Joseph Beuys Interview: Achille Bonito Oliva

Joseph Beuys, Scheveningen, 1974

Joseph Beuys, Scheveningen, 1974

In 1961 Beuys was appointed a professor of monumental sculpture at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art. He was dismissed in 1972 for his political stance of freedom for all students whereupon he officially started the Free International University (FIU). His students included AnseIm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, and Jorg Immendorff, among others. With Kiefer, undoubtedly, the importance of material as substance derived from Beuys's conception of sculpture, now converted into two-dimensional work.

Beuys's influence in Europe, particularly Germany, was profound. Radical was his widened concept of art—its relation to anthropology, politics, history, life. He was, like Warhol, a cult figure, where persona (he, the professor, Warhol, the dandy) and performance are as significant as the work. Beuys came to New York in 1974 and performed a one-week action, Coyote, "I Like America and America Likes Me," where he lived with and engaged in a dialogue with a live coyote, at the Rene Block Gallery. He conducted an open dialogue at The Kitchen. In 1979 the Guggenheim Museum gave him a retrospective. He evoked strong responses in New York: greatly admired (Julian Schnabel acknowledged that Beuys had been a great inspiration to him) or, in other circles, considered a charlatan—based on the assumed incredibility of his myth of his own survival.

This interview predates the opening of the FIU and a great deal of his work had yet to be conceived, but Beuys's philosophy was clearly formed by this time.

ACHILLE BONITO OLIVA All your works, from the drawings of 1946 up to the current projects, gestures and actions, have contained the same implicit ideology and the same poetics. What are the recurrent themes?

JOSEPH BEUYS During the various phases of my work, I have made environmental spaces and done actions at the same time, and I consider my drawings not as separate things, but in close connection with all the works that follow. Indeed, my drawings foreshadow the actions that I later carried out. There are many themes, but they all revolve around a central problem: man, simply man. In purely scientific terms, I would say the central concern is one of anthropology, illustrated in as many ways as possible. I found out in an elementary manner in my own life that the times we live in are ill-suited to man. This problem appears in a purely instinctive way in the early drawings, and gradually becomes more explicit and conscious. Sometimes animals appear, too, for I think there is a relation between animals and man.

ABO A few of the concerns that appear again and again in your works are recurrent themes of the German Romantic culture. Do you recognize them in your work?

JB I think I belong to this cultural tradition. But the historical continuity of the German Romantic tradition—the tradition of Novalis, and in part, Goethe—was broken by the positivistic concept of science with which man carried out the industrial revolution. However, the method I’ve taken up is not the same as Novalis's, because Novalis considered the relation between man and transcendental powers, rather than that between man and matter.

ABO In Novalis the themes of death and night are means of approaching reality. For you the themes of cruelty, nature, and time are aspects of an art which does not aspire to imagery or form, but to a process of liberation.

JB Yes, I agree. I can make a sketch here. The concept of science created by the middle class in order to free itself from a feudal system has become very effective, but the revolutionary thought it contains, which was formulated also during the French Revolution—freedom, equality, brotherhood—could not be implemented, because the middle class had protected itself against an even more numerous class—the proletariat—using the discriminating concept of science, calling evolution that which is only the revolution of technical understanding. Thus, it was not possible to attain a global development of human qualities. This method has aided technical progress only, without making history, but acting on man politically in a repressive and authoritarian manner. This is a sociological affirmation, even if sociology is a human science, and thus cannot arise from what is schematically considered science. Science, on the basis of positivistic reasoning, takes a polemical stand toward art: art is worthless, it has no social importance, it's useless, it absolutely is not a vehicle of revolution, only science can be revolutionary. On the contrary, I affirm that only art can be revolutionary, especially when one frees the concept of art from its traditional technical meaning, and passes from the area of art to that of anti-art, from gesture to action, in order to place it at the complete disposal of man. The only vehicle of revolution is an integral concept of art, whence even a new concept of science is born.

ABO When you say art = man, you are making an idealistic statement. Which man are you talking about? If it's historical man, man is not free, if it's historical man, then it is man without a model, whom science also hypocritically claims to serve.

JB Here I've written, art = man = creativity = science. When the middle class says science is useful to man, it is correct. But you have to look at the content. Let's say this is man—and this the positivistic concept of science—and this the concept of art—then this concept of art does not negate the concept of science, but includes it. The moment artists, creative people, realize the revolutionary potential of art (creativity)—here I again equate art, creativity, freedom—at that moment they will recognize the true objectives of art and science. Now I'm combining art and science in a larger concept built around creativity. The problem is a broad-ranging one, and embraces many concepts. In fact, freedom is linked to the individuality of man. The moment man becomes aware of his individuality, he also wants to be free. By virtue of his anti-authoritarian desire, he longs for self-govemment and self-determination. The concept of man's self-determination makes sense only as part of the concept of freedom. The individual feels isolated at first, then he senses the need, as a human being, to communicate, live, and talk. This passage is sociology. In my opinion, sociology is nothing more than a scientific concept of love. The reciprocal exchange between man and man is the most important thing When men have developed awareness, and have learned to live politically in accordance with these powers, then it will be possible to achieve a completely new political configuration.

ABO Doesn't this vision of art also take up a theory of Schopenhauer's, of art and thought as will and representation of the world?

JB yes, but I'd also like to mention Kant and Aristotle. The development of philosophical speculation begins, roughly, with Plato. An inductive (sic) method comes into use which leads to positivism. What is the sense of this philosophy and of all Western thought? It is a tension toward and an approach to materialistic thought, and hence to technical revolution. There is an analytic force in human thought that was not yet possible in mythic thought before Plato or in even more ancient civilizations. Before, one did not analyze nature, God, or matter. One accepted everything as a coherent whole, and one lacked the strength to make an individual, and hence a free, analysis. This is precisely the awakening of consciousness of Western man from Plato to our own days: the conquest of this power of analysis and criticism. At this point an enormously important figure comes into play: Christ and Christianity. Not the Christianity administered by the churches, but that which has developed along the scientific line, for Christ wanted man to be free. He said, "I will give you freedom." That means man must win this freedom through his individual strength. In the churches one practiced old collective mythological rituals. For the power to change human nature, Christianity turned to science. In this way Christ discovered the steam engine and the atomic bomb.

ABO If the philosophical destiny of art is the liberation of mankind, what significance does the use of various materials like margarine, felt, animals, or even classical texts in your works have?

JB If I want to create a revolutionary concept of man, I have to talk about all the powers that are related to him. If I want to give man a new anthropological position, I also have to attribute a new position to everything that concerns him. To establish his downward ties with animals, plants, and nature, as well as his upward links with angels and spirits. I have to talk about these powers once again. To ask myself: what about Christ and God? So, I must again place man in this whole; only then will he be able to acquire his greatness as man and the strength to carry out the revolution. In my actions I have always exemplified the identity, art = man. When I did an action with fat and margarine, I set this concept forth. At the beginning of the action the fat appeared merely as chaos, as pure energy. This energy has no direction; that is why it is chaotic. During the action this mass moves, and begins to take on a geometric form, to be part of an architectural whole, a space, a right angle. This is form. At the center, here, we can put movement. These are the elements that make up human nature. We can even complete it: add volition, feeling, thought. This is the musical score that underlies all of my actions. I've almost always succeeded in making people question, precisely because they felt attacked by my actions. I made something budge. It doesn't matter if I encountered resistance or insults most of the time. I think the man who protests has taken the first step toward becoming a man of action, revolutionary man.

ABO Your activity appears, in my opinion, to propose a sort of "Socratic space" in which the works are a pretext for a dialogue with man.

JB This is the most important aspect of my work. The rest—objects, drawings, actions—is secondary. Really, I don't have much to do with art. Art interests me only insofar as it gives me the possibility of a dialogue with man.

ABO In your work there is the recovery of memory as an anthropological value. What is your position with respect to Freudian psychoanalysis or Jungian deep psychology?

JB I think both are important, because they affirm the existence of a collective subconscious. Man must learn how to master the future, and gain an idea of how history evolves. The instant man realizes this, the subconscious will become conscious. Psychoanalysis and psychology aspire only to make peace between man and his subconscious. Man must free himself of his irrational demons, which are the defeats of the past, not only of fascism, but of all history. Only when he has become aware of his historic evolution, and knows his past, man will be ready for revolution, to become a future revolutionary. For this to happen, a new sociology must be created.

ABO These statements seem to point to a notion of art as information, or better yet, as communication.

JB For me information means everything the world contains: men, animals, history, plants, stones, time, etc. In order to communicate, man uses language, gestures, or writing. He makes a sign on the wall, or takes a typewriter and turns out letters. In short, he uses means, What means can be used for political action? I have chosen art. Making art, then, is a means for working for man in the realm of thought. That this should gradually become an increasingly political task is a matter of my destiny or my ability. In order to communicate, at any rate, there has to be a listener. In technical terms, a transmitter and a receiver. There's no sense in a transmitter if nobody's listening There's always a consignee and a receiver for every word. But I don't (delude) myself in thinking I can talk to everyone; that's why it's important that men leam to talk and discuss things among themselves Hence, language is indispensable: the concept of language which represents the entire content of information to me.

ABO But capitalism, through the market system, favors your information, and thus interrupts your Iiberatory intention to turn it to account.

JB Yes, but only if the market uses the merchandise inadequately. The potato grown and cared for by the farmer is not damaged, even if the grocer who sells it is dishonest. The ambit of creativity, art, and the freedom of mankind is based on a different principle, the social and democratic principle of an equitable administration of justice. Therefore, art is not degraded by market abuse; it remains absolutely intact.

ABO The market creates a vicious circle, in that instead of reaching man stripped of his economic power, art reaches only those who can hoard the product.

JB Yes, this too is true, but it doesn't regard art alone Injustice characterizes all markets, including the art market. It is to consequence of the capitalistic system, which should be abolished. However, we do not yet have a method for doing this. Capitalism has the word freedom on the tip of its tongue, affirming that it works for man's freedom which is exactly why it cannot be trusted. It's the same problem I’m working on at the Academy of Dusseldorf. I say men want to study; they have the right to, because they are free, but the state says they can't. And so, I do all I can to make the majority realize that the system doesn't work. Your judgments stem from pessimistic considerations, but we have no way of knowing how a repressive system would behave with respect to a radical model of freedom. The tools used till now have utilized the concepts of democracy, communism, and socialism, which have failed because the concepts of freedom, creativity, and art, an ideal of absolute freedom, do not exist in their ideology. I don't think the system has any means of power at all against man's desire for freedom. The moment men say we are free, we want self-determination, the capitalistic principle is finished.

This interview, conducted in Naples, Italy in 1971, was originally published in Achille Bonito Oliva's Dialoghi d'artista, Incontri con L’arte contemporanea 1970-1984 (Electa, 1984).