Mythological German Artist Joseph Beuys

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Joseph Beuys on the cover of Der Spiegel 5 November 1979
Joseph Beuys, on the cover of Der Spiegel, 5 November 1979

Joseph Beuys is considered by some as the most important of the post-war period – a sculptor, performance artist, teacher and political activist who shifted the emphasis away from the artist as ‘object maker’ to focus on his opinions, his personality and his actions. To others he was a conman and a showman. Francesco Bonami explores how contemporary artists have both borrowed from and developed his approach

Mechanical failures have often inadvertently shaped art history. Jackson Pollock’s fatal car crash in 1956 and Pino Pascali’s death in a motorcycle accident in 1968 immortalised the two artists. When Joseph Beuys’s Stuka plane crashed in the Crimea in 1944, he survived. A group of nomadic Tartars found him and wrapped him in fat and felt to keep him warm. It was a story that not only defined the source of his artistic materials, but also one that became an integral and enduring part of Beuys’s legend.

However, the creation of a personal mythology is not without its dangers. One of the most melancholic images in the history of modern art is the Joseph Beuys two-part multiple Enterprise 1973. The right-hand section is a photograph set in a metal box that shows the artist and his three children at home watching an episode of Star Trek on TV. The room is bare: they could be in any nondescript American motel. Despite that, they look relaxed and comfortable – except Beuys, who sits uneasily behind them, his gaze not fixed on the TV, his thoughts elsewhere, perhaps ruminating on how the future would judge his own contribution to the world.

Even after his death in 1986, at the age of 64, Beuys remains an influential and complicated figure. He used the framework of artistic practice to build a style that mixed politics, anthropology and Celtic and Christian mythology, through which he presented a loose philosophy manifested in his many installations, performances, lectures and sculptures. As a result, by the end of his career he emerged as an activist, a ‘social sculptor’ intent on sociopolitical reform.

Joseph Beuys talking to Richard Hamilton at Tate 1972

Joseph Beuys talking to Richard Hamilton at Tate 1972

© Tate 2005

His methods were never conventional. The most poignant example of this was his work as a political activist. He was involved in establishing the German Student Party in 1967 and later, with Joschka Fisher, the Green Party. Both groups were very active and highly visible, and in line with this Beuys felt the need to construct a powerful aesthetic around his actions and his performances, so that they would be remembered – a sensibility that he wanted people to regard as almost spiritual in nature. He believed he could single-handedly change the world, as well as influence the entire future of art.

Over the decades, Beuys’s ‘religion’ and his political goals never had the impact he would have wished. But his approach to art did have an effect. Breaking the boundaries of artistic practice, he allowed a more fluid definition of what an artist was and what an artist did. Today, a wide number of artists, working in a variety of ways, have inherited – if that is possible – aspects of the Beuys sensibility, though in each case for very different ends.

Thomas Hirschhorn’s work often has a social agenda with a political undertone. His 2002 Bataille Monument at documenta 11, the international exhibition in Kassel, saw residents of a German suburb build, install and invigilate a series of eight makeshift shacks, including a library with a topography of Bataille’s work, a television studio and a snack bar. Like many of his team-based projects, the emphasis was on social investigation, leading an audience beyond that of the gallery-attending public to find out about art for themselves, using Hirschhorn’s ideas as a framework. He has said that his approach to the political within his work is ‘a tool by which to experience the time in which I am living’. There are echoes of his predecessor’s practice, but Beuys favoured the tactics of loud, visible campaigning and protestation, hoping to attract a type of following normally enjoyed by influential political leaders. Hirschhorn’s preferred modus operandi is explicitly as an artist: rather than promote himself, he promotes the work. As he said recently: ‘I am an artist, not a social worker.’

While Hirschhorn’s stance works as a form of social participation, Maurizio Cattelan upturns the Beuys myth of the artist shaman and plays games with his legacy. The clearest example is Cattelan’s sculpture La rivoluzione siamo (We Are the Revolution) of 2000, in which a cast of himself, wearing a shrunken grey, felt suit, hangs from a coat hanger. It is a simple and witty reference to one of Beuys’s iconic works – Felt Suit 1970. Cattelan’s suit sad-looking figure suggests, somewhat contentiously, that Beuys has become a footnote in art history.

Beuys’s ambition to play a larger role in society is seen by Cattelan, and many of his colleagues, as delusional. As director and screenplay writer David Mamet suggested, art cannot really change the world, but it can prompt you to think about the world from a different angle, which, once you step out of the fiction of art, may help to make some changes in your life and eventually to the world. That’s a view today’s artists seem to share, which is perhaps why Beuys appears more as a conservative character than an innovative one: a born-again artist, we could say; someone who trusts only his own strong interpretation of his faith and his language, and holds on to the notion that his art could and would directly change the world.

Cattelan has made a career out of lampooning the behaviour of the art world, and his work thrives on account of his humour – in this case, at the expense of Beuys. In contrast, Beuys was a serious artist, who took himself very seriously, and whose work (unlike that of his contemporary Marcel Broodthaers) certainly lacked a sense of humour. He concentrated, perhaps too much, on spreading his word and on his Salvation Army-like strategy within an art world that in the 1970s was crippled by political schizophrenia. And his relentless self-promotion and determined politicisation of his words and actions became inseparable. For Beuys, the politics surrounding his work were much more clearly designated and driven by the difficulties inherent in post-war Germany.

When Beuys was alive, there was a belief that people could change things. He believed, somewhat paradoxically, in the idea that ‘everybody is an artist’, while his art was a one-man show. Succeeding generations have been very careful to clarify their positions as artists. For example, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Gabriel Orozco (both of whom have borrowed his focus on the active involvement of the viewer) are very clear in their minds that their role in society is one of an artist not political activist.

Beuys knew that he was an artist (and in some ways a very conventional one), who used his materials in a very classical way. Yet he understood, ahead of time, that the political storm and social transformation that arrived with the 1960s student revolutions would not have allowed him to play the artist any longer. As a member of an elite – the art world – Beuys did not see any possible survival in a political mood that was going to crush any kind of elite, be it economic, political, or religious. In a proactive move, he transformed himself into something else: a creative conman, a visual preacher, a political candidate – whatever was necessary to cross that moment in history and to emerge with a charismatic aura. And he succeeded by disguising himself as a man of economics. Under his new persona he tried to theorise an economic system by which to regulate the world through art. He knew it was not possible, but in the 1970s, an age delusionally attempting to subvert the economic rules of the Western game, he understood that he could utilise his gimmicks to perform an ambiguous role within his own defined community.

It is questionable whether any artist today could try the same approach – particularly the political preaching – without being ridiculed. And his physical appearance – the trademark hat, the fishing waistcoat – now looks like part of a strategy that belongs in the past. Integrating with the rest of society is now a better way for artists to infiltrate the communication channels, open up a dialogue and define their identity through the specificity of their artistic language.

The Polish artist Pawel Althamer, who we could name as a Beuys of the twenty-first century, has diluted the heroic and epic mood of Beuys’s days. A sculptor, performance and action artist and creator of installations and video art, he reflects upon the role and place of art, in particular in large cities. Himself a resident of a vast housing block in the Bródno district of Warsaw, he observed, collected and documented examples of the spontaneous artistic activities of his neighbours. He has also organised projects in co-operation with them, including the action Bródno 2000, during which the people living at 13 Krasnobrodzka Street created a vast ‘2000’ sign by turning on lights in specific windows. If Beuys’s ambition was to move through the darkness of life with a full-blown torch, today’s artists, such as Althamer, seem to be more interested in looking into the simple, but mysterious corners of daily life with the help of just a light bulb.

Pawel Althamer, The Dancers 1997 Video still

Pawel Althamer,
The Dancers 1997
Video still

© Courtesy Foksal Gallery Foundation

Beuys’s spectacular myth-making addressed a powerfully charged historical moment. He showed great contempt towards post-war Germany’s concentration on monetary recovery by adopting an artistic language of signs and symbols, characterised by his deliberate use of earthy, organic materials, including fat, felt, coal, olive oil and blood. He used these with precision to give grave symbolic meaning to his many vitrine installations and actions – and to provide his art with an enduring and immediately recognisable signature for which he would be remembered.

If there is one artist today who embraces Beuys’s love of myth and symbols, then it is Matthew Barney. In his cycle of films, the Cremaster series, he creates a parallel world of signs and actions, with a myriad of seemingly unconnected events taking place in strange, architecturally spectacular and surreal environments. As with Beuys, there is a strong focus on the physicality of the materials, often unspecified – such as the seeping white liquid mess (perhaps a descendent of Beuys’s fat?) that one of the protagonists finds himself stuck in. But Barney’s personal mythology is so opaque that we are not given any clues as to where he is going with his imagery. While Beuys deliberately ensured his art had the aura of a shrine, Barney uses the moving image to keep his work away from any semblance of reality.

The public role that Beuys played in his life seems less effective as a way of working in the twenty-first century. He liked the action and the polemics. He liked gigantic projects. His 7000 Oaks in 1982 at documenta 7, for example, took five years to complete, and saw him planning and implementing the planting of 7,000 trees, each paired with a columnar basalt stone throughout the city of Kassel. He intended this to be the first stage in an ongoing scheme of tree planting to extend across the world, as part of a global mission to effect environmental and social change.

Francis Alys When Faith Moves Mountains 2002 Video still

Francis Alýs
When Faith Moves Mountains 2002
Video still

© Courtesy Galerie Peter Kilchman, Zurich

Many of today’s artists seem more tame, if no less convinced that their role in society is as seminal and pivotal as that of their predecessor. They are more likely to respond with a symphony of whispers, a concert of hushed proclamations. Francis Alÿs’s Peruvian project When Faith Moves Mountains 2002, in which 500 people supplied with shovels moved a 1,600ft long sand dune four inches from its original position, was the kind of work, however grand in scale, that didn’t necessarily demand that anyone actually witness it.

Beuys’s sense of the physical belongs more to a modern sensibility than to a contemporary one. He is maybe the last member of a Brancusian family tree, rather than the first in a contemporary art lineage. The energy he talked about was that burned by the body in order to survive the effort of living. The Italian student movement of the time called for the harnessing of the power of the imagination, but that was never really an option for Beuys. Now artists such as Carsten Höller, Olafur Eliasson, Suchan Kinoshita or Koo Jeong-a have learned they cannot rely on the physical experience of our reality, and have chosen to search for the alternative energy of the mind, soul and feelings; to activate the power of our imagination to survive and succeed, maybe not in the Caucasian tundra, but more safely and peacefully in our no less uncertain times.

The Fat is on the Table
Maurizio Cattelan on Joseph Beuys

beuys is dead
beuys is also uniting love and knowledge
beuys is more present in a desert freak
beuys is sponsored by museum für moderne kunst
beuys is appointed professor of sculpture at the düsseldorf academy of art
beuys extends ulysses by two chapters at the request of james joyce
beuys is surely not a sartre follower, but of course there are many parallels
beuys is mentioned next to steiner
beuys is back in town
beuys is back in belgium, in berlin, US, active in germany
beuys is the contemporary artist responsible for the popular notion that politics is an aesthetic activity that anyone can engage in
beuys is inspired by steiner
beuys is not so reactionary as to deny the existence of the entire art history repertoire
beuys is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential post-war german artists
beuys is the identification with everything from mythological figures and historical personages to writers and artists
beuys is a mythical figure in the art world, however
beuys is particularly significant in the light of his introspective research on the possible reunification of human and natural life
beuys is in the creation of the social sculpture
beuys is either loved or hated
beuys is considered one of the most
beuys is widely regarded as one of the most important german artists since world war II
beuys is demanding sun instead of rain/reagan
beuys is more like an evangelist
beuys is famous for an extraordinary body of drawings
beuys is such an obvious candidate; he started making art following a breakdown that was a result of his experiences in world war II
beuys is represented in depth in dia’s permanent collection
beuys is
beuys is among the most famous of today’s artists
beuys is one of the most famous performance artists
beuys is valid because wolfgang laib shares his belief in the transcendent power of art
beuys is another sculptor that
beuys is one of the major figures in post-war german art
beuys is known for his shamanistic artist’s persona
beuys is among the world’s most comprehensive
beuys is in these digital photographs represented not by him directly
beuys is a real people’s artist understood by a professor
beuys is megjelent a kövek mellett és hamarosan heves vita bontakozott ki közte és a közönség között
beuys is a 1972 lithograph in which the essential feature is that of beuys as everyman
beuys is elvesztette
beuys is átvett és ami interszubjektiv jellege miatt nem volt
beuys is called to account by his presumptive offspring
beuys is veel materiaal verdwenen
beuys is questioned by the activities of maclennan
beuys is instructive
beuys is very important in mail art
beuys is understandable
beuys is known to
beuys is not completed by his death
beuys is i was never secure and happy in the world of galleries from the very beginning
beuys is and how it is pronounced
beuys is cleverly recontextualised in
beuys is of course enormously interesting
beuys is l’eminence grise of community building as an art form
beuys is interested in the proportions between crystal and amorphous states
beuys is able to evoke the experience of the past
beuys is a magnificent
beuys is based on three stages
beuys is a special case because of the build-up of a curious sense of obligation to respond positively
beuys is the generation of my father
beuys is talking about the much wider concept of creative potential
beuys is regarded as one of the most significant personalities of the past
beuys is steeped in the struggle of world war II
beuys is a big influence right now
beuys is unavoidable
beuys is purely a decorative artist
beuys is hype
beuys is cited as the great collaborator of the twentieth century because
beuys believed everybody was a potential artist
beuys is on e-bay
beuys is a mythical figure in
beuys is one artist i wanted to ask you about
beuys is one of the biggest art world phonies of recent years
beuys is probably unique in the history of art
beuys is supposed
beuys is a very controversial sculptor
beuys is grounded in a tradition of narrative sources that is often absent in american art of the same period
beuys is hardly a household name in the history of twentieth-century art
beuys is the great shaman of twentieth-century art
beuys is represented with his monumental work created shortly before his death, lightning with stag in its glare
beuys is best known for declaring “everyone an artist”; koons seems to declare that everyone is a consumer

Für Joseph Beuys
Tag seines Todes –
Von Rebecca Horn

Als Gegebenheit
die ewige Wunde
sie schützen bedecken sie isolieren
den Tropfenfluß in einem selbstgewählten Pumpsystem bewahren
daraus die Energie gewinnen
sie leiten
die bläulich gewonnene Materie
in einen Kreislauf binden
und ihm in einem gegenläufigen Konzert
zum Tanz des Sternenregens folgen

For Joseph Beuys
The Day of his Death –
By Rebecca Horn

As a fact
the eternal wound
protecting covering isolating
collecting the drip flow in his chosen pump system
extracting the energy out of it
conducting
the bluely extracted matter
connecting into a circulation
following him into a concert in reverse
to the dance of showering stars

Translation: Fiona Elliott with Rebecca Horn

The Spirit of Change
By Keith Tyson

When I first came across Joseph Beuys’s work, I thought it was impenetrable, because I was looking for something specific. But to fetishise his work, to see it as relics, seems like a sin to me, considering that’s not where his primary activity was. He was a polymath, who was interested in everything from language to physical energy systems. He saw the world as one homogeneous soup, one big whole through which we have to navigate the most compassionate route. Ultimately, I think an artist can do no more than that. He had a primitive view of being an artist, in that he was a shaman, a visionary. He was the same person who would walk in and say: ‘We need to build a huge new church in this clearing, so we need to invent a new type of buttress, so we can get a massive spire.’ It is nutters like that who can change society.

The idea that things are both real and symbolic, while part of a wider system, and that all that thought and action has a consequence, is the best form of consciousness to assume. Although I may fumble in my steps, that is what I try to do. I’m trying to look at a wider picture. When people criticise my work, it’s usually because they want to see some beautiful painting or amazing sculpture, but really all my work is a signpost to something else. So I have a lot of time for Beuys in that respect.

He called society a ‘sculptural structure’, one that needs healing from itself. He was trying to cause a change and give a gift back to his fellowman through the action of a lecture or an artwork. I do find some of it problematic though, such as the deep mythology he invented, which becomes more of an adoration of the freakish than being a truly communicative vehicle. Then again, it was necessary because he was trying to tap into something essential. I realise it’s a nebulous idea. Marina Warner got it just right when she was contrasting Warhol and Beuys. She said: ‘While Andy Warhol copied things, saying he wanted to be like a machine, Beuys intervened, communicated his dreams, and wanted to change the world.’ But for some reason the art world seems to have taken the other path, the Pop art Warhol path, just reflecting back culture’s mechanics, and not questioning them, not talking about them, not investing them with any power, choosing instead to act in irony and with cynicism, and using those things to instigate change. But those things don’t produce change; they are just a narcissistic response to culture.

Beuys, on the other hand, no matter how bizarre his methodology, was essentially a positive artist, which is interesting when you remember that, at the time when he was working, people were extremely jaded – what with the Second World War and Vietnam. He didn’t have an optimistic environment in which to act: people looked to the empowerment of the 1960s and the failure of the associated movements, and thought that there was no point.

The notion that he believed his actions and those of any one man could transform the world is a misreading of him. His was not the idea of an individual Übermensch striding out into the landscape. He understood that the activity he was contributing was catalytic. It required everybody to make changes. He offered the possibilities, and tried to do it in the most expansive way. He understood that it had to be an integrated, group effort.

frieze magazine

Issue 101 September 2006 RSS

Class Action

Joseph Beuys set up more educational institutions and political parties than most people know jokes. Was he, as has been claimed, aspiring to be the last Modernist visionary or seeking to undermine the role of authority figures by becoming one himself?

image‘To be a teacher is my greatest work of art’, said Beuys in 1969.1 He had a point. Beuys’ persona has arguably come to be perceived as one of the most iconic embodiments of the artist as teacher in postwar art. As a professor at the Dusseldorf Academy in the 1960s, in his political activism of the 1970s and in his performances and lectures Beuys incorporated the role of the teacher to great public effect and in various guises, ranging from progressive art instructor to political agitator to self-styled spiritual educator and messianic healer.

One major consequence of the way Beuys foregrounded teaching in his artistic practice was that his work has come to be interpreted predominantly on the basis of the theories that he himself taught. It seems no coincidence, however, that Minimal and Conceptual artists in the US at the same time were also discovering critical writing as a means of preparing the ground for the reception of their work. In fact a certain ‘pedagogical turn’ seems to mark the historical developments of the 1960s as artists, through teaching and writing, increasingly began to integrate theory into their practice as a tool to produce their own discourse and effectively also steer the interpretation of their work.

The nature of these theories is, of course, where the similarity between Beuys and his American contemporaries ends. While the lesson of Minimal and Conceptual art is analytical in essence and implies that art should reflect and change its material conditions, the teachings of Beuys are a syncretic brew of Modernist myths and endorse art as the cure for alienated humanity through the release of its primordial creativity. As a result of this disparity, the generation of American critics then writing for Artforum and later for October succeeded in developing the analytical momentum of Minimal and Conceptual art into a fully fledged contemporary art history, whereas Beuys’ interpreters and disciples never really managed to unravel the murky belief system underpinning his teachings. What makes it so difficult to engage with Beuys today, therefore, is that the work is still wrapped in a thick cocoon of ideology just as his pedagogical practice continues to be overshadowed by the mythical persona of spiritual guide that he later assumed. Yet just as new perspectives on Minimal and Conceptual art have in recent years been opened up through the highlighting of aspects and positions that had previously been sidelined by the canonical self-interpretation of these movements, so it could now be productive to penetrate the Beuysian ideology and perhaps uncover some of the complexity, irreverence and even humour of his artistic and pedagogical work.2

An alternative approach to reading Beuys as the ultimate authority when it comes to the interpretation of his work could be to look closely at how he dealt with the issue of authority itself in his work and teaching. In effect, I want to argue that Beuys’ historical relevance lies not, as has often been said, in the fact that he was the last to claim the authoritative position of the Modernist visionary (before Pop and Postmodernism rendered such a position obsolete), but that, on the contrary, in his work and teaching he subjected this model of authority to a process of scrutiny and gradual erosion. This is not to suggest that Beuys ever fully crossed that threshold and abandoned the myths of Modernism as Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter did – both of whom were students in the Dusseldorf academy in the 1960s while Beuys was teaching there, albeit in a different class. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that Beuys was not only affected by, but played a very active role in, the political and cultural upheavals that the Fluxus and student movements instigated at that time. One of the most pivotal issues at stake in these upheavals, particularly in postwar Germany, was precisely the critique of the old models of authority that had remained in place in everyday life and institutional routines throughout the 1950s despite the official ‘de-Nazification’ of the country. In the light of these struggles Beuys’ performances and approach to pedagogy could indeed be seen as a purposeful if largely intuitive attempt to performatively dismantle the role of artist and teacher as a figure of mythic authority in the process of staging it.

The accounts of Beuys’ students collected in Petra Richter’s study Mit, neben, gegen: Die Schüler von Joseph Beuys (with, next to, against: the students of Joseph Beuys, 2000) confirm that a highly ambivalent attitude to his authority as a professor marked Beuys’ teaching style from the moment he took over the sculpture class at the Dusseldorf academy in 1961. On the one hand his approach was radically anti-authoritarian; he rejected teaching art according to a curriculum (which most of his colleagues still did) and instead helped students to develop their work individually, spending up to ten hours a day in the classroom. On the other hand, his critiques of students’ work are reported to have been (at times) uncompromising and delivered with the full force of his professorial authority. In fact Beuys’ reputation for being both too progressive and too provocative initially led every student bar one, Hede Bühl, to leave the class when he took over. The second student to enter the deserted class was my father, Walter Verwoert. My mother, Elfi Weimar, joined some time later as one of a generation of students that included Blinky Palermo, Jörg Immendorff and Rainer Ruthenbeck. So I am writing from the implicated position of being quite literally a child of the idealist spirit of that moment.

My father remembers many situations in which Beuys’ critique of students’ works was highly confrontational. He told me about the time Beuys physically attacked a well-executed realist ceramic sculpture of a monk, slapping its face flat with a broad knife and then drawing a smiley in the flat clay. On another occasion, when the same student, Bonifatius Stirnberg, had sculpted a Crucifixion scene, Beuys put a wooden board in front of it, hiding everything but the heads of the figures, before explaining that religion was after all about mystery. In the same way my father recollects having learnt about the effects of negative volume through Beuys simply carving a big chunk out of the clay sculpture he had just finished. Yet my father says he found these interventions very liberating and in tune with the spirit of the moment. The rough but precise treatment of material that Beuys taught was the same approach he found inspiring in, for instance, Arman’s Accumulations, glass boxes crammed full of numerous identical everyday objects (shown at that time in the Dusseldorf gallery Schmela) or in the performances staged by Yvonne Rainer and Robert Morris at the academy in 1964 (an event financed by Schmela but hosted by the Beuys class). On the whole, my father recounts, the break with the conventions of craft that the materialist aesthetics of Beuys, Nouveau Réalisme and American Minimalism all implied, created an overwhelming sense of, as he puts it, ‘Anything goes. Just go for it.’

However, this sensation of potentiality, my mother tells me, was at times also mixed with an oppressive feeling of turmoil. For instance, she recounts Beuys locking the doors during a performance at the academy by John Cage, thereby granting the students no release from the experience. She describes this physical sense of being locked in a space full of people and forced to undergo an event of an utterly unpredictable nature and duration as the closest she ever came to reliving the nights she spent in a bomb shelter during air raids as a child. Probably the best-known example of actual violence erupting in such a situation is the Fluxus event ‘Festival der neuen Kunst’ at the College of Advanced Technology in Aachen in 1964, when local students were so upset by the onslaught of absurdity unleashed by the performers that they stormed the stage and started a fight. What survived from this clash is the iconic portrait of Beuys with a bloody nose and a commanding stare, one arm raised in a Roman salute and the other stretched out, holding a cruxifix.3 What makes this image so fascinating is that it epitomizes precisely Beuys’ ambivalent relation to authority in this historical moment of change. One the one hand he instigates a provocation that results in chaos; on the other he contains that chaos in a dramatic pose of authority. This pose contains chaos in both senses of the word. It stops the violence through a powerful gesture, yet it also incorporates the clash of forces since Beuys is simultaneously hailing the victor and displaying the martyr in a disturbingly contradictory pose that casts him as both perpetrator and victim.

Beuys indeed had a talent for striking poses that contain chaos. In the performance ÖÖ-Programm (1967), for instance, he staged his public persona as a professor in just such an ambivalent manner. During an official matriculation ceremony at the academy he greeted the new students carrying an axe and uttering inarticulate sounds into the microphone for ten minutes. Beuys adepts will tell you that these noises are supposed to symbolize the secret nature of the creative act – namely, the gradual transformation of the formless into the formed. Be that as it may, I believe the local tabloid Express was nearer to the mark when it reported, ‘Professor barks into microphone!’ This is what happened. Beuys intentionally turned his professorial authority into a laughing stock, but in doing so he pushed humour to the point where it becomes painful. By holding an axe he in fact posed as a lictor, the guard of the Roman magistrates, who, as a symbol of authority, carried an axe wrapped in a bundle of sticks – the so-called fasces. This is where the term ‘fascism’ comes from. It has been observed that Beuys never really addressed the Nazi past in his talks and teachings. I would argue, however, that it was precisely on the level of how he both staged and dismantled mythic authority in his performances that he continuously brought it into play.

A compelling example of this is the performance Der Chef / The Chief. Fluxus Gesang (Fluxus Song), put on in the basement of the René Block gallery in Berlin in 1964. As the entrance to the space was blocked, people could only watch the event through the door. Beuys spent eight hours wrapped in a felt blanket, making inarticulate noises into a microphone linked to a PA system. On each side of the blanket lay one dead rabbit. Among other paraphernalia a copper rod wrapped in felt and patches of margarine and fat were installed in the space. At times a tape of a composition by Danish Fluxus musicians Henning Christiansen and Eric Andersen would be played. After the working day of eight hours was over, Beuys got up and, as my father recounts, took everyone to Block’s flat to cook the rabbits for dinner.5 With laconic directness the title pinpoints the subject of the performance to be authority. In German Chef means ‘boss’, but in colloquial use the word can also serve as a cheery form of address, just as the Spanish jefe or the American ‘boss’ can just mean ‘dude’. In performing the Chef Beuys surely plays the boss by commanding the attention of the viewer and showing off how heroically he gets a tough job done. But by doing the shitty work of grunting into a blanket for half a day Beuys also plays a dude, the fellow worker you sympathize with, and the dude, the man of the moment you admire for putting on quite a show with only a few crappy props.

Walter Benjamin observed that aura is produced through the simultaneous suggestion of distance and proximity. This is the trick Beuys pulls off here. By at once casting himself as the boss and the fellow sufferer, the hero and the martyr, the invisible figure at the centre of attention, he generates an aura around his authority. The auratic Chef therefore is also the Führer, the Duce, the fascist leader. Beuys taps into the mythic source of authority and mobilizes the energies of fascination that constitute auratic leadership. But in so doing he also exorcizes them by exposing the material workings of the ceremony of their invocation. In the process of the performance the auratic effect of Beuys’ theatrical presence is constantly set against the sheer absurdity of a guy in a blanket making inarticulate sounds for hours. Through these noises and the grungy artefacts littering the space the performance produces an excess of physicality that is similar in its effect to an illusionist destroying the illusion by fiddling around with too many props. Der Chef is not about the triumph of auratic authority; rather, it dramatizes the futile desire to make its magic work. It casts the mythic leader as a tragically comic magician not entirely unlike the one played by Tommy Cooper.

It’s hard to say if this deconstructive drive in Beuys’ actions is the manifestation of a conscious effort or of a more intuitive need to work through the mythic grounds of authority. There clearly is an almost compulsive dynamic in the way Beuys returns to, and in his very own way repeats, the ritual of staging auratic leadership that had put Germany, Italy and Spain under its spell. Looking at ÖÖ-Programm, however, you also cannot deny the humour if not glee with which Beuys publicly pushes the ciphers of authority to the point of absurdity. He seems provocatively to incorporate the crisis of authority to act it out. Yet, it is equally clear that he also remains spellbound by its myth and neither as a teacher nor artist ever entirely abandons it. Allegedly because of this, Fluxus pioneer George Macunias, for instance, broke with Beuys as early as 1964 and tried to exclude him from the Fluxus circuit.4 Likewise, Petra Richter observes that Beuys’ position towards the anarchy that his students began to create with increasing intensity towards the end of the 1960s was also ambivalent. He supported the political agitation of Jörg Immendorff and Chris Reinicke, whose activities with the ‘Lidl-academy’ led to a police intervention and the temporary closure of the Dusseldorf academy in 1969. But apparently he strongly disapproved of actions by students who sought cathartic release through pure destruction.

Still, there can be no doubt that his relation to the institution of the academy remained antagonistic. Tensions came to a head in 1971, when Beuys repudiated the official routine of entrance exams and instead offered the rejected applicants unconditional access to his class for a one-year probationary period. As a consequence he was sacked the following year. The postcard multiple Demokratie ist lustig (Democracy is Fun, 1973) shows a photo of his eviction from the academy. Beuys is leaving the school framed by policemen, wearing an old army coat and a broad, knowing smile on his face, again never at a loss for a good pose. Beuys’ dismissal happened only days after the end of Documenta 5, where he had spent the 100 days of the exhibition talking politics with the visitors in the office of the ‘Organization for Direct Democracy by Referendum’ he co-founded in 1971. This organization grew out of two others Beuys had set up previously: the ‘German Student Party’ in 1967 and the ‘Office for Political Public Relations’ in 1970. During the struggles at the academy in 1971 Beuys and writer Heinrich Böll also published a proposal for a long-term project to establish a ‘Free International University’. Finally, in 1979 Beuys was also a founder member of the German Green Party.

Like his artistic cosmology, Beuys’ political theory is largely based on the teachings of the founder of the Anthroposophy movement, Rudolf Steiner. The ideal society is thought to be composed ‘organically’ of three spheres governed semi-autonomously according to their own principles, so that there is liberty in culture, equality in law and solidarity in the economy. Instead of political parties, workers’ councils and direct referendums are to represent the interests of the people. Benjamin Buchloh once gracefully summarized these theories as ‘simple-minded Utopian drivel lacking elementary political and educational practicality’.5 Objectively speaking, that’s what they are. And judging Beuys by his own intentions to enter into politics proper, this verdict is probably unavoidable. Even the Greens got weary of his missionary zeal and sidelined him early on. Yet there is something about the hyper-intensity of Beuys’ political commitment that puts it in an entirely different league. Like the excess of physicality in his performances, his passion for politics and education is just too much. In his life Beuys dreamt up as many political and educational institutions as, say, Aleister Crowley inaugurated occult places of worship. In the same way as we are now beginning to uncover some of the more disruptive moments behind the canon of Modernism, I would suggest that we look at Beuys as an unruly Modernist who set up parties and schools the way others invented religions or avant-gardes: out of the spirit of the moment, out of the realization that this is part of what an artist can do, and perhaps also out of a certain exuberant humour.

Jan Verwoert is a contributing editor of frieze and teaches at the Piet Zwart Insitute in Rotterdam. He has recently published a book Bas Jan Ader – In Search of the Miraculous (Afterall Books/MIT Press 2006).

1 Beuys in conversation with Willoughby Sharp, Artforum, no. 4 (1969), p. 44.
2 Among the few books that propose a re-reading are the excellent anthology Gene Ray (ed.): Joseph Beuys. Mapping the Legacy (D.A.P., New York, 2001) and the sceptical study by Barbara Lange, Joseph Beuys. Richtkräfte einer neuen Gesellschaft (Reimer, Frankfurt am Main, 1999).
3 The iconic pose is at times referred to as being part of the performance Kukei, akopee – Nein! (1964), although it was more likely simply a spontaneous reaction to the riots.
4 See Joan Rothfuss, ‘Joseph Beuys. Echoes in America’, in Ray, op. cit., pp. 37–53.
5 Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Beuys: The Twilight of the Idols’, first published in Artforum in 1980. Here taken from Ray, op. cit., p. 201.

Jan Verwoert

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DW.de

Culture

Joseph Beuys — Artist Who Expanded Art’s Boundaries

Joseph Beuys is considered one of the most important and controversial artists of the second half of the 20th century. Always on the cutting edge, Beuys thought artists had a central role to play in society.

A current exhibition provides a photographic record of Beuys’ working life

Those who know Joseph Beuys often think of two things when they hear his name: fat and felt. These were two materials that he often used in his works that were unsettling to some, simply incomprehensible to others.

On the 20th anniversary of the artist’s death, the Kunst Palast museum in Düsseldorf is holding an exhibition called “Joseph Beuys in Action: the Healing Powers of Art.” The exhibit features some 100 from different photographers who shot the artists at different phases of his career. They show Beuys in his different manifestations: teacher, political activist, withdrawn introvert or fighter for environmental causes.

Beuys was also involved in German politics and helped found of Germany’s Green Party. His experiences during World War II led him to become a pacifist and he was active in the pace and anti-nuclear movment.

Born in 1921 in the town of Krefeld, Beuys served in the German air force throughout World War Two. In 1943, his plane was shot down over the frozen Crimea. Those who found him tried to restore his body heat by wrapping him in fat and an insulating layer of felt, which is likely the origin of the recurring materials in his sculptural works.

After the war, he studied sculpture at the state art academy in Düsseldorf, where he taught from 1961 to 1972.

Ritual

During that time, starting in the mid-60s, Beuys worked with the avant-garde art group known as Fluxus. It was during this period that he began to stage “actions,” where he would perform works in a ritualistic way. One of the best known of these was How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare from 1965. Beuys covered his head with honey and gold leaf, wore one shoe with felt on its sole, another soled with iron. He walked through an art gallery for two hours, explaining the art hanging there to a dead hare that he carried.

Joseph Beuys in 1980

But it was in the 70s and 80s that Beuys was most active on the international stage and his works were displayed around the world, from Vienna’s Biennale to New York’s Guggenheim to the Seibu Museum of Art in Tokyo.

Photographer Bernd Jansen accompanied Beuys in 1970 during his “Friday action, First Class Fried Frishbones,” which presents the bones of a fish displayed in a wall-mounted box as if they were a saintly relic.

“The fish is a sign for Christ,” said Jansen. “Beuys often dealt with Christian themes and this ‘Friday action’ was also a religious act, if you will.”

Beuys’ better known works are Felt Suit (1970), a felt suit exhibited on a coat hanger; the performance piece Coyote, “I Like America and America Likes Me” (1974), for which Beuys wrapped himself in felt and stayed in a room with a coyote for five days. In the sculpture Fat Corner, Beuys piled fat into the corner of a space, left to melt and turn rancid over a number of days.

For those who prefer their art to be sofa sized and depict idyllic landscapes or quaint country roads, Beuys’ art generally induced a good deal of head shaking.

New definition of art

But for Beuys, every person was an artist; every action a work of art. His expanded definition of art caused both sensation and fierce debate during his life. For him, works of art were as fleeting as life itself. He didn’t want to create eternal works, but to start people thinking.

Pictures taken during the art work named ‘Action in moor’ in August 1971

Beuys not only mounted fish bones on walls and ceilings, he also put them on a pair of his own jeans. That pair is now owned by Hinrich Murken, a medical historian and collector of Beuys’ works. Murken admits that his passion for Beuys was not always met with understanding.

“When I bought the Beuys jeans in 1971, it wasn’t easy for my immediate circle and my family to get why I brought home a pair of old jeans as art,” he said. “And then a pair that had fish bones on it. But the bones were what make the work really mysterious and puzzling and gave it the aura that it now has.”

Art, science and healing

The connection between art and the natural sciences, between art and medicine was something that Beuys discovered by looking at Leonardo da Vinci. He conducted research into nature and explored the topic of healing in his works like no other artist. Many of his works, drawings, actions and lectures contained motifs and allusions from the worlds of healing and medicine.

“The Temptation of the 20th Century” by Beuys

In his final creative period, the artist devoted much thought to shamanism, which for him was a natural philosophy which invoked a primordial world where all being lived in harmony.

“No other artist has such a variety of references in his work,” said Murken. “Beuys’ work continues to lives from this openness, from the fascinating variety of interpretations that are possible.”

DW recommends

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Hans Dieter Huber
The Artwork as a System and its Aesthetic Experience.
Remarks on the Art of Joseph Beuys

(This article was given as a lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, at the University of South Florida, Tampa and at the University of Texas at Austin in September/October 1989)

I

The art of Joseph Beuys in many cases provoked his audience as much as the media. He enraged people wherever he appeared. He was viewed as a madman, a charlatan, or a messiah. The intensity and emotionality of the public discussion about him and his works, which he consciously encouraged and his enormous influence on the arts, contrast strangely with the ignorance of his achievement in German art history. German scholars still have great difficulty comprehending the specific nature of his artistic conception and its aesthetic effectiveness. Beuys himself on the other hand, was always highly critical of the academic system and the lack of involvement on the part of university scholars in social processes and social evolution. (1)

Only in recent years have students and scholars recognized his fundamental influence on the visual arts, despite all the negative reaction. They have begun to reconstruct the historical processes and to discuss his conception of art and its aesthetic and social effects. As scholars we still stand at the beginning of a historical understanding of his art.

In the case of Beuys, it is often difficult to define which parts belong to the artwork and which do not. Traditional concepts such as unity, integrity, harmony, proportion, composition, scale etc. are of little assistance. So we are obliged to develop a new descriptive vocabulary and a new theory of interpretation. His various showcases illustrate the problems involved in identifying the objects and placing them into a significant relation with the other ones. In most cases it is unclear whether the objects are individual or different elements of one larger work. The problem of individuation and identification is central to any attempt to construct a new method of describing and interpreting his work.

II

General Systems Theory is especially suited for the description and analysis of such complex installations by contrast with many concurrent models, because it is able to account for the complexity and interdependence of all phenomena, the intense entanglement of all things, properties and relations internal to the work, as well as its relationship to the environment, including space, time, viewer and society. (2) Systems theory also permits an interdisciplinary and problem-oriented approach. But first it seems necessary to make certain distinctions in order to rule out possible misunderstandings.

Each object in the world and each relationship between objects in the world can be conceived as a system. Which object one conceives as a system and which not, depends only on one´s scientific interests and not on “objective” properties of the world. Contrary to Niklas Luhmann I hold that systems do not exist outside us in an independent reality. Systems are descriptions of the world, and the world is not describable without description. (3) The conceptual logic of Systems Theory employed as a descriptive and explanatory tool has an especially high heuristic value.

A system is generally defined as follows: It consists of elements ( which can be things, objects, components, parts, members) with certain properties. Elements are linked by relations (which can be references, correlations, connections, bonds, linkages, couplings). Despite differences of definition according to scientific discipline the fundamental constituents “elements”, “properties” and “relations” remain the same.

First. The elements of a system can be of any sort of physical entity, atoms, cells, things, individuals, or complete social institutions, and they need not to be homogeneous like the elements of a class. What functions as an element within one system, can be a complex subsystem within another system. So atoms are treated as elements in the chemical system and as complex subsystems in nuclear physics. What is defined as an element within a given system, depends on the choice of the basic units of that system. And this choice depends on the scientific interests at hand. (4)

Second. The only properties of an element taken into consideration are those relevant to the scientific enterprise. Others, non-relevant properties of an element are neglected. These significant properties are disposed into certain functional groups defined by our everyday experience of the same objects in different contexts and situations. The different object properties and employments are stored in our brain by a systematic semantic structure, the so-called semantic field.

Third. The relationships between the elements of a system can also vary in kind and number. They can be one-sided or double-sided, mutually dependent, active or passive, real or ideal, time/space-dependent or independent and they can have a certain history. The relevance or irrelevance of relations among elements of a system again depends on the scientific point of view. From the relations between the elements, we can make inferences about the specific properties which are operative only in these specific relations. This is a very important insight. The properties are established through relations. Only in a certain relation is a certain property of an element active or dominant. Unused, but still existent, properties of an element can be activated through relations. We must keep this in mind in discussing Beuys because the activation of potential properties through a setting-into-relation is one of his main strategies. To bring different elements together in order to activate certain properties of each is a central aesthetic method in his sculptural work.

Fourth. The wholeness of all relations which exist between the elements of a given system makes up the structure of that system. Anatol Rapoport says:

Structure is a description of the interrelations among the components of a system: the arrangement of its parts and the potential influence which they may have upon each other. (5)

Fifth. General Systems Theory has introduced the concept of the environment as an equivalent notion to the concept of the system itself. As far as I know, Systems Theory is the first scientific approach, which is not only concerned with the internal conditions and relations of its objects, but also with the exchange between the system and certain external conditions, which influence the system in parts and as a whole. On the other hand, possible influences of the system on the environment can also be specified and described.

In the art of Joseph Beuys the viewer is at least as important as the sculptural system itself. The concept of the environment of a system allows the interpreter and observer to turn his attention towards important influences and effects. He is enabled to take into account certain influences, which cannot be explained from the internal functions of the system. Taking into account the specific environment, the context or situation in which such a sculptural system operates, prevents us from artificially restricting our investigative focus. All elements or objects within one of Beuys’ sculptural systems at first refer to the beholder, who has to constitute actively the aesthetic meaning during his perceptual participation. The sculptural system together with its viewers forming part of the environmental conditions constitute the field of aesthetic effectiveness.

The works of Beuys are explicitly designed for and concerned with an exchange of energy from the sculptural system into the social environment, first to an individual as a representative member of the human community and then second to the whole community.

III

First, the material elements of an artwork can be substances such as blood, paper, plaster, marble, bronze, metals, glass, fabrics and so on.

Second, because all physical substances or materials are composed, their specific composition yields their specific form. Plaster for instance can be sculpture, architecture or wall decoration, depending on how it is composed. The difference between a wooden plank and a wooden beam is not a difference of material, but a difference of form. It is a syntactic difference. Composed physical materials make up the syntactical elements of an artwork such as form and color. They are complex physical subsystems, which are composed in a specific way. If their internal organisation, their physicality is of no interest,and only the relations to other elements are significant, the syntactical subsystems can be treated as elements.

Third, objects and things make up the semantic elements of an artwork. They are defined by labeling through verbal concepts. If a viewer or interpreter names an object or an element with a linguistic concept, this element functions as an instance of that concept. It exemplifies that concept, if the labeling was correct. The named element can no longer be seen without that linguistic concept. For instance,if I label these two bottles as containers for blood, they are from this point on always seen through this concept. If I alternatively label them as Mary Magdalene and St. John the Baptist one would always see them through these names and within the semantic field of a certain biblical story. If I describe the pieces of paper as particles of a newspaper, where fragments like “effective increase”,”balance”, “debt”, “decreased” are readable, these elements are seen in the semantic field of economics.

These few examples indicate how our perceptions are influenced by the concepts and labels, we use to describe objects and how it becomes difficult to separate these linguistic labels from our object perception. Through the process of naming every element of an artwork and every part of it becomes a semantic element. This conception allows us to interpret each material, syntactic and semantic element as meaningful, insofar it has been labeled linguistically.

Equipped with these linguistic tools, let us now turn our attention to Beuys and try to describe a relatively small sculptural work. It consists of five elements. Two melting pots for bronze casting are coated with cinnamon red pigment. In the right hand melting pot a plastic tube for blood infusions is arranged together with clamps, connections, a regulator and an infusion bag. A Jacob´s shell with blue copper sulphate is laid inside. It is a strange and hermetic arrangement which does not “speak” to the viewer. At first glance no coherent meaning is extractable from the structure of the system.

The viewer has to work hard in order to constitute the specific interrelations of the objects and to fill in the indeterminacies, which result from the unusual arrangement. The hermetic structure of the system, in respect of its environment, is revealed as an intentional strategy to force the viewer participate actively, to react , to use his imagination to constitute the relatedness of the elements as an aesthetic image.

To constitute the aesthetic meaning of these elements we must first ask for the semantic context in which the single object normally functions. This happens by labeling. Through the cognitive activation of the semantic context of the elements, their history as a history of linguistic use becomes available for epistemic appraisal. The semantic context of the infusion instrument is that of hospital, of life-saving after an severe accident, as an important instrument to support the forces of life. The bloodstream of the human organism is one of the most important systems of life maintenance. The Jacob’s shell normally contarns an animal,a creature of nature. Today it is one of the most endangered animals as the result of environmental pollution, since it needs extremely pure water. The creatures collect toxic substances like heavy metals in their flesh and thereby accumulate their toxicity. Copper sulphate is a very poisonous substance which kills microorganisms such as bacteria and plankton.The shell is already dead, having been killed by the dangerous chemical. The two melting pots stem from the semantic field of industrial production, of smelting of ore and the refining of metal. It belongs to the inorganic sector of the world. But it also has to do with artistic production, for it is a tool for modelling ,for giving amorphous melted substances stable form through casting and cooling down. The red coating gives the melting pot an active power, a force of life, of heart. The right hand melting pot functions as the heart of an organism, the plastic tube as a symbolization of the blood circuit.But the organism is endangered. The shell as the receptive organ is blinded. It has been poisoned by chemical substances. The blood does not circulate anymore, it has coagulated and is also dead. The state of the system is alarming. Hence the title “Alarm II”.

In this process of mentally constituting the semantic interrelations of the elements, their relevant properties become apparent. Step by step the work of art opens itself up to the active viewer. Parallel to the aesthetic constitution of meaning questions arise about the state of environmental polution and the toxic processes of our present social systems. We cannot hold back these thoughts nor exclude them from the aesthetic exerience. On the contrary, this stimulation of thought is the clear intention of the artist, as we shall see later. The artwork functions as a trigger for the shaping of thoughts about our contemporary life and society. This is one of the stated aesthetic strategies of Joseph Beuys.

IV

The beholder’s aesthetic experience can be divided into two stages. First, the constitution of aesthetic meaning through an active process of perceiving and thinking and secondly the processing of the experienced aesthetic meaning. These are two totally different cognitive processes with different epistemic functions.

Let us turn to the first part and ask how aesthetic meaning is constituted. During perception the artwork functions as a trigger for certain cognitive processes. The elements of the sculptural system are transformed into the subjective realms of knowledge and experience of a certain person. Through the process of naming and classifying the art object is set into relation with our own epistemic network of concepts and beliefs. This is the moment when the object begins to affect us. The viewer himself as a complex and dynamic organism is part of the environment of the sculptural system. He is equipped with sensory surfaces, which allow him to extract information from the environment and process this input in the upper regions of his brain. This capacity of the human organism to extract information from his environment,to process it, to store it, to retrieve and recall it, is the ability for mental representation of the world. Human thinking is a complex system for the symbolic representation of information, which functions in a certain medium: its entire biological and physical organism.

When a person comes into contact with a sculptural installation of Joseph Beuys the artwork opens up a dialogue in which the art object and the beholder are equivalent partners in a situation where both function as independent systems which mutually refer to each other. Without this basic interrelation or dialogue no artwork can ever be experienced. For each kind of aesthetic experience this interrelation between viewer and artwork is a necessary condition. Without this there is nothing to observe, describe or interprete.

In consequence we have to differentiate between the art object “itself” and the process of its apprehension, its “concretion”. (6) Each percepted artwork contains many indeterminacies. Not everything is represented that would be necessary for a precise identification of the meaning of internal elements or relations. As beholders we are therefore in a certain state of disinformation in front of the artwork and the intentions of the artist.

Let us take an example.I should like to show you the sculpture “Snowfall” from 1965. Three pine trunks are covered by layers of felt. We cannot perceive how far the pine trunks reach under the felt layers. This is a very simple case of indeterminacy which we tend to fill up, “to concretize” as Roman Ingarden would say, through our own imagination and thinking. A more complex indeterminacy is the relation between the felt layers and the three pine trunks. Why do they lie on the floor horizontally and not stand upright as usual? Why are they covered with layers of felt as if they were sleeping? The trunks are dead and rotten, still they seem to emanate or transmitt energies out of the center of the felt as if the whole were a transmitting station. Surely we can produce answers and we do produce them from our perceptual questions. But, what I intended to show was that this always happens in a subjective, unverifiable way which goes far beyond every verifiable basis of what is actually there. This is the crucial point of the argument.

Each color, each form, each figure, each material, each element, each interrelation can contain numerous loci of indeterminacy. These points signify no weakness of the artistic system. On the contrary they are the cardinal points in the process of unfolding the work’s aesthetic effectiveness. In the process of concretion we tend to overlook these indeterminacies and to fill them in with arbitrary and subjective determinations, which are not at all justified by the artwork itself. At such points we go beyond the given system without being conscious of what we are doing in our imagination.

Subjective concretion is the essential turning point where the artwork is transformed into a mental representation by a subjective being. This is the first part of the perceptual process which I have called “the constitution of aesthetic meaning”. To the second part, “the processing of aesthetic meaning”, we shall turn later.

V

Let us turn back to the work of Beuys. One of his most significant ensembles is “The Capital Space 1970-77”, now permanently installed in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. It is a complex system with different elements, complex interrelations and different histories. The whole is installed more as an open working situation of individual parts than as a closed unit. The viewer until recently was able to walk around the individual parts and to look at them from a close distance. The “Capital Space” is only perceivable step-by-step, in a selective focus.

One rather homogeneous subsystem of elements is formed by the group of blackboards, on which diagrams, sentences, formulae, words and drawings are written with white chalk.They hang from the wall, lie on the floor or lean against the back walls. Another subsystem is defined by its connection to electricity. Two 16 mm projectors are standing with two empty filmspools on a projection shelves. They are plugged into the electrical system by a white cable. Two tape recorders with empty spools and headphones are standing next to them on the floor. They are plugged in to the electrical system by a black cable. A microphone-stand with a microphone is connected to one of the tape recorders. The tape recorders themselves are connected to an amplifier and two loudspeakers. A quite separate subsystem is formed by the zinc bathtub filled with water, white linen and two flashlights attached on the handles. A zinc watering can, a white enameled dish with a piece of soap in it and a towel are placed nearby. Between the microphone-stand and the bathtub lies a tin lid with a heap of gelatine. A ladder with gelatine pieces is standing in the corner of the room. The installation is completed by a piano, a spear and two felt covered wooden laths.

The relationships between these elements prove to be opaque to the viewer, so that an active effort is required to observe the aesthetic connections among those elements and to construe their aesthetic meaning. We are familiar with most of the objects of the installation from our everyday knowledge. It should therefore not be difficult to infer the internal coherence of the different elements.

In this work of art we are confronted with a collection and recollection of different media which all have something to do with the process of creation and of forming. Film for instance can be used as an artistic medium for the representation of actions, of events and of time. The projectors and the screen stand in the installation, as if they are waiting to be switched on and to show what they have to show. They are standing around as a potential, which can be used if necessary. The projecting system stands as as a symbol for visual transformation. It symbolizes the capability of visual storage and visual recollection.

The acoustic system serves for the sound recording for example of the human tongue, for language, singing and other sounds and for the reproduction of the recorded signals by the connected speakers system. In artistic use, it also is a system of representation, a medium for the creation of acoustic forms. The acoustic subsystem is therefore, like the projectors, a potential element and symbolizes the process of information extraction from the environment, the extraction of sound waves and their transformation into electric impulses. It symbolizes its storability and its reproduction. Like the human brain it is a system of transformation, storage and recollection. The written blackboards represent the linguistic medium of information storage and exchange.

The said elements are all different systems of representation, different visual, acoustic, linguistic media. They are able to represent different cross-sections and experiences of the world. In the installation they are presented as possible elements of creation and transformation. Hence the title “Capital”. Capital is a potential (of money), with which something can be achieved, can be designed or formed.

The ladder, the spear, the axe,the watering can, the soap and the dish in its most general meanings are tools for achieving certain results through action. All the objects in the installation are embraced, as we already know, by their semantic context. They are perceived through the semantic properties of their concept. But the semantic context is modified and transformed by the unusual relations in which these objects stand.

The objects are imbued with their own history, of how they have been used and how they can be used., of the process of thinking that went into their form and material. They carry a collective and an individual history of use; the history of how Joseph Beuys used these objects. These two histories, the general more than the individual, always envelop the object, even in this installation. The collective and individual fields of functioning are always more or less present for the beholder during the process of aesthetic perception.

One part of the elements are relics of an action, others, especially the blackboards on the walls, are the results of lectures and workshops, which Beuys gave on various occasions. Nearly all elements which occupy the floor space of the installation stem from two performances: the first with the title “Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch) Scottish Symphony”, which he performed together with the Danish composer Henning Christiansen at the Edinburgh College of Art, twice a day, from 26-30 August 1970. (7)

In the photographs several elements of the installation are to be seen. in action and in use. The projectors, the tape recorders, the microphone-stand, the axe, the gelatine, the piano, the spear and the felt angle.

The two systems of blackboards, which hang from the wall and which Beuys has added to the installation, result from his discursive activites during the two documenta-exhibitions of 1972 and 1977 at Kassel The drawings, notes and diagrams function as a visualized representation of collective language and thinking processes. Explanations, notations and diagrams can be seen which came into being during discussions, lectures or workshops. They form a close network of related concepts and ideas, which overlap the single blackboard and make up a manifold simultaneity of ideas. They directly lead the beholder into Beuys´ complex theories of social sculpture and of the transformation of creative energy, which is the real human capital, into society. The blackboards altogether form a system of visual ideas and collective thinking processes.which otherwise would have remained at an abstract and nonvisual, verbal level. The system symbolizes the multiplicity and continuity of such a teaching method. They are carriers of thinking energy, which is stored and preserved in visual form. Like the other media, it is a system of representation, storage and recall of collective thought processes. The system of the blackboards generally signifies the work of the collective, whereas the objects and the instruments stand for the work of the individual. Collective sculptural processes as represented by the blackboards are contrasted to the individual creation and human capability, as symbolized by the single objects and tools. The relation between wall and floor is analogeous to the relation between society and individual. (8)

The whole installation therefore can be comprehended as a potential model for the creative transformation of individual human energies into collective social processes for the evolution of the whole social fabric. The installation as a model fulfills a mediating function between the theoretical ideas and concepts of Joseph Beuys and the visual objects, which can be observed by the beholder during the process of aesthetic perception.

VI

The model functions as a transmitter of concepts about the creative transformation and evolution of society. How does this mechanism work? At a former stage of our argument we made distinction between the constitution of aesthetic meaning in a situation of indeterminacy and the processing of aesthetic meaning which means the integration of the evoked thoughts into one´s own system of beliefs.

Our experiences of the world are not arbitrarily stored in our memory, but they must have, for functional reasons, a systematic structure. Because we are able to find a single recollection in our memory,to retrieve and to work with it, it is necessary that our experiences have a systematic and hierarchical structuring. Social psychologists have therefore postulated the existence of so-called mental reference systems or categorial systems. (9) They are hypothetical descriptions of how our brain manages to store, compare and recall sensory input systematically .

The conception of a mental reference system means that a single experience is always related to a individual framework of storage. During the course of life such mental reference systems become more and more differentiated and refined. Knowledge-based categorial systems function as stable decision and evaluation frameworks. They are cognitive background systems, which normally function inconspicuously and unpretentiously. But surely there are situations of experience, where their existence immediately becomes conscious. This may be caused by a certain strain between a single,new experience and its inability to be classified or the occurrence of a totally new, never hitherto preceived situation. Here the lack of present knowledge systematization suddenly becomes apparent.

My argument is that the epistemic function of art precisely affects this cognitive mechanism of a beholder´s knowledge systematization. The cognitive background of aesthetic perception – our systems of knowledge organization-, suddenly becomes itself the object of perception by a certain tension between a single stimulus and its inability to be classified. The whole system is turned inside out. The systems of knowledge organization suddenly become transparent and accessible to observation. (10)

Caused by a conflict in mental processing, they themselves become the subject of observation against a background of impulsion towards adequate adaptation to and consistent ordering of the external world. Here we come into close touch with a specific structure of aesthetic experience. Because of the tension between an aesthetic experience, triggered by a relatively new and unknown work of art and his own well-known, but insufficient systematization of knowledge and belief, the beholder must seek a restoration of equilibrium.

In their epistemic function works of art bring the beholder into a cognitive dissonance (11) with his own beliefs and attitudes. He must reduce this dissonance by either adapting and therefore distorting the single experience to a preexistent reference system, or by adapting the whole categorial system to the new aesthetic experience which seems to be for me the only appropriate way.

VII

When we turn again to the art of Joseph Beuys we are able to describe the cognitive effects of his installations on the belief systems of different beholders. The installation “The Capital Space” exhibits turned-off machines and objects not in use but with a certain productive potential. The whole system is potential capital for creation. This character of potentiality is incorporated into the title, because capital in its first function is a potential for production. But the specific account of capital, as it is embedded in the various elements is a very different one from that which we would normally associate with the concept of capital. As beholders we have therefore to adapt and refine our categorial system of capital knowledge to understand this unaccustomed model.

In a programmatic essay in 1972 Beuys called for the transformation of the essential concepts of thinking, action and sculpture:

Only on condition of a radical widening of definition will it be possible for art and activities related to art to provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the death line: to dismantle in order to build A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART.
This most modern art discipline -Social Sculpture/Social Architecture- will only reach fruition when every living person becomes a creator, a sculptur or architect of the social organism. (...) Only a conception of art revolutionized to this degree can turn it into a politically productive force, coursing through each person and shaping history.
But all this, and much that is as yet unexplored, has first to form part of our consciousness: insight is needed into objective connections. We must probe (theory of knowledge) the origin of free individual productive potency (creativity). We then reach the threshold where the human being experiences himself primarily as a spiritual being, where his supreme achievements (work of art), his active thinking, his active feeling, his active will, and their higher forms, can be apprehended as sculptural generative means,(...), and then recognized as flowing in the direction that is shaping the content of the world right through into the future. (12)

The first step is the “revolution of concepts”, a notion which Beuys took from Eugen Löbl, the political economist of the Prague Spring. Beuys writes:

Only through the 'revolution of concepts', through a new revision of the basic relations of the social organism, does the way thereby become free for a revolution without constraint and arbitrariness. Because a far-reaching practice is always connected with concepts, the kind of thinking about states of affairs is decisive for how one handles these states of affairs and - firstly: how and whether he understands them at all.(13)

In this context Beuys speaks of the "remelting of indurated conceptions and theoretical approaches". (14) What is required for the process of transformation of aesthetic experiences into social-evolutionary practice is a new quality of thinking and of action. He sets up the question whether the actions of man, his information, his informing character (to give something a form) is a process of free decision, an expression of the freedom of that human being.

With this character of impression we have reached a point, at which a sculptural process is addressed. The impressing of an action into material. In this action a sculptor is hardly differentiated from a printer. In this character of impressing the sculptor differs not at all from the mechanical engineer, who applies his impressing character through his forming will to mechanical-motor tasks. Therefore it can be proved in this action, whose impressing character can be perceived immediately, that still another sculptural process precedes this sculptural process.
It can be traced back by reflexion, description and unbiased perception of what happens in this sculptural character of impression by human action, by bodily organs, from where the decision for the design of this impression character stems. The revolutionary can trace back the process up to that form, which he has first of all developed in his thinking or in his imagination.
When he carries that out and looks at all of his forces, which are effective and alive in himself, he will experience that he is already able to ascribe this sculptural character to thinking itself. It then comes into the world as a character of impression by his bodily organs and other tools and into a form, which informs, being information as a product, or which also conceives information as news, which the other is willing to receive.(15)

Thinking in itself is an invisible sculptural process, which becomes visible by impression into material, into form. The material sculpture functions as a model or as a transmitter of these unobservable sculptural qualities of thinking for a human receiver, who is able to apprehend the material model. The physical substance as materialized thinking energy is able to trigger the perceptual and thinking capacities of another person. A transmission takes place in this model, a flow of sculptural energy from one point of the world to another.

Through this epistemic mechanism the aesthetic perception is transformed step-by-step into new thoughts and questions about social interrelations, the contemporary state of the social organism, and the evolution of a future human society. The installation functions as the transmission model of those thought energies.

VIII

Artistic models have a representative function. They allow for the visualization and illustration of theoretical thoughts and conceptions. An artistic model such as the “Honeypump at the workingplace” does not manifest all the properties and relations of the theoretical conception it is a model of, but only some of them. It links several of the theoretical relations, which are taken as relevant and essential in this model, with other observable features, which have to be explained through the theory.

“Honeypump at the working place”, executed in 1977 for the documenta 6 at Kassel, was conceived as a model for the energystream of society.

With Honeypump I am expressing the principle of the Free International University working in the bloodstream of society. Flowing in and out of the heart organ - the steel honey container- are the main arteries through which the hones is pumped out of the engine room with a pulsing sound, circulates round the Free University area, and returns to the heart. The whole thing is only complete with people in the space round which the honey artery flows and where the bee´s head is to be found in the coiled loops of tubing with its iron feelers.(16)

In the sump of the engine room the three maior principles of Beuys´ theory of sculpture -thinking, feeling and will- are represented in a seemingly scientific model. Beuys explains:

Will power in the chaotic energy of the double engine churning the heap of fat. Feeling in the heart and bloodstream of honey flowing throughout the whole.Thinking powers in the Eurasian staff, the head of which rises from the engine room right up to the skylight of the museum and then points down again. (17)

Unobservable elements of Beuys´ Theory of Sculpture like ” will”, “feeling”, “thought”, “bloodstream” or “society” are represented by a model which takes as its elements industrial machinery like ship engines, drive shafts, plastic tubes, fittings, fuses, switches, low pressure pumps, natural products like honey and margarine and three archaic clay pots standing besides. But these objects are not taken for themselves, but they refer to a complex theoretical conception of evolution and transformation of human creativity into future society. The elements of the installation build up a system, which because of its specific type of reference is a visual model. It functions as a visual bridge between the theoretical concepts and the observational capacities of the beholder.

That we are in close touch with the thinking and the ideas of Joseph Beuys and do not deviate from his central premises, is clearly indicated by the following statement which he published separately to the installation of the “Honeypump”. It is entitled “The model of the FREE INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY (‘Honeypump’)”.

'The Honeypump at the working place' shall refer to the fact that something has to be brought near to all working places, which presently is mssing them - and thus is something new. (...) Therefore to begin with, this deficiency shall come into appearance as honey, which is a precious nutritive substance -and namely in the sense, that it circulates and supplies all manufacturing plants with precious nutritive substance and connects them like in a circulation system, where everyone is mutually dependent from one another.(18)

The natural product honey serves as the essential model substance for the flow of a positive thinking energy, which is able to trigger and to support social transformation processes.

IX

As a last example of that evolutionary model character of the sculptural work I would like to present the project “7000 Oak Trees”, executed from 1982 to 1987.

As his contribution to the ‘documenta 7’ in 1982 Joseph Beuys ordered the planting of 7000 oak trees inside the city limits of Kassel. Beside each tree a basalt column was to be erected as a sign marking the historical moment, when people began to bring their lives into line with the transformation of the whole social organism.

As a first visible sign and a preliminary model for the abstract and inconceivable quantity of 7000 trees, Beuys arranged 7000 stones in the center of the city opposite the Museum Fridericianum as a wedge-shaped triangle. For each planted tree one basalt stone was taken from this sculptural arrangement so that as the work progressed the basalt triangle progressively diminished and finally disappeared. Being asked about the exact number of trees he replied:

I think this is a kind of proportion and dimension,firstly, because the Seven represents a very old rule for tree plantations. You know that from already existent places and cities. In the United States there is a very large city, called Seven Oaks and another in Great Britain. You see that Seven as a number is in some way organically connected with such an enterprise and it also fits with the seventh documenta. I said to myself that it is a very small decoration, seven trees. Seventy does not bring us to the idea of that, what I call in German "Verwaldung" [afforestation]. This suggests the idea of making the world into a large forest, making cities and environments wood-like. 70 would not signifiy the thought, 700 on the other hand was not enough. So I felt, 7000 was something, which I could do in the existing time, for which I could bear the responsibility of completion as a first step. Thus '7000 Oak Trees' will be a very strong visual result in 300 years. So you can imagine the dimension of time ... (19)

Through this process which lasted from 1982 up to 1987, and whose completion Beuys did not live to see, the inanimate, crystalline basalt sculpture underwent a transformation of site and state into a living element of a spatially distributed, collectively executed and socially effective charged potential which discharges its powers over the period of the next centuries, as long as an oak tree takes to grow. Thus this sculptural project proved to be a paradigmatic model for the whole body of a social sculpture and his theoretical conception of transformation of creative thinking energies into the deadly sick social organism.

It is a new step in this working with trees. It is not a really new dimension in the whole conception of a metamorphosis of all this on earth and of the metamorphosis of understanding of art. It deals with the metamorphosis of the social body in itself, to bring it into a new social order for the future in comparison with the existent private capitalistic system and the centrally governed communistic system.(20)

It is extraordinary difficult to define that project in terms of a work of art and of aesthetic experience. I am convinced that this paradigmatic model we are confronted with is a totally new concept of art, where individual aesthetic experiences are transformed into collective evolutionary forces which most directly affect not only the self-consciousness of an individual beholder, but also the orientation of the whole social organism. ( in this case a whole city). This project has absolutely nothing to do with land-art projects. The whole intention is totally different. It is not a work of art which is transportable like a painting and which could be shown in museum exhibitions. It is not autonomous, but dependent on the situation and the site for which it was created. It is therefore a site-specific work. It cannot be possessed by a single proprietor, but it belongs to nearly 3000 persons from all over the world who have donated one or more trees. For these reasons, it also cannot be sold, so that the accumulation of economic capital through speculation with art objects in this case is not possible. It is also publically perceivable to everyone who walks, bikes or drives through the city; even if he or she does not know that it is a work of art. For the aesthetic and social functions of the work it is no longer necessary for the beholder to know whether it is a work of art or not. The art character has dissolved into a direct social effectiveness benefitting the inhabitants and citizens. In contrast to traditional works of art, it is also a very useful one, because the leaves of the trees transform carbon dioxide into oxygen, they filter tons of dust out of the air by their immense surface, cool the surroundings and so on.

X

All in all, we still have great difficulties with this very new type of a socially effective art work. Our methods of description and analysis still derive in great part from the 19th century art theory which deals with categories like harmony, autonomy and the closedness artistic systems against thier environment. Out of the confrontation with such radical developments, taking place in the visual arts at present, we have to rethink the traditional concepts and theories with which we describe and explain historical change. Because our scientific language is necessarily a verbal formulation of our ways of thinking, an externalized model of our theoretical conceptions, we first have to transform our scientific strategies of thinking and of knowledge systematization. We have to expand, through dialogue with contemporary artistic developments, our notion of science to include human creativity as the basic capital of all enterprises. Affecting the social organism through the infusion of thought energies into this circulation system, must be the scientific goal of our future art historical work.
Footnotes:
1 Joseph Beuys im Gespräch mit Knut Fischer und Walter Smerling, (= Kunst heute Nr.1), Köln:Kiepenheuer&Witsch 1989, p. 26
2 A more detailed discussion can be find in my book “System und Wirkung. Rauschenberg – Twombly- Baruchello. Fragen der Interpretation und Bedeutung zeitgenössischer Kunst. Ein systemtheoretischer Ansatz”. München: Fink 1989, S.39-52
3 And if that description is true, it is also true that the described objects in fact are systems. See also: Hilary Putnam, Realism and Reason,in: Meaning and the Moral Sciences,London 1978, p.138
4 Nelson Goodman: The Structure of Appearance,(1951),Boston 1977, p.99-106
5 Anatol Rapoport, Systems Analysis: General Systems Theory, in: Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, (ed.) David L. Sills, Bd. 15,1968, p.454
6 Roman Ingarden, Vom Erkennen des literarischen Kunstwerkes,Tübingen: Niemeyer 1968, p.49-55
7 Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, London:Thames and Hudson 1979,p. 190
8 JOSEPH BEUYS und DAS KAPITAL. Vier Vorträge zum Verständnis von Joseph Beuys und seiner Rauminstallation “Das Kapital Raum 1970-77” in den Hallen für Neue Kunst, Schaffhausen…, Christel Raussmüller-Sauer (ed.),Schaffhausen 1988,p. 81
9 See for instance Wolf Lauterbach/Viktor Sarris: Beiträge zur psychologischen Bezugssystemforschung. Huber: Bern 1980, p.15-55
10 Huber (1989),p.78f.
11 Leo Festinger, A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press 1957
12 Tisdall 268f.
13 “Aufruf zur Alternative”.First published in Frankfurter Rundschau, 12/23/1978. Reprinted in: Harlan/Rappmann/Schata, Soziale Plastik. Materialien zu Joseph Beuys,Achberg 1976,p. 131
14 “Eintritt in ein Lebenwesen”. Lecture – given during the Free International University-Project, at the documenta 6 at Kassel on 08/06/1977. Reprinted in: Harlan/Rappmann/Schata, p.135
15 Harlan/Rappmann/Schata, p.125
16 Tisdall 254
17 ibd.
18 Johannes Stüttgen/Joseph Beuys: Das Modell der FREE INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY (“Honeypump”), p.1
19 Interview with Richard Demarco; in: Fernando Groener und Rose-Maria Kandler (Hrsg),7000 Eichen-Joseph Beuys, Köln: König, 1987, p.16
20 Groener and Kandler, p.18/19


designed by Hans Dieter Huber


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e-flux

Jan Verwoert

The Boss: On the Unresolved Question of Authority in Joseph Beuys’ Oeuvre and Public Image

To be certain, art offers answers. Its strength, however, often lies in its unresolved problems. In his statements about his own work, Joseph Beuys absolutely inundated his listeners and readers with answers. As a consequence, the inner tensions and unanswered questions at the heart of his oeuvre are scarcely recognized. An unconditional acceptance of Beuys’ interpretive authority over his own practice has caused the discourse surrounding the oeuvre to fail to touch on a central unresolved question within it: the question of authority itself. In order to understand the significance of Beuys’ work in the context of the artistic and political debates of the 1960s and 1970s, however, it is crucial to grasp the inner conflicts and unresolved contradictions that run through it, as well as the way Beuys publicly performed the role of the artist with regard to this question of authority. On the one hand he incessantly attacked traditional notions of the authority of the work, the artist, and the art professor, with his radical, liberating, and humorous opening up of the concept of art with regard to what a work, an artist, or a teacher could still be and do beyond the functions established by tradition, office, and title. On the other hand, however, it seems that in the presentation of his own interpretative discourse, Beuys regularly fell back on the very tradition of staging artistic authority with which he was trying to break.

While he abolished the common understanding of the artist’s role and demonstrated in his own practice that an artist could be not only a sculptor or painter but also a performer, politician, philosopher, historian, ethnologist, musician, and so on, he nonetheless had recourse to a traditionally established role model when projecting an image of himself to the public through the role of a visionary, spiritual authority or healer in full agreement with the modern myth of the artist as a messianic figure. While at one moment he provoked free and open debate through perplexing, if not deliberately absurd, actions that left himself open to attack as an artist, at the next moment he would bring a discussion on the meaning of these provocations back to orderly paths by seeking the seamlessly organized worldview of anthroposophy as an ideological justification for his art practice. On the one hand, he gambled on everything that traditionally secured the value, claim to validity, and hence authority of art and artists, while on the other hand he assumed the traditional patriarchal position of the messianic proclaimer of ultimate truths.

That Beuys sought such a role is affirmed in the artist’s own words. The style and content of his programmatic statements—the ceaseless explanation of his art, the world, its problems, and their solutions—appear to be consistent with the image he projects of himself as a shamanistic healer: he speaks with the authority of a man who knows all the answers, and in doing so consolidates his auratic authority as an artist with his message of salvation. Orthodox interpretations of Beuys’ work accept this authority without reservations, and this makes a critical understanding of his work more difficult, if not impossible. In the following section, I will use the example of one such orthodox interpretation to delineate the artistic and political impasse that inevitably results from such an understanding of Beuys’ oeuvre. In contrast to this, I will subsequently try to develop an approach to understanding the problem of auratic authority in Beuys’ work and self-image through a close reading of selected works. Using several performances as examples, I intend to argue that the artistic quality and historical significance of Beuys’ work are not, as the common view would have it, based upon a realizing of his declared intentions, but rather upon his staging of an unresolved conflict between the urge to demolish authoritarian definitions of what artists are traditionally supposed to be and the need to recoup certain aspects of fascination with the auratic authority of the artistic act and the artist’s role.

1. The Questionable Authority of the Artist as Healer

One revealing example of an art historical interpretation of Beuys’ oeuvre that is wholly under the spell of the artist’s authority is found in The Cult of the Avant-garde Artist by the American critic Donald Kuspit.1 Kuspit reads Beuys’ entire practice through the image of the shamanistic healer that Beuys projected to the public, portraying him as the last representative of the venerable tradition of avant-garde artists who believed their task to be one of helping humanity to heal the alienation of modern life (in Kuspit’s view, Warhol’s consent to alienation sealed the decline of that tradition). As evidence for this interpretation, Kuspit quotes two programmatic statements by Beuys: “My intention: healthy chaos, healthy amorphousness in a known medium which consciously warmed a cold, torpid form from the past, a convention of society, and which makes possible future forms.”2 And in conclusion: “This is precisely what the shaman does in order to bring about change and development: his nature is therapeutic.”3 Now, the concept of healing raises a series of questions: whom does Beuys claim to heal? And of what? By what means, and by whose authority? Kuspit answers these questions succinctly: the Germans, of the trauma of national collapse, and through the healing energy of an original, pagan creativity that he taps, for them, by virtue of his authority as healer.

Kuspit then proceeds to interpret National Socialism as an expression of exaggerated faith in technocratic rationality (and hence as an exemplary symptom of modern alienation), arriving at the conclusion that recovery from the pathologies of this strain of rationalism can only be achieved by liberating a Dionysian creativity of the very sort Beuys claimed to have released. Kuspit writes: “The Germans had to be cured of their pathological belief in the authority of reason, which they readily put before life itself.”4 Beuys, the shamanistic healer, is thereafter portrayed as the antithesis of Hitler, the technocratic dictator: “Beuys was warm where Hitler was cold.”5 This interpretation is bizarre. Nevertheless, it unfolds the logical implications of the concept of healing that Beuys established. The figure of the healer is messianic in nature, and is therefore of the same ilk as the messianic leader of men. A direct comparison therefore seems obvious. On somewhat closer inspection, however, this juxtaposition necessarily leads to a result that directly contradicts Kuspit’s interpretation. The messianic goal of healing modern man of his alienation by tapping primordial forces does not distinguish Beuys from Hitler but links them. The assertion that the German people could be cured of the maladies caused by the decline and decadence of modern culture through the rediscovery of their mythical, pagan (allegedly “Aryan”) creative powers was, after all, the core of the ideology by which the National Socialists justified their claim to power. The motto “Am Deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen” (The German spirit shall heal the world) was taken to articulate the association of the idea of healing with just such an ideology.6

However, the fact that, in the course of history, the idea of healing came to be associated with this particular ideology does not discredit Beuys’ approach to it per se. The motif of mythical healing—the notion that a rediscovery of a mythical creativity would offer a cure to the alienations of modern society—has occupied a central position in modern social criticism since early Romanticism (at the latest).7 In this form and function the motif can be found in the work of many modern thinkers artists, including (as Rüdiger Sünner has shown) Friedrich Schlegel and Nietzsche, as well as Helena Blavatsky (one of the key figures of modern occultism, the founder of theosophy, and an inspiration for Rudolf Steiner).8 If Beuys was enthusiastic about Celtic myth, for example, and saw James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to be the expression of the buried mythical, spiritual creativity of—as he literally says—“Indo-Aryan” culture, it is certainly reasonable to assume that his use of the term stems from authors such as Blavatsky.9 Channeled through authors such as Adolf Lanz and Guido von List, Blavatsky’s teachings were, however, also a source of inspiration for Hitler and Himmler, who developed the racial doctrine implicit to some extent in theosophy into a justification for their “völkisch” (racist and nationalist) doctrine of national recuperation.10 One application of the concept of healing cannot be directly reduced to the other. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that, seen in the context of the history of ideas, the idea of modern culture’s return to the supposedly mythical powers of a premodern culture was the impulse behind both Romantic projects to reform life and National Socialist ideology. That this ideological aspect is never really questioned or even acknowledged by Beuys and his orthodox interpreters (such as Kuspit) exposes the limits of the interpretive discourse Beuys established: he never submitted his own key concepts to a critical, historical analysis.

While he frequently dipped into the history of ideas for his discourse, Beuys did not apparently feel compelled to consider the fact that ideas have specific histories—ones that, in certain instances, might make it necessary to reject them, and the traditions they have come to stand for. In his artistic practice, however, the critical reconsideration of traditional forms was at the heart of his approach. The postcard work Manifest (Manifesto, 1985) offers a poignant slogan for this. In handwriting it reads: “Manifesto the error already begins when someone is about to buy a stretcher and canvas. Joseph Beuys, November 1, 1985.” The absence of a similarly critical approach to tradition in Beuys’ use of theoretical concepts may not ultimately be that problematic in terms of the content of the particular ideas he cites. What does have a significant bearing on the politics of Beuys’ overall practice is his adoption of a speaking position that is inextricably bound to the articulation of certain ideas precisely because this position is traditionally justified by these ideas: the position of the messianic speaker whose mythical authority is justified and authenticated by the invocation of the idea of primordial healing powers. The use of the concept of healing is thus synonymous with the creation of an unquestioned—and, by virtue of its superior justification, also unquestionable—position of power. However, if Beuys’ liberating approach to conventions of sculpture and to the possibility of art in general is understood as evidence of a critical attitude, it seems only fair to assume that the creation of such an unquestionable power position can hardly have been his primary concern. In positioning himself as a speaker, then, it would even appear integral to Beuys’ practice to distance himself from the power mechanisms at play.

No doubt, the desire for healing was an important motif in Beuys’ oeuvre. The question is whether the specific way in which he dealt with this desire in his work does indeed have a considerable artistic and historical significance, not because Beuys succeeded in being or becoming the healer he purported to be, but precisely because he (whether consciously or not is hard to say) allowed the inherent contradictions of the concept of messianic healing to become manifest within his work. One example to start with is Beuys’ complex interpretation of the motif of the Messiah in Zeige Deine Wunde (Show Your Wounds, 1976). In the Christian tradition, the act of showing the wounds is the gesture by which Christ reveals himself to his disciples as the resurrected Messiah. Strictly speaking, therefore, there can only be one person who is entitled to show his wounds: the Savior himself. The title of the work, however, is an appeal addressed to another person. Beuys here effectively changes the monologue of messianic revelation into a dialogue and thus multiplies the available speaking positions: anyone who feels addressed by the appeal is here invited to adopt the messianic position. This moment of multiplication is in fact also the primary formal characteristic of the installation. All of its elements are doubled. The central elements in the work are two stretchers on wheels, underneath each of which a zinc box and an empty glass vessel are placed. Anyone who encounters death or healing here does not do so alone. Death or convalescence is presented as an existential experience in which our lives come to mirror each other. The claim to uniqueness associated with the role of the Messiah is thus eroded linguistically in the title and literally in the space of the installation.

2. The Problematic Reversal of the Roles of Perpetrator and Victim

Admittedly, there may not be many more examples of Beuys so openly breaking away from the exclusive singularity of the Messianic role. Still, the way in which he deals with the notion of the Messianic in his artworks never lacks complexity. In fact, he continued to dwell on one particularly irresolvable ambiguity at the heart of the Messianic: to the extent that the Messiah of the Christian tradition redeems humanity by taking its suffering upon himself, he becomes both victim and savior, both sufferer and healer. It was precisely this double role that Beuys took on in the performance I Like America and America Likes Me of 1974. The performance began (if the reports are to be believed) with Beuys being picked up at the airport in New York by an ambulance and transported to the René Block Gallery. There he spent three days with a coyote and, wrapped in a felt blanket and holding a walking stick upside down like a shepherd’s crook, played the shamanistic healer and messianic shepherd. As the patient or victim of an unspecified accident, he had arranged to have himself delivered to a space where he would then turn himself into the healer.

Again, the crucial question is: who is claiming to heal whom of what (and by virtue of what authority)? Since patient and healer are the same person, one obvious way to understand the performance is as an attempt at self-healing. In this sense, Kuspit’s interpretation of Beuys trying, as a German, to heal German culture by tapping mythical sources of energy (represented here by the coyote) would seem justified. However, the highly problematic question that this interpretation leaves unanswered is: by what right does this German claim to be not only healer, but also patient and sufferer (if not even victim)? Victim of whom? Why would a German—in the historical wake of Germany’s responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust and its instigation of two world wars—ever be entitled to play that role on an international stage? Beuys’ statements on the performance are no help: “I believe I made contact with the psychological trauma point of the United States’ energy constellation: the whole American trauma with the Indian, the Red Man.”11 (The symptoms of the American trauma, according to Beuys, manifest themselves in the alienated culture of capitalism, represented in the performance by issues of The Wall Street Journal spread out on the floor on which, as he recounts, the coyote urinated now and again.) Despite the change of geographical context the problem with this scenario of trauma and healing remains the same. By interpreting the trauma of the genocide committed against the Native American population as a trauma for the modern United States caused by this genocide, Beuys essentially declares perpetrators to be victims. In this picture, the supposedly painful alienation of the United States from its roots is given the same status as the suffering of the victims of genocide, which fall out of the picture entirely. Though surely unintentional (and nevertheless effective), murder is equated with a regrettable destruction of nature. The historical victims have no voice here. The coyote cannot complain.

Almost inescapably, one feels compelled to read this constellation as a parable of the German situation and the exchange of roles as the expression of Beuys’ notoriously unclear position in relation to the historic role and guilt of his own generation. Benjamin Buchloh articulated this criticism with all possible harshness. In his essay “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol,” Buchloh in principle accused Beuys of deliberately blurring the historical facts by mythologizing the concepts of suffering and healing, thus of avoiding the question of responsibility.12 The evidence that Buchloh offers of Beuys reversing the role of perpetrator and victim is a particular passage from Beuys’ often-cited wartime anecdote in which he describes his rescue by Tartars after his bomber had been shot down over the Crimea in winter 1943. Canonical interpretations of this story focus on the detail that, as Beuys recounts, the Tartars rubbed him with fat and wrapped him in felt to warm him, and therefore these materials (and warmth in general) came to stand for the mythical principle of healing found in his work. However, a crucial turn in this narrative that Buchloh concentrates on is the Tartars’ proposal that Beuys remain with them: “‘Du nix njemcky’ [You not German] they would say, ‘du Tartar’ [you Tartar] and persuade me to join their clan,” Beuys reported.13 In this story, Beuys not only changes his identity from being a bomber pilot to a victim of the war; part of his healing is the absolution from his origin offered by the members of a mythical people. Buchloh reads this scenario of absolution as the symptomatic expression of a certain emotional condition in postwar Germany, namely the need of the German people to acquit themselves of their recent crimes and of an unscrupulous readiness to do just that: “In the work and public myth of Beuys the new German spirit of the postwar period finds its new identity by pardoning and reconciling itself prematurely with its own reminiscences of a responsibility for one of the most cruel and devastating forms of collective political madness that history has known.”14

If we take the messianic role adopted by Beuys at face value, this criticism touches a sore spot. Surely, one could object that both Buchloh and Kuspit assume Beuys was acting as a representative for an entire nation, whereas for many years his actions de facto stood in crass contradiction to the dominant cultural climate in Germany, which was aggressively hostile towards him. This objection, however, would immediately have to be countered by observing that, when he adopted the messianic role, Beuys simply conferred on himself the mandate to express collective needs. This position was affirmed first (as Kuspit’s book demonstrates) by his international reception as an exemplary German artist (which also consolidated after some time in German academia). Against this backdrop, it would indeed seem justified to see Beuys’ oeuvre and the way he chose to play the role of an exemplary German artist in public as indicative of a struggle to come to terms with German identity. It remains nonetheless problematic that neither Buchloh nor Kuspit makes any distinction between his public image and his oeuvre, considering Beuys’ position instead as an integrated whole. They do not take into consideration, however, that more often than not in his work Beuys fails to fulfill the programmatic claims that he asserts in his commentaries, as his works always remain, in their crude material specificity and inner tensions, at least partially resistant to conclusive interpretations. This specific failure is so crucial because it makes clear (if one is prepared to see it) that Beuys did more in his art than simply illustrate, and thus consolidate, preexisting ideologies.

I Like America and America Likes Me stands as an example of such a failure. Upon closer inspection, one would have to admit (despite Beuys’ own statement that he successfully touched on a point of trauma) that his ritual of healing has carnivalesque, exaggerated features. The old European is delivered to a New York gallery incognito and proceeds to emphatically perform obscure ceremonial gestures, posing as a pagan sorcerer wrapped in felt as if wearing a complete carnival outfit. Meanwhile, the coyote, unmoved, just does as coyotes do—Beuys’ meaningful posing does not concern him; he inhabits a different world. This clearly delimits the allegorical meaning of the performance. Through everything he does, the coyote demonstrates his utter indifference to the artistic allegory being constructed around him and, in doing so, destabilizes it. The photographic documentation of the performance is somewhat misleading in that it makes the animal look as if it were an integral part of one single overarching allegory. If, however, the performance is understood as a performance—that is, as a process that unfolds in space and time—then this picture falls apart. It is only then that the particular fascination and comedic quality of the coyote’s presence during the performance begins to emerge. The comedy lies in the situation: two unequal characters, for whom communication constantly fails, somehow find a way to deal with each other and with the failure of their communication simply because they live together in close proximity. Anglo-American sitcoms about modern family life function in much the same way. This comedy of living with the failure of communication, however, also has its tragic aspects. It demonstrates the impossibility of a symmetrical exchange between two divided worlds of experience. Yet still, a trace of utopia resides in the pragmatism of the arrangement: what collective violence destroys, one person alone cannot heal. At best, one small thing or another may be resolved on the level of daily coexistence, but only if one side is prepared to face and live with unclarified conditions.

The fact that Beuys exposed himself to, or provoked, such unclarified situations could be understood in this sense to be precisely what makes up the quality of his art, irrespective of its program. The fact that the boundaries between the role of the perpetrator and the victim also remain unclarified is impossible to deny. Yet, if one is prepared to see this confusion not simply as a desperate attempt at self-vindication, it could in fact also be read as a sign of the times. Consider for example the complex implications of the iconic pose Beuys adopted at the end of the out-of-control action Kukei, akopee—Nein! (Kukei, akopee, no! recorded in an eponymously titled photograph by H. Riebesehl): during the Festival der Neuen Kunst in the auditorium of the Technische Hochschule Aachen on July 20, 1964, a group of students (whom Caroline Tisdall has described as right-wing) stormed the stage to put a violent end to the Fluxus performance Beuys was engaged in; during the ensuing scuffle Beuys received a bloody nose. His reaction to the violence was to strike a pose in which he provocatively embodied both victim and perpetrator. With a defiant stare and bloody nose, he holds up a small crucifix to the audience in his left hand while he extends his right arm in a Roman salute. It is not necessary, though possible, to see this gesture as a variant on the Nazi salute.

In one sense, Beuys’ pose has an accusatory character: he holds a mirror up to the students, interprets their violence as tendentially fascist, and presents himself as their victim. In another sense, however, the pose is also clearly triumphant. In combination with the Roman salute and the defiant gaze, the crucifix in his outstretched arm conveys the message that Christ shall be victorious. In the end, the martyr, here embodied by the bleeding artist, will prevail. Beuys thus intuitively drew on several registers of body language at the same time to produce an impromptu pose of auratic authority, presenting himself as accuser, victor, and martyr all at once. The impromptu character of the pose, in turn, shows how Beuys, through free improvisation, managed to orchestrate the chaos that he had himself provoked. The example of the events in Aachen thus demonstrates impressively the extent to which Beuys’ artistic practice is based on his intuitive ability to improvise freely in unclarified situations, to absorb the energies released in the situation, and manifest them in strong—if contradictory—gestures. Yet, the example also shows that the gestures he uses to manifest the absorbed tensions are taken from a repertoire of postures for the staging of auratic authority. One possible explanation of this may be that, when improvising, Beuys intuitively fell back on familiar gestures of authority that enabled him to control the situation for the moment. If, however, we take into account the observation that Beuys was not just displaying his own emotions but in fact reflecting the tensions inherent in a given situation, this suggests another conclusion: namely, that Beuys channeled the violent energies of collective conflict over the foundation of authority that was in the air at the moment.

The art of provocation lies in forcefully bringing about a debate over the legitimation of authority. Fluxus cultivated this art of provocation as a method. So did the incipient culture of student protest in its successful attempts to expose and dismantle the authoritarian structures on which the National Socialists based their power, and which had not really disappeared from daily life after the collapse of the regime. The conflicts at the Fluxus festival in Aachen thus marked a historical juncture in which particular artistic tendencies coincided with general political developments. The contestation of the legitimacy of traditional structures of authority and the question of the origin of fascist power were on people’s minds. In a commentary on the event in the Aachener Prisma newspaper that year titled “Eine gutgemeinte Panne” (A well-meant mishap), the author Dorothea Solle accordingly interpreted the events as a flaring up of fascist violence brought on not only by the rampaging students, but equally by the aggressive irrationality of Fluxus performers’ actions.15 Still, it would be too simplistic to interpret the outbreak of violence as a moment of cathartic release. This interpretation would suggest that something had been resolved in the situation when, ultimately, the reverse seems to have been the case. After the festival had ended, Beuys apparently discussed what had taken place with students until two in the morning.16 It seems unlikely that they arrived at a conclusion. Nevertheless, a collective experience had been articulated. On the one hand, Beuys’ actions therefore need to be seen in the context of the critique of dominant structures of authority that the Fluxus performers gathered at the festival put into practice by destroying the conventions of authoritative (in the sense of being awe-inspiring) musical stage performances. On the other hand, Beuys’ martial poses also reflected the desire of the rioting students to see authority restored. They got the Führer-savior they wanted, if only in the form of a reflexive, inherently contradictory theatrical pose.

If one takes the Fluxus festival in Aachen as exemplary, one could argue that the manner in which Beuys made his contribution to the historically powerful critique of traditional structures of authority was more intuitive and improvisational than most. The quality of this contribution could then be understood to lie precisely in his capacity to improvise in unclarified situations and, in this process, to evoke, absorb, and manifest the prevailing tensions. This surely is not an excuse for his mythmaking and the afore-cited confused statement concerning the trauma of the perpetrators (in the North-American context). Still, it might help to explain the role Beuys may have played for his generation by articulating in a similarly improvisational way its collective experience of not being able to determine the relationship between their own share in the blame and their trauma suffered during the war. Beuys was equally incapable of resolving this problem. Whether it has ever been resolved, or if it can be resolved at all, remains doubtful. One might actually go so far as to argue, with Buchloh, that not only was the mythologizing of war trauma an expression of the desire to grant oneself absolution, but that, mutatis mutandis, the German postwar intelligentsia’s emphatically conscientious manner of reckoning with the past may have equally been such a technique, as if serious reckoning would enable one to make a clean break with the past and switch from the side of the accused to that of the accusers. A real effort to grapple with the experience of the victims of the crimes this is not. In general, it worth exploring at what point exactly German artists and intellectuals began to go beyond self-criticism and self-mirroring and instead actively confronted the outside perception and critical assessment of German history and identity in other countries. Beuys’ later travels and discussion workshops in Europe and America may have offered a forum for precisely that. But whether he listened long enough to others in these discussions to absorb their experience or simply propagated his own truths is a different question altogether.

3. The Strategic Debate over Interpretive Authority on the Threshold of a New Understanding of Art

Seen in its historical context, Beuys’ position marked a crucial threshold precisely because of its inner contradictions: politically, Beuys found inspiration in the incipient culture of student protest to challenge the attitude of his own generation and to attack the structures of mythical authority that made Nazi Germany possible, though without being able to overcome them entirely. Artistically, he also stood at an epochal threshold that he was never really able to fully cross. Buchloh describes this set of problems very accurately as well. In “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol,” he locates Beuys’ work in the context of the decisive artistic developments of the 1960s—by incorporating everyday objects and industrial materials into his repertoire, Beuys, parallel to Minimal and Pop art, took a step toward the radical materialist aesthetic that would influence contemporary art from the 1960s onward. At the same time, however, as Buchloh convincingly demonstrates, Beuys did not draw the same consequences from this step that his contemporaries did. In finally realizing the implications of Marcel Duchamp’s use of the readymade, Buchloh argues, Minimal and Pop art contributed, in the spirit of a critically reductionist positivism of Anglo-American provenance, to the disenchantment of the work of art and dismantling of myths—myths that, in the tradition of Old Europe, had ensured art’s aura. Yet it was precisely this tradition that Beuys revived by tapping its mythologies in order to provide his art and persona with their magic. About to cross the threshold to the present, Beuys, it seems, turned his back to the future and stepped back into the lost past of Old Europe.

Buchloh thus takes the nature of Beuys’ self-interpretations as evidence of a reactionary position within the framework of the artistic developments of the 1960s: instead of developing a contemporary analytical understanding (based on Duchamp’s findings) of how artifacts obtain significance in art via the context of their presentation, intertextual cross-references, and the open play of their interpretation, Beuys, according to Buchloh, restored the traditional one-dimensional model of the authoritative attribution of meaning through the declaration of the artist’s intention: “[Beuys] dilutes and dissolves the conceptual precision of Duchamp’s readymade by reintegrating the object into the most traditional and naive context of representation of meaning, the idealist metaphor: this object stands for that idea, and that idea is represented in this object.”17

This criticism of Beuys’ interpretive discourse is no doubt completely justified. Again, however, the question remains: to what extent does the problematic character of Beuys’ self-interpretations truly affect his artistic practice? One could even go so far as to accuse Buchloh’s own critique of clinging, in a sense, to the very same one-dimensional model that he attributes to Beuys. After all, Buchloh himself also presumes an identity of intention and artwork when he dismisses the work in the name of Beuys’ stated intentions rather than subjecting the work to a more precise reading irrespective of what the artist may have said.

This is by no means an isolated problem. In relation to the artistic practices of the 1960s, the relationship between artists’ statements about their work and the actual work has generally not been investigated as critically as it probably should be. Beuys is far from being the only artist who intentionally sought to impose a certain meaning on his work. In fact, particularly in the context of early conceptual art, artists aggressively used interpretation as a strategy. The interpretative practice of Art & Language and the artist Joseph Kosuth, who was for a time associated with the group, is symptomatic in this regard. The performative contradiction between the content of their statements and the way they relate them to their work is even more flagrant than it is in Beuys’ own practice. Kosuth and Art & Language legitimized their work and imbued it with an awe-inspiring air of authority by citing not myths, but the entire tradition of analytical philosophy (of language), only to declare—in utter contradiction with the complex semantic models that this tradition offers—a one-to-one correspondence between this philosophical content and their art’s meaning.18 They identified critical theory with the literal meaning and the content of conceptual art with the same naïveté that Buchloh detects in Beuys’ discourse.

If anything, the crude Neo-Platonism that Kosuth propagates when he claims in his essay “intension(s)” that conceptual art can make an artist’s intentions immediately transparent can certainly be considered naive.19 At the same time, the insistence on the authority of the artist to determine the meaning of his or her work is, for Kosuth, part and parcel of a critical reflection on the power politics of interpreting art. He identifies the practice of artists making statements about their own work as a strategic practice geared towards disputing the interpretive authority of critics and historians and shifting the power balance in the artist’s favor. Kosuth writes: “art historians and critics play an important role in the struggle of the work’s ‘coming to meaning’ in the world. But that is the point: they represent the world. That is why a defining part of the creative process depends on the artists to assert their intentions in that struggle. One of the greatest lessons defending the primacy of the intention of the artist, and the increasing importance of writing by artists on their work, is provided by this period of the sixties.”20

Motivated by power politics, the main reason for artists to offer their own interpretations would thus be in the interest of eliminating the middleman. In this spirit, Kosuth quotes one of his own statements about the work of Art & Language in the journal Art-Language from 1970: “This art both annexes the function of the critic, and makes a middleman unnecessary.”21 It seems fair to assume that Beuys—perhaps less consciously, but all the more effectively for that reason—realized the historical opportunity which Kosuth articulates to use the propagation of his own interpretations as a means to reinforce his own position of authority vis-à-vis critics and historians. The increasing media interest in (his) art offered him (and not only him) an excellent platform for that.

Against this backdrop, viewing Beuys’ practice of interpreting his own work as a strategic gesture can perhaps enable us to more accurately describe its function in relation to his other artistic activities—namely, as a praxis in its own right. As such, it is not situated on some meta-level but on the very same level as the other manifestations of Beuys’ work—as a parallel practice. In this context, Beuys’ participation in the founding of various political initiatives and utopian institutions, such as the Free International University he cofounded with Heinrich Böll in 1971, for instance, could equally be seen as a gesture that matters in its own right—as an expansion of the concrete possibilities of artistic practice irrespective of any ideological program.22 Founding institutions thus becomes one artistic medium among others. Seen in this light, Beuys’ practice of speaking publicly should be treated not as a metadiscourse on his art but as an artistic medium sui generis. Beuys’ statements could therefore be regarded as having the status of material that he produced in parallel with other material. The chalkboards with scribbled lecture notes strewn on a stage constructed of wooden pallets in the installation Richtkräfte (Directional forces, 1974–77) offer a graphic example of this. Discourse becomes material, loads of material. And, because of the sheer number of chalkboards and the simple fact that some boards cover others in the pile, the sheer accumulation of material makes it partially illegible. The fascination with the material then could be seen to lie less in its ideological content than in the immanent tension between its legibility and its opacity as material.

Of course, this defense of the installation contradicts Beuys’ own interpretative discourse and declared intentions in its application of a concept of material derived from the school of Anglo-American criticism. Against the backdrop of Kosuth’s reflections, this interpretation could surely also be read as a critic’s strategic attempt to reclaim some ground in the battle for the authority to interpret a work. If interpretation is understood as an antagonistic practice, then indeed no speaker’s position within this field is neutral. It therefore seems necessary to explicate, if it is not already obvious, the position from which the author of this essay speaks: in contrast to the apodictic gesture of Beuys’ own statements (and the statements of his orthodox defenders and intimate enemies), the gesture of this essay is probably more that of unfolding a form of reflexivity from a position of historical and rhetorical distance. In terms of style, this reflexive speaking position may be typical of a (my) generation, whose experience of the patriarchal artistic gestures of Beuys’ generation is already mediated by the intervening generation’s struggle with the same gestures. In other words, a more distanced reflection seems possible today because the need and necessity to position oneself “with–alongside–against”23 Beuys is no longer as strongly felt as it may have been by the previous generation, which was immediately confronted with his persona. Buchloh belongs to the latter generation, as does my father, Walter Verwoert, who was one of Beuys’ first students. While Buchloh seems to have experienced  Beuys’ manner of embodying the role of the (German) artist in the international art world as unbearably reactionary, my father describes his experience with Beuys as a teacher at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the early 1960s as radically liberating in artistic, personal, and political terms. The reasoning in this essay is born out of a desire to reflect on these opposed positions rather than from a need to take one side or the other.

The freedom in approaching his work created by the distance of one generation is of a peculiar nature. You could liken it to the situation of the coyote in I Like America and America Likes Me: Beuys is present. That is undeniable. But because the horizon of a common language has disappeared, there is no prescribed protocol for engaging with that presence. In this situation, critique could perhaps be a medium for creatively developing a certain form of conviviality—that is, a way to live in the present with the spectral presence of a figure who contributed decisively to shaping this present but did so without ever fully entering it. This form of conviviality need neither be peaceful nor intimate. Photographs of the action show the coyote biting Beuys’ felt robe and tearing at it in one moment, only to accept his presence in the room and return to going about his own business in the next. Perhaps this could serve as a model for the further reception of Beuys’ work.

4. The Still Unresolved Question of Authority in Artistic Practice: The Boss

Independent of this experience of historical distance, however, certain unresolved questions in Beuys’ work have not lost their relevance, and neither have the artistic means through which Beuys channeled these questions and manifested their problematic implications. The questions concern the foundation for authority itself: have we ever fully understood what generated the fascination with the auratic authority of the messianic leader that made fascism possible in its various manifestations in Germany, Austria, Italy, and Spain? To what extent have we succeeded in distancing ourselves from a fascination that endures despite all we have learned since? This is a thorny issue not only in art but very much also in intellectual discourse. It could be argued that in this field (even, or perhaps especially, in the tradition of leftist political engagement), the ability to project a certain auratic authority is a basic prerequisite for making your voice heard in the public debate. To the extent that the claim not only to act and speak in one’s own name but to also hope to act and speak for others is a condition of artistic practice and intellectual discourse, this form of practice and discourse as such will necessarily generate an aura of exemplary action or speech. The question of why—by virtue of what authority—someone could legitimately hope to act or speak on behalf of others (on behalf of the general public or simply on behalf of an unknown number of people who perhaps have similar feelings) is therefore a question that persistently haunts artistic practice and intellectual discourse—especially since certain catastrophes of modernity called the legitimacy of auratic authority into question. On a constitutive level, the justification for one’s own practice and discourse as an artist and intellectual is challenged by this unresolved question.

With particularly pointed humor, Beuys acknowledged the implications of this question in the performance ÖÖ-Programm (1967). At an orientation event at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, he welcomed the new students by taking a stand at the microphone, an ax in his hand, uttering inarticulate sounds for minutes. On the following day the Düsseldorfer Express titled its report on the event “Professor bellt ins Mikrofon” (Professor Barks into the Microphone).24 Short and succinct, that describes the situation.25 By turning the official occasion of an address by the academy staff into an absurd event, Beuys deliberately subjected not only himself but also the office and authoritative speaking position of the professor to mockery. At the same time, however, he also exposed the foundation of this authority: as a professor it was within his power to do such things. By carrying an ax, he intensified this ambiguity even further. If one recognizes the ax as an attribute of power, it is impossible not to see the parallel to the axes wrapped in rods that the lictors (the bodyguards of Roman consuls) carried as a symbol of their authority. The name for these rods—fasces—is considered to be one possible origin of the term fascism. If we also take “barking into the microphone” to be an expression that describes the style of Hitler’s public addresses conspicuously well, Beuys’ action could indeed also be understood as a caricature of the dictator. Rather than deny the structural authority that accrued in his role as professor (for example, by appearing as an emphatically liberal pedagogue), Beuys exposes this structural authority in a deliberately exaggerated way and demonstrates its complicity with forms of mythical authority. Given the obvious absurdity of the presentation, it seems fair to assume that he did it with the idea of pushing his authority to its limits and thus instigate resistance—for example, by provoking laughter.

As its title makes unmistakably clear, the performance Der Chef (Fluxus Gesang) (The Chief [Fluxus song], 1964), was another occasion on which Beuys openly addressed the question of authority, here adding a particular twist. The length of the performance was specified to equal the duration of an ordinary workday, and over the course of eight hours from 4 p.m. to midnight he performed the job of embodying authority. He appeared, rolled up in a felt blanket, in one of the exhibition spaces of the Galerie René Block in Berlin. The space could be looked into, but not entered, from the adjoining room. Hidden inside the blanket, Beuys could not be seen, only heard. He had a microphone with him, and at irregular intervals would make inarticulate sounds that were amplified via a PA system. This noise performance was interrupted periodically by a composition by Henning Christiansen and Eric Andersen played from tape. Two dead hares lay at either end of the rolled up felt blanket. Other props from Beuys’ repertoire (copper rod, fat corner, fingernails, etc.) were placed all over the room to identify it as a space for ceremonial activities. In the announcement for the event, Beuys stated that Robert Morris would carry out the same performance simultaneously in New York. To my knowledge, it has never been confirmed that this actually happened. The announcement may well have been a joke made at Morris’ expense, since Morris’ own elegantly sober, analytically self-reflexive use of felt was certainly being undercut here by Beuys, who subjected the same material to a protracted, wearisome, and on the whole not very elegant process.

In accordance with Beuys’ own mythology, the performance could certainly be interpreted as an attempt to relive the experience of his healing on the Crimea. Yet this interpretation neither accounts for the title of the action, nor its time limit based on a workday, nor the central role that the PA system plays in the performance. If we take into consideration the historical resonance that the act of “barking into the microphone” had in the action ÖÖ-Programm, it is perhaps not too farfetched to see a parallel in Der Chef: the performance is centered around the experience of loudspeakers giving the guttural voice of an unseen speaker an uncanny physical presence in a room. This experience effectively resembles that of hearing propaganda speeches on the so-called Volksempfänger, the “people’s radio,” introduced into the German family home by the Nazis, the novelty of which very likely made for a formative media experience for an entire generation. If we assume that the distortion of the speeches by poor radio reception would have been a regular feature of that experience, then the indistinct muffled noises from the PA system (and its irregular interruption by music) would be, phenomenologically speaking, an echo of this experience. The “Chef” is in that sense also the “Führer.”


Der Chef, 1964. © 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

In a grotesque and highly pointed manner, Beuys thus frames the experience of the auratic. Walter Benjamin characterized this experience as one of “proximity with simultaneous distance.” It is precisely this fascinating contradiction that Beuys foregrounds on several levels in his performance: his voice filled the room, while the source was nowhere to be found. The artist was the focus of attention, yet remained invisible, rolled up in a felt blanket throughout the duration of the event. Due to his previous appearances in the media, the Der Chef performance brought a number of visitors to the gallery, according to contemporaneous reports.26 For the duration of the exhibition, these visitors were, however, forced to stay in the neighboring room. They could see what was happening but remained barred from direct physical access to the event. The partial closing-off of the performance space from the space for the audience created distance, and at the same time increased the attraction of the artist’s presence. He was present acoustically and physically as part of a piece of sculpture, but he was also absent, invisible, untouchable, and this staging of simultaneous presence and absence made his stage presence particularly auratic.

The title further reinforced this ambiguity of proximity and distance. On the one hand, it designates the leader at the top of a hierarchy. On the other hand, however, in colloquial German the word Chef—like jefe in Spanish and boss in American English—is equally used to jovially address a coworker. This double entendre lent a humorous quality to the title. Still, it did not really deflate the authority associated with the term Chef but, when seen in conjunction with the performance, rather auraticized it: on the one hand, Beuys was the highlighted artistic personality, art professor, and incipient media star who could only be perceived from afar. On the other, he was also the “coworker” who “did his job” for eight hours and made it known through moaning and groaning noises how hard he was “slaving away.” That was bound to create sympathy and proximity. This simultaneity of distance and proximity gave the artist his auratic authority in his role as “Chef.” Political leaders traditionally create an aura—that is, the appearance of absolute credibility—in an analogous way by presenting themselves as idealized, powerful paternal figures and simultaneously as approachable “men of the people.”

The crucial thing, however, is that Beuys did not simply produce an aura of authority but that he also exhibited the material conditions of its production in all their crudity, and exposed the contradictions inherent in this process in all their obvious absurdity. In this way, Beuys simultaneously constructed and dismantled an aura of authority. The performance constituted an event. Its eventful qualities were, however, simultaneously also reduced to a minimum—not much happened. A man lay wrapped in a blanket between two dead hares and made strange noises for hours. The scaling down of the performance to an activity that could scarcely be perceived as an activity at all, the stretching and expanding of time, the death rattles from under the blanket, and the overall gravity of the mise-en-scène in general creates a peculiar regressive atmosphere. Very much in line with the analysis of auratic authority that Werner Herzog developed in his films, Beuys here too foregrounds the peculiar regressive pull (Freudians would call it the “death drive”) inherent in the peculiar gravitas of auratic authority—a pull that equally also creates its limitation, in that its own weightiness sooner or later weights auratic authority down and brings it to the point of collapse. And indeed, in Der Chef Beuys staged the mechanisms producing this auratic authority together with the event of its slow collapse.

Der Chef could thus be understood to expose and exorcize, in a pointed manner, the fascination with auratic authority that constituted a crucial historical condition for the possibility of fascism. Admittedly, Beuys did not perform this act of exposing and exorcizing from a distanced position. Rather, he lived through it physically and thus, in a symptomatic way, manifested its unresolved contradictions. Beyond the discussion of historical conditions, however, the fact that Beuys chose an immanent position from which to work through the problems of auratic authority brings us back to the question raised earlier, namely, whether certain structures and contradictions of the auratic are not structurally inherent to artistic practice. A structural feature of art practice, for instance, that Beuys deals with in Der Chef, is not only the adoption of the position of an auratic speaker but also the ascription of that position to the artist through the expectations of the audience: Beuys came to Berlin and people expected an event. By appearing in public, but making himself invisible, Beuys both satisfied and frustrated their expectations. The aura that Beuys generated around himself by virtue of this strategy became a means as well as a medium to both protect himself against and play with these expectations: to throw them into relief and change them.

The fact that this attempt to renegotiate the relationship between artist and audience is, moreover, formalized as an eight-hour workday, potentially turns the performance into a parable of the constitutive tensions between the private and public that define artistic or creative work in general. As is a form of work that traditionally takes shape under conditions marked by extremes of self-isolation (in the studio, at a desk, in nature) and the act of making oneself public (in exhibitions, actions, publications), certainly there are other approaches to art practice based on participation. But experience shows that they too require a certain moment of isolation and concentration that allows for collective action to be planned and forces to be gathered. A fascinating aspect of Der Chef is that Beuys does not in fact treat isolation and publicness as polar opposites, but as inseparable qualities of a single action. The self-isolation inside the felt roll takes place in public. Kept at bay spatially on the one hand, and addressed through the loudspeakers on the other hand, the public is simultaneously excluded and included. In this situation, the microphone and PA system become the medium that establishes the relation between isolation and a publicness. In this sense, Der Chef can be read as a parable of cultural work in a public medium. The authority of those who dare—or are so bold as—to speak publicly results from the fact that they isolate themselves from the gaze of the public, under the gaze of the public, in order to still address it in indirect speech, relayed through a medium. What is constituted in this ceremony is authority in the sense of authorship, in the sense of a public voice. In Der Chef, Beuys stages the creation of such a public voice as an event that is as dramatic as it is absurd. He thus asserts the emergence of such a voice as an event. At the same time, however, he also undermines this assertion through the lamentably powerless form by which this voice is produced: in emitting half-smothered inarticulate sounds that would have remained inaudible without electronic amplification. This performance offers no answers. But it articulates the unresolved crux of a question that deeply concerns both art and politics: by virtue of what authority is it possible to embody a voice in the public and for the public?

×

© 2008 e-flux and the author

1 Donald Kuspit, The Cult of the Avant-garde Artist (New York: Cambridge University Press,
1993).

2 Ibid., 93.

3 Ibid., 95.

4 Ibid., 89.

5 Ibid., 81.

6 The motto comes from a line in the poem “Deutschlands Beruf” (1861) by the Romantic poet Emanuel Geibel (1815-1884). Geibel invokes here the spirit of German rationalism as a mediating force he believes can create peace and political stability in Europe. In its later, more notorious application, however, the phrase came to be associated with German colonialism and with the Nazi ideology of racial superiority.

7 The philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy describes very pointedly this modern design for self-healing by tapping a supposedly sovereign creativity of myth formation: “Romanticism itself could be defined as the invention of the scene of the founding myth, as the simultaneous awareness of the loss of the power of this myth, and as the desire or the will to regain this living power of the origin and, at the same time, the origin of this power…. This formulation in fact defines, beyond romanticism and even beyond romanticism in its Nietzschean form, a whole modernity: the whole of that very broad modernity embracing, in a strange, grimacing alliance, both the poetico-ethnological nostalgia for an initial mything humanity and the wish to regenerate the old European humanity by resurrecting its most ancient myths, including the relentless staging of these myths: I am referring, of course, to Nazi myth.” Jean-Luc Nancy, “Myth Interrupted,” in The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 45–46. See 43–70.

8 Rüdiger Sünner, Schwarze Sonne: Entfesselung und Missbrauch der Mythen in Nationalsozialismus und rechter Esoterik (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder Spektrum, 1999), 34-35.

9 See Götz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz, and Karin Thomas, Joseph Beuys: Life and Work (New York: Barron’s, 1979), 29.

10 Sünner, Schwarze Sonne, 36n7.

11 Quoted in Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1979), 228.

12 Benjamin Buchloh, “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol,” originally published in Artforum 18, no. 5 (1980): 35–43; quoted here from Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy, ed.Gene Ray (New York: D.A.P., 2001), 199–211.

13 Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, 17n10.

14 Buchloh, “Beuys,” 203n11.

15 Aachener Prisma 13, no. 1 (November 1964): 16–17, quoted in Adriani, Konnertz, and Thomas, Joseph Beuys, 112n8.

16 Ibid., 111.

17 Buchloh, “Beuys,” 206n11.

18 A perfect example of this is to be found in Kosuth’s text “Art after Philosophy” (1969), in which Kosuth, in the best Hegelian manner, declared his art to be the historically necessary endpoint of the history of philosophy since Kant, and his works to be direct, transparent illustrations of these lines of thought; see Joseph Kosuth, Art after Philosophy and After; Collected Writings, 1966–1990, ed. Gabriele Guercio (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).

19 Joseph Kosuth, “intention(s),” originally published in Art Bulletin 78, no. 3 (September 1996): 407–12; quoted here from Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 460–68.

20 Ibid., 462.

21 Ibid., 464.

22 These included the Deutsche Studentenpartei (German Students’ Party, 1967), the Organisation für Nichtwähler, freie Volksabstimmung (Organization for Nonvoters, Free Plebiscite, 1970), the Organisation für Direkte Demokratie durch Volksabstimmung (Organization for Direct Democracy by Plebiscite, 1971), the Free International University (1971) cofounded with Heinrich Böll, and his participation in the discussions of the founding of the German Green Party (1979).

23 “Mit-Neben-Gegen” (With-Alongside-Against) was the title of an exhibition of works by Beuys’ students at the Frankfurter Kunstverein in 1976.

24 Express (Düsseldorf) December 1, 1967; quoted from Barbara Lange, Joseph Beuys: Richtkräfte einer neuen Gesellschaft (Frankfurt am Main: Reimer, 1999), n. p., fig. 3.

25 After a lecture on the present topic, a Beuys disciple instructed me (with an authority that tolerated no dissent) that the action ÖÖ-Programm was not in fact about the question of authority but rather, as Beuys himself had said, a demonstration of (if I remember correctly) a Mongolian technique for articulation, and at the same time an illustration of the creative process of forming the quintessentially unformed by articulating the still unformed. The only reaction that occurred to me was a standard line by the Rhenish cabaret artist Jürgen Becker: “Well, you know more than I do there.”

26 See Wolf Vostel’s description of the action in Adriani, Konnertz, and Thomas, Joseph Beuys, 120n8. Among other things, Beuys’s provocative statement that the Berlin Wall would have to be raised five centimeters to improve its proportions had certainly made him a media figure by this time. When he left the room at the end of the performance, that statement was apparently the subject of the first question posed by someone in the audience.

Jan Verwoert is an art critic based in Berlin. He is a contributing editor at Frieze and writes regularly about contemporary art for magazines such as Afterall and Metropolis M. He teaches in the Fine Arts MA program at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam.

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