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The Aesthetics of War

Wagner: Gesamptkunstwerk and Götterdämmerung

True drama can be conceived only as resulting from the collective impulse of all the arts to communicate in the most immediate way with a collective public.
-Richard Wagner

Brünnhilde bearing a wounded warrior to Walhalla from Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Composer Richard Wagner was interested in dismantling the threshold between art and life to create a gesamptkunstwerk or “total art work.” He viewed this as a synthesis of the traditional languages of art (i.e. painting, sculpture, poetry, drama, and musical composition). Wagner felt that the medium to realize this aspiration was opera, but the idea was further explored in experimental theater by Oskar Schlemmer and in the work of Kurt Schwitters who created Merzbau, a functioning house that was also a work of art.

Wagner’s opera Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods) tells the story of the demise of the Gods, brought on by a cursed ring. The ring affords its wearer omnipotence, but renders him devoid of love and affection. Wagner’s opera is inhabited with heroes, villains, dragons, and Valkyrie warrior maidens who wisk fallen soldiers to their heavenly reward in Walhalla.

Wagner’s celebration of German myth and heroism on the battlefield was embraced by the Third Reich. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, a Nazi propaganda film, reflects a Wagnerian sense of pageantry and spectacle. Riefenstahl artfully depicted soldiers as warriors who surrender their lives with honor for a higher good and accept their heavenly reward. Similarly, the September 11 terrorists anticipated a joyous reception by 72 virgins in the Muslim paradise, which cannot be too far away from the world of Valkyries.

Marinetti on World War I

War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony.
-Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, 1912

Umberto Boccioni, The Cavalry Charge, 1914, tempera and collage on cardboard, 12.88 x 19.5 inches, collection of Dr. Riccardo Jucker, Milan.

War has been a favorite subject of artists since classical antiquity. What distinguishes the futurists is their fascination with the technology of modern warfare. World War I ushered in a host of new weapons including tanks, machine guns, flame-throwers and poison gases. On the battlefield these inventions presented a complex spectacle of color, sounds, and vibrations, captivating artists of largely rural Italy. There is a lurid beauty in newsreel footage of the time that is akin to coverage of the present day American bombings of Afghanistan. When seen from afar, bombs have the beauty of fireworks. Marinetti was able to abstract their mass destruction into “the world’s only hygiene,” and personally enlisted to fight in 1915. Futurists Umberto Boccioni and Antonio Sant’Elia ultimately died in conflict, but despite the loss of his compatriots, Marinetti continued to view war as an aesthetic gesture. Rich in sights, sounds, immediacy, and danger, war became a muse for Marinetti that accompanied him through two devastating upheavals that changed Europe and the world forever.

Stockhausen on the World Trade Center

“the greatest work of art imaginable. . . . Minds achieving something in an act that we couldn’t even dream of in music, people rehearsing like mad for ten years, preparing fanatically for a concert, and then dying, just imagine what happened there. You have people who are that focused on a performance and then 5,000 people are dispatched into the afterlife, in a single moment. I couldn’t do that. By comparison, we composers are nothing.”
-Karlheinz Stockhausen, 2001

Composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s remarks were scorned by the public at large and resulted in cancellations of his concert tours. What is most disturbing about them, however, is that they contain an element of truth. The burning buildings held a primordial fascination for those who experienced them. The twin towers were colossal monuments and their destruction had a mythic quality like the immolations of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.

Gino Severini, The Armored Train, 1915, oil on canvas, 46 x 34.5 inches, collection of Richard S. Zeisler, New York.

What I Saw

At 8:40 A.M. on September 11 I climbed to the roof of a lower east side building which houses my studio. Minutes before I heard news of the attack and listened to chaotic news reports on WBAI radio. Sirens screamed from Chrystie Street outside my window and I watched firetruck after firetruck race downtown. The sound of one siren faded seamlessly into another as the endless procession continued. I didn’t want to see the towers burning but I needed to join my fiancé in Tribeca. As I locked the studio door I noticed daylight falling on steps leading up to the roof and I involuntarily started to climb.

From the roof I saw the towers burning against the backdrop of a light sunny day. The north tower had a gaping round hole from which prodigious billows of black smoke were rising. Flames burned unlike any I had ever seen before. They were infernal and implacable, fed by twenty thousand gallons of diesel fuel. Two workmen stood beside me, mesmerized by the fire. I ran out of the building and into the street, crossing Bowery and Broadway where I was met with a human torrent of refugees from the financial district walking north. I heard that the Pentagon had been struck by a plane and I realized for the first time that perhaps my hour had come. Looking downtown on 6th Avenue and Hudson Street I saw a colossal plume of ash that had risen at the tip of Manhattan like Vesuvius must have loomed over Pompeii. On arriving home my fiancé told me that the first tower had imploded and we watched the second tower collapse out our front window in a flurry of ash.

I picked up a camera and rushed out to the West Side Highway. There I watched sobbing firemen embracing each other as they were rushed uptown in the open back of a police car. They were followed by a steady file of ash covered vehicles. Perhaps one or two of the trucks that I had seen rushing downtown on the east side were now somberly driving uptown on the west side. On the bicycle path, along the river, a Biblical exodus of refugees snaked its way north, no one so much as pausing to look back. Standing on the desolate southbound lanes of the highway were thousands of men and women who were simply staring downtown in amazement. The plume had tripled in size and continued to grow upward and outward.

Attack on the World Trade Center, Septemer 11, 2001, photograph anonymous donation to the Salvation Army.

The Limits of Abstraction

The World Trade Center, first engulfed in flames and later crumbling into ash, had a beauty which produced uncomfortable ambivalence in many who saw it. Beauty in uglieness is a paradox often present in art. It carries viewers outside of traditional comfort zones to experience the tension between form and substance. Beauty in the September 11 conflagration cannot be separated from destruction, or the building from the thousands of people within it. The glass walls of the World Trade Center concealed unimaginable suffering.

After the bombing, the walls of the Canal Street Post Office were covered with children’s drawings made in response to the attack. One image, by a Hispanic child, showed the rubble of the twin towers atop a hill covered with gravestones. In the sky, the virgin Mary held the towers one in each hand, embracing the souls of men and women who died and the buildings themselves with their other-worldly Platonic geometry. Another drawing depicted the silhouette of the towers framing hundreds of crying faces. Such drawings relate to a tradition of activism in modern and contemporary art that is characterized by the work of Francisco Goya, Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, and Leon Golub.

Strangely a sense of tragedy, embodied in the work of Goya can coexist with an aesthetic fascination with destruction, as expressed in the writings of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and paintings of Umberto Boccioni. However troubling it may be, this current of abstraction that allows us to see beauty in carnage exists within us all. Like a subterranean current in the human psyche it reveals itself in moments like the destruction of the World Trade Center, but is rarely acknowledged and almost never embraced.

© Daniel Rothbart, 2001.

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