Recovering Beuys: Artist, Activist, Shaman, Teacher / by Chris Hall

Zeige Deine Wunde - Show your wound.  Joseph Beuys

And when I say: “Show it! Show the wound that we have inflicted upon ourselves during the course of our development”, it is because the only way to progress and become aware of it is to show it.  Joseph Beuys  

Image from I like America and America Likes Me, 1974

The Origin Myth

Joseph Beuys remains a controversial figure to this day, nearly 30 years since his death.  Despite being on the vanguard of conceptual and performance art, the hard-core Post-modernists don’t want him because of his enigmatic myth making and his refusal to give up and become a pessimist and skeptic.  Beuys was in line with the artist as hero rhetoric of his Modernist predecessors and since Post-modernists like Benjamin Buchloh won’t claim him, I think I will take him for one of my own team.

As a young man Beuys was fascinated by animals and studied medicine.  But soon afterwards the Second World War broke out and in 1941 Beuys volunteered for the Luftwaffe where he trained as a radio operator and gunner for the Ju-87 Stuka dive-bomber.  But on 16 March, 1944, at the age of 22, something significant would happen that would alter the course of his life forever.  While flying a mission over the Crimea he was shot out of the sky, the plane crashing into the snow.  The pilot was instantly killed, but somehow Beuys survived.  According to Beuys, he was pulled unconscious from the wreckage by a group of nomadic Tatars, who then warmed his frozen body and cared for his wounds by wrapping him in animal fat and felt blankets.  The Tartars took him in as one of their own until Beuys was well enough to make his way back to German field hospital.  Later, returning home, Beuys fell into a deep depression.  It was in this state that Beuys begin to feel himself transformed.  He found help through making art in the form of drawings which at this time he produced in the thousands, and he began his fascination with Shamanism and healing.  Drawing would later remain a big part of his practice and teaching philosophy, even as his own work grew more conceptual and he began to make performance art.   

It is for certain that Beuys did crash in the Crimea, that is in the record, but as for the rest, his Shamanic initiation with the Tatars and the transformation through depression, that can not be substantiated.  It has led some skeptics such as Buchloh to believe that Beuys made the whole thing up in order to create a legend or myth about himself.  However, I am inclined to believe Beuys story, as I, too, have gone through a bit of a transformation myself when I was 19, when I had my first black, howling, soul shattering depression and my own Shamanic initiation dream.  But irregardless of whether it all happened as Beuys described it or not, the story still informs his art, and the subsequent art is more important than the origin story.

After recovering from his wounds and depression, Beuys saw that Germany, too, was sick and wounded, and was also in need of healing.  Beuys viewed his art as a healing tool, and viewed himself as an artist, healer, and teacher.  He sought to bring mystical truths to the people and genuinely sought to make the world a better place through art, politics, and education.  

Beuys the Activist, Beuys the Educator:  a Misunderstanding of Intent.

As a political activist he was one of the founding members of Germany’s environmentalist Green Party.  Beuys would also run for a seat in Parliament, unsuccessfully.  Beuys’ merger of politics and aesthetics, plus his messianic myth making character, lead some people to distrust him and become skeptical of his intentions.  Despite Beuys democratic rhetoric, some viewed him as a totalitarian in disguise, reminiscent of Hitler.

To make people free is the aim of art.  Therefore art for me is the science of freedom.  Joseph Beuys  

Even today Beuys remains a controversial figure.  In a recent biography, Hans Peter Riegel writes, “Beuys was one of the first members of Germany’s environmentalist Green Party, and he spoke a great deal about democracy. Ultimately, however, the artist strove for a totalitarian society …” This assertion is made only because of Beuys willingness to be vocal about his politics through his art, and his supposed, tenuous connections with former Nazis (while this is in character for the messianic Beuys, to heal the wounded sinner, I might also argue that everyone among his peers would have been guilty, at least by association, in Post War Germany; to say otherwise would be completely naive).

Photograph from a performance at the Technical College Aachen, in 1964.  The performance was part of a festival of new art coinciding with the 20th anniversary of an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.  The performance was interrupted by a group of students, one of whom attacked Beuys, punching him in the face. 

As an educator he taught at the university, where he was very popular with is students, but when the university fired him because of his unorthodox teachings, he founded his own university.   Despite being a conceptualist and a practitioner of performance art, Beuys was deeply invested in the power of aesthetics and would require that his students take drawing classes.  Beuys was often outspoken about his criticism of Duchamp for removing aesthetics from art.  Unfortunately for Beuys, who was politically active, the connection between aesthetics and politics was one of the major defining characteristics of Fascism.  This, of course, led many people to distrust him and misunderstand his intentions.

The esthetic conservatism of Beuys is logically complemented by his politically retrograde, not to say reactionary, attitudes. Both are inscribed into a seemingly progressive and radical humanitarian program of esthetic and social evolution. The abstract universality of Beuys’ vision has its equivalent in the privatistic and deepy subjective nature of his actual work. Any attempt on his side to join the two aspects results in curious sectarianism. The roots of Beuys’ dilemma lie in the misconception that politics could become a matter of esthetics …  Benjamin Buchloh  

So when I appear as a kind of shamanistic figure, or allude to it, I do it to stress my belief in other priorities and the need to come up with a completely different plan for working with substances. For instance, in places like universities, where everyone speaks so rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear.  Joseph Beuys

To be a teacher is my greatest work of art.  The rest is a waste product, a demonstration.
Joseph Beuys

Beuys the Artist, Beuys the Healer:  Two Significant Performances

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965.  

It was made “when he was almost entirely unknown. Visitors could view Beuys through a window, where they found him sitting and cradling a dead hare in his arms. The artist’s face was covered in the symbolic substances of honey and gold leaf, and his boot was weighed down with an iron slab. He mumbled barely audible noises into the ear of the inert animal, as well as explanations of his drawings hanging behind them. This action, both strangely hilarious and moving, puts us in mind of the impossibility of teaching, the skepticism of listeners, indeed the deaf ears of most of those we ask to listen. It speaks to the difficulty of making one’s work known in the world and the possibility of an unexpected transcendence of these limits.”  (Italicize mine, from Outsiders:  The Art of Joseph Beuys by Tim Segar for Potash Hill).  

I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974. 


For this performance Beuys flew to New York City and was taken to a room in a gallery on West Broadway. He “was transported by ambulance, lying on a stretcher and wrapped in felt. For three days, the artist shared the room with a wild coyote. Some of the time he stood leaning on a shepherd’s staff, swathed in his felt blanket. Other times he lay on a bed of straw and watched the coyote. The coyote watched him, circled him, and shredded his blanket to pieces. The artist did things like striking a large triangle, drawing lines on the floor, and other mysterious gestures . . . After three days, the coyote had grown quite tolerant of Beuys. The artist hugged him and returned to the airport in an ambulance, leaving without having set foot on American soil . . . A bit of context to remember is that the Vietnam War was in its last year when this piece was made, President Nixon was on the verge of resigning the presidency, and the international community had been looking askance at the United States for quite some time . . . In both works, Beuys is acting on our behalf both humorously—mocking our attempts to interact with the world—and shamanically—conjuring hidden languages with which to cross the boundaries of death, species, language, and cultural divides.”  (From Outsiders:  The Art of Joseph Beuys by Tim Segar for Potash Hill).  

Coda:


This is what Beuys tries to do: only through showing the wound – the pain and suffering caused by the past – and through repeatedly reliving these traumatic events can some form of coping take place and can one leave the past behind. Beuys pushes where it hurts and shows in which ways one can cope with a problematic past.  From Joseph Beuys and the German Trauma by Lisa VanHaeren.

Beuys fought against skepticism and doubt.  Through his art he sought to do well by both people and the environment, healing the rift between mankind and nature (in 1982 with the help of volunteers he planted 7,000 Oak trees in Kassel, Germany).  And yet many of his critics remained skeptical, if not suspicious of his work.  His ardor and artistic and political idealism tended to turn off and frighten people.  Beuys critics fall into two camps:  one group, represented by critic Stefan Germer, believed that art did not have the power to initiate political change; they were filled with skepticism and doubt, and viewed Beuys as a deluded fool.  The other group, represented  by critics such as Benjamin Buchloh, believed (in light of Fascism) that art and politics were a dangerous combination, and that aesthetics should not serve as a vehicle to effect political change; Buchloh and others were suspicious of Beuys and sought out ulterior motives in his politics.  Despite the harsh criticism, Beuys did not give up, he continued his work; he truly believed in his mission and in the power of art to change things for the better.  Beuys’ artistic altruism, his generosity, his dedication to his mission as an artist, his championing of artistic and political idealism, and most of all, his refusal to give up, these are all worthy and admirable qualities.  There should be more artists like Joseph Beuys.  

Drawings by Joseph Beuys