New York

“Public Dialogue with Joseph Beuys”

New School Auditorium

Joseph Beuys’ “Public Dialogue,” at the New School on January 11th, was much more interesting for what it revealed about the New York art community than it was as an event that shed light on the work and epistemological limits of Beuys’ career and persona. In this respect, it must be counted as a great success, for Beuys’ achievement is predicated on forcing an act of didactic reflexiveness to occur.

The evening promised to be exhilarating from the start. On arrival at the New School, one found that many more people had turned up than the auditorium could possibly accommodate. Since the event had been announced as free, I had assumed that people could only get in on a first-come, first-served basis. Soon, however, I was disabused of this flagrant ingenuousness. Around the back there was a line for those—such as the press—whose presence was deemed desirable, and joining this, I gained entrance. Inside, I wasn’t surprised to find out that the many people excluded because of the hall’s limited capacity were to provide the first topic for public debate. This seemed quite reasonable, given the libertarian socialist aura that’s associated with Beuys; but, as expected, no satisfactory resolution to the issue could be found. After a while, during which the only certified members of the proletariat present—the New School’s uniformed custodians—were subjected to the usual amount of abuse, the problem of the excluded multitude withered away.

Beuys, who had been trying to get the dialogue under way for some time, seemed more or less impervious to the possibility that what was going on was a kind of paradigm for the kind of institutional diogesis with which, as an artist, he is presently concerned. He had begun by explaining a set of diagrams he’d drawn on a blackboard on the stage, the import of which was that thought has reached a point where cultural direction—social change—must be the province of the artist rather than the politician. One of the things Beuys said in his introductory preamble was: “Politics means another kind of content, another kind of art.”

My problem with statements like this, and with Beuys’ position, is that such statements are susceptible to being reversed; and reversal must lead toward obfuscation. Beuys kept saying, throughout the evening, that he’s concerned to develop a broader definition of art. Such a definition would mean that art thinking might replace, for example, economic thinking, in the search for determinants and explanations for and of social change. Beuys, though, while he insists on broadening the definition of art beyond its ostensive level of historical containment, is reluctant to indicate what or where the new parameters might be. Also, he seems unwilling to consider the possibility that artistic thinking might—in a situation where the radical aspiration is no longer in opposition to a status quo that’s philistine and antiesthetic—itself come to generate new models of repression. To put it another way, Beuys, doesn’t seem to want to think about the possibility that some kinds of work are intrinsically unpleasant, whether the people involved think of them as art or not. There is, I couldn’t help but recall as the evening wore on, a quite recent precedent for Beuys’ elevation of the artistic imagination—with which, by the way, I’m fundamentally in agreement. The precedent is Heidegger’s, and has been commented on—although not enlarged — by American philosophers concerned with German existentialism, such as Eugene Kaelin. Put crudely, the assumption would be that only artists have a grasp of relational thinking that’s transcendentally adequate to perceiving the question of organizing humanity. But Heidegger ended up working for the Nazis, and when asked why, replied: “Small men make small mistakes, great men make great ones.”

I was led to this reflection by the behavior of the audience, not of Beuys. Whenever anyone began to address Beuys from a position as far to the left as his, but which proposed different—perhaps more conventional—assumptions, they came in for a lot of flack from the crowd. The New York art world’s love of orthodoxy was confirmed in this, and, given the explicitly political overtones of the event, that kind of immediate protection of the guru seemed to me to be quite scary. A cult of personality is the least liberating influence conceivable in a discussion of either art or politics, or both. In Beuys’ own words: “Culture is no more than the place where every human meaning can be freely expressed. And when this is not true, one must set out to liberate culture.” It doesn’t seem—to me—very likely that liberation can begin with the suppression of the comments of those whose politics are closest to one’s own.

I have one or two other observations to offer in connection with what was said that evening. Beuys criticized Marxist thinking as an extrapolation of the social climate that produced the French Revolution. As, that is, a late product of the Enlightenment, trapped in Rationalist dogma, and hopelessly anachronistic because of that. Yet, throughout the evening, he constantly returned to the idea of “work,” and “productivity.” I wonder—and I am conscious that Beuys’ manipulation of offal and other material significations of evolutionary process tends, because it goes beyond a mechanistic determinism, to discount this—whether he isn’t more closely related to that kind of anachronism than he himself thinks. It was Marx, after all, who coined the term homo aestheticus to describe postrevolutionary, nonalienated man. Surrealism suggested that the erotic imagination might be as productive of new ways of thinking as the work ethic (or esthetic), but Beuys is not very explicit about his attitude to that.

My second observation is more generally speculative, and more generally assertive. Beuys said that his visit to New York was sculpture. An invisible sculpture at Feldman’s (the empty gallery), an exvisible sculpture at the New School. The elision of the notion of sculpture—traditionally an indeterminate form, situated as it is somewhere between the physical space of architecture and the conceptual space of painting—with the epistemological proposition posed by Bathes in his essay “The World as an Object,” seems necessary to the practice of much of what we call Conceptual art. This involves a lack of clarity, and a lack of clarity is often a technical necessity for artists. But a technique is not an ideology, despite the truism that any technique must have ideological implications.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe