Saturday, October 4, 2014

Joseph Beuys

picture from Wikipedia

Joseph Beuys means a lot to Andreas Hellgermann, our host in Münster.  There are pictures of Beuys and by Beuys throughout his small house in the village of Westbevern about 5 miles north of the city.  In his living room hangs this print that shows Beuys smiling as he is forcibly ejected from the Düsseldorf Academy after he was fired from his teaching post in 1972 for encouraging non-registered students to sit in his class.  Beuys inscribed on the photograph "Demokratie ist lustig," Democracy is funny (Andreas' translation; the usual translation is "Democracy is cheerful."  I think Andreas' translation is closer to what Beuys meant).

All the pictures are mine unless noted otherwise.  My pictures are freely available, especially to educators.

Picture from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York

For Andreas, Beuys is a hero and something of a prophet.  Beuys loudly and publicly called out the post-War German Federal Republic and its economic miracle on its hypocrisy, evasiveness, and denial.  As far as Beuys was concerned, the Nazi regime was destroyed only to be replaced by the controlling paranoia of the Cold War and a soul-stealing consumerism that could be just as controlling.  To avoid becoming more grist for the ambitions of others, Germans must face their past and all the nationalist mythology appropriated and poisoned by the Nazi regime that West Germany was trying so hard to forget and bury.  Even more, Beuys said, human beings must find a way out of competing systems of coercion to some place that is truly free and life-sustaining.  Beuys in his heart of hearts was an anarchist, like a lot of 20th century artists from the Dresden Expressionists at the beginning of the century to the East Village artists at its end.  And who can blame Beuys and all those legions of artists from the preceding century for feeling that way?  Modern life is full of constraints with all of us feeling helpless at some point, at the mercy of larger impersonal forces directing our lives without our consent, and always watching, monitoring, and evaluating us whether it's the corporate personnel office where we work, marketing agencies monitoring our preferences, or some government agency monitoring our email in the name of national security.  Language from advertising to management-speak to government propaganda is all about manipulation in this kind of world.  The artist, who enjoys the rare privilege in modern society of a real connection between his/her inner life and outer work, must choose between actively resisting this manipulation or passively accepting it.  Beuys chose to resist, and he did so loudly and publicly through provocation and spectacle.

Andreas and his friend Thomas Polednichek arranged for us to visit the Beuys Archive at the Moyland Castle Museum near the Dutch border.  Beuys was born in Krefeld near Düsseldorf, but he grew up in the region of Kleve where this castle is located.  Andreas and Thomas are both scholars of Catholic theology, and neither is ordained.  Both see Beuys as a kind of liberator and solidly in the tradition of German mysticism from Meister Eckhardt to Novalis.

Here is our little group walking through the forested grounds on our way to the castle.

On the walk to the castle:  Thomas Polednichek (that may not be the correct spelling), Bill Paulsen pushed by Jan Hellgermann, David is behind him followed by his girlfriend Nicola, then Andreas and Andrea on the right.

Here is splendid Moyland Castle, a spectacular castle manor complete with a moat.  It is all a post-War rebuild.  Heavy fighting in this area left it a ruin which was not fully rebuilt until 20 years ago.  The castle was first built in the 14th century and modified extensively down through the centuries.  Just about all the battlements, crenelations, and spires that we see today are from the 19th century.

Picture from Liveauctioneers

Voltaire and Frederick the Great first met at Moyland Castle.  They both proposed turning the castle into a philosophical academy.  I don't know what became of that plan.

Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery used the castle for a field headquarters during the Second World War and received Winston Churchill as a frequent visitor there.

In the former chapel of the castle listening to Thomas explain a particular work by Beuys.

The object under discussion is one of Beuys' last works made shortly before his death in 1986, "Capri Battery".  He made this while recuperating from a lung infection on the island of Capri.  It is lighthearted and quite lustig, especially compared to so much of his other work.

It is a yellow lightbulb in a socket plugged into a lemon.  The lemon is changed regularly.  It is about themes that preoccupied Beuys throughout his life; the mechanical and the organic, light and energy, art, science, and nature, and healing.  The piece is a little humor, light, and energy for Beuys' own failing health.  As Thomas pointed out, a yellow lightbulb makes light, but it is fairly useless for doing most tasks.  It does make a very warm and inviting light.

It is also a lightbulb plugged into a lemon.
It is a little like a Surrealist object where ordinary objects are modified or combined to make them extraordinary.  But the Surrealists made these objects for effect, as in creating something that was disturbing or suggestive.  Beuys made objects to teach.  He throws some odd thing our direction and challenges us to understand it and learn something from it.

Beuys inevitably gets compared to other found object artists from Duchamp to Rauschenberg.  But, his use of objects is very different.  He is not interested in the anti-art gesture of Duchamp, nor is he interested in Rauschenberg's Pop art cool.  Beuys' provocative combinations of otherwise unremarkable objects are supposed to be instructive, to get us to think about another way of living.  So many of Beuys' objects are not clean and new like Duchamp's readymades.  Nor are they oddball throw-aways like Rauschenberg's stuffed eagle or goat.  Beuy's objects are very ordinary things like chairs, flashlights, electrical sockets, hot plates, toys, blankets, etc. that are all old, worn, and damaged, like debris from a war or from some catastrophe, or perhaps from some future archaeological dig.  Beuys is closest in spirit to the early 20th century artist Kurt Schwitters who also used old worn discarded debris in his work for its evocative qualities.

I had no idea until this trip that Beuys began his career as a serious, if not quite orthodox, Roman Catholic.  His earliest work, on view at Moyland Castle, is religious.  Most of the usual modern art  textbooks say nothing about that.

This is Beuys' earliest surviving work (Gerrit from the Netherlands identifies this as Sonnenkreuz or Sun Cross from 1949 and I think he is right) when he was still a student at the Düsseldorf Academy.  It is the crucified Christ before the radiant sun.  From the beginning, Beuys associates light and warmth with healing and redemption.  Cold and dark he associated with "the letter killeth,"with the rationalizations necessary for dominating people, with death and entropy.  Thus his use in his later work of materials like fat and felt, things associated with warmth.  That also explains his lifelong preoccupation with forms of energy, especially the energy necessary to generate light in the form of batteries and electrical systems.

It turns out that Beuys' earliest surviving artworks from the late 1940s and early 50s are religious works, variations on a combination of the Crucifix with the the radiant sun, that set up themes that would run throughout his work over the whole course of his life.

According to Thomas, while Beuys left the Roman Catholicism of his upbringing, he never really turned upon it.  He thought that institutional and doctrinal religion was no longer adequate to the challenges of modern life.  Like a lot of people who are still Christian, and even Catholic, Beuys felt that the healing work of Christ was no longer well served by the historic institutional Church.

I neglected to record the titles of these works while I was there, and I've not been able to find them online.  For that I apologize.

Here's another Beuys found object piece.

A small toy lighthouse sits on top of an old dusty scratched record, a 78 of music from Bizet's Carmen, Entr' Acte number 1.

The record turns into a kind of sea of music with the addition of the lighthouse.  And what is the point of a lighthouse?  To warn us and to guide us as we come into port from the open sea.

Here we are discussing this very object and its meaning.  Bill Paulsen objected that there is just not enough "there" there to support all these sublime interpretations.

Beuys' work is hard to access for a lot of people.  Partly for that reason, Beuys was always controversial and there was a taint of fraud that followed him (as it did most modern artists beginning with the Impressionists).  It doesn't help that so much of the writing about Beuys is in impenetrable art-speak.  Here is one example from what is supposed to be a textbook for students (which our faculty rejected):
When artists of the neo-avant-garde engaged in scandal and shock, on the other hand, the most evident effect of their actions would be -- in accordance with the rituals of the cultural industry -- the spectacularization [is that a word?] of the artist as "star" and the social role ensuing from Beuys (and Klein and Warhol for that matter), in manifest contradistinction to his predecessors, and even to his contemporaries, programmatically incorporated for the first time these principles of spectacle culture and strategies of cultic visibility into his persona as much as into his work.
Although precursors such as Jackson Pollock may have transposed painting into the register of spectacle they did not fully submit to its principles.  But once cultural practice had been severed from all utopian and political aspirations, perhaps from its ambitions for a semiotic revolution, the neo-avant-garde inevitably consummated the shift into an exclusive register of spectacular visibility. -- from art since 1900, volume 2, page 526, by Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin HD Buchloh, and David Joselit
In other words, Beuys became a celebrity and used that status to provoke people.
Not all the writing on Beuys is this bad.  Here is an example of some really fine writing by Joan Rothfuss of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

To be fair to Bill Paulsen, that's a problem with Beuys' work as far as I am concerned.  There is not much of an aesthetic payoff in looking at it.  The found objects of Schwitters and Rauschenberg probably work for me because they are embedded in paintings and given an aesthetic context; also I admit that I am prejudiced in favor of painting.
Beuys depends on the museum or gallery to provide the context for these combinations of discarded objects to be considered as art.

And sometimes they do have a kind of power as partially destroyed remnants of a catastrophe; partially burned paper, shorted out electrical circuits, twisted metal, unraveled and torn fabric, melted fat.  There is a lot of implied violence in these works.

One of Beuys' most famous works, The Sled, 1969,  with a felt blanket, fat, and a flashlight, everything we need to find our way and to survive in a cold rationalizing world.

Everyone is an artist, said Beuys.  To me that usually means that if everything is art, then art is a meaningless distinction.  According to Thomas Polednichek, that's not what he meant.  All of us shape the social matrix in which we live and move.  We cannot help but do so.  We all do our part to "sculpt" the social sphere.  And if we do so, then why not deliberately remake our part of it to suit ourselves and make it better, just like an artist?  Perhaps that's what Beuys meant.  Many people look at work by Beuys and say that they could do something like that, to which Beuys would probably reply that yes, you could, why don't you?

The account Beuys once gave about his early life -- that he was a fighter pilot shot down over Crimea and rescued by Tatar nomads  -- turned out to be a partial fabrication.  But the real account is remarkable in itself.  Beuys was a member of the Hitler Youth who attended the 1936 Nuremberg Rally.  In fairness to Beuys (and to the former Pope Benedict) membership in Nazi youth organizations was compulsory, and so was attendance at the Nuremberg rally in 1936.  When he came of age in 1941, he volunteered for the Luftwaffe and was a radio operator and gunner in a dive bomber squadron.  He was indeed shot down over Crimea, but was rescued not by Tatars, but by a German search team.  He spent a brief time in British captivity and was released in the summer of 1945.

Beuys had an overarching view of modern human life as evolving out of that cold rationalizing systemic way of life that was all about dominance and control, and toward a more spiritual state in which our thinking and emotional parts would live in harmony.  He had a mystical concept of the world filled with spiritual and sympathetic energies that drive all life.  He regarded his own role as an artist to be like that of a shaman, as someone who summons and makes contact with all of those energies within and around us.

Beuys was a romantic in an anti-romantic age who actively engaged in the life of his time with the intention of changing the world and improving it.  Instead of the cool detachment of Pop and other modern movements of the time, Beuys work is about passionate engagement.  It should come as no surprise to learn that he considered becoming a Green Party candidate for the German parliament.  He lived his own call to liberation.  His quarrel with the Düsseldorf Academy in 1972 was ultimately over freedom of access.  He could have charged a fortune and demanded all kinds of impossible requirements to study with him, and many would have eagerly paid and worked hard to get into his classes.  But, Beuys did quite the contrary.  He insisted that anyone who wanted to study with him could do so. Beuys admitted 142 students to his class that the Academy rejected.  When he insisted, the Academy fired him from his post and forcibly ejected him.  It's hard to imagine any celebrity teacher no matter what the subject doing any such thing these days.  Beuys wanted to give it all away for free.

Picture from the Mildred Kemper Art Museum
Anselm Kieffer, Burning Rods, 1984 - 1985, Saint Louis Art Museum.

I mostly know Beuys as the mentor to someone I have no doubt is a very great artist, Anselm Kieffer.  Kieffer takes so many of Beuys' preoccupations with myth and German history and makes them into grand operatic paintings like this one that I knew well when I lived in Saint Louis.

Joseph Beuys was no doubt a very great man.  I wonder how he would fare now.  He died in 1986, four years before German reunification.  Today's Bundesrepublik is a very different country from the old Cold War West Germany and is dealing with very different issues such as an ever more cosmopolitan population.  Germany today really does look like its winning soccer team, more than it looks like the crowds from old black and white photos from its turbulent past.


The castle was pretty wonderful.  I joined the kids and climbed up to the observation area on the tower and felt every single one of my 56 years in my tired out legs.

The castle tower with the observation level just at the start of the roof line

What you see from the tower of Moyland Castle looking east.

The Westphalian countryside from the castle tower