Joseph Beuys The Expanded Concept of Art: Heiner Stachelhaus

Joseph Beuys Snowfall (1965)

Joseph Beuys Snowfall (1965)

"Wherever I am," said Joseph Beuys, "Academy is." He also said, "Whenever anyone sees my things, then I myself appear to him." Sentiments of positively biblical quaintness. It is not always possible to tell how serious Beuys was when he delivered pronouncements. He could say deadly serious things with a laugh. "Wherever I am": a profound statement. Wherever I am, Academy is. Where Academy is, Beuys is. Academy is the world. Wherever Beuys is, art is, life is, sculpture is, Social Sculpture is. Beuys's claim to unlimited authority is unmistakable.

How is all this to be understood? The difficulty and the obscurity lie at the very core of Beuys. His experience, his origins, his studies, the war, his scientific education, and his realization that the positivist definition of science was a one-way street all ultimately led him to art and to a definition of art entirely related to the human individual.

When Beuys said that everyone was an artist, he did not mean that everyone was a painter or a sculptor. He meant that everyone possessed creative faculties that must be identified and developed. He spoke of this countless times, now patiently, now impatiently, his observations often ranging far and wide and from widely diverging viewpoints. If we attempt to summarize the ideas, thought processes, and tenets involved, what emerges is roughly as follows.

Creativity belongs to everyone. As an anthropological concept, the term art refers to universal creative faculties. They manifest themselves in medicine or in agriculture, just as they do in education, law, economics, or administration. The concept of art applies to human work in general. The principle of creativity is one with the principle of resurrection: the old form is paralyzed and must be metamorphosed into a living, pulsating shape that cultivates life, soul, and spirit. This is the "expanded concept of art," which Beuys called his finest artwork. To him, it was no mere theory but a basic principle of existence that transformed everything.

The expanded concept of art inevitably leads to what Beuys called Social Sculpture: an entirely new category of art, a new muse to set against the traditional muses. Rudolf Steiner's "contemplative aesthetic" comes into play here, as does his Threefold Commonwealth of culture, law, and economics—the tripartite structure that is the precondition for the realization of liberty, equality, and fraternity. With Social Sculpture, Beuys moved beyond Marcel Duchamp's Readymade. His concern was no longer with the museological but with the anthropological context of art. Creativity, to him, was a science of freedom. All human knowledge comes from art; the concept of science has evolved from creativity. And so it is that the artist alone is responsible for the emergence of historical awareness; what counts is to experience the creative factor in history. History must consequently be seen sculpturally. History is sculpture.

As for Duchamp, Beuys naturally acknowledged his importance. A taciturn figure still shrouded in mystery, Duchamp preferred the role of a chess player after having earned world fame as an "anti-artist" with a relatively small oeuvre. At age twenty-five, in 1912, he definitively broke away from painting. Nude Descending a Staircase was his last statement as a painter, a fascinating depiction of spatially active, space-filling movement employing elements of Cubist and Futurist form. One year later he produced his first Readymade: a bicycle wheel and fork, mounted upside down on a stool. This found object was followed by others: a bottle rack, a snow shovel, a typewriter cover, a coat hook, and his most spectacular museum piece of all, the urinal exhibited in 1917 with the title Fountain. Duchamp, who died in 1968 at the age of eighty-one, was undoubtedly the great inspirer of modern art. He influenced Conceptual art, just as he had influenced kinetic and Concrete art with his optical precision instruments and Rotoreliefs. Happenings and Fluxus, too, bore the mark of Duchamp. He dragged art off its pedestal and undermined its dogmas and traditions. He was constantly trying, as Beuys later was, to abolish boundaries, to expand the field. In 1941 Duchamp published his major works in miniature form, in an enigmatic portable museum called Box in a Valise.

To Beuys, Duchamp represented a challenge. In November 1964 Beuys took part in an Acton entitled The Silence of Marcel Duchamp Is Overrated, which was televised live from Düsseldorf. Other participants were Wolf Vostell, Tomas Schmit, and Bazon Broch. Beuys performed with felt and fat in a variety of sequential movements. Later he explained that the statement about Duchamp made in the title of the piece was highly elusive and ambivalent, and that it implied a criticism both of Duchamp's antiart concept and of "his attitude and how it was cultivated when he gave up an and pursued nothing but chess and literature." Beuys was also piqued by Duchamp's remark that the Fluxes artists had produced no new ideas and that he had anticipated everything they had done.

Beuys, principal concern in this Action was probably to challenge Duchamp's concept of antiart, which Beuys claimed to have systematically applied purely "to make a statement about the problem in general." His own "anti," Beuys stated, was directed against a conventional concept of art, it was the polar opposite of Duchamp's concept of antiart, where "anti" referred to Duchamp's own new works of art, such as the Readymade. What counted for Beuys was the bipolar relationship: art and antiart, physics and antiphysics, math and antimath. Only thus, he said, could expansion take place.

Beuys's definition of sculpture was all-embracing. Human thought is sculpture made inside the person; we can look at our own thinking just as an artist looks at his work. In a lecture in the series "Talks on My Own Country," delivered at the Munich Kammerspiele in 1985, Beuys made it clear that he assigned a crucial sculptural significance to his own thinking and speaking.

My path went through language, strangely enough; it dld not start off from what Is called artistic talent. As many people know, I start out studying science, and in doing so I came to a realisationn, I said to myself: Perhaps your potential lies In a direction that demands something quite different from the ability to become a good specialist in one field or another. What you can do is to provide an impetus for the task ahead that faces the people as a whole. The Idea of a people Is linked in a very elementary way with its language. Mind you, a people is not a race! The belief that this was the only way to transcend all the racist impulses, the abominable sins, The indescribable black stigmas without ever losing sight of them for a second, made me decide In favor of art, an art that has led me to a concept of sculpture that originates in speech and in thought, that learns through speech to form concepts that can and will give form to emotion and to desire. If I do not weaken. If I strictly adhere to this course. Then the images that embody the future will come to me, and the concepts will take shape.

In these words the mature Beuys—at the height of his powers and fame—expresses an idea important to him in his own existence as an artist, a prophet, and a teacher, obscure though much of it may still seem. He sets out from the premise that although great and definitive "signals" have emerged from the traditional concept of art, "the great majority of human beings have remained untouched by this signal quality." This tragic situation is itself a signal, but of what?

To me, the work of art became a riddle to which the solution had to be man himself—the work of art is the supreme riddle, but man is the solution. This Is the threshold that I want to identify as the end of modernism, the end of all traditions. Together we shall evolve the social concept of art, the newborn child of the old disciplines.

Social art, or Social Sculptor, Beuys believed, is art that sets out to encompass more than just physical material. Even for architecture, for sculpture in bronze or stone, for theater performance, for our own speech, we need the spiritual foundation of social art, on which every individual experiences and recognizes himself a creative being and as a participant in shaping and defining the world. Beuys's statement "Everyone is an artist"—which had aroused so much attention and which Beuys found was still so widely misunderstood—refers to the reshaping of the "social body" in which everyone not only can but must participate, "so that we can carry out the transformation as quickly as possible."

The energy with which Beuys proclaimed and developed his sculptural doctrine all over the world during the last years of his life suggests that he had come to see this as his true vocation. In that remarkable 1985 lecture in Munich, he concentrated on the hope that art might show its human face, and in this context he also spoke of its evolutionary significance. He marked “…the threshold between the traditional concept of art, the end of modernism, the end of all traditions, and the anthropological concept of art, the expanded concept of art, social art as the pre-condition for all capability."

With his principle of Social Sculpture, Beuys decisively called in question the conventional definition of art as a unique work created by an artist. In his tireless conceptual work on Social Sculpture, he made it clear that his prime concern was the artistic education of humankind. Not until art had been integrated into every area of education and life could there be an effective spiritual and democratic society. He was totally certain of this. That many people identified Social Sculpture with Beuys himself did not deter him. He was patent with critics, up to a certain point, but he could also be sarcastic and caustic. And since he had a ready smile and quick wit, he often had the last laugh.

"I am in favor of art," he used to say, "and of anti-art." To answer contradictions that might arise in his line of reasoning, he had an unsurpassably ambivalent response: "jajajajaja, nanananana!” At a public debate at the Kunstring Folkwang, in Essen, on January 19, 1972, someone called out in exasperation, "You talk about everything under the sun except art!" To which Beuys replied, "Everything under the sun is art!"

Beuys's efforts to establish Social Sculpture as a new model for the world were herculean. He constantly pondered the issue and spoke of it in numerous interviews, lectures, and articles. In 1972 he told his friend Hagen Lieberknecht:

The evolution of Western thought, in philosophy, and of the resulting concept of science–especially what Is called exact scientific thought—has been a quest to attain matter. . . . [But] you only attain matter when you attain death. . .

Brain as the material substrate of thought: an organ of reflection, hard and shiny as a mirror. Once you realize that this is a mirror organ, it also becomes clear that thought finds its consummation only in death, and that thought then faces something higher: its resurrection in the freedom that death gives, a new life for thought. And that in the future this can happen in a completely different way; that it is conceivable that in some future age one will be able to think with the knee. And I maintain that one already can.

Here again, much remains obscure, once more we encounter the idea of death, which occupies so important a place in Beuys's thinking and work. But Beuys was confident that regeneration will come from art, from the expanded concept of art. He said "Man must once more be in contact with those below, animals, plants, and nature, and with those above, angels and spirits." Again and again, he spoke of the changes, or rather the transformations, that man could set in motion. If the work of art is the ultimate riddle, man is the solution.

Beuys viewed present-day humanity as passing through an early or experimental stage of its potential, in which even art has yet to appear. Even so, man is no longer dependent on his creator but has already emancipated himself and can define his own future, "To hell with creation—man is the creator himself!" This conceptual rigor, with its endearingly comic side, reflects Beuys's concept of human self-determination. If everything is not to collapse, then the future of the world must be a work of man. And for that, as Beuys well knew, man will need the quality of a god."

For all the intensity with which he explained his teaching, Beuys did not see himself as an educator. He once said that all he ever wanted to do was to come out of his laboratory with something new and ask: "Is this it? Is this what you've been longing for?" He saw his expanded concept of art as an opportunity to set the social healing process in motion: "Living conditions must change—regeneration comes only from the expanded concept of art."

All this relates to the warmth that characterizes Social Sculpture. In the December 1975 Rheinische Bienenzeitung interview, Beuys addresses this connection in detail. The warmth process, he said, could be illustrated by the bee organism. He drew an analogy with humankind with its potential for further socialist evolution—not in terms of a state, which supposedly has to function perfectly, but "in terms of an organism, which does indeed have to function perfectly." Beuys had nothing against perfection, as long as it was human, that is to say truly warm and social.

This idea of warmth is also connected with the idea of fraternity and mutual collaboration, and that is why socialists have chosen the bee as a symbol, because that is what happens in the beehive, the total willingness to put one's own needs aside and do something for others. That happens in the beehive: sex, for instance, is largely given up for the sake of the whole, as Is true of the workers, and it is symbolized in a single figure, the queen, in which such processes take place. The others set It aside and work in completely different contexts based on the division of labor ...

Beuys constantly reverted to the quality of warmth present in the flower, which is taken into the hive and then organizes itself on a higher level. He went on to speak of the transference of this sculpture of social warmth:

This led me to the point where I said there has to be another concept of art, one that relates to everyone and is not lust a matter for the artist, but one that can be proclaimed in a purely anthropological sense. That is to say: Every person is an artist in the sense that he can create a form . . . and that what must in the future take shape is what Is called the social warmth sculpture. This would overcome alienation in the work-place; it is a therapeutic process, but it's also a warming process. And this in turn clearly goes together with the principle of fraternity, which contains the concept of warmth within it.

This means everyone works for every-one, no one works just for himself; rather, everyone satisfies someone else's needs. While I live off the achievements of others, I pass on something to others, and it's mutual. This is wonderfully clear in a discontinuous physiological organism like the beehive, in which the individual cells are not so entrenched as they are in a higher organism such as the human body—but actually live detached from each other and can still move. This is Important.

In relation to sculpture Beuys emphasized the polarity that emerges between the warm and chaotic and the geometric, crystalline principles. And so he distinguished between the two German synonyms for sculpture: bildhauerei (carved, or subtractive, sculpture) and plastik (modeled, or additive, sculpture). In practical terms bildhauerei is geometric and has to be approached through a geometric conception, whereas plastik offers the possibility of internal movement. The bee, according to Beuys, creates both kinds of sculpture; it knows, and works by, both the crystalline, geometric principle and the warm, rounded principle.

It is by no means inconceivable that Beuys elaborated his sculptural theory essentially through his observation of bees. He systematically pursued the interests and explorations of his early youth when he began to study art, and he made a number of drawings and sculptures of the queen bee. What interested him was the instant of fusion between plant and bee: "It's like this: when the bee comes to the plant, that's a unity. Bee and plant belong together as one process."

In the Bienenzeitung interview Beuys gives more precise information on his theory of sculpture, describing the distinction between subtractive shaping of a solid (bildhauerei) and fluid, additive, organic accumulation from within (plastik). A rock in which a cleft has been hollowed out by a glacier would belong in the realm of bildhauerei, a bone, on the other hand, basically formed through the action of fluid processes that have solidified, is plastik. Beuys explained: "In human physiology, everything that is ultimately hard has begun its existence in a fluid process; this can aleady be traced back to embryology. Gradually it firms up, emerging from a fluid, generalized motion, from a basic evolutionary principle, and that means movement."

This differs fundamentally from the carving process of bildhauerei. The sculptor starts out from a block and says, This is the back, this is the front, this is left, this is right. He orients himself according to a reticle, as Beuys puts it. You take a corner off here and a comer off there, and at the very end there emerges an individual object. This may well then become an organic sculpture (plastik), even in stone; but the process, the sculptural process, is closer to the opposite principle. Clay is basically a fluid, although a stiff one: clay modeling is working in a stiff fluid.

And this, according to Beuys, is why he used fat; because fat is even lighter and more mobile, even more fluid. According to the degree of coldness or warmth with which he worked, the fat either melted and became a liquid oil or solidified and became more or less firm. This has a function within Beuys's theory. He does not choose fat gratuitously, because of its unsightly appearance, but to clarify how it operates in this whole theory. Thus we come to the totalized concept of art, which he expressed through fat and felt and all his other materials, and which he related to all forms in the world. For "all human questions can only be questions of formation—and that is the totalized concept of art."

In the self-portrait that he presented in 1972 to an audience at the Kunstring Folkwang, Beuys started off by taking the inevitable fat question fairly lightly. So what was so unattractive about fat? Fat was a beautiful yellow color! Nothing unaesthetic about that! No, Beuys said, in his view there was something in fat that demonstrated the warmth principle best. He referred back to his own theory of warmth in sculpture, in relation to the principle of evolution, and said that at the same time the idea of fat as the most appropriate material for demonstration had come to him. Because of its absolute flexibility and its responsiveness to fluctuations in temperature, it was possible for fat to appear in Beuys's Actions in a totally chaotic way, by "for example, simply being hurled into the space."

Beuys then went through a list of the things that fat can do in sculpture. It can be treated with heat, and then it melts completely. It can be left to cool down again, and so heat and cold can be demonstrated as two principles within the sculpture. Fat can be rolled together and molded into a shape. It would be possible to model the Winged Victory of Samothrace in fat, "just as well as the ancient Greeks did," and then cast it in bronze. In Beuys's own Actions, however, fat plays a completely different role. "Fat” he told his audience in Essen, "traverses the path from a chaotic* dispersed, undirected energy form to a form. Then it appears in the famous fat corner." Then he pointed to the fat corner in his famous Fat Chair of 1969—a wedge of fat in the angle between seat and back—"which," Beuys said, "now intersects the human body in the region that houses certain emotional forces." He laughed, and so did everyone else in the room.

Fat and felt provided Beuys with the clearest artistic expression of his theory of sculpture. These are materials that people are used to seeing in a totally different context. But it is with these everyday materials that Beuys had had the crucial experiences of his life. It was fat and felt that the Crimean Tartars used as therapeutic substances in their initial medical treatment of Beuys the wounded Stuka pilot. Fundamental facts of sculptural creation are touched on here, which were later to come together in his work and in his theory. Sculpture—plastik—is not something rigid but a dynamic process that can be experienced as pulsating energy. This Is why Beuys could maintain that sculpture is heard before it is seen: the vortices formed by running water, the rhythm of the heartbeat, are movements that create sculpture. Beuys thus evokes a different, dynamic, anthropological understanding of sculpture.

The same is true of felt. Beuys wrapped objects in felt, and once he rolled himself up in it. He designed a felt suit as a multiple and wrapped a grand piano in felt. He juxtaposed felt with the cross and built large sculptural ensembles from layers of lengths of felt capped with a copper plate, copper being a conductor of energy. Felt in all these contexts, is a reservoir of heat; felt sculpture is a powerhouse in which energy is produced. This is Beuys's vision, the expanded concept of art that is meant to evolve, when applied to the whole of society, into Social Sculpture.

Beuys's belief that his art, governed as it is by the idea of warmth, had a therapeutic effect exemplifies the consistency of his line of thought. Art, as he saw it, is a medicament, a salve to rub in, a pill to swallow. He talked expressly of the "art salve" and the "art pill," and he announced that he had literally baked sculptures as cakes.

The historic date when Beuys first exhibited fat—the day the fat hit the fire—was July 18, 1963. He recorded the event in "Life Course/Work Course": "On a warm July evening on the occasion of a lecture by Allan Kaprow in the Galerie Zwirner, Cologne Columba churchyard, Beuys exhibits his warm fat."

The American artist Allan Kaprow is regarded as the father of the Happening. From 1957 on, he organized about 270 Happenings or Events in America and Europe. After his lecture at the Zwirner, he conducted a debate with Beuys, mainly on the differences between the Happening and Fluxus, which did nothing to bring their respective positions any closer together. It was already clear to Beuys that he had nothing whatever in common with the Happening, and very little with Fluxus. He was already on the way to a form of Action an all his own—without working with other performers, as was usual in Fluxus, and essentially without any of the audience participation that was part and parcel of the Happening.

At the Galerie Zwirner, Beuys showed a little card-board box, a Fat Chest, incorporating a fat corner. This first work with fat was followed in 1964 by the famous kitchen chair with its wedge of fat. In 1965 he made Chair with Fat, its whole seat covered with a layer of unrefined animal fat On the right-hand side, a thermometer projects from the congealed mass. This sort of exercise baffled most of those who saw it.

The problem of the meaning behind this alienation of an everyday object is ultimately that of the meaning of his art, overall. Beuys's art, as his life and work clearly show, has its roots in an existence marked by and obsessed with the myth and the science of nature. Beuys's art is thus always essentially relevant to those regions of the psyche receptive to myth, magic, ritual, and shamanic spells.

The shamanic side of Beuys, of his thought and of his work, has often been noted. He himself constantly emphasized that it was not at all his desire to revert to primeval conditions but to set up signs for the future. The art historian Udo Kultermann sees the artist as the shaman of modern society: the shaman as shaman produces no objects—although in primitive societies he is often also an artist—but like the artist he works through the abandonment of self, through a sacrifice to society. By committing himself, he activates healing patterns of behavior in others. Seen in this light, the Happening is the logical consequence of modern shamanism. The shaman of our age, says Kultermann, knows and commands the technology that our civilization has produced; he knows and commands the mass media. With these tools, he sets out in pursuit of new freedoms.

Beuys knew all about shamanism. To him, the shaman was a figure in whom material and spiritual forces could combine. In the present materialistic age, the shaman represented something in the future. Undoubtedly, Beuys himself had shamanic attributes, inwardly and outwardly. The shaman always wears a costume, whose most important part is a headdress. Beuys's costume consisted of a fisherman's vest over a white shirt, a pair of jeans, and a felt hat. The shaman, furthermore, is a chosen individual, who holds sole right of access to the territory of the sacred. As Mircea Eliade tells us, among all Siberian peoples the essential criterion of the vocation of shaman is sickness, the initiation process of dismemberment, ritual murder, and resurrection. But the shaman is not simply a sick person. Above all he is a sick person who succeeds in healing himself. There is an obvious parallel to the phase of depression and recovery that Beuys underwent in 1957. Though helped by the van der Grintens, he undoubtedly recovered through his own strength of will. It is also of interest, in relation to Beuys, that the shaman can converse with animals and even to some extent transform himself into them. Beuys's close relationship with animals is well known.

He invariably worked with the utmost concentration, often as if in a trance, expended enormous energy, and thus enacted the paradox that, as he himself said, he nourished himself through dissipation of his strength. He always did the different thing, the seemingly unthinkable thing: talking for a hundred days at Documenta 5, wrapping himself in felt, standing on one spot for hours, living with a coyote, peeling gelatin off a wall, sweeping out a forest, explaining pictures to a dead hare, organizing a political party for animals, bandaging a knife after he had cut his finger.