Joseph Beuys


Joseph Beuys developed a new concept of art as Social Sculpture in post-war Germany after the long period of repression and lethargy. His theory advocated that every person in every situation has the ability to re-organise society and this essay discusses how he sought to realise these ideas within his own practice.

Beuys (1921-1986), is one of the most prominent and influential German artists to emerge after World War II. As well as an artist, he was a teacher and activist and his theory on the ability of art to change the dynamics of society has reverberated across a generation of artists. (Electronic Arts Intermix 1997) Beuys, along with other founding members of the Fluxus movement, helped to reinvigorate a prosperous Avant-garde after the long episode of Nazi oppression. His work was highly experimental and always contentious, layered with intricate meaning and symbolism. (Moma n.d.) Throughout his career he produced thousands of conceptual works, drawings, installations, objects, performances and lectures.

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Maturing as an artist during the Fluxus movement, this encouraged Beuys to create progressively more anti-establishment and eccentric works.(Turner 2001) The Fluxus was an international movement which began in the early sixties and continued to thrive throughout the 1960's and 1970's. It was distinguished by a strong Dadaist approach and encouraged artistic experimentation intertwined with social and political activism that rejoiced in revolutionary change. (Delahunt 1996)The Fluxus movement also centres on the absolute connection between art and life (Durini 1997, p. 26), a theme which was central to Beuys' artistic practice.

It was during the war that Joseph Beuys decided to dedicate himself to art. Beuys entered the Dusseldorf Academy at the conclusion of the war. It was during his time at the Academy that he began to query academic limitations and sought to further his artistic capabilities and understanding of art through his subject matter, sculptural techniques and the use of non conventional materials.

A major turning point for Beuys came during the mid 1950's when he suffered from a severe bout of depression which lasted for several years. He surfaced from this period with a renewed sense of purpose and direction. Beuys states “This was the stage at which I began systematic work on certain basic principles.” (Walker Art Centre n.d.) These principles were to later expand into his Theory of Social Sculpture. In addition to his depression, Beuys also reportedly suffered from several injuries which he sustained during the five years he served in the war. It is speculated that due to this suffering, the theme of injury and healing are ever-present throughout his work. As a survivor of World War II, Beuys saw Western society as highly traumatised, psychic, social, political and ecological, and he believed that art was a means of mending this suffering. (Walker Art Centre n.d.)

During the 1960's and 1970's, Joseph Beuys helped to solidify performance arts position within the art scene. He used a collaboration of sound, time and objects in a series of “actions”, to create sculptural performances. These performances were often recorded and demonstrated the captivating manner in which the artist was able to use his physical and psychic energy in which to create scenes infused with historical, mythological and personal significance. (Moma n.d.) Beuys believed that performance art was an intuitive approach in which he could convey his belief in the artist's ability to repair a damaged world. (Turner 2001)

Beuys was spurred on by the ideal belief human creativity could be universal and that art could create revolutionary change. This belief is what led Beuys to advocate this theory of the concept of ‘Social Sculpture' during the 1970's, when his political activism was at the forefront. This was the idea that each human being had the potential to creatively contribute to the reshaping of society, in other words ‘society as an artwork'. (Tate Collection 2009)

Beuys idea of everyone as an artist was very powerful, because it is an indicator of our human potential for future evolution. (Howard n.d.) He believed that this potential was oppressed by conformity, social norms and conventions (Garner n.d.), and that in order for society to reach its full potential, it needed to free itself of routine and remain unobservant to disparities and surrounding conflicts. This idea formed a large part of the intention of his work, he states “I not only want to stimulate people, I want to provoke them”. (Masters n.d.)

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Beuys regarded teaching as an important part of his work as an artist. (Tate Collection 2009) He produced a large number of chalkboard drawings in which to communicate the basic principles of his Theory of Social Sculpture. They were often in the form of diagrams and demonstrated the relationships between art and society. (NGV International 2008) These chalkboard drawings are viewed as artworks in their own right.

Joseph Beuys' selection of materials for his sculptures was notably eclectic and he believed that certain materials had significant associations and through their repeated use they achieved personal representation. (Tate Collection 2009) He spent a substantial amount of time ensuring that his choice of aesthetic materials expressed his intentions. (Garner n.d.)

Fat is a material that Beuys frequently used within his sculptures. He often used it to provoke discussion and believed it a material which was very basic to life. Its flexibility in changing from solid into liquid form made it a compelling symbol of spiritual transcendence. Felt is also a material that features frequently in Beuys work, and it became somewhat of a personal signature. He believed its often mundane nature could be transformed into objects with multi-layered significance; he also liked the manner in which it absorbs any liquid that it comes into contact with. Felt also appealed to him because of its ability to act as an insulator, it became a symbol of warmth and the way in which it could act as a muffler, for example when he wrapped a piano and a loudspeaker in it. (Tate Collection 2009) There is widespread belief that he had a strong preference towards these two materials because when he was injured in the war, fat and felt were used upon his wounds to help mend them. Beuys began to use fat in the 1960's with his installations ‘Fat Corners' (1968) and a sculpture entitled ‘Fat Chair' (1964). Beuys reasoning behind these pieces is that they began an almost chemical process that would not have been so potent if he had only spoken theoretically about them. (Walker Art Centre n.d.)

In ‘Felt Suit' (1970), Beuys uses felt in the idea that it is a protective and magical material. It is modern day armour made out of modest cloth. Hanging on the wall, an empty shell with no human presence it is not a suit at all, instead it becomes merely a piece of art. Beuys states that the suit represents warmth and a means in which to protect an individual from the world. Beuys states “Not even physical warmth is meant, namely spiritual or evolutionary warmth at the beginning of an evolution” (Turner 2001). The suit is also reminiscent of the solitude of human beings. Such suits were often worn by prisoners, particularly those in Nazi concentration camps. (Turner 2001)

‘Rose for Direct Democracy' (1973), is one of Beuys most famous multiples, it consists of a rose in a transparent cylinder. For Beuys the rose is a simple example of the evolutionary process with its revolutionary goal, which is to gradually blossom. In contrast to the organic nature of the rose is a manmade cylinder with measurements on the side, capable of determining the volume of the matter inside. This piece symbolises the transition from an unyielding and artificial system into an organic and flourishing one. In one clear image it communicates the importance of love and knowledge and passion and science. (Arithmeum 2000)

In ‘How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare' (1965), Beuys cradled a dead hare for three hours whilst walking around and showing it his drawings while at the same time explaining each drawing to the hare in a whisper. The hare is symbolic of birth for Beuys, as the hare is born and burrows underneath the Earth, later to re-emerge from it. Whilst in this action, he also covered his head in honey and affixed fifty dollars worth of gold leaf to it. His reasoning behind this was that by covering his head in honey he was evidently doing something involved with thinking. Since it is bees who are the source of honey, its use represents the goodwill and affection that societies of bees are recognised for. (Ordinary Finds n.d.) Beuys stated that he would prefer to explain his pictures to a dead animal rather than to a person because this way his words were not taken too literally.

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Beuys's most well known action occurred during 1974 ‘I like America and America Likes Me', when he spent three days alone in a room with a coyote. For this performance, he was flown into New York and immediately upon landing he was enveloped in felt and loaded into an ambulance. He was then taken to the gallery where the action took place, without once setting foot on American soil. He explained that his wish was to isolate himself, see nothing of America other than the coyote. Native Americans held the coyote in god-like regard and after the settlers came they merely saw it as a pest which needed to be ridded. Beuys saw the disparagement of the coyote similar to the damage in which white men had imposed upon America and its native people. This action was an attempt to heal some of those wounds. He reasons, “You could say that a reckoning has to be made with the coyote, and only then can this trauma be lifted”. (Tate Collection 2009)

In conclusion, Beuys served as a remedy to the needs of the population at the time, which was awakening from the shock of their economic, social and cultural sluggishness after the war. He demonstrated a way in which to rise from the ashes which was entertaining, wholesome and spiritually challenging. (Chicago Art n.d.) Within his works and teachings, he strived for a complete revamp of the system in which art is merely a consumer product. “Art is, he said, “a revolutionary change in the sense of completing the transformation from a sick world to a healthy one.” (Masters n.d.)