The Gesamtkunstwerk and Interactive Multimedia

“Thus, individually and collectively, by thoroughly applying the methodology of art, the cinema of the future will become the first art form to reveal the new scientific world to man in the full sensual vividness and dynamic vitality of his consciousnes.” – Morton Heilig

Sensorama (1966), by cinematographer Morton Heilig, created an immersive arcade experience as an early form of expanded cinema and virtual reality.


Richard Wagner’s formulation of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) in the 1840s was a call-to-action to revolutionize music theater and thereby the future of art. Wagner was convinced that only through the integration of the arts could the artist express the full depth and complexity of the human and social condition. This conviction has unfortunately brought wide extremes of unbridled anger or adoration to the controversial composer. Wagner’s later attraction to nationalist tendencies and anti-Semitism in Germany in the 19th century, as well as Hitler’s alignment to his music and to the Wagner family, has clouded this extraordinary achievement. Nevertheless, it was Wagner’s understanding of the potential of the synthesis of the arts, the totalization of the experience of the stage, which gave full import to his expressive powers as a composer and theater artist. For more than a century, his operas have transported viewers to otherworldly realms of emotion, place and drama. Richard Wagner’s ideas and work constitute a powerful means for understanding the subsequent emergence of interdisciplinary forms: from the spectacles of 19th century opera to the birth of film in the early 20th century, to the electronic art, video, Happenings and theater of mixed-means of the 1960s, and to the interactive forms of digital multimedia that now play out on the display of the personal computer.

Published in The Aesthetics of the Total Artwork: On Borders and Fragments, Edited by Anke Finger and Danielle Follett, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland

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