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Joseph Beuys

The scholarly battle over Beuys

Let’s admit it: without the artist to explain and animate his work, much of it is incomprehensible

Few artists inspire such blind devotion as Joseph Beuys. His practice encompassed art, ­performance and philosophy, and aimed to guide us to a better way of living. His influence spread far beyond the narrow confines of the art world. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that a meticulously researched biography by Hans Peter Riegel, published earlier this year in Germany by Aufbau Verlag, has proved explosive in the artist’s native country. Not only does the author reveal that Beuys surrounded himself with former Nazis, he carefully unpicks the myths the artist told about himself and accuses him of being a serial liar. On this issue, at least, Riegel misses the point.

Although Beuys’s tall tales about his own life went unchallenged for a surprisingly long time, the art world has long recognised that there is little factual basis for many of the stories the artist told about himself: they are merely part of the performance that made up his artistic persona. Nevertheless, the sustained deconstruction of these personal myths and scrutiny of the war-time record of some of the artist’s associates and supporters has alienated the German art world, which has closed ranks against Riegel.

A literary talk in Munich had to be cancelled this summer because the art historians, collectors and curators invited to debate Beuys’s life with the biography’s author all failed to turn up.

But the real problem with Beuys is not that he associated with former Nazis (more on this later) or that he invented heroic escapades for himself but that, without him, his art fails to speak to us. Some of it is, at best, incomprehensible and, at worst, ridiculous, argues Bernhard Schulz, the art critic of Der Tagesspiegel in Berlin, whom we asked to survey the legacy of the strange, brilliant, philosophically misguided Joseph Beuys.

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Beuys’s death on 23 January 1986, at the age of 64, was a blow to the German and international art world. No other contemporary artist, not even Andy Warhol, was so personally a part of his works as Beuys. With none did death so call into question the very survival of their ­oeuvre. Two years later, when the first posthumous retrospective was staged, a show given credibility by its curator, Beuys’s long-serving assistant and de facto dealer Heiner Bastian, these fears seemed to be vindicated: Beuys’s work had passed away with its creator. Or at least it had passed, definitively, into the world of museums, because it lacked the essential ingredient that had made it so alive, so urgent, so unmissable—Beuys himself.

Beuys did not merely produce works, he animated them through his personality, his missionary zeal and his commitment. Beuys imbued everyday materials such as felt, fat and ordinary objects with meaning and expressiveness. He gained an enormous reputation because his works occupied the artistic sphere but also extended far beyond it.

In West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, only a minority were interested in contemporary art. But Beuys opened up a completely different dimension to art. He created works, yes, but he was also a performer who presented his audiences with a radically different way to live. He showed that everyone could be an artist, that a life beyond society’s conventions was possible. Beuys inherited the spirit of 1968, of the students and the “extra-parliamentary opposition” that had led West Germany toward a more libertarian, hedonistic society. He repeatedly crossed the boundary between art and politics. At Documenta, he called for “direct democracy through referendum” and he ran as an MP for the newly founded Green Party.

But what became alarmingly apparent at his retrospective a quarter of a century ago was that the works which had great meaning in the artist’s presence, seemed to have fallen silent. The organiser of the show and his curatorial choices were unjustly blamed for this, as not even Bastian could have compensated for the master’s absence. No, it was simply that a fundamentally different mode of reception for the oeuvre had begun, one that had to get by without the artist explaining his work’s meaning.

The reception of Beuys’s works has not yet been able to release itself from this state of paralysis. Nor has it been able to address this relationship to the work as a theme in itself—a relationship defined almost wholly by the artist’s personality and increasingly disengaged from rational discourse. Despite a very wide-ranging retrospective devoted to him three years ago in Düsseldorf, the city where he was active as an artist, Beuys has, to a large extent, disappeared from the consciousness of the German public.

From art-world idol to nobody

With his death, Beuys, so revered during his lifetime, has become almost a non-person, a figure which inspires feelings of embarrassment and discomfort. Only rarely does a debate flare up—or, rather, an indignant dismissal of new discoveries, when they offend the sensibilities of Beuys’s supporters.

This happened in May, with the publication of a weighty biography, simply entitled Beuys, by the Düsseldorf-born writer Hans Peter Riegel. The myths and downright lies—encouraged by Beuys and in some cases originated by him—that Riegel deconstructed may not have been, individually, all that new. By 1980, Benjamin Buchloh had already published his essay “Beuys: the Twilight of the Idol”(Artforum, January 1980) pointing out the inconsistencies in Beuys’s life story. Buchloh’s research had no response in Germany, but Riegel’s presentation of all the inventions in the artist’s story has had the cumulative effect of being positively shocking.

This is because Beuys was not merely fabricating the kind of CV expected of an artist, which many an artist has done before and since. Beuys used his life story as a source of legitimation and meaning for his artistic actions. This applies in particular to the origin myth of the war pilot who crashed in the Crimea, was found by nomadic Tartars, and saved using fat and felt. “They even wanted to take me into their family,” Beuys maintained.

Viewed today, it seems remarkable that for so many years no one doubted this story of the noble savage and the white man’s conversion, so reminiscent of myth. In his later career, Beuys always wore a hat because, he said, he had a metal plate inserted in his damaged skull. The association with the metal batteries that were a core element of his later installations was readily apparent.

There was, of course, no metal plate and his crash as a radio operator in a Stuka dive bomber in the spring of 1944 (he joined the Luftwaffe voluntarily) was altogether more prosaic: a stay in a military hospital followed by a transfer away from the Crimea, where the Germans had surrendered, and where he recovered and was restored, more or less, to good health. The numerous war decorations cited by Beuys in the early 1960s, in his application for an academic professorship, did not exist either. And his place of birth was not Kleve but Krefeld.

Equally spurious was the wartime epiphany he claimed to have had from reading the works of the philosopher Rudolf Steiner, to which Beuys referred throughout his artistic lifetime, which actually took place some time after the war. Yet what has made Riegel’s recent biography sacrilegious for Beuys’s many disciples is the way he has convincingly retraced the artist’s ideas back to Steiner, especially the latter’s belief that the ­material world can be transcended through art.

Riegel persuasively traces Beuys’s unfortunate blunders and ill-judged beliefs—for example, his comparison of the time in which he lived to a concentration camp—to Steiner’s ideas of the spiritual and material. In 1970, Beuys’ vitrine Auschwitz Demonstration 1956-1964 shared the contemporary urge to examine the Nazi past through art. Beuys emphasised: “The situation in which humanity finds itself is Auschwitz… talent and creativity are being burned out: a kind of execution in the spiritual sphere.” Beuys saw Auschwitz entirely in terms of Steiner’s ideas, as proof of the malign effects of materialism that would have to be overcome through spiritualisation if humanity were to survive. As Beuys’s assistant Johannes Stüttgen noted as early as 1967, Beuys said: “Ultimately this society is even worse than the Third Reich. Hitler only sent the bodies to the ovens.”

Beuys was, according to the Swiss art historian Beat Wyss, the “eternal Hitler youth”. Indoctrinated during his school years, willingly going to war and subsequently—taking his bearings from Steiner—embracing a fixed world view, a world view astonishingly close to the one that had perished in 1945. With Beuys, there was no critical reflection upon his own past. Even if we make allowances for youthful susceptibility to influence—Beuys was born in 1921—it is nonetheless astonishing that he refused to engage in this kind of reflection. All the more so as his severe psychological breakdown of 1955 to 1956 can be interpreted as a post-traumatic stress disorder, an involuntary reaction to unprocessed trauma from his war-time ­experiences.

Iconography and charisma

Biographical demythologising is one aspect of Riegel’s book. The other might prove more enduring still: the deciphering of image motifs in Beuys’s work. Such detailed iconographic research has been neglected to date. A book published in 1996, Flieger, Filz und Vaterland [flight, felt and fatherland] by Frank Gieseke and Albert Markert, had attempted this from a pronounced “anti-fascist” perspective, but was unable to include a single illustration due to the stringent policing of copyright by Beuys’s widow, Eva.

It is said that Beuys left his family little material inheritance apart from the copyright for his works and actions. Eva Beuys has understandably defended the image rights as her source of income. That she may, at the same time, attempt to steer the interpretation of her husband’s work in the tradition of the artist’s widow, as did Nina Kandinsky, is also possible. Yet the link to Steiner is all the clearer, right down to Beuys’s use of blackboards in his lectures.

In a 1923 lecture on “The Arts and Their Mission”, Steiner concluded that “artistry arises always and only through a relation to the spiritual”, a statement that, according to Riegel, “became a leitmotif for Beuys”. Beuys followed in the footsteps of Steiner with the same level of opacity, not to say incomprehensibility, that demanded faithful allegiance from the artistic community—which the latter willingly supplied.

It would be helpful to consider Beuys’s ­activity, especially in his mature period from the 1972 Documenta until his death in 1986, using sociologist Max Weber’s study of charisma—defined as an extraordinary presence or force of character. Whoever possesses it, as Beuys did to an extraordinary degree, is able to gather followers, or rather believers, even when they don’t fully understand what their leader is saying—as was definitely the case with Beuys. Once the leader is gone, the cult crumbles.

Beuys, with his (adjusted) biography and his ever more fragile state of health, seemed to validate the message his works sent out to a prosperous West German society: to contemplate spiritual values, to accept suffering, the poor, the despised.

Beuys became the German Man of Sorrows. That he was simultaneously elevated to the status of favourite artist among the upper classes and developed very close connections with many former Nazis through his ventures into politics as an early member of the Green Party— alongside proponents of “blood and soil” policies [an ideology that focuses on one’s ethnicity based on descent and homeland], whose involvement is shamefully shrouded in secrecy today—is merely a side issue, if a striking one. It would certainly be wrong to denounce Beuys as a Nazi, no matter how irritating some of his relationships were, including his most important collector, Karl Ströher. As a Freemason, Ströher could never become a member of the Nazi party but he managed to achieve considerable profits through defence contracts. He caused a furore when, in 1967, he bought all the works that Beuys exhibited at the Museum of Mönchengladbach.

Like no other artist, Beuys was able to realise the “art equals life” philosophy, frequently invoked, rarely achieved. At last, there was no discernible differentiation between the works, installations, performances and actions; everything was part of an all-encompassing project of human spiritualisation through art. Conversely, the content of individual objects drew nourishment from their affiliation to the larger whole—to the Beuys’s “cosmos”. Whether he was promoting the Free International University or standing for election to Germany’s Bundestag, everything he did was perceived by the public as “art”, although this did not lead to the realisation of the ever more diverse projects dreamed up by an increasingly embittered Beuys towards the end of his life. His central concept of “social sculpture” remained his personal concern, without really establishing a foothold in society or shaping it in any way.

Beuys’s last installation, Plight, consisted of two rooms covered in felt and containing a grand piano, a blackboard and a thermometer, and was shown in London’s Anthony d’Offay gallery in autumn 1985. That the work can also be seen as a reference to the lack of response to his work, as perceived by the artist, is one of the astute, insightful interpretations proposed by Hans Peter Riegel—the biographer cursed by Beuys supporters.

A legacy without the legend

On 12 January 1986, Beuys gave his moving acceptance speech for the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Prize, in which he made a direct connection between Steiner, the sculptor Lehmbruck and himself. Social sculpture was Steiner’s legacy to Lehmbruck and to posterity. Now, it was Beuys’s turn to pass on the flame; he died 11 days later.

Today, the material works left behind by Beuys, his objects and installations, must do without his charismatic personality. Whether they were initially conceived for a pedestrian underpass, as with Zeige deine Wunde [show your wounds—an installation that includes paired agricultural tools, twin blackboards and two mortuary dissection-tables, below which are containers filled with fat], or for the German pavilion at the 37th Venice Biennale, as with Straßenbahnhaltestelle [tram stop], both from 1976, the works have long been transposed into a museum environment. The most appropriate way of presenting them today still seems to be by documenting their creation alongside the exhibit—showing, for example, the responses to the Biennale pavilion, which met with a good deal of incomprehension at the time.

Beuys invented his own iconography, quoting and explaining earlier conventions with regard to the meaning of individual motifs. Actions such as the remelting of a replica of the tsar’s crown into the sculpture of a hare at Documenta in 1982 are, in retrospect, at best incomprehensible, at worst ridiculous, without the master to explain this action, or rather to accompany it with words. It is just this discomfort that Buchloh caused in his response to the Beuys retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 1979, despite the fact that five years earlier, Beuys had made an enormous impression on the city’s art scene with his performance I Like America and America Likes Me at the René Block Gallery in SoHo.

Beuys became the model artist for West German society at its peak of prosperity in the 1970s and 80s precisely because he reminded it, beautifully and without consequences, how fragile this prosperity was and how fragile life is altogether. That, at least, was the experience he shared with the generation of Germans who took part in the Second World War, without ever having to name the core of this experience directly.

• Beuys, Hans Peter Riegel, Aufbau Verlag, Berlin, 595pp, €28 (hb)