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The Total Work of Art in European Modernism$
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David Roberts

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780801450235

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801450235.001.0001

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Refounding Society

Refounding Society

(p.15) 1 Refounding Society
The Total Work of Art in European Modernism

David Roberts

Cornell University Press

This chapter serves as the starting point for tracing the idea of the total work across the nineteenth century from the French Revolution through to the Wagnerism of the fin de siècle. Specifically, it explores Rousseau’s critique of representation in the theatre and in politics. His antitheatrical ideal of the popular festival inspired French revolutionary attempts to make such festivals central to the new civil religion of the nation. It argues that the idea and the practice of the total work of art will be driven by the same sublime imperative of transcendence as the Jacobin festivals and will confront the same dilemmas. In searching for transcendence, the revolutionary festivals were forced to reproduce the two inescapable dilemmas of representation. The one is political and can be phrased in the following fashion: do the people make the festival or does the festival make the people? The second is theatrical: how can the public festival escape spectacle if it is already itself a spectacle? In each case there is an appeal to the sublime in order to transcend these contradictions.

Keywords:   Rousseau, theatre, politics, festivals, French Revolution, civil religion, work of art, transcendence, representation

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