Joseph Beuys: Set Between One and All
25th St. 534 W. 25th St., New York, NY 10001
I. Beuys and Warhol: Variations on a Democratic Motto
Joseph Beuys counts, with Andy Warhol, as one of the principal sources of statements that have pervaded the art world, and turned into quasi-maxims whose exact origin and signification have become all the blurrier as they keep gaining in currency. Beuys’ all famous statement: “Every man (Mensch = man + woman in German) is an artist”1 echoes Warhol’s, perhaps even more popular statement: “In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.”2 The two statements address one of the most fundamental transformations within the art world of the past few decades: the unprecedented thrust of the public and the move from an art world that was the exclusive preserve of the happy few, to one that belongs to all. Although both statements target the same phenomenon—the democratization of the art world—they carry different inflections and emphases: I propose to sketch a comparative analysis of both of these two defining pronouncements. As one briefly poses on their practical consequences, one soon measures the radicalism of the declarations of these two artists (often hailed as the most important post-war artists, each on his respective continent). Yet, the wild anarchistic ambition that supports these two claims, the utopianism that feeds them, despite their high relevance to the present moment, all seem to have been left out in most commentaries on these artists. Both statements profoundly reflect their epoch: they address the democratic cyclone that has hit the post-modern era.
Let us look at the logical structure of each statement in comparison with each other. Both texts carry the shape of a universal logical statement: “All x = y.” Statement #1 (Beuys), and statement #2 (Warhol), give x the same logical value (and therefore, call for comparison): x = everyone or every human being, and applies to ALL without exception. However, the predicates vary in each: In statement # 1, y (the predicate) = an artist; in statement #2, y = someone deserving fame. Beuys’ and Warhol’s universal statements are not irreconcilable. The following proposition, for instance, would be in keeping with both original logical functions: “Everyone is an artist who deserves to be famous” and would combine statements #1 and #2.
With uncanny prescience, Warhol (who died well beyond the latest metamorphoses of TV entertainment) anticipated the 21st century wave of reality shows and the sensation-based cult of the American Idol, whereby everybody and anybody can reach their “fifteen minutes of fame.”
Beuys and Warhol shared together a clear insight and vision of the deep quake that had shaken the time-honored foundations of the art world. With the abandonment of all past criteria of excellence and the rapid obsolescence of the notions of originality and genius, the gates became suddenly opened for all to claim their share of artistic creativity, fame and success. Anyone and everyone could lay a claim to fame (Warhol); anyone and everyone could become an artist (Beuys). Both artists embodied the demographic revolution in the art world that can be considered as the most marking art historical phenomenon in our era: the people massively conquered the art scene. While many deplored this mass phenomenon, others embraced it: Beuys and Warhol fully encouraged it through their own practices. No one was more fully engaged in this ascendancy of all on the stage of the art world—whether it be through the emergence of a Factory (Warhol), or through the founding of the first Green Party in Europe (Beuys). Beuys and Warhol invented—or, at the very least, celebrated—what one could call the pancracy (the power or domination—krateia—of all—pan) in the art world: the art by all and for all. One is far from having yet seen the full implications of this pancratic revolution, and even though it was pronounced in the form of a somewhat utopian provocation (who could really believe that we all are artists?) the intuitions behind these statements resonate ever more powerfully within the daily reality of today’s art world.
One could naturally object that both artists were at least partly deluded in pronouncing such unfathomable claims: how could they seriously imagine that the art world, with all its intimidating institutional fences, and systems of exclusions, would open its gates to all? In fact, some argue that, despite the exponential demographics of art museum attendance, the art world has become even more fiercely exclusive, and rarefied than ever. On the artistic scene, the Duchampian claim that it is now up to the audience to create the art, has often lead to the opposite result by alienating or intimidating the viewers of given performances and pushing them further into their trenches. Even with Beuys and Warhol, the irony is that these two inimitable individuals, each with a truly unique personality, and a look that resembled no one’s, poured out their wholly unique individuality to the service of all.
Their lives and careers were set at the precise intersection between one and all—exploding the Duchampian claim well beyond the confining boundaries of the artists and their knowing public, and extending it to those who really count: those outside the art world, those who never set a foot in a museum, or an art gallery: All of them, with no exception, were declared artists: jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler. When taken seriously, this statement is utterly startling, unfathomable, daunting. If, indeed, all are artists, there is truly no art world left: the world is the art world; and vice versa. Six billion human beings = six billion artists.
There lies, however, a considerable difference of perspective between the two artists. In nuce, Warhol was essentially focusing on fame from the perspective of the audience: in a somewhat Cagean and Duchampian manner, Warhol was always interested in reversing the roles between the artist and the audience, always insisting upon his audience, viewers, and casual visitors to give him a “good idea” or two to be used in his work, and share with him the limelight.
Beuys, on the other hand, was interested in matters of process, production, transformation, creation: he genuinely believed that what bound us all in common were that Kraft, or the Schaffensprozeß [creative process] that he extolled in all. In this, we can say that the two artists stand at the polar end of the same axis. What is the raw material that enables Beuys to make such a gigantic claim? What do six billion human beings carry in common that could turn them into artists? The answer is simple and lies in the fact that each one of us carries secrets. Tapping our stocks of secrets, down into the deepest layers of our most hidden unconscious—searching our id, as Freud would have it—could provide the source of an unprecedented universal flux of creativity. This is what Beuys encouraged.
II. Recycling Romanticism
At the core of the Beuysian ideological edifice lies an essential text (mercifully displayed in the present exhibition). For the sake of clarity, here is the original text and the translation that I propose:
Kulturrevolution ist keine Haurückmethode: die alten Bäume sterben ab und neue wachsen nach. Sie sind die Zukunft. Der neue Kunstbegriff kann nur evolutionär Wirklichkeit werden. Jeder Mensch ist einer Künstler.
Make the secrets productive. The cultural revolution is no small affair: the old trees die away as new ones succeed them. These are the future. Only through evolution can the new concept of art become reality. Every man is an artist. Make the secrets productive.
Beuys’ conceptual system is closely reminiscent of some of the texts at the core of the German Romantic theoretical framework. One of the most striking conceptual inventions of the Romantic era was to establish an analogy between the process of making a work of art and the organic growth observable in nature. In other words, a poem or a work of art ‘function’ analogously to a tree: they grow, out of their own, tapping their resources from a fecund soil. In the same way as the tree evolves as an organic whole, as an autonomous entity, the poem or the work of art also function as self-dependent entities. The Beuysian system very much reflects this belief: in the same way as the tree feeds itself out its own sap, the human being/artist (the two are identical for Beuys) feeds him/herself out of his/her secrets. Secrets are to the artist/ human being what the sap is to a tree. Both grow organically. If asked why the six billion inhabitants on the earth have not yet become artists, Beuys would very likely respond that they are caught in the intermediary stage between Mensch and Künstler. What Mensch and Künstler hold in common is that each carries highly individual and private secrets.
What separates Mensch from Künstler is that the Mensch has to learn how to make his secrets ‘productive,’ whereas the Künstler already knows how to do this. The whole evolutionary process that leads from being a Mensch to being a Künstler is one of a long, patient, time-consuming progressive movement. Teaching is paramount in this progressive step. It is, therefore, absolutely impossible to separate Beuys the teacher, from Beuys the politician, from Beuys the artist: all are various facets of an organic whole.
This is how Karl Philipp Moritz (an important and insufficiently recognized early Romantic theoretician, held in huge consideration by Goethe) defined his program:
The progressive movement of thoughts toward each other, or the progressive transformation of external finality into internal finality, or, more briefly, realization in itself, appears to be the leading purpose, properly speaking, of the artist in his work of art. The artist must seek to replace the end, which in nature is always exterior to the object, within this object itself, and thus render it fully realized in itself. Then we see a whole where before we only saw parts with divergent purposes.4
Even in its very tone, this text by Moritz could well describe the key principles of the Beuysian creative system, namely the emphasison “realization in itself”—which echoes Beuys’ obsession with the Schaffensprozeß, and his concern to generate a chain of energy transformation that is self-contained, and internalized. Joseph Beuys arrived at the creative system he put in place by recycling the conceptual apparatus that formed the core of the theoretical legacy of the first generation of German Romantics—as he recycled anything, whether concrete substantial elements; or abstract or theoretical concepts. One could argue that he recycled a set of concepts that form the source of the aesthetic theoretical background of early German Romanticism.
II. a. Process of creation (“Bildung”) or formation: Schaffensprozeß
Beuys’ process very much emulates the principal theoretical principles of poetic creation put in place by the Frühromantik [Early Romantic Era]: the work of art functions as an organic life world, a living system, and consequentially, all life systems became sources of interest, inspiration and emulation to the early Romantics. Beuys did nothing else: he looked at the ways energy could be condensed, transmitted, preserved, stored, maximized. Art = life = energy. As Simmen notes, “in seinem [Beuys’] Schaffensprozeß ist alles und jedes gleichrangig, kann jedes Ding verwandelt werden.” 5
Indeed, Beuys’ “Schaffensprozeß” is all-consuming. His work does not depict, allude to, or evoke nature; but it emulates natural forces, natural growth processes in as many forms as he could put his hands on various materials, and their possible permutations. Looking at a sample of his drawings exposes us to multifarious elements and materials (not often conjured up when we look at drawings): pencil, paint, gouache are there, in the proximity of other media (or more accurately put, materials) such as rabbit’s blood, fragments of fish, phosphorus and iron chloride, milk, furniture dying product, gold or silver leaves, enamel, fruit enamels—to name but a few. This directly echoes one of the foundational principles of Romanticism. As summarized by Todorov, with Romanticism (and, we might add, with Beuys), “the moment of formation takes precedence over the already formed result” and what drives everything is the “process of production” (or what Simmen calls Beuys’ Schaffensprozeß). Here again, the lines written by Karl Philipp Moritz in 1786 could aptly apply to describing Beuys’ emphasis on production, and transformation:
The nature of the beautiful consists in this, that its inner being lies beyond the limits of the power of thought, in its emergence, in its own becoming.6
II. b. The autonomy of Beuys’ forms of creation
Nothing matters more to Beuys than what he calls his “creative principle.” In many ways, this creative principle continues to echo some key aspects of the Romantic aesthetic theory: this creative force has to come from inside the artist (it is internalized); the creative energies unfolded in this process reflect and emulate the creative forces at work within the universe; a parallel can be drawn between the microcosm taking shape in the artist’s studio (or in his mind) and the macrocosm. The following description of the principles of Romantic aesthetics apply fittingly to Beuys’ ‘creative principle’—which Beuys defines as man’s capacity to create substances himself: 7
The work of art has in common with nature the fact that each is a closed totality, a complete universe— since the creation of works in no way differs from the creation of the world.8
Similarly, one of the difficulties encountered by Beuys within the world of art history is that his subject matter is the ‘invisible world’, or, as he put it, what lies “below the threshold of perception.”9 This world, Beuys’ world, functions like a cosmos, too, and informs the art that represents it. It too, is structured like a “complete universe” and consists of:
Forces and how they interrelate, forms and how they interrelate, and energy and its effects. It also includes our minds, which we usually think of as being “inside” of us. The human mind doesn’t stop at the skin, it isn’t located below the stomach or between lungs and kidneys or any place else. Mind is part of the exterior world, too, except it isn’t visible … It may be larger than any distance an astronomer can determine with his instruments—actually, mind is the one element that includes the universe.10
Beuys, very much following the trajectory drawn by the Romantic ideology, emphasizes the fact that his work largely is “an attempt to describe [nature’s] inner life and all the forces that are continually at work within it.”11 This directly echoes Wilhelm von Humboldt’s definition of poetic language: “Language must be regarded not as a dead product of the past but as a living creation.”12 Or, again, further on, Humboldt and Beuys appear to speak, indeed, the same language as defined by the philosopher: “Indeed, language may be regarded not as a passive entity, capable of being surveyed in its entirety, nor as something impartable bit by bit, but rather as an eternally productive medium.”13
Beuys has completely autonomized the function and reception of drawing as a preparatory medium. As Jeannot Simmen has noted: “Ihr [der Zeichnung] galt vor allem ein wissenschaftliches Interesse als skizzierte Vorform und als Studie zur zeichnerischen Entwicklung eines Künstlers. Ganz anders heute: die Zeichnung ist autonom geworden, hat sich befreit von der dienenden Rolle als handwerkliche Vorarbeit, als Dokumentation und Lehrmittel. Die Zeichnung entdeckte einen neuen Bildbereich und wurde dadurch selbständig.”14
Nobody understood and exploited this process of liberalization (and liberation) of the status of drawing as a medium per se than Beuys did. To a large extent, one can in fact draw an analogy between Beuys’ graphic production and conception and his interest in new political forms that very often reach back to anarchism: whether thinking about the role of the individual in late modern society, or whether thinking about the ancillary role of the traditional technique of drawing, they are the signs of what Simmen calls “regellose Chaotik.”15
The Beuysian Program
Ultimately, however, Beuys’ art program stands alone— notwithstanding the fact that its claims is universal, and speaks for all.
This is where lies the fundamental distinction between the Romantic ideological program and Beuys’: the Romantics went out of their ways to establish solidly a set of criteria that would distinguish art from non-artistic activities; art from crafts; art that had no aim outside of itself vs. crafts that had a utilitarian purpose.
Beuys spoke the same language as the Romantics, but his ultimate purpose was the symmetric opposite of the Romantics: his aim was to abolish all distinctions between art and non-art:
I really don’t have anything to do with art—and that is the only way to really contribute anything to art.16
When Beuys claims that he wants in his art “to have a thing that can live, based on its own inner laws,” he does resolutely sound like one of the Jena Romantic poets/theoreticians writing in the 1790s. When he says, however, in the same sentence that he wants to have nothing to do with the conception of an artist, he turns his back to Romanticism. His point is simple: If indeed art is about opening itself to live processes, art can in no way be confined to the restricted boundaries of the art world. Art has to open itself to its other: the quasi infinite non-art world.