(event - behind the (teutonic) fire and flames - 01)
let me tell you about gesamtkunstwerk.
if this was your reaction the read more link is your friend
contains rammstein, nietzsche, wagner, dramatic music, philosophy of aesthetics, sources, wordy concepts and character dropping
Those of you who read my ‘Rammstein are not Nazis' post might remember this term. It wasn't explained completely in that post because the specifics of Gesamtkunstwerk were irrelevant then, but now is the time. Just as well, it was a too-interesting concept for me to just forget about.
As previously mentioned, Gesamtkunstwerk (Gesamt - Total/entire/encompassing, Kunst - art, Werk - work) is a term in German aesthetics. This term was first used by Trahndorff in 1827; however, we tend to associate it more with the Wagnerian use (from two of his essays in 1849) and he gave us some of the best examples, so that’s what we’ll stick with. In strictly Wagnerian terms Gesamtkunstwerk denotes an art form uniting all other art forms together into a spectacle - which, in Wagner’s mind, was best expressed via the stage. Everything is rolled into one - poetry, music, visual art, literature, oral storytelling, songs, rich attire, everything. Wagner’s ‘Das Ring des Nibelungen’, a cycle of four operas, is one of the best embodiments of this ideal surviving today. The Ring Cycle in full averages about 17 hours in length and was intended to be appreciated over a three-day period in a specially built theatre, which after one full performance would then be burnt down as a climax to the entire event. That’s how all-encompassing it is. Remember this for later.
Of course, Gesamtkunstwerk is not just smashing art forms together until you get something bigger and better. There is a purpose to all of this, a value that comes with it. Now the question of what exactly gives art its value/what art is for is a doozy to answer within the philosophy of aesthetics itself - is the value dependent on the time spent on it or how pleasing it is to look/listen to etc? Is art an engagement of our subconscious creative spirit that can’t be exercised otherwise, or is it a direct reflection of what we experience in life, or both? Do the emotions it rouses in the viewer matter at all? Everyone pretty much has their own opinion. For Leo Tolstoy, for example, the Ring Cycle actually failed as an art form - because he thought art was entirely about emotions and high moral value. The Ring Cycle does not invoke universal benevolence and thus did not score very high in terms of good morality. To Wagner, however, the purpose of art was to create a picture of the human condition, positive and negative emotions and all. Clearly no single art form is big enough to do such a gigantic task. The solution, therefore, is to bring them all together.
I think Tolstoy and Wagner may have been on different sides of the exact same coin. Tolstoy’s art sought humanism, Wagner’s art sought humanity.
Let us move onto Nietzsche and the birth of tragedy, keeping all of those in mind.
Nietzsche during his early period (when he was under Wagner’s influence, sharing a lot of the same ideas) suggested that the peak of humankind’s art form was reached with Ancient Greek Tragedy - especially the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles. To understand why he believed this we must briefly discuss the Nietzschean concept of the Apollonian and Dionysian; if you know your Greek mythology (and even if you don’t) they can basically be summed like this:
- In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus are both sons of Zeus. Apollo is the god of the Sun, while Dionysus is the god of wine.
- Apollo stands for intellect, reason, boundaries, control, wisdom and individuality.
- Dionysus stands for intuition, passion, wildness, sensuality, formlessness, abandon and the collective.
- Most vitally, Apollo stands for language and geometrical form, and Dionysus stands for music and dance; this is why, when we listen to music, we are taken away from the Apollonian realm and are temporarily freed from our own individuality. You know what I mean. Go to a concert, see everyone chanting and singing as one, and that is what it’s all about.
To Nietzsche, however, the most successful art form is a synthesis of both the Apollonian and Dionysian. Before tragedy and the theatre came along there was the art of drawing and sculpture, largely to do with geometry and proportions to achieve the most pleasing result - thus, more Apollonian. Greek tragedy introduced the ‘chorus’, however, alongside concrete, solid dialogue. Nowadays when you see Greek plays being performed the chorus will stand around chanting in monotone more often than not, but back then, they often danced, sung, acted with intense passion, and were basically the audience-surrogate. And what is tragedy? It’s got all the elements of the vital human condition in it; pain, suffering, anguish, perhaps hope, deaths, catharsis. Just like what Wagner proposed that art should be about. This is why to Nietzsche, Greek Tragedy was the apex of art, the Apollonian and the Dionysian Kunsttrieben (artistic impulses) synthesised in one.
At some point, however, tragedy died as an art form. Euripedes the tragedian began to emphasize the use of choruses more, pushing theatre towards the Dionysian; Socrates came along and gave birth to pure and utter rationality with little regard for myths. The two concepts separated and from then onwards went on their own paths; Wagner himself, in his essays regarding the Gesamtkunstwerk, complained that opera and theatre of his time had reached utter stagnancy with farces such as Grand Opera, with meaningless lyrics, absurd stories, and sensational stage effects. Through the Ring Cycle he wished to remedy this; and in Nietzsche’s eyes, him doing so consisted of the rebirth of tragedy and the apex of art.
So what does this have to do with Rammstein?
Put shortly and simply, Gesamtkunstwerk explains their stage presence. Rammstein gives some of the most spectacular concerts that you can find on a regular basis - as a rule. They’ve been doing this since pretty much when they first got together. There is Dionysian spectacle; they sing, they play, move to the rhythm, rile up the crowd.
They set things on fire.
Till engages in nigh-masochistic, passionate antics.
And yet at the same time all of this is remarkably controlled - an aspect that not many pick up on. Pyrotechnics go off at specific times, they never overuse it, they don’t tend to engage in banter; it’s one song, then to the next as briskly and efficiently as they come. Everything is planned out incredibly strictly and it’s rare they deviate from it. Their music relies less on wild creative experiments and intensely rhythmic/repetitive musical lines (Nietzsche in his later years also admitted that music that follows geometrical form such as waltz were most definitely Apollonian), and of course, their lyrics are poems on their own. They follow poetic meter and form.
Of course, we can’t forget the content. Let’s take a look at the songlist of their very first album and see what they are ‘about’.
1. Wollt Ihr Das Bett in Flammen Sehen (Sex.)
2. Der Meister (God.)
3. Weisses Fleisch (Sex.)
4. Asche zu Asche (Revenge.)
5. Seemann (Loneliness, possible suicide.)
6. Du Reichst So Gut (Sex.)
7. Das Alte Leid (The anguish of age.)
8. Heirate Mich (Sex and angst over death.)
9. Herzeleid (Love and anguish.)
10. Laichzeit (Either sex or word salad.)
11. Rammstein (Real-life tragic event.)
I’d argue that they’re also about the human condition, albeit tilted somewhat towards cynicism, no? I wouldn’t know myself what to call Rammstein’s philosophy in their music and lyrics, but it sure ain’t happy. At the same time they aren’t nihilistic nor painfully realistic. Quite a few of their songs are shockingly fantastical (‘Dalai Lama’, ‘Spieluhr’, ‘Engel’ etc). They, in that sense, have created the perfect balance between reality and dreams.
Are they the only group currently operating that follows the ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk? Hell no. Music and arts have come a very, very long way since Wagner and Nietzsche’s time. Remember that these ideals date from the mid-1800s, over a century ago. Now music is no longer limited to instrumental orchestral work, opera, cantatas, oratorios etc. Rammstein is hardly the only group to have that balance of passion, rationality and humanity in their music. But it sure as hell helps that they themselves are German, carrying out a nationally-important German ideal - and whatever their overall philosophy is, they’re having a blast, and we adore them for it.
Of course all this complex philosophy stuff can be wrong and they just really like setting stuff on fire. That works too.
Bibliography (discounting links):
- Paglia, Camille (1990). Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertitit to Emily Dickinson, New York: Vintage Books.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich (1962). Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. Translated with an introduction by Marianne Cowan. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc.
- Wagner, Richard (1993), tr. W. Ashton Ellis. The Art-Work of the Future and Other Works. Lincoln and London.