The Futility of the Collaborative Modernist Gesamtkunstwerk: A Goodmanian Explanation


Kasper Lægring


  • Gesamtkunstwerk
  • Modern Movement
  • modern art
  • Modern architecture
  • Nelson Goodman

When, in 1943, architect José Luis Sert, painter Fernand Léger and art historian Sigfried Giedion collectively formulated the Nine Points on Monumentality, they sought to revive the collaborative spirit of the Gesamtkunstwerk _on modernist terms. Commonly, however, it was the synthesizing genius of the architect, rather than the artist collective, who epitomized the creativity of this new age. Richard Wagner himself, the inventor of the _Gesamtkunstwerk _as an artistic strategy, cast its creative process in the image of the genius. This programmatic total work of art was quite distinct from the intuitive and collaborative type of _Gesamtkunstwerk _produced in past epochs, and architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier sought to make total works of art on their own. Why was the Modern Movement incapable of producing _Gesamtkunstwerke _in the old sense? Even when large-scale collaborations did take place, as in the cases of the United Nations headquarters or the Central University of Venezuela, the design process was piecemeal rather than synthetic. In the organic, pre-modernist _Gesamtkunstwerk, notably that of the Rococo, ornament occupies a catalytic role, which is absent in its modernist emulations. A possible answer, this paper suggests, is to be found in Nelson Goodman’s notion of exemplification. Exemplification occurs when something symbolizes aesthetically by functioning as a sample of some of its possessed properties. In short, it is a formalist strategy. This paper argues that the prevalence of exemplification in modern architecture can explain why the _Gesamtkunstwerk _was no longer within reach of the modern architect.