Wagner’s “Art-Work of the Future”

I love old books. There is something about their inherent history that appeals to me. So when I read about someone like Baudelaire finding a certain text compelling, I find myself searching for the original text rather than accepting a modern interpretation of someone elses reading. So recently, I went on a search for the original version of Wagner’s Prose Works: Art- Work of the Future. During Baudelaire’s time Wagner was just coming onto the Paris scene with “Tannhauser” and was in the process of defending his “new” approach to opera. This piece, Art-Work of the Future, had just come out and Baudelaire being a critic for certain Parisian publications included his reading of this piece along with, Wagner’s, The Music of the Future. These texts I found as part of the Nabu Public Domain Reprints where the book is an actual,  scanned copy of the original English translation of the manuscript. It has not been edited. I do not know if this was the version Baudelaire read, since he knew English and had translated the works of Edgar Allan Poe, or whether there was a previous French version at the time of Wagner’s, “Tannhauser” in Paris.The copy that I obtained also included markings by a previous reader from1895. This also gives me a sense of what Wagner’s contemporaries found interesting- an added layer to contemplate.

Wagner’s approach in Art-Works is very phenomenological. He takes human experience as the basis of his analysis. He defines art as such,

If Nature then, by her solidarity with Man, attains in Man her consciousness, and if Man’s life is the very activation of this consciousness- as it were a portrait in brief of Nature,- so does man’s Life itself gains understanding by means of science, which makes human life in turn an object of experience. But the activation of the consciousness attained by Science, the portrayal of the Life that it has learnt to know, the impress of this life’s Necessity and Truth, is- Art.

Art directly springs from man’s activity to know. It can take the form of science or art- art being both a scientific inquiry into the nature of things joined to a consciousness of life itself. This is the very activity that is art. Science is built on “keen”observation of the factual nature of things of which an artist, in order to represent things in nature, must have an acute awareness of. But the very pulse of Life must also be a part of his inquiry. And, in a sense, this is the main focus of the artist’s life. Shelley states in his prose piece titled,”On Life”, “Man is a being of high aspirations, looking both before and after, whose thoughts wander through eternity, disclaiming alliance with transience and decay; incapable of imagining to himself annihilation; existing but in the future and in the past; being, not what he is, but what he has been and what he shall be… This is the character of all life and being. Each is at once the center and the circumference; the point to which all things are referred, the line in which all things are contained.” ( Percy Bysshe Shelley, “on Life”, 1880). Wonder is the very element in which the artist must exist and maintain his gaze. And in this state of wonder, from this platform, emerges through his art the very grandeur, the immensity and the profundity of existence. It is the very reason man finds art so intrinsically important.

The artist, in a sense, follows an inner natural necessity that he is compelled to acknowledge. The force of reality makes its mark. He must be true to this call and not find himself subjugated to an outward idea alone. The real guide must come from within and act as a mirror to Nature itself. Wagner states, “Man only then becomes free, when he gains the glad consciousness of his oneness with nature; so does art only then gain freedom, when she has no more to blush for her affinity with actual life…Art can only overcome her dependence upon Life through her oneness with the life of free and genuine Men.” (Art-Work of the Future, p.71)

Reciprocal Analogy, Baudelaire’s Imaginative Instinct

In Baudelaire’s, Salon of 1846, he reflects on the words of E.T.A.Hoffman: “It is not only in my dreams and in the reverie that precedes slumber, but also in my waking thoughts that I hear music, that I find an analogy, an intimate union of colors, sounds, and scents. All of these elements unite as if they had sprung from the same flash of light, to join together in a marvelous concert.” The imagination, at its root, joins or binds together all sensory experience so that a painter as well as a poet can experience the same phenomena and be able to describe it in similar terms; it, essentially, conveying an equivalent inner imaginative experience. Again, Baudelaire states, “The imagination is an almost divine faculty which perceives at once, quite without resort to philosophic methods, the intimate and secret connection between things, correspondences, and analogies.” (Baudelaire, “Further Notes on Edgar Poe”, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, p.102)

If one takes music, which is quite abstract, one finds that great music evokes analogous ideas in different persons. Again, Baudelaire argues that, “… for what would be truly surprising would be to find that sound could not suggest colour, that colour could not evoke the idea of a melody, and that sound and colour were unsuitable for the translation of ideas, seeing that things have always found their expression through a system of reciprocal analogy…” (Ibid., “Richard Wagner and Tannhauser in Paris”, p.117)

I have found in my own experience, that poetry provides a perfect suggestion for reverie and allows me to explore ideas for painting quite freely. There is an analogous relationship between poetry and painting- both call forth a singular image. It is a smooth path to the imagination through poetic image both suggested or implied. It also provides a fertile ground for the imagination to present the unexpected. By providing a pathway to reverie one can be open to those things that lie hidden in memory or the unconscious. When we experience effective dreams they, similarly, present something that is not premeditated presenting images with surprising efficacy.

On hearing Wagner’s Tannhauser for the first time, Baudelaire expresses the profound impact it has on him. It is the perfect description of the power of an art form to transport the imagination of the listener or viewer to a new and unexpected experience. “I remember that from the very first bars I suffered one of those happy impressions that almost all imaginative men have known, through dreams, in sleep. I felt myself released from the bonds of gravity, and rediscovered in memory that extraordinary thrill of pleasure which dwells in high places…Next I found myself imagining the delicious state of a man in the grip of profound reverie, in an absolute solitude… an immensity with no other decor but itself.” (Ibid.,p.116)

Baudelaire describes his experience as one who, “has undergone a spiritual operation, a revelation.” This experience, because it was so unexpected, releases the imagination from its ordinary bonds, and transports the listener/viewer to another place that is intimate and profound – creating an isthmus between one’s inner life and the world. One knows when one has touched this place because ever after there is a deep longing to return to this intimate place. It is a “nostalgia”, a longing for that profound contact with the self.  “It is in this gift for suffering, which is common to all artists but which is all the greater as their instinct for the beautiful and the exact is more pronounced…”, (Ibid.p.119) that propels one to seek again this visionary experience that forever binds the artist to the path of the imagination. Nothing else will satisfy the soul any longer.