New York

Joseph Beuys

René Block Galllery / Ronald Feldman Fine Arts

Communication occurs in reciprocity: it must never be a one-way flow from teacher to taught. So oscillates . . . the master/pupil, transmitter/receiver relationship. So states Joseph Beuys in the catalog for “Art into Society” (ICA, London, 1974). And for three days last April Beuys talked to New York gallery-goers, uptown and downtown—this “oscillating” sculpture of verbal interchange acting as the live counterpart of his fixed object-environments, which remained after his departure. The day I sat listening to, occasionally joining in, discussion, the focal point was Beuys’s political ideas and, in particular, his advocacy of a “social sculpture/architecture,” the molding/building of society to shape a “free democratic socialism.”

The urgent sincerity of the man is compelling, even mesmerizing. And maybe it’s gratifying, no, more invigorating, like breathing fresh air, to hear ot an art that is engagé rather than alienated. An art that questions not itself in endless tautology—but the world we live in, the prevailing culture. The term “art,” though, is misleading. It’s too easy to conjure up effete gestures of painting or sculpture, references to, rather than actions in, the world. One might point to all those objects and tracts, whatever their professed intentions, that in fact uphold the dominant rationalist-materialist ideology. It’s not really art per se that is Beuys’s revolutionary force but its “root” source—creativity. A creativity that, for him, embodies man’s freedom to think and, most importantly, his “spiritual” essence.

Having noted all this, the cynic in me reasserts herself. All this relies on a belief in the innate goodness of man, an implicit trust in human nature. Beuys assumes that given freedom, man won’t simply use it for his own interests but also for others. Maybe that’s why Beuys emphasizes the bringing to consciousness of man’s “spiritual being”—the point of origin of creativity. It would seem harder to overcome the traps of power-and possession-hunger or, more to the point, demagogy. But what is the alternative? To sit back observing, accepting through inaction, the current situation—maybe interjecting a few wry comments to distance oneself from responsibility? I don’t have the answers. But Beuys is not just mouthing idle words. There is his organization of what one might call people’s parties in Germany. There are his plans for an “international free school” founded on the democratic decision-making of its constituency and a “creative” approach to learning/research—already under way in Ireland. And he mentioned an invitation to speak with Common Market members. Still I wonder.

Turning back to the “discussion.” Is it really quibbling to question whether there was any reciprocal communication involved? For Beuys’s “program” depends on a decision-making system where people arrive at conclusions through the give-and-take of ideas. Yet, if Beuys presented his formulated ideas, they were not so much debated as elaborated on. What prevailed was Beuys’s conviction of his rightness. These are harsh words. And yet, despite Beuys’s obvious sincerity, I had the feeling of an underlying authoritarianism. Is that the inevitable accompaniment of any strongly held belief? I recall SDS meetings where freedom came to mean freedom for the “right” ideas. I begin to wonder how much Beuys himself is open to change—whether he came to America to learn or merely expound.

All of this is not to deny the importance I believe Beuys has. However, it seems easier to explain it through the works Beuys left behind than through his presence. His visible works are designed as provocations, questions stimulating thinking and, more basically, feeling. It is through them that one begins to sense his meaning. To explain, to rationalize the symbols given in the two Beuys environments shows is insufficient. Hearth: The Brain of Europe contains the residue of past Beuys performances: blackboards scribbled with fragments of “discussion” at Oxford and the “Eurasian Staff” of 1967. In addition, copper rods line the walls; a metal cane lies wrapped in felt. Energies transmitted/received.

Directive Forces displays, scattered on the floor, the notated blackboards recording the days of talk at the ICA in London. On one of the easels rests an empty board—as if to suggest that a dialogue has not yet begun. And hooked over the board’s top sits Beuys’s cane, an image traced on its heel as it rubbed the floor during the ICA “discussion.” Elsewhere this image appears blown up and illuminated, suggesting a hare . . . Beuys’s declared emblem. What predominates in both these exhibits is the image. The intimation of forces flowing, interchanging.

Susan Heinemann