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Personal Myth of Joseph Beuys: Between Social and Spiritual

24 July, 2016

Who is Joseph Beuys? This is a very simple question that requires a very difficult answer. He is one of the key personas in the world of contemporary art. Beuys is among the group of modern masters who had changed the perception of art as well as the image of an artist forever. His contribution into the transformation of the 20th century art is very complex and should be viewed only through the prism of his life-long achievements. In order to gain a better understanding of Joseph Beuys’s oeuvre, it is absolutely necessary to learn about his origins and life story. Such requirement is relevant for many artists with vivid and charismatic temper, but in his case, the entirety of the creative work that Beuys produced is profoundly shaped by his past, by his story of rebirth and fight against death. This might sound mysterious and somewhat mythical. Indeed, it is a myth – the personal myth of Joseph Beuys.

Before getting to know Beuys’s art, it is essential to have a glimpse at his childhood years. Joseph Beuys was born into a family of merchants in the city of Krefeld, northwest of Düsseldorf in 1921. His school years were marked with the interest in music and natural sciences. Beuys attended piano and cello lessons and was fascinated with animals; he even worked a part-time job in circus, taking care of the animals. He was known to have a talent for drawing and enjoyed the sculpture from the early age. He had an intention of becoming a doctor, being influenced by the book Systema Naturae by the Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus, which he secretly saved from the book-burning organized by the Nazi Party in his school. But the history had its own planes for Beuys, and he was forced to join the army following the Third Reich’s outrageous campaign of conquering the world.

Joseph Beuys became a Luftwaffe pilot and was stationed in Crimea. In 1944, Beuys’ plane was shot down and he failed to bail out. He had almost no chances of survival, but fortune disposed otherwise of him. Joseph Beuys was found unconscious by the Crimean natives, the Tatars. He was fighting death for a week and found himself wrapped in felt and covered in grease, so his body would remain warm. The room around him smelt of cheese and milk. This experience of the second birth, of avoiding the certain death, had deeply influenced Beuys, and everything that he felt during those days he would embrace in his further art works. These organic materials became his sacred artifacts; the Tatars who were living on the edge of the Western and the Eastern civilizations inspired him to embrace a theme of encountering the cultural opposites. The whole experience was processed by Beuys as a mystical and symbolic metaphysical event that eventually saved the artist’s life. And he had decided to become a bit of a shaman himself, including this revival experience in every work he did, and making his oeuvre into a shamanic, salutary, and wild ritual.

Before getting to know some of his most famous pieces, we need to have a notion on what actually Beuys’ art was about. First of all, we need to note that Beuys taught at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. He had treasured this position very much and even stated that, in the end, the main purpose of his art was teaching. He often embedded the dialogues and educational discussions into his performances and happenings. He opposed the idea of an artist as a lonely creator, detached from the society and the surrounding world. Beuys opinion was that artists could not remain isolated in their own artistic universe; on the contrary, they had to be involved in recent events, to be active, to be political, as they had to make a change. That was an essential point for Joseph Beuys. He believed that every person had a creative energy to reshape the world. Thus, everyone could be an artist. In the work, “The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overrated”, he critiqued the position of an artist who produced a small number of works and presumably said all he needed to say. The world evolved constantly, and Beuys could not believe that there was nothing more to say, nothing more to do. Beuys was not just developing some ideas about the functions and possibilities of art, he was elaborating on the whole new philosophical pattern of the contemporary art, subtly incorporating his personal experience with socially valuable topics. And the best way to observe him doing so is through the analysis of his works.

Homogeneous Infiltration for Grand Piano

This work consists of an installation that presents a piano wrapped in a felt with a red cross painted on it. In fact, this is a final product of the preceding performance. Beuys was playing the piano; sometimes he would stop and talk with the audience. The theme of these discussions was based on a big scandal that occurred around the newly issued medication. In time, it turned out that this drug was causing serious damage to the fetus, so there were numerous cases of handicapped children born; and the most common anomaly was the absence of arms. Beuys combined this topic with the conversations about the role of art in our world. So after we know the foregoing performance, the meaning of the piano changes drastically. With the help of felt, which had helped to keep him alive in Crimea, Beuys was healing the piano that somebody could have been playing. He was healing the society from the pharmaceutical tragedy that affected possible future geniuses of many fields, including music. Knowing that Beuys had a passion for music since his childhood, every element of this work aimed at healing through the power of dialogue, the power of sound, the power of art. Art as a curing force was a very important point in his oeuvre. Needless to say, Beuys had beautifully embedded his personal myth into the society’s canvas.

Fat Chair

Beuys had always been interested in sculpture. But his vision on art and its functions simply could not let him be engaged in silent and still structures. The art for Joseph Beuys was very much about the energetic exchange with the world. That is why his sculptures are made out of organic materials such as fat, wood, felt, and stones. He wanted to embrace energy, rather than stillness, in them. The work Fat Chair proves these points. As the title states accurately, it is a chair with fat placed on its seat. The construction is put in a glass box with a regulated temperature. With the course of time, fat underwent the natural processes of decay. This rough, yet powerful allusion reminded everyone of the transience of human life, thus making this work into the platform of self-reflection. People should not be passive and flow with the time, just like this sculpture. It takes energy, active position and consciousness to avoid the same fate. Organic components brought mystical and illogical elements of the tribal cultures into Beuys’s oeuvre. He recognized the aesthetics of those natural and primitive materials as an opposite to the rational and materialistic aesthetics of modern society. He emphasized the contrast between tribal culture and the commercialized and polarized creations of the artistic environment. Beuys thought that only by going back to our true-selves and nature, only by embracing the irrational principles of art, we can heal the damaged world around.

7000 oaks: City Forestation Instead of City Administration

In this ecological happening Beuys intended to plant 7000 oaks in the city of Cassel, Germany. The project was a part of Documenta, the international fair of contemporary art. Beuys was planting tree after tree, removing the basalt stones that had been occupying the space behind the City Administration building for ages. This is a real act of art transforming the reality. During his philosophical pursuits, Beuys formulated the concept of social sculpture, where he stated that art had a potential to improve society and environment. In this project, Beuys had embodied his concept and emphasized the idea of each person’s ability to contribute, thus of everyone’s capability of becoming an artist.

I Like America And America Likes Me

This is probably one of the most famous projects of Joseph Beuys. It involved two continents, ambulances, and a wild coyote. Beuys’ first visit to the United States was truly remarkable. The performance had begun when Beuys was picked up by the ambulance that drove him to the airport. He was wrapped in felt cloth that was covering him completely like a cocoon. During his flight from Europe to the United States, he remained in such horizontal state. In New York another ambulance met him and drove him to the art gallery. He was finally placed in a small room with the only other being inside – the coyote. The next three days the artist spent encountering the animal. This whole work was symbolic. Again, we can see the usual shamanic elements of Beuys’ art; he had a peculiar wooden stick, similar to the ones shepherds would have. Moreover, there was a coyote, which was considered as a spiritual animal of Native Americans. Joseph Beuys became acquainted with the deep metaphysical essence of American culture. And this interaction went well. Hostile and aggressive at first, coyote eventually became friendly and behaved almost like a dog. Creating the connection with the spiritual side of the American civilization, Beuys embraced the idea of intercrossing different cultures and the triumph of making peace with nature.

These were some examples of Joseph Beuys’ art. With the myth hiding behind each of them; with socially and politically active message; and with an attempt at teaching the modern society the acceptance of the irrational, wild forces of nature. Just like a shaman was amalgamating the spiritual world with the objective reality, Beuys was transforming the world around us with the forces of art. He was closely studying those forces for decades and eventually turned them into the unique philosophical system of art – his life-long achievement. He would embrace this philosophy in his every project. Beuys perceived the society itself as an art-work, the future of which could easily be improved and healed with the contribution of each individual’s creative potential. “EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST” – this statement is a call to action, carried through the horrors of war, through life, death, and revival. Beuys had an infinite faith in people, in every individual. This is possibly the greatest art project ever existed: to heal the wounds of our society with the power of art and with the concrete actions to make our world a better place. And Joseph Beuys was our spiritual teacher that took the meaning of the word “artist” to the whole new level.

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