CFP: Revisiting the Avant-Garde Total Work of Art

Call for Papers: Revisiting the Avant-Garde Total Work of Art

University of Leuven, 23-24 May 2022

This interdisciplinary conference, open to contributions on all art forms, aims to re-examine the theory and practice of the historical avant-gardes’ Gesamtkunstwerk. What, if anything, was specific to the historical avant-gardes’ Total Work of Art? 

Confirmed invited speakers include Matthew Wilson Smith (Stanford University) and Alexandra Vinzenz (University of Heidelberg).



The notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, inextricably tied to Richard Wagner, plays a central role in our understanding of the historical or classical avant-gardes. While it has regularly been observed that Wagner’s notion must be traced at least as far back as Jena Romanticism and that Wagner’s ambitions further meandered into the 19th-century, most notably in Symbolism, the Gesamtkunstwerk is often said to have come into its own only with the advent of the historical avant-gardes. In the hands of classical avant-gardists, the idea, or ideal, of a unison of sensory languages brought by a fusion of art forms and media indeed led to a watershed of experiments. Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk, as Harald Szeemann memorialised it in his eponymous exhibition of 1983, may well have been one of the most salient features of the historical avant-gardes, be it in Cubism, Expressionism or Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism or Constructivism.

The aesthetic and (totalitarian) political implications of the avant-garde Total Work of Art have been a topic of critical debate at least since the early 20th century. Scholars of a more recent date (among others, Roger Fornoff, Boris Groys, Anke Finger, Matthew Wilson Smith, David Roberts and Marcella Lista) have also begun to chart complicated genealogies of the avant-gardes’ Total Work of Art, further paying attention to the clear social and religious aspects involved. Classical avant-gardists, so it has been observed, desired to reaffirm the social role of art and to recover a higher sense of spiritual unity through a synthesis of different art forms.

Now that we are beginning to have a clearer understanding of the variegated and multifarious pre-history of the avant-gardes’ totalising interartistic project, it may also be time to address the key question of this conference: what, if anything, was specific to the historical avant-garde Total Work of Art?

Revisiting the Avant-Garde Total Work of Art welcomes all contributions that can help shed light on this question, be it by dealing with individual artworks, artists and movements, or by presenting broader historical and comparative approaches to the avant-gardes’ artistic practices and aesthetic theories during, roughly, the first half of the 20th century. Possible issues to consider include:

(1)  H i s t o r y : To what extent can (and must) we still revise the history of the Gesamtkunstwerk before the arrival of the historical avant-gardes? Are alternative genealogies of the avant-garde Total Work of Art still conceivable? What historical sources or precursors, drawn on by avant-gardists themselves, demand more scrutiny?

(2)  G e n r e  &  M e d i a : The Total Work of Art is above all a work of art, but it remains one that eludes clear generic definition. The Gesamtkunstwerk is tied perhaps first and foremost to the symbol of theatre (and the “temporal” arts of poetry, music, dance) and that of the cathedral (and the “spatial” arts of architecture, sculpture and painting). What other art forms did the avant-gardes promote as symbols or potential grounds for Total Works of Art? To what extent did “new” media, such as film, photography or the phonograph, as well as “old” media, such as the panorama or diorama, play a role in their reconsideration of the Gesamtkunstwerk and the recalibration of art forms involved? What aspects of the avant-gardes’ theorisation of the Total Work of Art have been neglected? And which perhaps so far ignored examples of Total Works of Art, leaving behind the limited stock of works we usually address, can still shed a different light on the avant-gardes’ aesthetic of the  Gesamtkuntwerk more generally?

(3)  U t o p i a : Total Works of Art are commonly viewed as projections of both a future art and a different, utopian community or society. Could part of the specificity of the avant-garde Gesamtkunstwerk reside in the types of possible worlds they trigger hermeneutically, and, if so, how? Are the possible worlds of the avant-garde Total Work of Art necessarily futural? And, how, methodologically, do we extract or salvage such possible worlds from individual art works, when, for instance, artists’ comments fail us?

(4)  S c i e n c e : The Total Work of Art has been approached so far mainly for its aesthetic, political, social and religious implications. To what extent did science as well play a role in the avant-gardes’ conceptualisation of the Gesamtkunstwerk? How, for example, did the sciences of chemistry, biology, sociology or engineering figure into the avant-garde Total Work of Art?

(5)  A f t e r m a t h : Which more recent works, artistic practices or theories that align themselves with, or reflect on, the historical avant-gardes may still help us to reconsider the historical avant-gardes’ Gesamtkunstwerk, to highlight perhaps hitherto neglected facets of it?



Revisiting the Avant-Garde Total Work of Art will take place in the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) on 23 and 24 May 2022. Given the current health and travel situation, we are open to alternative arrangements in light of contingencies.

The conference language is English.

Proposals for 25-minute papers – including an abstract (max 500 words) as well as a short biography (max 200 words) mentioning institutional affiliation and up to five previous publications – can be sent to by 15 January 2022. Proposals should be in Word format.

Accepted papers will be considered for inclusion in a book publication after the event.

This conference is organised by Sascha Bru and Abigael van Alst. It is hosted by the MDRN research lab of the University of Leuven.

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