Theories Are Sometimes Inverted Images: Beuys’s Concept of Social Sculpture (Part II)
Originally published in 2010 at Chicago Art Criticism.
We will once again depart with the idea that Joseph Beuys’s work appears unfathomable.
Looking at images of Joseph Beuys’s work is like looking at photographs of the Museum of the Apocalypse. It appears as his arrangements and objects are the collected items of the sole survivor of the Apocalypse– It is of no surprise that Anselm Kiefer, whose work would fit well in this imaginary museum, is one of his artistic offsprings. The objects appear compiled by a lone figure who roams the desiccated remains of the world after the Apocalypse, haunted by his own amnesia. Beuys begins ever more painfully to appear as a proto-messianic figure that came too late. The world we live now appears entirely different from the one that produced those objects, especially when they are traces and remains of objects that appear to have lost their practical use. Compiling these objects is an attempt to make sense of them, to give them entirely new meaning. These objects perhaps appear beautiful to us, but that is only for their strangeness, the unanswered questions they provoke. It is as if we can hear the artist asking: Where did all this hair come from? What is all this felt for? That quest for meaning is never resolved. Neither for the artist, nor for us. Detached from the artist these objects are susceptible to an infinite amount of projections, but in the context of Beuys, of the period of German reconstruction, it is not difficult to imagine the troubled artist searching for his own humanity, as we search–relentlessly and without avail–for ours in his objects.
There are countless photographs of Beuys sitting in at non-violent demonstrations, singing with a rock band in front of 500,000 for a peace demonstration, attending meetings for Germany’s Green Party, running as a Green Party representative in Parliament, and his participation in the occupation of West German Radio. Beuys-the-activist is perhaps the aspect of his persona he is most often remembered for. “Appeal for an Alternative” exemplifies Beuys basic political concerns and his ideas for a new party. Beuys’s larger historical role is attributed to bringing art back into public discourse in West Germany. The synthesis of Beuys’s artistic and political practice is expressed in his concept of expanded art.
It is perhaps now clearer, this author hopes, how Beuys is influential for contemporary art, and how he marks a point of departure for socially engaged art. But, what has the criticism and reception of Beuys revealed about the trajectory of art?
Beuys today is not referred to as often as Duchamp or Warhol in discourse about contemporary art–Danto is accurate to point out. The fact that he is not a Duchamp or a Warhol reveals something about his work: Duchamp’s and Warhol’s place in the history of art is stable, undisputed, and seemingly clear–Beuys’ place is still precarious. The varied and conflicting facets of Beuys’s prolific career cannot be reconciled into a cohesive artistic vision because it can be interpreted in opposite ways, either as socially engaged or isolated due to its shamanism. The bewilderment surrounding Beuys’s practice is fueled by an unresolved issue: there is both continuity and discontinuity with art practices of the pre-war period, and furthermore whether these correspondences place him within a modernist avant-garde or something else. Particularly through his concept of social sculpture, the break with the pre-war period can be attributed to the shifting away, though not entirely, from formalist or object/image centered practices, because these were understood to claim art’s autonomy in that era. These claims have been critiqued mainly because they either refrained from, or failed to, address the principal crisis of the 20th century—first, the crisis of capitalism in WWI, and later the Left’s failure to overcome capitalism expressed in the barbarism of WWII. Beuys continues the prewar tradition of the engaged modernist avant-garde, but he also resonates with dominant artistic practices who seek to break away from that tradition.
Severing with artists of the past is a principal symptomatic trait of contemporary art – a characteristic acutely expressed in Beuys’s work. Arguably, since the 60s an increasing number of artists have become interested in breaking with, instead of working through, past artistic practices. This shift, largely “post”-modernist, expressed in art, is often a shift whose principal concern is to break from the discourse, or theoretical propositions, those artistic practices where historically bound to. Theorists like Bourriaud, who promulgate that historical break are equally complicit. Bourriaud himself, as Claire Bishop notes in “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” infrequently mentioned Beuys in Relational Aesthetics: “on one occasion [Beuys] is specifically invoked to sever any connection between “social sculpture” and relational aesthetics (p. 30).” The discourse surrounding Bourriaud’s promulgation of relational aesthetics is a dead end for engaging Beuys critically although they share the same symptomatic trait of breaking with the past. For reason’s articulated in part I of this essay, Beuys’s “expanded concept of art,” although influential for socially engaged artists, shall not be reduced to the discourse around relational aesthetics either. As a theory, relational aesthetics is incompatible with Beuys’s work, but reductionist of most contemporary art being made, including Jeremy Deller’s and Thomas Hirschorn’s, who are themselves responding to a problem—that of the relationship of art to life–that arose historically and intensified in Beuys.
One of the most important contributors to the study of post-1945 art today, art historian and critic Benjamin Buchloh famously critiques Beuys in his Artforum article “Joseph Beuys: Twilight of the Idol”, in response to a 1979 exhibition at the Guggenheim. Buchloh is well known for believing that the task of critics is “to brush contemporary art reception against the grain,” quoting from Walter Benjamin’s famous phrase. Buchloh, admittedly, is just one of the many critics who have taken up the task of examining Beuys’s work, but his particular approach goes into the deep historical problems revealed in the art itself. At the hands of Buchloh, Beuys’s work receives a critique that raises broader art historical concerns, and comprehensive politico-aesthetic critique.
In “Joseph Beuys: Twilight of the Idol,” Buchloh embarks in a muckraking campaign intended to demystify Beuys’s ‘myth of origin.’ Buchloh’s critique-via-defamation is framed as an art historical problem that should propel Beuys’s admirers to reconsider the entire body of work as mere fiction, however, this is less an attack on the validity of Beuys’s ‘myth of origins,’ as an artist, but more a ruthless critique of the political implications of his practice. For Buchloh, the main dilemma in Beuys work lies “in the misconception that politics could have ever become a matter of aesthetics.” This statement immediately follows his concluding point:
“The aesthetic 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 aesthetics and social evolution… any attempt on his side to join the two aspects results in curious sectarianism.” Buchloh articulates the aesthetic conservatism of Beuys by demonstrating his appropriation of devices and forms of the historical avant-garde into his work, while simultaneously rejecting their original, i.e. historically determined, meaning. The conservatism lies in Beuys “failure or refusal to change the state of the object within the discourse itself.” Buchloh finds its most acute expression when Beuys talks about his 1964 Fat Chair: “The presence of the chair has nothing to do with Duchamp’s readymades, or his combination of stool with bicycle wheel, although they share the same initial impact with humorous objects.” For Buchloh, Beuys “dilutes and dissolves the conceptual precision of Duchamp’s readymades by reintegrating the object into the most traditional and naïve context of representation of meaning, the idealist metaphor: this object stands for that idea, and that idea is represented in this object.”
Beuys’s claims to radical ahistoricity, besides being “a maneuver to disguise his eclecticism,” is problematic in that it extracts elements from the pre-war avant-garde and removes them from their historical context and function. Buchloh is concerned with the political implications of Beuys’s idea to take the tools and techniques of the historical avant-garde’s art, while they functioned as an end in themselves, and utilize them as a means for the creative transformation of society. Since the approach of the historical avant-garde proved to be impotent in the face of world-shattering events, their route had to be abandoned, and their tools salvaged from ship wreck. By arguing “real future political intentions must be artistic” Beuys prematurely sought to reconcile art and life.
Joseph Beuys – 7000 Oaks
As the final blow to an undulating character assassination, Buchloh brings out the aspect of Beuys that is more ‘I do not want to carry art into politics, but make politics into art’ explicit in terms of “crypto-fascist Futurism” by quoting this statement: “I would say that the concept of politics must be eliminated as quickly as possible and must be replaced by the capability of form of human art. I do not want to carry art into politics, but make politics into art.”
“If it is true that theories are only the images of the phenomena of the exterior world in the human consciousness,” Rosa Luxemburg’s 1918 book, Reform or Revolution begins, “it must be added…that theories are sometimes inverted images.” In wanting to eliminate the concept of politics, and instead replace by a totalized concept of art, Beuys, in practice, is doing quite the opposite: making art obsolete and reaffirming the desire for an all-encompassing politic. Buchloh’s fears are revealed when he concludes with a Walter Benjamin quote, “…Mankind has reached such a degree of self-alienation that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.”
Approaching the end of “Twilight of the Idol” this way, Buchloh suggests a double-sided and historically bound problem for Beuys. Buchloh approaches both the intentions and implications of Beuys work in a broader aesthetic and political narrative; his critique lies in Beuys’s politics and his aesthetic choices. Not only does Buchloh suggest that there are fascistic, or rather authoritarian, tendencies in Beuys himself–since he seems to imply Beuys was proposing a re-emergence of totalitarian form of politics–but also, how the failure of communism in the pre-WWII period to fight fascism was transferred into art–as socially-engaged-art’s failure to divert fascism. The crucial response of political failure was instead to politicize art even further.
Two decades later, in “Reconsidering Joseph Beuys: Once Again,” Buchloh takes a second stab at a critique of Beuys. This time he takes into account the changing models of interpretation in both the broader history of post-war European culture and the discourse surrounding the production of avant-garde art. For Bucloh, Beuys uniquely embodies the profound instability of the production of the meaning of culture after the Holocaust and at the same time “the problem of how the artist, as subject, can be repositioned in the role of the artist and in relation to society at large.”
If Beuys is to be interpreted as the first if not only artist addressing the conditions of cultural production after the Holocaust he must also be subjected to a comparative approach with those artists that also inherited the legacies of the Weimar Avant-Garde. Buchloh wonders to what degree was it crucial for Beuys to deny and disavow post-expressionist avant-garde in Germany, namely the German Dadaists Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Hoch on the one hand, and on the other, how was Beuys struggling with the “ghost of Jackson Pollock” and the pervasiveness of American Abstract Expressionism in Europe that purported to lay the foundation for formalist thinking. The question with Beuys then is whether he is motivated by a reaction against early 20th century avant-garde (pre-war) or early American formalist tendencies? Or more succinctly, how can Beuys be reacting against both legacies?
Beuys must react against Abstract Expressionism because their historical foundations were in the pre-war modernist avant-garde he so vehemently rejects. Abstract Expressionism and the painters of High Modernism were not claiming a complete break with pre-war practices, quite the opposite, going at pains to explain their continuation of a tradition. But Buchloh’s reconsideration of Beuys is also motivated by an interest in addressing “the insuperable question of understanding why modernism failed.” A problem he acknowledges was raised first by Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno and later by social art historians, “who reflect upon, if not develop, evidence of the interrelated interaction of ideology, social formations, and artistic practices.” The rejection of the historical avant-garde, and of Abstract Expressionism is bound up with the question of Modernism’s failure. The severing with past art practices seen with Bourriaud’s posy of artists, and with Beuys, is an attempt to detach the present from a failed project. This historical severing echoes a common response of working class workers in factories or the service industry. When approached about starting a union as a solution to the problems they face daily, the response often is: Didn’t we try that in Russia already? This quick dismissal often lacks a working through the failures of the past, and thus completely rejecting any achievements made.
Beuys cannot escape past and present history, nor the significant art that has accompanied it. Relational art cannot escape this reality either; that would mean detaching themselves from the history of humanity. Beuys is not only symptomatically motivated by the failures of political practices (to stop the Holocaust), but that this historical repression is already playing out the farther we move from the moment of acute crisis of historical possibilities. The further we move from the trauma of their failures, the more difficult it will become to comprehend what was at stake. Beuys is an acute symptom expressing the problematic relationship of art and life, whereas relational art is an obtuse one; it rejects grasping what they share with Beuys, a rejection of previous art, of a notion historical continuity in Modernity, and modernism’s theoretical propositions.