New York

“Panel Discussion With Joseph Beuys”

Arm-twisting, bad blood, blind adherence to the faith propelled this panel discussion over logistical humps into a new decade. Prolonging the agony of an idea whose time is passing may have attracted an audience, but it could not hold its interest for two hours. The event enforced the Guggenheim’s reputation for openness to contemporary art dialogues and reinforced rumors that Joseph Beuys had agreed to not make political trouble during his show at the Guggenheim. The discussion took place at the museum on the evening of January 2, after the show officially closed.

The exhilaration produced outside the museum by its Studio 54 door tactics waned as one was confronted by propaganda for the Free International University plastered along the entrance to the auditorium. Scattered throughout the audience were F.I.U. students, there to dismantle the show. Some were recognizable by red jumpsuits that lent a mock conformity to their friendly, disheveled looks. Would they have been so friendly if someone had dared ask questions about the F.I.U.’s activities or the sources, state and private, of Beuys’ patronage?

An MSG reaction gradually set in as the panel of three men and one woman, all Europeans, served Americans a mixed platter of economics and art theory. Hard to stomach for pragmatists who had come to see if Beuys could cut it in person, the discussion lurched away from fact and felt experience towards a more abstract indoctrination. Two panel members inadvertently stifled interest by reading what they had to say.

First was German critic Ingrid Burgbacher-Krupka who took credit for the idea of the panel in a later phone conversation. She would have liked to confront Beuys with specialists from other fields, a philosopher, an economist, sociologist, and so on, who could shake Beuys out of the catchphraseology of which he is often accused. Her role was “to create a climate for the soul, alongside the scientific climate of the specialists.” Last summer she presented the idea to Guggenheim Director Thomas M. Messer who served as moderator on the panel. The final group was smaller than Krupka envisioned because Beuys insisted that one specialist, economist Eugen Loebl, was plenty. Other specialists bowed out or were scratched at the last minute.

Krupka fulfilled a martyr’s role. She rhapsodized about Beuys’ early sculpture, “It touched my whole body, soul, and mind,” accounted for her own background in philosophy and chemistry by intoning the immense social responsibility she felt as a postwar German, and betrayed a shaken faith in Beuys, the subject of her 1977 book Prophete rechts, Prophete links, who now seemed annoyed with her. “I admire your skills, Beuys.” “I have no skills” was Beuys’ retort before Messer opened the floor to questions. Krupka soon switched into high gear (“Do you still work night and day for social change as does the F.I.U.?” she asked an audience member with a ’60s come-on) before she let the panel put her out of commission.

Next came Eugen Loebl who almost stole the show with a report on economic cancers. “Isn’t it great that we can talk economics at the Guggenheim” was Beuys’ answer to being upstaged by the former Czech Minister of State, Russian prisoner for 11 years, Director of the Czechoslovakian State Bank, retired professor from Vassar. Loebl won hearts with proclamations like “We need not a revolution at the barricades but a revolution in economic thinking.” Explaining that it would take ten hours to outline his alternative (to Marxism and capitalism; it involves redistributing income and government lending rather than spending), Loebl plugged his book The Responsible Society, which he wrote with Stephen Roman, a Roman Catholic capitalist. To Beuys’ recipe for removing the economic value of money, Loebl added the fillip “You Americans have little money, 100 million in cash vs. 4 trillion dollars in payments.” That piqued the audience’s taste for self-abuse. So Americans are not only under-politicized, but poor.

How would Beuys control the hydra of American masochism? Maybe he didn’t want to, but he kept talking. Hoping to revive the Honey Pump from Documenta 6, where Loebl among others lectured, Beuys mentioned his ambition “to develop the futurology of solutions for every person in the world.” He reiterated his belief in creativity and freedom as springboards “for everyone” to a new, social body. There, human potential would be the only, true Kapital. Continuing on automatic pilot, Beuys calmly talked his way into macro-, micro-, and megalomaniacal tailspins. “Now you have gathered from what you heard,” “I stress again the point,” “Did you not observe what I said?” alternated with one reference too many to his Social Sculpture as “the placenta for a new life.” When one submitted to the authority of his words and got onto their almost vegetal wave length, they made perfect, ethereal sense. But they were not art, because it was not even a good panel discussion.

Long before Messer ended the meeting with “The views expressed here are not necessarily shared by the management,” the audience was fleeing in droves. It was time for dinner after this most sobering of cocktail hours. Though guilty of passivity, the audience made one point. Among the reverential, party line answers posing as questions, a real question surfaced: “Why is this so boring?” Beuys answered like a talking carrot. He enriched the young, male questioner with vitamins of freedom, choice and the ability to differentiate, along with the prescription that more than a panel discussion is necessary to achieve social change. To the F.I.U. member who suggested that the problem was “having you up there, and us down here” (a formalist critique of panel sessions), Beuys snapped: “You must not make the wishy-washy!” His words, with a ritualized release gesture, brought down the house. We relished not only the Teuton’s command of English but his readiness to scold another for his own duplicity.

Brooks Adams