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)

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

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