Schlemmer, both these artists avoid the heterogeneous and sinuous decadence and the manipulation of the masses and of the orchestra employed by the master of Bayreuth; they set the stage for an avant-garde development of a simultaneity of languages. This exhibition, then, might have attempted to make distinctions between the Expressionist and Bauhaus groups, distinguishing the “lodges” which recalled the medieval masonic orders, from the socialistic workshops (even if these latter did have a tendency toward petit-bourgeois regeneration). Instead there is confusion. Under the guise of edification the works of a vast number of prophets are thrown together, finding among their company some decidedly decadent fancies, of origin both proletarian (Cheval) and bourgeois-dandy—D’Annunzio, whose pronouncements, based on academic and traditionalist dazzle, led and lead to theories of the superiority of some races and nations over others. Plenty of antiestablishment theories, on the other hand, can be considered models for the Dadaists and the Surrealists; at a time defined by social upheaval, they painfully sought to lay the foundations of a constructive existence. Their presence in the show, however, is merely “theoretical,” rendered “abstract” with manifestos and declarations—there is no documentation of the complex, multiform reality of their critique of totalitarian syntheses.

Various ideologies for the total transformation of the world dominate the exhibition; all of the artists shown here have as their subject a total—sometimes perhaps even totalitarian—reform, accomplished, however, according to esthetic desires and needs. Where this faith in change is translated into asceticism and heroic denial, there is frequent depiction of “votive figures” for the redesign of society; the climate is one of religious fervor. There is a surfeit of kings and prophets, anthroposophers and charlatans, who erect monuments attended by rhetoric about good works and the spirit. However, one can’t forget that the search for symbiosis in the arts has an age-old history in Western civilization, from the medieval cathedral projects to the visions of Boullée, from the architecture of Gropius to the theories of Buckminster Fuller, who with Wilhelm Reich is glaringly absent from the exhibition. One could have placed the work of these latter two alongside the life projects of Henry Dunant and the images of Adolf Wölfli, whose diagrams and symbolic labyrinths seem to attempt to modify the deep reality of the ego, to affirm it specifically within the social environment.

These doctrines of salvation and social utopia, often mingled with a longing for an imagined past, are both passed around within circles or cliques (declarations like those of Futurist revolution or Constructivist edification are the products of such groups) and are incorporated in the building of isolated cells inhabited by solitary mystics—Antonio Gaudi, Hermann Finsterlin, Antonin Artaud, and Marcel Duchamp, for example. Yet these latter, too, built imposing artistic structures, accommodation with which demands the ability to interact on many different levels with one’s society. Thus it was not only attempts at a metaphorical architecture based on a logic of domination that emerged in Zürich, not just that tide of the imaginary and the artificial of which D’Annunzio’s Vittoriale and Ludwig ll’s Wagner-Festspielhaus (mausoleums both) are exemplary; works that address autonomous symbolic discourse also presented themselves. Responding to internal expressive needs, these testify to a victory over totalitarian ideology. They serve not to patch over crises but to increase the dangers those crises threaten. Rather than legitimizing, making acceptable, their truths, they offer a dream of the here and now. In Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, 1920–36, stupendously reconstructed in Zürich, individual existence is not projected into the future but is manifested within the limits of the everyday. Here liquid and solid bodies have the weight of circumstance; they are fragments of life. Yes, they have a medieval matrix based on a global order, but they are mouthpieces not so much for authority as for “erotic misery.” One could say the same for the assemblages of Marcel Broodthaers, or for John Cage’s magma of sounds and silences in which unease prevails and the mirage of the future or the infinite gives way to tragedy, the loss of the personal.

This dialectic between “super-artists,” seeking transcendental realizations, and people in anguished situations was the real focal point in Szeemann’s “concert.” Perhaps what was missing throughout was a discussion of the roles and the incongruities of his certainties. The exhibition didn’t allow for insecurity; on the contrary, it pretended to present an absolute, granting no recognition to the need for the unexpected or for pluralism. It was an idealistic utopia at a time when utopias are dead.

Germano Celant is a Contributing Editor of Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.



1. Originating at the Kunsthaus in Zürich and stopping next at the Städtische Kunsthalle and the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande and Wesffalen in Düsseldorf, the exhibition will be at the Museum moderner Kunst and the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts in Vienna from September 10 to November 13.