Erik Vogt Delivers Inaugural Lecture as Gwendolyn Miles Smith Professor of Philosophy

Delving into an oft-debated aesthetic-political genre: the "case of Richard Wagner"
Erik Vogt, Gwendolyn Miles Smith Professor of Philosophy at Trinity College, delivered his inaugural lecture February 24 to an appreciative audience in the McCook Auditorium at Trinity. Entitled “The Philosophers and Richard Wagner,” the presentation delved into three philosophers’ interpretations of the problematic yet far-reaching “case of Richard Wagner,” which Vogt described as an aesthetic-political genre known for a great deal of “philosophical debate about the constellation of music, theater, mythology, and community.”

L-R: President James F. Jones, Jr.; Tom Mitzel, Dean of Faculty and Vice President of Academic Affairs; Olga Timofeyeva-Vogt; Erik Vogt, Gwendolyn Miles Smith Professor of Philosophy (Photo: John Marinelli​)
Richard Wagner, the 19th-century German composer, theater director, polemicist, and conductor, is primarily known for his operas, including The Ring of the Nibelung, a cycle of four epic operas. Vogt’s lecture centered on the controversial question as to whether the notion of “gesamtkunstwerk” (total work of art) provides the interpretive key for an adequate understanding of the aesthetic and political effects commonly ascribed to Wagner’s music dramas.

Vogt enumerated dozens of philosophers, writers, painters, and film makers—noting it was only a partial list—who have studied and debated Wagner’s work and the relationship of music drama and gesamtkunstwerk. Vogt focused on the writings of three specific philosophers who have addressed the subject: Theodor W. Adorno, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Alain Badiou.

Looking through the prisms of the three philosophers, Vogt led the audience through the aesthetic and historical considerations. For example, he analyzed Adorno’s seminal study, “In Search of Wagner,” in which the coexistence of two seemingly opposing views of the gesamtkunstwerk in Wagner’s work are detailed. One view, Vogt explained, presents the gesamtkunstwerk as “protest against the bourgeoisification of art (in opera).” At the same time, Adorno showed evidence of Wagner’s attempt to turn the gesamtkunstwerk into a substitute for politics proper. 

Vogt spoke of the “indissoluble link between the synthesizing and totalizing programme of the gesamtkunstwerk and political totalitariansim” that Adorno finds rampant in Wagner’s work. Adorno pointed to the “overpowering beat and authoritarian-regressive theatrical elements” employed in a repetitive manner in Wagner’s works. Additionally, Vogt walked the audience through Adorno’s analysis of time and temporality in Wagnerian music.

One of Lacoue-Labarthe’s observations on the subject, Vogt said, was that “both Wagnerian art and National Socialism must be interpreted in terms of national-aestheticist strategies aiming for the re-birth of ancient tragedy.” Further, Lacoue-Labarthe held that gesamtkunstwerk served as the political model of National Socialism.

Meanwhile, the observations of Badiou, said Vogt, included that it is only by uncoupling Wagnerian music dramas from the totality of Gesamtkunstwerk that it is possible to re-think Wagnerian art in such a way that it is no longer fused with totality, but actually negates totality.

In his concluding remarks, Vogt observed that “the Wagnerian search of totality generates ever more fragments that illuminate the whole and question the meaning of the whole.”  He noted as well that “the truth of the Ring might be present in the very interstices between music drama and gesamtkunstwerk.”

In addition to Vogt’s position in the philosophy department at Trinity, he is Universitats-Dozen in the department of philosophy at the University of Vienna in Austria, as well as vice president and treasurer of the Society for The Philosophic Study of Genocide and the Holocaust. His main research interests are aesthetics and political theory.
Vogt, who has been a faculty member at Trinity since 2002, is the author of four books and a forthcoming book on the aesthetic-political readings of Wagner. Vogt is the editor or co-editor of 11 volumes and the translator of more than 20 books. He earned his master’s degree, Ph.D. and Univ.-Doz. from the University of Vienna, Austria.

The Gwendolyn Miles Smith Presidential Chair was endowed in 1995 with a bequest from Gwendolyn Miles Smith in support of a professorship in an academic department or program as determined by the president and the dean of the faculty. Earlier gifts from the couple resulted in the opening of the Allan K. Smith and Gwendolyn Miles Smith Alumni-Faculty House in 1990 and 1985, the endowment of two professorial chairs in the College’s English department and the Writing Center, and additional funding for faculty support.
Gwendolyn Smith received the doctor of humane letters, honoris causa, from Trinity in 1989. Her husband, Allan K. Smith, was a member of the Class of 1911. She was an active volunteer in the Hartford community, serving as president of the Hartford YWCA, president of the Women’s Board of the Hartford Seminary Foundation, and a member of the Vestry of Trinity Episcopal Church. She served as a trustee of the Hartford College for Women for 12 years and was a member of the Women’s Committee of the Wadsworth Atheneum and president of the Town and County Club.

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