New York

Joseph Beuys

The drawings of Joseph Beuys involve configurations of words—maps or diagrams, notations rather than pictorial concretions—which point toward a cosmological drawing on the dialectic of revolution through art or creativity, the “leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom,” as Engels wrote in Anti-Duhring. The material of the actual drawings is inconsequent. The relationship between terms—such as “art,” “science,” “religion,” “collective unconscious,” “past history,” “freedom,” “transmitter,” “receiver,” “Revolution,” “creativity”—constitutes Beuys’ poetics. The plot, characters, diction, thought, spectacle, and song, are the elements of the liberation from positivism toward what Beuys calls spirituality. In an interview with Achille Bonito Oliva, he said:

The moment in which the artists, the men of creativity, realize the revolutionary force of art (creativity)—and here again I’m putting down art, creativity, freedom—in that moment they will recognize the true objectives of art and science. Now I’m going to unify art and science into a still larger concept; in the center stands creativity.

By positing creativity at the center of his philosophy, Beuys seems to combine the Marxist idea of the inevitability of revolution with that of individualism or personal creativity. He believes that the artist, after a long period of isolation or reflection, must realize his place in society and share his perceptions with others. The idea that art has a liberating force in society seems close to that of contemporary Marxists like Herbert Marcuse, who have asseverated that the desublimation of society is possible only through art activity, thereby reconciling what many see as a contradiction between Marxism and individual art activity. Beuys also posits his faith in the dialectic between liberty and fatality, with both the scientific point of view of the historian and the moral outlook of the prophet. However, he rejects strict materialism for a more overtly metaphysical outlook, generated by his belief in the spirituality of man. In his view, the revolution toward material and spiritual liberation is contingent on the realization of this possibility for mankind.

In his welding of socialism and mysticism, Beuys reveals his roots in German Romanticism, a reaction against the analytic investigations of Kant in favor of ideas which encompassed the spiritual life as well. He shares the Romantic ideal of knowledge seen in the poetry of Goethe and Schiller, expressing man’s position in nature, part of the inner unity of all things, the sublime and exalted. Beuys’ belief that every person is an artist is similar to Novalis’ philosophy in “Heinrich von Ofterdingen,” which postulated that poetry is the innermost essence of all things, that every man is a poet, and that the mystical nature of the word reveals the nature of the world. For example, Beuys says in the interview, “Language is indispensable. For me the concept of language represents the entire content of information.” The word, the man, are microcosms of the whole. This attitude is also close to Schopenhauer, who wrote that since the nature of existence lies within man himself, introspection and investigation of man provide an analogy or intuition of the cosmos. Beuys’ attitude toward the liberating force of Will and the revolutionary nature of art are also derived in part from Schopenhauer’s belief that the contemplation of art emancipates man from suffering as intuition reveals knowledge of the world. But unlike Schopenhauer, Beuys’ view of transcendence through art is not of passive or ascetic meditation (though he has occasionally fasted in preparation for pieces) but through action. In his demand for gesture and action in the process of liberation, Beuys comes peculiarly close to Aristotle in the Poetics:

Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is only by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.

Beuys’ idea that the dialectic between art and society leads to a liberation of mankind, however, can also be seen as the creation of the metaphysician attempting to prove that the moral and spiritual values he wants to bring about are intrinsic to the nature of things. Consequently, the elements of science and technology in Beuys’ cosmology—notions of transmitters and receivers, for example—seem tied to a somewhat Utopian socialism which does not overcome idealistic theory. Beuys views the dialectic between the individual and society in the development of a social consciousness as a psychoanalytical situation; that man will be able to liberate himself once he knows his past, that antiart gesture will awake the sculptor in every person, that art is capable of desublimating society. Art, then, is seen as therapeutic. There is a religious zeal, even fanaticism, in Beuys’ presentation of his ideas, although when charged with being too charismatic a leader, he has stated (in a tape with Willoughby Sharp) that he is only leading people toward spirituality, showing them by his actions that they can be free. This view, however, seems to have been the attitude of many religious prophets, saints, antichrists, and lunatics. This is accentuated by the symbolism in his works, like the cross and the staff. It seems that Beuys’ messianic presentation must be viewed in the context of Germany in the ’40s, for even his early pieces involving fat grew out of the deprivation of supplies during the war. He has been very influential with generations of students in Düsseldorf, but seems to have little effect on American and English students, who seem to be involved less with metaphysics, attracted more to the semantic rather than the gestural aspect of Duchamp, the heritage of British analytic philosophy, and—more and more in the ’70s—the heuristic investigation of context as seen in Kuhn rather than the primitivistic content of Levi-Strauss.

While Beuys has been operating increasingly in nonmaterial modes, he has not stopped producing objects, although these are in edition rather than unique. An exhibition of his multiples done from 1968-1972 is being currently shown at the John Gibson Gallery. While some of the pieces—Sled, 1969, made with felt, cloth, belts, a flashlight, and a hat, and Felt Suit, 1970, five felt suits like prison clothes hung in a row—have been constructed as works of art, many others use aspects of the media such as posters and tapes, printed in edition and signed. While one way of viewing such activity is that it illustrates the mass production and the availability of “art,” and that the transformation of common objects, photographs, and sounds occurs at the signature of the artist, they also seem to be relics of someone whose words, belongings, and images are saved and sold. This appears to contradict some of his teaching, for those able to pay for a copy of his work may have an advantageous position in terms of enlightenment. It is true, however, that he uses much of this money for his political activities. Whether or not Beuys’ ideas will prove themselves as correct and revolutionary, he has not proposed any facile political models. He has radically transformed the Academy in Düsseldorf (for which he has been recently discharged), set up an information bureau at Documenta 5, has plans for a free school with enrollment from all parts of the world, in all disciplines, and believes in the establishment of a popular democracy functioning at the level of the commune and dealing with local needs. In these positions, Beuys’ spirituality can be seen as only one aspect of an intellectual realist who will not prescribe simple solutions. Through his own art, which has become less symbolic and more practical, he is attempting to liberate mankind on a spiritual level through increased awareness. In this respect, his drawings exist on two planes; the purely physical aspect which maps or scores the elements of his activity, and the cosmological level in which the people participating in his pieces, and consequently in the world, become part of the sculpture. The lines of force or Will connecting mankind, through the matrix of nature, constitute the drawing capable of making the leap from material to metaphysics.

––Lizzie Borden