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Gestalt Approaches to the Virtual Gesamtkunstwerk

Andrew D. Lyons 
Composition Unit 
The Sydney Conservatorium of Music. 
The University of Sydney 
Sydney NSW 2000 Australia 
Email: tstex at(nospam)


The basis for differentiation of artistic disciplines is examined. The historical development of definitive criterior for Gesamtkunstwerke is briefly surveyed. Gestalt Psychology is discussed as an advantageous approach to cognition in order to conceptualise and design content for such works. Spatial audio-visual reproduction equipment are suggested to be an important technology for the realisation of such works. The author speculates as to the impact of such works on the individual artistic disciplines of music and architecture.


Art, Gesamtkunstwerk, Phenomenology, Gestalt Psychology, Virtual Reality


Computer aided design software applications that converge and integrate data from various artistic disciplines constitute the first technology capable of the morphological freedom necessary in the creation of "Gesamtkunstwerke". Works which synthesise various artistic disciplines into Gesamtkunstwerke inherit dimensional attributes that demand the spatial, audio-visual reproduction technology required to create "Virtual Reality". A phenomenological approach to artistic material provides many means to suggest relationships between the attributes of differing artistic disciplines. Gestalt Psychology offers an understanding of aesthetic perception and cognition based on Phenomenology. Many major challenges in creating Gesamtkunstwerke can be solved with an approach to artistic material using Gestalt techniques. As electronically synthesised Gesamtkunstwerke proliferate, derivations of these works will no doubt have a profound impact on all artistic disciplines.

1 A Reduction and Re-synthesis of Art

1.1 Reduction

Most definitions of 'art' begin by describing a unitary act of creation. Contextual definitions reduce art into a schema of various disciplines based on these contexts. If a work is to synthesise all artistic disciplines into a great work, or Gesamtkunstwerk, a commonality must be synthesised from these contexts that need not adhere to the doctrine of any specific discipline. By tabulating numerous common bases for the classification of arts into disciplines, various differences and commonalities may be isolated. Table 1.1 provides examples for each different class and suggests the product of a synthesis of the differences, in the current context of the Gesamtkunstwerk.

Classification Examples Re-synthesis
Medium eg. Arts that use words, tones, stones, paint on canvas, human bodies etc. Synthesised media simulating all types of concrete media.
Dimension eg. Arts that use space, time, or any other dimension for their main sphere of operation. All dimensions folded into each other.
Purpose Arts that are necessary, arts that are useful and arts that entertain. Multiple purposes.
This reduction separates the arts into:
(1) theoretical arts that leave no traces behind them and are characterised by the study of things,
(2) practical arts that consist of an action of the artist without leaving a product, and
(3) productive arts that leave behind an object.
Productive art that leaves behind a concrete product that simulates other concrete products.
Semiological determinacy Painting and poetry can evoke determinate associations, Music and Architecture usually do not. Blended referential and non referential signification.
Table 1.1 - Modern western criterior for the classifications of art

1.2 Re-synthesis

A brief analysis of the third column of table 1.1, reveals some of the qualities and problems inherent in the Gesamtkunstwerk. In particular it may be observed that the re-synthesis of some classes may be more difficult to achieve than others. Of the five classifications presented, the medium and the residue are - in this case - prescribed by the technology used for reproduction. This technology can incorporate enough information to accomodate multiple simultaneous purposes. The treatment of mixed signification presents some problems during the production of the Gesamtkunstwerk, given the strengths of existing visualisation software, although it is not too difficult to resolve theoretically. The fusion of dimensional qualities constitutes the major difficulty in the conceptualisation of Gesamtkunstwerk.

1.3 Alternative Perspectives

There is no mathematical formula with which to translate one dimensional time into three dimensional space. Ultimately it is not necessary to approach the design of artistic works concerned with relating disparate artistic phenomena by using an approach based on the logical positivism philosophically fundamental to the natural sciences. One of the great commonalities of all artistic disciplines is a concern with the subjective perception of human beings. Because science posits no explanation of the subject -being concerned only with physical objects - alternate schools of philosophy such as existential phenomenology generally offer more useful models of human consciousness with which to develop art doctrine. In the words of Henri Bergson, "Our perceptions give us the plan of our eventual action on things much more than that of things themselves."[1]

2 Das Gesamtkunstwerk

2.1 Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk

The idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk or "great work" was first proposed in the late 1840's by Richard Wagner in his paper, The Artwork of the Future. [2] For Wagner, his music theatre works realised the dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk by bringing together the great arts of Painting, Music and Drama as a unity. He expresses a poor opinion of "sister dance", and the stark functionality of his Bayreuth theatre may be seen as a testament to his ideas on Architecture as art. Despite Wagner's artistic preferences, the definition of the Gesamtkunstwerk stipulates that it be a fusion of all arts; qualitative evaluations of any discipline's right for inclusion aside. Therefore, if the arts are to be fused, then aspects of the Visual Arts, Architecture, Dance, Music, Sculpture and Theatre should all be present in equal measure before a work should be considered a Gesamtkunstwerk.

2.2 Approaching a Definition

At this point it becomes necessary to attempt to define or perhaps re-define what the Gesamtkunstwerk actually is. Ultimately Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk was not a fusion of all arts but a combination of a few. If the "great work" is truly a fusion of all arts, would this not demand the semiological ambiguity and a representation of dimensional folding described in section 1.1? This was believed to be the case during the last decades of the nineteenth century as the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk evolved within the Zeitgeist of time and space that permeated European artistic thought at this time. In the spirit of that age, the Gesamtkunstwerk was believed to constitute a fusion of all arts, that would exhibit profound aesthetic resonance and even present itself as a metaphysical epiphany. Cubism, Abstract Art and Suprematism are all examples of such concerns in painting while spatial and morphological concerns in Music, and temporal concerns in Architecture also emerged as a result of this "culture of time and space." [3]

2.3 A Near Miss

Two young Parisians greatly influenced by these ideas were the architect Le Corbusier and the composer Edgar Varese. These two men were prominent in the creation of an exhibit for the 1958 world fair that is often regarded as both a forerunner of Virtual Reality and as an example of the Gesamtkunstwerk. "Although a little building of brief life span, the 1958 Philips Pavilion, with its spectacle of amplified sound and rhythmically orchestrated light and colour, was a landmark in electronic media technology that concomitantly tested the limits of Architecture, both concrete and virtual. When seen against the buildings and arts of its time, when seen as Le Corbusier's synthesis of the arts, the Philips project assumes justified importance. While in some ways neither the Architecture nor the spectacle fully realized its complete potential, in other ways all aspects of the project were prescient. If the Philips project did not locate the precise point at which all the arts - traditional and electronic -would intersect some time in the future, it did provide the unquestionable directional signs toward that point." [4]

Above: Le Corbusier shielding Edgar Varese from Louis Kalff of the Philips corporation as they stand beside the completed Philips Pavillion in Brussels, 1958.

2.4 A New Approach

At the turn of the twentieth century, the cognition of art was investigated by the German Philosopher/Psychologist, Christian von Ehrenfels. Ehrenfels was a Professor at the German University in Prague from 1896 until 1925. His, On Gestalt Qualities [5] of 1890 was a reflection on "what complex perceived formations such as spatial figures or melodies might be." [6] The paper began with a terminological proposal that the German word "Gestalt", which means shape, figure or form, should be generalised in a certain way. For Ehrenfels, a Gestalt quality, "is not a combination of elements but something new in relation to these, which exists together with their combination, but is distinguishable from it".[7] Ehrenfels recognised that Gestalten involving spatial shape could be analogous to Gestalten involving objects that have a complexity that is extended in time.

The basis of Ehrenfel's approach did not involve a reduction of either melody or spatial figure to physical attributes in order to derive commonality. He regarded these simple artistic articulations rather as phenomena, and as such their structures were better understood as they presented themselves to consciousness, without recourse to theory, deduction, or assumptions of other disciplines such as the physical sciences. According to this approach, perception initially presents a unified whole or Gestalt which then reveals layers of elements in structured relationships. This approach to knowledge is based on the ideas of Phenomenology, and with its various derivative schools of thought, Phenomenology constitutes a highly effective philosophy to employ in the creation of Gesamtkunstwerke. It provides the only tool with which to solve the problem of dimensional translation intrinsic to the successful realisation of the Gesamtkunstwerk. The Gestalt tradition in particular suggests various means by which to create strong associations between aural and visual phenomena in order to create profound illusions of unity.

3 Gestalt Psychology

3.1 The Berlin School

The emergence of Gestalt theory as a general theory of psychological phenomena, processes and application is recognised to have taken place in Berlin around 1912. The work of Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, Kurt Koffka, and Kurt Lewin at this time established Gestalt Psychology as a major field of perceptual psychology. Drawing on Phenomenology as it does, Gestalt theory is opposed to the elementistic approach to psychological events as in associationism, behaviorism, and psychoanalysis. Methodologically, it involves a meaningful integration of experimental and phenomenological procedure and approaches phenomena without a reduction of experimental precision.

3.2 Gestalt Grouping

In his Laws of Organization in Perceptual Forms[8] Max Wertheimer explains that during the cognition of sensation, phenomena are initially parsed into groups. These groups are made on the basis of attributes such as those set out in table 3.1.

Proximity Things that are are located in close proximity to each other are inferred to be a group.
Similarity If objects are similarly spaced, then those of like shape will be regarded as being related.
Symmetry The random arrangement of most objects in nature means that those that exhibit symmetry will be seen as being related.
Good Continuation If objects are arranged in such a way that they are collinear, or appear to continue each other, they are grouped as a whole.
Common Fate Objects that move together are most likely connected in some way.
Table 3.1 - Some forms of Gestalt grouping.

Gestalt groupings provide artists with a powerful means to create relationships between spatial phenomena that have audible or visible attributes. Of the five grouping types shown, Common Fate is the most powerful type. A good example of grouping disparate phenomena using common fate in the present context would be to synchronise the motion through space of a source of light and sound.

3.3 Isomorphism

Gestalt grouping is not the only technique offered by Gestalt Psychology in order to create low-level associations between phenemena sensed by different sensory modalities. A visible structure and an audible structure that share the same structure of operations and relations are said to be "isomorphic". In Gestalt psychology, a one-to-one correspondence between elemental attributes is not essential for relationships to be discerned; structural similarity is another powerful form or relationship. Such isomorphism may be regarded as a means by which to fold dimensional material within spatio-temporal Gesamtkunstwerke. This permits works to take forms other than the tubular representation of space-time permitted by an approach based on physical sciences.

4.1 The Silence of Speculation.

It is interesting to speculate at this stage how the proliferation of Gesamtkunstwerk as Virtual Reality will influence traditional art idioms. Speculations regarding the impact of Virtual Reality on arts have been published at an increasing rate over the last decade. Often however these speculations fail to consider that design aspects of more than one or two disciplines are involved within a Virtual Reality. The dominance of occularity has meant that many art theorists have tended to envisage Virtual Reality as being as silent and mute as the cinematic arts when they were first developed. Bound to conventions - technological and otherwise - established during the silent era, music is still part of the post production process in most cinematic production.

Virtual worlds can employ the power of musical technique to effect the perception of temporality. Furthermore - the idea of being "immersed" is itself largely derivative of our perception of the world as we hear it - hearing is the only sense which provides us with a circumambient sense of space. Ultimately, without the integration of sound as an integral design aspect, Virtual Reality will resemble a gaudy electronic version of a late 20th century shopping mall - complete with piped Music.

4.2 Music

In Virtual Reality sonic art has the chance to return to splendour. This will be largely dependant on sound art practitioners coming to terms en masse with the compositional implications of synthetic 3D sound pieces. In most Music, the source of a sound is usually static spatially. At a concert of orchestral Music, the string section doesnt fly through the air as they bow, and the brass section doesnt bob up and down ten feet below your chair. At a rock concert, although the guitarist might fly overhead, usually the P.A. system doesnt. At home, it is most common to listen to Music using two speakers which allow content that may seem to move across the stereo field. As people become more used to Gesamtkunstwerk in which the motion of a sound source becomes an important and expected component of a piece, listeners will come to desire this in situations where there is no visual media.

Musicians will change the way they conceptualise sound art pieces to bring Music closer to the other arts. The sonic pallette available to Musicians in the 21st century will render many traditional lattice based approaches to Music composition obsolete. Musicographical [9] categories of musical events such as texture, hue, intensity, mass, volume, and density will come to dominate categories such as pitch, rhythm and harmony which are functionally dependent on instruments with static and limited colouration. The mnemonic system of Music notation will continue to serve the anthropological function of preserving musics which rely on it, but will largely make way for communication via recorded media and graphic systems of sonic representation in technologically advanced cultures.

4.3 Architecture

Architecture will not need to be a mute and static environment. Sounds may not need to be attributable only to concealed speakers: they may become integrated aspects of a liquid Architecture that integrate sounds as installations. This may draw on models developed in the virtual context. William Mitchell predicts in his book City of Bits that there will be "profound ideological significance in the Architectural recombinants that follow from electronic dissolution of the traditional building types and of spatial and temporal patterns."[10]

Using the perceptual-conceptual bridges of Gestalt Psychology, cross fertilisation between artistic disciplines could accelerate greatly. This could be particularly so between the arts of time and space. Architects will find new ways of drawing on Musical form to create structures that are in some ways isomorphic to Musical compositions. Perhaps much like Music, Architecture will abandon paper as a design medium and move entirely into the digital domain.

5 Conclusion

It is traditional amongst romantic thinkers to construe Gesamtkunstwerke as symbolic representations of a higher truths - as though a successful synthesis of the arts will represent for humankind phenomenally the profound and unifying truths that science seeks to define mathematically. Were this the case, it would be an ambitious exercise to attempt the definition of an art that by all other dialectical approaches still defies description. All such ideas are of course fundamentally conjectural. That Gesamtkunstwerke have any definitive objective qualities at all is also open to debate. The interpretation of art is intrinsically subjective - and as already noted - science and its philosophy posit no model of the subject for artists to draw on. This is indicative of the usefulness of Gestalt Psychology - Phenomenology can explain the existence of science, but science cant explain Phenomenology. Yet to completely absorb the phenomenological perspective requires almost an inversion of the dominant occidental world view. For many that wouldnt be such a bad thing.

6 Footnotes

[1] Henri Bergson. Creative Evolution. trans, Arthur Mitchell. New York: H. Holt and company, 1911.

[2] Richard Wagner. "Artwork of the future." in CorrespondenceSelected letters of Richard Wagner. translated and edited by Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington. London : J.M. Dent, 1987.

[3] Stephen Kern, The culture of time and space 1880-1918. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 1983.

[4] Marc Treib. Space Calculated in Seconds. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1996. p.33

[5] Barry Smith. Foundations of Gestalt Psychology. Munchen, Wien: Philosophia Verlag, 1988. pp. 83-117

[6] ibid. p.12.

[7] ibid. p.17.

[8] Max Wertheimer. "Laws of Organization in Perceptual Forms". (1923) in Ellis, W. A source book of Gestalt psychology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (pp. 71-88). 1938.

[9] Carlos Palombini. Pierre Schaeffer's Typo-Morphology of Sonic Objects. PhD Dissertation, University of Durham, School of Music, 1993. p. vi

[10] William. J Mitchell. City of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1995. p.

7 Bibliography

Arnheim, Rudolf. New essays on the psychology of art. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1986.

Bragdon, Claude. The Beautiful Necessity - Architecture as frozen Music. Wheaton, Ill. : Theosophical Pub. House, 1978, (c1939).

Martin, John H. "Coding and Processing of Sensory Information" in Principles of Neural Science, edited by Eric R Kandel, James H. Schwartz and Thomas M. Jessel. London: Prentice Hall, 1991.

Mattis, Olivia. Edgard Varese and the visual arts. Diss. (Ph. D.): Stanford University, 1992.

Ong, Tze-Boon. Music as a generative process in Architectural form and space composition. Diss. Rice university: Houston, Texas, 1994.

Priest, Stephen. Merleau-Ponty / Stephen Priest. London : Routledge, 1998.

Toy, Maggie. ed. Hypersurface Architecture II. Great Britain: John Wiley & sons, 1999.

Yi, Dae-Am. Musical Analogy in Gothic and Renaissance Architecture. Diss. University of Sydney: Sydney, Australia, 1991.

8 Online Resources

Gestalt Psychology

Philosophy and Epistemology


Virtual Reality