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Beyoncé and the New Gesamtkunstwerk

By Sahanika Ratnayake.

In a series of essays, in particular ‘The Artwork of the Future‘, Richard Wagner describes the possibility of a novel artwork, the Gesamtkunstwerk, which draws together pre-existing art forms and appeals to multiple sense modalities. Referred to (and translated) variously as the “great united artwork” or the “artwork of the future”, Wagner’s account of the Gesamtkunstwerk is mired in a labyrinthine background theory of aesthetics which covers, inter alia,  a seemingly teleological account of nature and considerations of nature’s relation to art and science, not to mention a political and sociological analysis of the conditions under which such an artwork could be produced. The term is now most frequently used to discuss the work of Wagner himself, in particular his four-part opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. Encompassing the visual arts of costuming and set-design as well as music and poetry, opera is a paradigmatic case of a multimodal artform that spans across artistic fields. Wagner took his vision to extremes with the Ring Cycle by building a theatre and organising a festival – the Bayreuth Festival, which continues to this day – to host the performance of his opera cycle, so that the artwork could be experienced exactly as he intended.

The parallels between the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk and Beyoncé’s work since her self-titled album of 2013 should be apparent, especially with regard to the 2016 album Lemonade. Released simultaneously with what could be described variously as an extended music video or short film, it was from the outset made clear that the musical work was intended to be experienced in visual form. The relationship between the music and the visual elements were thus not incidental but rather a unified work – a Gesamtkunstwerk. Other than uniting music, dance and the visual arts which are traditionally associated with pop music such as fashion or costuming, Lemonade also unexpectedly drew on other genres mentioned explicitly by Wagner such as poetry; the work of Somali poet Warsan Shire is in particular used to structure the visual album’s narrative.

Much like Wagner, Beyoncé’s deliberately shapes the experience of the work. In using her husband Jay-Z’s streaming service Tidal for the exclusive initial release of Lemonade, Beyoncé accomplished the modern equivalent of building her own theatre to showcase her work. When constructing the experience of her work, Beyoncé’s reach surpasses heights that Wagner could scarcely have imagined or indeed ever have had the resources to accomplish. Beyond simply controlling the avenues and mediums through which her work is experienced, Beyoncé conjures an entire context for the artwork, bringing certain elements to the fore and fading other to the background as necessary. Lemonade for instance, was anticipated via the performance of its final track ‘Formation’ at the 2016 Super Bowl Halftime Show; a performance which preceded the release of the song as a single the following day. The controversial performance incorporated elements of Black Panther symbolism such as Beyonce’s costume and the infamous black power salute. That these events and the cultural resonances they created – such as the polarised expressions of intense public enthusiasm and outrage following the Superbowl performance – were integral to the experience of the album is apparent when we consider that the visual album closes with the opening bars of ‘Formation’ rather than the full song itself, slyly recalling the earlier events and creating a frame of reference for the album.

It is perhaps incidental but also certainly worth noting that Beyoncé’s most recent work forms, much like Wagner’s four-part opera, a cycle of albums (the Beycycle, if you will) encompassing Lemonade, Jay-Z’s 4:44 released in 2017 and their recent joint album Love is Everything. Whilst each album individually tells a complete story of infidelity and reconciliation, all the albums together reinforce this narrative.

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One can quibble over the question of whether Beyoncé’s recent work, or even the work of Wagner himself, can strictly speaking be described as Gesamtkunstwerk. Regardless of the way in which the term has come to be used, Wagner himself would have been unlikely to describe his own work in these terms as it is an aspirational standard or ideal which he claimed could only be realised in the future under far different social conditions. Nonetheless, one of the characteristics of Gesamtkunstwerk according to Wagner is that it eschews what is internal to or characteristic of a particular art form in favour of elements that lead to points of complementarity with other artforms. For instance, one might think of the development of atonal composition or free verse as exploring elements internal to the artforms of music and poetry respectively, whereas Gesamtkunstwerk or an aspiration towards it will favour more conciliatory techniques such as musical cues being used provide a setting for dramatic elements in the case of Wagner and the way in which beats of music are matched up to visual shots in the case of Beyoncé. Whilst it is true that music plays the central role for both Beyoncé and Wagner, there is a genuine attempt in both cases to create a work of art that melds together various artforms and mediums. In fact, the centrality of music is unsurprising when we consider Wagner’s assertion that of all the artforms, music is the one most amenable to unifying and bridging together disparate artforms.

In bringing up the term Gesamtkunstwerk, I do not wish to dwell on whether Wagner’s ideal has been realised but rather hope to draw attention to the way in which Beyoncé’s particularly modern take on the Gesamtkunstwerk appeals not only to multiple artforms but makes use of elements that are not traditionally considered in terms of Gesamtkunstwerk, but are nonetheless  hallmarks of contemporary art – in particular, the life and oeuvre of the artist themself.

The Beycycle is unashamedly autobiographical. Whilst Lemonade was somewhat coy about the verisimilitude of events concerning a saga of marital infidelity, with leading allusions to “Becky with the good hair”, by the time the we come full circle with the latest album, there is no longer any doubt that the Carters are singing about their own marriage. The polyphonic nature of the Beycycle also lends itself well to the art of autobiography; after all to fully tell the truth, it is sometimes necessary to tell it from multiple perspectives.

What is less immediately apparent but very much present is the self-referential nature of Beyoncé’s work. Sometimes this is explicit, such as the references to her career and its successes thus far in ‘Pretty Hurts’ and ‘***Flawless’ in BEYONCÉ; or the celebrations of the couple’s shared wealth in ‘Drunk In Love’ from BEYONCÉ as well as ‘Apeshit’ and ‘Lovehappy’ from Love Is Everything. At other times, references to her extant body of work are more subtle, with the use of shared musical elements such as horns in the couple’s collaborations such as ‘Crazy In Love’, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Deja Vu’; or inversions of lyrics, such as the struggles over memory on I Am… Sasha Fierce’s ‘Disappear’ compared to Lemonade’s ‘Sandcastles’.

Appeal to autobiographical elements is a staple across art forms, from confessional poetry to self-portraits. There is also a long history of autobiography in musical genres associated with African American communities such as hip-hop or rap, which also tends towards the self-referential. This reflexivity is characteristic of modern art, where an artwork often invites reflection of the artist and the conditions under which the art was produced. Where Beyoncé departs from others when drawing on autobiography and references to her own work in this New Gesamtkunstwerk, is not in terms of novelty but rather sheer extent and scale.

Beyoncé’s multiply-sensed Gesamtkunstwerk  embeds itself deeply in our culture by drawing on a multitude of elements that echo each other in a dizzying web of reference and intertextuality. It is impossible for me personally to see the fire and water imagery of live performances of ‘Freedom’ and not recall James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. The title of Baldwin’s text is an allusion to a lyric from an African American spiritual “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water but fire next time” which in turn recalls the fact that ‘Freedom’ is itself a spiritual of sorts, particularly with the parallel fire and water motif in: “I’m telling these tears, ‘Go and fall away, fall away’/ May the last one burn into flames”.

What Beyoncé folds into her work is life itself, writ large and writ small. She delves into the intimately personal but displays it as an instance of something larger: the tale of a marriage becomes an instance of history or the story of an entire group of people. The choice of the Louvre as the setting of the ‘Apeshit’ video, for instance, is of course a commentary on the absence of minority voices in western art. Paris, however, is also evidently where the couple’s first child was conceived. As such, when Beyoncé sings,  “I can’t believe we made it/ This is what we’re thankful for”, she means thankful in every sense of the word, both for the endurance of her family and the Carters’ professional success, a seeming rarity in a culture that favours the lives and art of the colonialists and slave owners rather than their victims.

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Towards the end of ‘The Artwork of the Future‘ Wagner asks “Who, then, will be the artist of the future?”. His answer – the poet, who is turn the performer who is in turn necessarily the fellowship of all the artists – is long winded and quite frankly maddeningly entwined with dense musings on a variety of topics such as the nature of a dramatic work and the death of the artist. However, even considered superficially the answer is suggestive and particularly relevant to Beyoncé’s work, drawing attention to its collaborative nature and the way in which the artist takes on the role of performer. Underplayed by both Wagner and Beyoncé is the fact that their work is necessarily collaborative and relies on the talents of a fellowship of artists. However, unlike Wagner who worked in the background composing the text (i.e the “poetry”) and the music to which it was set, Beyoncé in addition to her work in the background along similar lines, also takes centre stage as the performer.

It is not enough to note the neat way in which Beyoncé embodies every aspect of Wagner’s description of the artist of the future. This is to leave unexamined the distinctive take on the Gesamtkunstwerk exemplified by Beyoncé’s work. Concerning the relation between this New Gesamtkunstwerk  – including as it does the artist’s life and context as well their previous work – and the sort of artist that can produce the New Gesamtkunstwerk, we must ask “Who, then is the artist of the New Gesamtkunstwerk?”

Notoriously private, Beyoncé carefully manages and outplays both the media and the Beyhive, ever thirsty for more news of their (I must confess: our) beloved queen. Consequently, when one learns any information about her personal life it is simultaneous with her work, be it in the form of a new album or a highly stylised photograph announcing her pregnancy, thick with layered allusions. In using her own life and work as a medium, Beyoncé’s New Gesamtkunstwerk then is the artist themself qua artwork, rather than simply the artist as performer, poet or focal point for a fellowship of artists.

In using appeals to multiple modalities and artforms, Beyoncé strives towards the goal set out by Wagner. But the careful management of the media and the throughgoing control over the experiences of her work are the novel means by which Beyoncé creates an artwork of herself and in doing so presents the possibility of a New Gesamtkunstwerk. Beyoncé’s life acts as a lynchpin, collapsing together what it is to be the New Gesamtkunstwerk and who is to have produced it. In so far as we know the artist, it is as the artwork.

It is difficult to know what Wagner would make of Beyoncé let alone pop music.  A meeting would be unlikely to go well if we are to extrapolate from his open anti-semitism. The reality of prejudice is a disappointing fact that we must never forget when discussing the work of minorities in terms of problematic artists and theorists. Furthermore, Wagner called for a Gesamtkunstwerk of the future due to his dissatisfaction with the prevailing culture of the time, which he believed to be corruption of earlier classical works, particularly Greek tragedies, which he believed to be more closely aligned with the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. This desire to hearken back to the golden age of classical culture is a long running thread in the history of western philosophy and aesthetics, exemplified by Arthur Schopenhauer, with whom Wagner would get engrossed after the publication of ‘The Artwork of the Future’ as well as Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly in his first book ‘The Birth of Tragedy‘, written during the period where Wagner and Nietzsche were in close correspondence. It seems somewhat pointed and particularly timely then to discuss Beyoncé in reference to Wagner, given the previously mentioned critique of western culture, especially the neoclassical artistic tradition explored in ‘Apeshit’. Beyoncé and Jay-Z pose and dance throughout the Louvre, that shrine to western culture, wearing a variety of fashions and styles that are either produced by designers of colour or recall neglected accomplishments of African culture.

Yet Wagner’s descriptions of the conditions under which a Gesamtkunstwerk can be produced is surprisingly egalitarian. Returning again to the question of who is to be the artist of the future, he derides the elite and the cultural snobbery of his era and answers simply: the folk. Wagner argues that the Gesamtkunstwerk can only come to be in response to the genuine need of the people under conditions where they are able to access and enjoy art. Lacking these conditions, art becomes mere elitist posturing and subject to fashion.

That there is a need, or at at the very least a  great desire, for work such as Beyoncé’s cannot be doubted, its commercial success alone is evidence of that. And provoking as it is with its commentary on race and sexual politics, it fascinates simply on its own terms. The Beycycle for instance is the oldest of stories, a love story, but it is a not often heard one. It is the story of a woman not only chose to stay but fully accept a man following his infidelity. Whatever we might think about critiques of mass-produced culture along the lines of ‘The Culture Industry’, with the collapse of the boundaries between high and low art, increased accessibility due to mass media and the consequent emergence of popular culture, the conditions for Gesamtkunstwerk seem to have been achieved. Beyoncé in creating her own particularly contemporary take on the Gesamtkunstwerk, I suggest has not only delivered, but slayed.


Sahanika Ratnayake recently moved from the antipodes to the UK to do a PhD in Philosophy. Her non-academic work has appeared in the likes of VICE, Overland and Poetry New Zealand.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 1st, 2018.