A Liberating concept: The Gesamtkunstwerk
Have you ever felt like you needed to choose one career, one hobby because you thought that that is the only way to get really good at it?
There is a lot of anxiety that comes with being –insert any profession– and only that. Being limited to create only one source of output. If you are a writer – you only create words, a painter – you only create visuals, a professor – you only teach.
In 1849, the German composer Richard Wagner coined the term: "Gesamtkunstwerk", which translates into English as "total work of art". This neologism created an avalanche of creative outpour throughout the next decades in Art, Design, Architecture and lifestyle, blurring the borders between the disciplines.
Interestingly, the movements embracing this notion (Art Nouveau, Bauhaus, Arts & Crafts) intentionally designed everything surrounding us daily: from the typography used in books, posters and signs to the logo, to the textiles used for curtains and the handles to open windows. Often these things were designed by one person entirely.
The notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, guided the arts to view art as a fully immersive experience, infiltrating the everyday life. It made art inclusive rather than exclusive, experienceable rather than analytical.
To live art, rather than live with art.
But all of these movements happened more than 100 years ago...right?
Not quite. The digital sphere has literally expanded the domains in which the Gesamtkunstwerk can exist. Whereas, before it could only exist in physical spaces, and perhaps in the ephemerality of music, we now have an entire virtual level on which space exists and in which we build environments that need to be designed just as much as our physical world.
That’s how the baby of graphic design and the internet was born: web design. We have seen an incredible change in recent years, in the way that we design our new virtual space: almost resembling a sort of "glow up".
The internet became aesthetic.
And this is where the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk comes back into focus. Never, have we had a space in which so many different disciplines could so seamlessly merge into such all-encompassing experiences. Wagner needed gigantic theatre stages to execute his idea of the combined arts, Macintosh had to create houses. Now, all we need is an internet connection and some knowledge in coding and design.
I believe that web design has reached a stage in which some websites can be described as a total work of art. They incorporate: music, photography, illustrations, interactions, writing, design and above all an aesthetic experience, oftentimes created by a single individual.
Most of us grew up with the notion that we need to choose one career and stick to it our entire lives, this can create a lot of anxiety. And long-term unhappiness for the people believing that they can only do one thing but who no longer want to do only one thing.
There is a lot to learn from past Gesamtkunstwerk artists, such as the Austrian artist Koloman Moser: who designed: typography, textiles, furniture, jewellery, ceramics, books…(insert any other object, and he will probably have designed it).
We are rediscovering what artists such as Moser already knew: more and more people gravitate toward multidisciplinary modes of working: they are coders, graphic designers, writers, musicians, content creators... all at once.
It is liberating to know that we can do all these things and create your very own (non)-digital Gesamtkunstwerk.