State of the Art Ideas & Images in the 1980s: Sandy Nairne

Joseph Beuys, Düsseldorf Art Academy, October 1972

Joseph Beuys, Düsseldorf Art Academy, October 1972

'Great Art' would have us believe that only 'Great Artists', as it defines them, produce 'Art'. The rest of us, lacking the inspiration, remain passive, watching, listening, accepting, admiring, consuming. This myth even defines spectatorship as passive, which it need not be. If we are going to get beyond this we have to question such definitions of the 'Artist'. We have to look at ourselves as producers in relation to our world and our ways of living… KATHY HENDERSON, The Great Divide, The Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1976, p.34

Every human being is an artist. In my work man appears as an artist, a creator. By artists I don't just mean people who produce paintings or sculpture or play the piano, or are composers or writers. For me a nurse is also an artist, or, of course, a doctor or a teacher. A student, too, a young person responsible for his own development. The essence of man is captured in the description 'artist'. All other definitions of this term art' end up by saying that there are artists and there are non-artists — people who can do something, and people who can't do anything. JOSEPH BEUYS

In early October 1985 Joseph Beuys built a large installation work at the Anthony d'Offay Gallery in London. During the same days he supervised the positioning of a number of his sculptures, including the recently cast bronze, Lightning (Blitzschlag), in the central rotunda of the Royal Academy of Arts, as part of the exhibition German Art in the 20th Century.

Entitled Plight, the installation at d'Offay's involved lining the walls of the gallery with large rolls of felt, two rolls high, in specially manufactured groups of five. The two rooms of the gallery were thus padded, insulated and isolated. In the centre of the larger room a grand piano was positioned, with a blackboard and a thermometer on top of its closed case. Beuys, and his associate Heiner Bastian, directed the technicians. As the felt rolls were lifted, positioned against the walls and fixed in place, the temperature in the room began to rise. The walls and windows were gradually covered in, and the felt, a mixture of rabbit's hair and sheep's hair, dominated, creating a dull, grey, womb-like, but also tomb-like, space.

Now, plight is a term or an English word which has two sides. One very negative, a great dilemma, a terrible need, a bad situation. The other, an expression of trust, an expression of loyalty and also a great promise. And these two poles of the term interested me for this felt-room. This felt-room, too, has a negative as well as a positive aspect. It expresses on the one hand total isolation. Everything is taken away which is genuinely communicative, for instance language. This room contains elements similar to those in Beckett's plays: everything is isolated, and knocking on the wall has no resonance. Communication is no longer possible.

The other aspect is that it is a room which relates to the temperature-concept of sculpture. Warmth as an element of sculpture [‘Plastik’] is expressed. The positive aspect is thus protection against a negative influence from the outside. It is an experiment, insofar as I am conscious that it represents a product of a special kind of laboratory. A laboratory which is interested in extending the concept of art and starts with experiments in the field of sculpture. JOSEPH BEUYS

'Everyone an artist' is the clearest formulation of Joseph Beuys, intention, It means a widened concept of art in which the whole proccess of living itself is the creative act. On one level it means farewell to narrow definitions and to the restrictions of art to the products of a specialised group of professionals. More importantly, it implies an intensified feeling for life, for the processes of living, and for the structures of society.

For Beuys this process of personally understanding and discovering the world began with sculpture, or more precisely, with material. Material is substance, both carrier and conveyor of meaning. Beuys’ sculpture throughout the years has been extended as a vehicle of meaning and most particularly of his own understanding of the energies that give direction and meaning to life. These energies are not always visible, or accessible to analysis. CAROLINE TISDALL, Joseph Beuys, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Thames and Hudson, London, 1979, p.7.

When Joseph Beuys died. (23 January 1986) he was still a controversial figure. Despite his widely acknowledged position as the leading artist in Europe, his work continued to provoke and to confound expectations, as it had for thirty years. Its consistency, however, came in part through his use of certain significant materials: fat, felt, copper, honey, blood and certain woods and stones, and in part through his determination to unite his works of art with a wider philosophy and ambition. Beuys as an artist was not just a sculptor, but also a draughtsman, a performer, a politician, an environmentalist and a teacher. He was determined to redefine radically the role of the artist and was uninterested in carrying out didactic commissions, decorating interiors or making works for collectors. He was also determined to expound his ideas about creativity in any arena to which he could gain access, to undercut some of the assumptions that surround ideas of work, to force concepts of work to be reconsidered by each of us as employers and employees, as producers and consumers. He sought a dialogue with intellectuals of all persuasions, but especially with those in the natural sciences, whom he found at times more sympathetic than colleagues in the arts.

If it were the task of art to understand something intellectually, I would express it better in logical sequences of sentences and not produce colours or forms. Man, in this manner, in speaking about such terms, experiences the force fields which constitute him: not only visual perception, but also the element of hearing, the sense of equilibrium, the sense of temperature, the sense of smelling, the sense of tasting, etc.

Only now the professional term is used correctly if one says: of course there will be human beings who are creative in the domain of electricity. But there are also human beings who are creative in the domain of painting. And through the disposition of colours they can express something which points above that which an electrician can, perhaps, express. The artist points towards the totality of the relationship between the physical incarnation of humanity and its total spirituality. He breaks through the barrier of the distorted perception of the world as relationships of specific matter, relationships such as those formed by the so-called exact, natural sciences. Man, tout court, is a creative being. Art or creativity is the occupation most worthy of man. Now man is in a position where his labour can be freed of all alienation, because he can learn in this way to recognise his own nature, to recognise what he is capable of. The concept of ability becomes central and with this comes the recognition that it is here, not in money, that society's true capital lies. The state today runs the institutions of the mind, almost everywhere. It is the dominant element. That is to say, the enterprises of the mind are stale enterprises. But the enterprises of the mind are the most important production sites in the whole sphere of production because there true human capital is being developed, man's ability.

If today a firm obtains a loan from a bank, the only thing which comes into it is whether the firm can give back the loan as quickly as possible—whether in the short or long term — so that the bank can make a large profit. The whole thing is built on a system of profit. When human creativity is recognised as society's true capital, then the old injustices of the profit system will vanish. From now on this creativity is within man and is not something invested in him by some ineffable, all-powerful higher being, like a god or several gods or whatever some religion says about the spiritual world. From now on the spiritual world is to be brought down to earth by man; the planet has to be created by man alone and not simply given to him as a gift. The old principles have invested certain things, but from now on man is the deciding factor; everything depends on him and on the power of self-determination, which is also the power of freedom and the concept of creativity.

We must continually voice these weighty relations which are contained in the concept of creativity, in a so-called permanent conference, one could say, about humanity itself. And that will be the future workplace of man, full occupation in his own spiritualisation. Because in physical employment, with the necessity to rationalise, immanent in economics and technology, men and women will increasingly be brought out of factories. Everything will be much more automated in the future, and the struggle for work, as it is now, as it was twenty years ago, is a regressive one which won't lead to the solution of today's problems. Because it would be very unreasonable to run a business irrationally and reconstruct very primitive set-ups again so that people could somehow scrape around again, at some conveyor belt, or in a Taylorised system, or do work which they don't really need to do any more.

Of course, enough physical work will remain. Or let us say, it will only then become possible to really do the work of the hand, by combining it with the mind and for instance cure dying forests. Until today no system, whether in the East or in the West, can achieve this. Because to cure a forest is something which won't make a profit, in the short term. Of course there will be a profit, including a material profit, but in 300 years. JOSEPH BEUYS

The most consistent expression of Joseph Beuys's ideas came through his teaching as a professor at the Academy of Art in Düsseldorf (prior to his dismissal in October 1972 following disagreements over the selection of students), as founder of the Organisation for Direct Democracy through Referendum, and as co-founder of the Free International University, which organised conferences and seminars including the notable participation at Documenta VI in 1977. He also argued his point of view in innumerable talks - and seminars organised alongside his performances or exhibitions of his works. Beuys's sculptures, drawings and certainly his performances were in themselves a provocation to debate in both art and politics. 'I do not want to carry art into politics,' he said, 'but make politics into art.'

His position as a controversial artist, wearing his famous hat and sleeve-less hunting jacket, was exploited by Beuys wherever possible. In June 1979 he stood for election to the European Community parliament. He was not elected. At Documenta VII in 1982 he more successfully organised a work entitled 7000 Eichen in which cities worldwide extended their tree-planting programmes and marked each new oak free with one of 7000 mountain stones.

The largest collection of Beuys's sculpture is the Workcomplex at the Hessisches Landesmuseum at Darmstadt. The galleries were installed and arranged by Beuys, and the collection is based around a large group of sculptures and objects from performances, originally acquired by the collector Karl Stroher. The first gallery is filled with twenty-one stones which initially appear to be in the course of arrangement. Some are balanced on wooden pallets, others held up on small wooden blocks, and one is raised up on a trolley. Each stone has been drilled, and the hole plugged with a conically shaped stone covered in felt. The plug seems to be leaking a chemical solution. The stones are uncut boulders, each unnervingly human in shape, reminiscent of a shrouded corpse. The gallery also contains a sculpture, Trans-Siberian Railway, 1961, with a wooden 'buffer and 'train' and a line drawn in sulphur connecting these to one of two brown-painted canvases which face into the wall.

In the general conception . . . the Poet, the Artist, is by nature indifferent to the crude worldliness and materialism of politics and social affairs; he is devoted, rather, to the more substantial spheres of natural beauty and personal feeling . . . [but] in the work of the Romantic poets . . . a conclusion about personal feeling became a conclusion about society, and an observation of natural beauty carried a necessary moral reference to the whole and unified life of man . . . Wordsworth wrote political pamphlets . . . Blake was a friend of Tom Paine and was tried for sedition ... Byron spoke on the frame-riots and died as a volunteer in a political war . . . RAYMOND WILLIAMS, Culture and Society, 1780-1950, Penguin, London, 1963.

The other galleries at Darmstadt house major sculptures, including the huge and battery-like Fond III of 1968 made of nine piles of felt topped with copper. In the smaller galleries there are a variety of smaller objects meticulously arranged in glass cases in the style of an ethnographic collection. Here images and objects that are the detritus of particular performances (the boxing gloves from the Boxing Match for Direct Democracy of October 1972) are mixed with created and found objects of all kinds. Some have the strongest historical references, like the collection of objects entitled Auschwitz, which includes a printed plan and photographs of the buildings, while others refer to Beuys's thoughts about energy, warmth and social organisation (the dead bees, the hare's fur, the blocks of fat, the preserved sausage meat, the scratched carvings on slate). Fat and felt are the materials he used most consistently. In 1943, when his fighter plane crashed in the Crimea, he was rescued by members of a nomadic Tartar tribe who 'covered my body in fat to help it regenerate warmth, and wrapped it in felt as an insulator to keep the warmth in'. In his work there is often a strong reference to the healing properties of materials, and many of the sculptures and performances have a paramedical appearance. They endorse the healing, caring and intuitive human actions which Beuys valued over rationalistic scientific procedures. But Beuys has often stressed that his sculptures question, rather than answer.

These experiments intend, through sculpture, to produce a starting point, to provoke — that the social function, the social problems, which aren't yet solved, shall be solved by human beings. And through which part of man? Through man's free creativity and self-expression. That is my main intention, to make human beings conscious of their creativity. To help them in that. . . . It sounds as though I could help people. As though I could tell them how to do it right. That means I would be a know-all. This is not the case.

Self-determination and self-government will be the most important thing. All the future social changes which have to be wrought, of course I mean improvements, can only be based on the definition of humanity as creative, or able. Because only that contains the definition of human freedom. JOSEPH BEUYS