Continuing our collaboration with Untitled, we reproduce an article of the late and legendary English art critic Tom Lubbock on another prominent figure: a German artist, teacher, performer and theorist: Joseph Beuys. It dissects the concept, in many ways pious, that only in a society where «everyone is an artist» history could be shaped by dismantling the repressive effects of a fairly bankrupt social model
When Joseph Beuys affirmed that every human being is an artist, he did not mean that every human being should, for example, be represented by Anthony d’Offay; what Beuys had in mind was far more ambitious. He meant ‘an expanded concept of art’. He said: “’Everyone is an artist’ simply means that the human being is a creative being….” But also: “Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system: to dismantle in order to build A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART. This most modern art discipline –– Social Sculpture/Social Architecture –– will only reach fruition when every living person becomes a creator, a sculptor, an architect of the social organism… Only a conception of art revolutionised to this degree can turn into a politically productive force, coursing through each person, shaping history.”
It’s hard to make this sound sensible. The Liverpool Tate’s exhibition of Beuys-abilia, titled The Revolution is Us, has a wall-text by the entrance which puts it like this: “Joseph Beuys believed it was possible to change society for the better through the creative energies of every individual”, and the sentence contains a saving ambiguity. Stress “for the better”, and it sounds like a pious though remote hypothesis: well, if you did happen to change society that way, then it would be a better society. But stress “change”, and it sounds like an immediate practical policy: that’s the way to change society, let’s do it now. Beuys believed both these things. Perhaps the first claim sounds more convincing, because more modest? Perhaps not. It’s not certain that everyone’s creative energies would be a benign force. And as for the second claim, what was the plan? What chance would these energies have against the powers of the world, if they should conflict? Well, of course, when the energies are finally coursing through everyone…. But there are intermediate stages to be considered.
But this hearing, this publicity, has its terms: namely, that the artist remain within the aesthetic frame. He is ‘a visionary’. His beliefs ––while ‘sincere’ –– are received as self-expression. He becomes the spectacle of the artist who believes he is changing the world.
And if you ask how Beuys’ own role as an artist might figure in the process of change, then again questions both of practicality and of piety –– his own piety, and other people’s –– are involved. Beuys performed ‘actions’. He made speeches. His personality was manifestly charismatic. But there is one obvious dilemma. The world, through its own vague piety towards the artist (in the restricted, Anthony d’Offay sense if the word), will grant an artist a hearing and publicity.
The point is not to berate the world for insensitivity, hypocrisy or repressive tolerance, but rather to make the artist understand what ––in liberal societies –– the deal is. An artist can too readily be led into taking art for an effective means of entry into the public arena. He can be deceived by his own ‘exhibitablity’. I think Beuys tended to mistake the publicity (the fame, the coverage, the audiences) attaching to him as an artist for practical public manoeuvres. There is another dilemma too, again thoroughly artistic: Beuys’s promotion of a democracy of creative energies depended on a cult of his own singular creative personality.
No doubt these dilemmas are not absolute. Leakage can occur. The activities of an artist can’t be entirely quarantined. An individual personality can be an inspirational example to others. Something may come of it. And the powers could be got to play along to an extent: the 7000 oaks were finally planted in Kassel. Beuys of course went further than this in practical designs. There was his involvement with the German Green Party (which dropped him quite quickly). There was his project for a Free International University, which would activate the creative potential of its students (never realised). And his attitude to producing gallery artworks was probably partly tactical, not least in the matter of fund raising. But fundamentally, he was the victim of art’s various illusions of power. The creative power of the artist. Art’s power over its materials, and over its audience.
The ‘revolutionary’ discourse of the modern avant-gardes. Beuys certainly abjured the more dictatorial mode which these illusions often encourage. Every human being is an artist. In fact, he proposed a further act of Duchampian decontextualisation: the power of art to be lifted from its normal context (the artist) and installed in a new one (everybody); and then not a urinal, not the Woolworth building, but society itself would be ‘inscribed’ as a work of art. His life-work was, one might say, an enormous tribute to the power of erroneous analogy.
Beuys may also have believed that his actions and performances had some direct spiritual influence on the world; something more than imagery or instruction. He is often described as a shaman, as if that meant something outside of a shamanistic society. Beuys’s supernatural beliefs are not closely explored, probably because his adherence to Rudolph Steiner’s Theosophy would prove difficult to swallow if too clearly situated. It seems to me that even his supporters impose the aesthetic frame here, and practise a willing suspension of disbelief. In commentaries, the phrase ‘For Beuys…’ is common: as in ‘For Beuys, fat symbolised….’, or ‘For Beuys, his encounter with the Coyote was….’. Whether these things are or might be true for anyone else is not to be enquired.
Beuys may also have believed that his actions and performances had some direct spiritual influence on the world; something more than imagery or instruction. He is often described as a shaman, as if that meant something outside of a shamanistic society. Beuys’s supernatural beliefs are not closely explored, probably because his adherence to Rudolph Steiner’s Theosophy would prove difficult to swallow if too clearly situated. It seems to me that even his supporters impose the aesthetic frame here, and practise a willing suspension of disbelief.
In commentaries, the phrase ‘For Beuys…’ is common: as in ‘For Beuys, fat symbolised….’, or ‘For Beuys, his encounter with the Coyote was….’. Whether these things are or might be true for anyone else is not to be enquired.
With Beuys’s death, the aesthetic status of his remains is uncertain. Some you can take as straight gallery artworks: that basalt graveyard, The End of the Twentieth Century, looks very good here, much better than at Millbank. Others –– fat batteries, blackboards, stag skulls filled with butter, bits and bobs in vitrines –– you can’t, even though they have their povera charms (the man had taste, no question). But to call them relics, as people do, is not quite right either. Traditional relics become sacred and acquire miraculous powers through their connection with a dead saint (blood, hair, bones, garments); but their connection to his/her saintliness is usually accidental. With Beuys it is the other way round. His exhibited ‘remains’ were, in their time, integral to his work ––even his hats, given that Beuys’s public identity was part of his work. But now that the life is over, they become mementos, things to which the story of his life and projects can be attached. They retain the aura of memory, but whatever power they once had has gone out of them.
They’re not quite art. That’s not a problem in itself, but they’re not anything else either and that is. It indicates the way Beuys’s project was not, and perhaps could not have been taken up by anyone else, the way it was not more than an individual artistic project which had no effective heirs, and whose remains –– which should be its living emblems –– now revert to a quasi-art status.
The fact that Beuys’s work has been influential on the sort of things other artist make is another, quite irrelevant matter.
This article appeared for the first time in Untitled, Review of Contemporary Art, in the autumn of 1993. Tom Lubbock was the Chief Art Critic of The Independent until his death in 2011 from a brain tumor.
Images: Joseph Bueys, Lightning with Stag in its Glare, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, cover of Untitled Autumn 1993 and photo of Tom Lubbock, photo The Independent