How Avant-garde Art Warrior Joseph Beuys Turned the Conventional Classroom Blackboard into a Weapon of Mass Deconstruction
“Art doesn’t go to sleep in the bed made for it. It would sooner run away than say its own name: what it likes is to be incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets what its own name is.” ― Jean Dubuffet
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Reassessing the incomparable career of legendary post-war German artist Joseph Beuys and his indelible imprint on the cultural landscape has become, in recent years, something of a closet industry. Scores of books, monographs, and scholarly studies have appeared in multiple languages. Movies, articles and reviews have proliferated. Exhibitions and retrospectives have convened everywhere from New York and Philadelphia to Basel and Berlin, from London and Paris to Shanghai and Tokyo, from Edinburgh to Canberra and from Canada to Korea. Numerous academic societies, research centers, philosophical leagues, websites and blogs have been dedicated to the study of Beuys. Beuysian lectures and videos abound online. Contemporary artists in the United States have resurrected certain of his most celebrated performances and re-created them as classics in their own right. There is a Joseph Beuys Theater in Moscow!
He was the darling of stellar events such as Documenta and Edinburgh Art Festival, a leading proponent of avant-garde movements such as Fluxus. He created new political parties and organizations in Germany such as the Animals Party, the Students Action Party for Direct Democracy, the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research and the Green Party and was a candidate for high political office. He was one of the fathers of conceptualism and new wave performance art ; he was an agitator and provocateur long before Banksy hit the scene and he advocated for a utopian condition he christened social sculpture in which all society was a work of art. Countless artists ranging from Damien Hirst to Tim Hawkinson are indebted to his example.
Thirty-four years after his demise, Beuys still regularly figures in the headlines, such as when some of the stones incorporated in his 7,000 Oaks installation in New York’s Chelsea district had to be moved in preparation for a local construction project, or when, in Kassel, a museum-displayed example of one of his better-known sculptural objects, Felt Suit, became moth-infested and required fumigation.
A recent kerfuffle in the U. S. news media highlighted American musician Kanye West’s references to artists Beuys and David Hammons, leading one commentator to suggest, “there are suspicions that West’s head-scratching comments are actually part of a carefully honed work of performance art.” Another popular entertainer, Jay Z, has done well-publicized performance pieces with Beuys emulator Marina Abramovic. MMA fighters have cited Beuys as a source of inspiration. What can account for this enduring fascination with Beuys even among the Hip Hop Generation and for his mythic stature and pervasive influence?
The man whom the Museum of Modern Art called “the most important German artist of the post-World War II period” and whom others have labeled the single most significant artist of the twentieth century remains, despite his historic impact and critical recognition, undervalued commercially and inadequately understood by a general public that continues to perceive his work as baffling and enigmatic.
Any attempt to piece together the puzzle of Joseph Beuys must begin with the facts of his life. Beuys was born in 1921 in Krefeld, Germany and grew up in the nearby city of Kleve, where he nurtured his childhood interests in science and biology and aspirations to train for a career in medicine, at the same time steeping himself in classical and Romantic Period German culture, studying, in particular, Goethe with his Sturm und Drang theatricality and hypotheses about the symbolism of mood, emotion, and color. He also soaked up the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, founder of anthroposophy and author of The Philosophy of Freedom, and blended these sensibilities surrounding the realms of art and philosophy with his lifelong fascination with substances and essences as investigated by the natural sciences – all of which later translated into a preoccupation with alchemy and “healing” achieved through the magical power of creativity and artistic expression.
In 1941 while in his early twenties, Beuys became an Axis airman and combatant and, during the course of his military service, was shot down and survived five plane crashes – a series of traumatic events which were to have a profound impact on his spiritual development.
Severely wounded during his wartime service, Beuys embarked, in later years, upon a strange process of self-mythologization in which he claimed to have been rescued from the wreckage of his downed aircraft by a band of Tartars roaming the brutal Russian steppe who wrapped him in felt and salved him in animal fat to keep him warm and insulate his injured body. “It was a deliberate retelling of the artist’s life story, in which historic events were intertwined with metaphoric and mythical episodes,” one critic has noted. “The importance of ancient healing aids – in this case, fat and felt – for enriching and sustaining the human mind, body, and spirit, would come to play an important and highly visible role in much of Beuys’s subsequent work as an artist.”
In 1947, Beuys enrolled at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art and trained as a sculptor. “In the aftermath of World War Two,” one historian has noted, “as Germany began the long process of rehabilitation of both its destroyed cities and, more significantly, its national psyche, the importance of denazification and repentance became so ingrained in the national identity that a word was coined specifically to define it. Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or ‘coming to terms with the past,’ also perfectly describes Beuys’s preoccupations at that time, as he struggled to regenerate himself and his fellow Germans.”
Following the defeat of the Third Reich and the dashed dreams of Der Fuhrer, Beuys underwent a fifteen-year dark night of the soul during which he formulated his own utopian master plan for the remaking of society. Beuys wanted to start with a blank slate on which to draft a schematic for a fresh aesthetic and a new social order. After a lengthy period spent in a cocoon of deep depression, Beuys eventually burst forth like a butterfly in the late 1950s with an integrated vision for a brave new world brought about by the participation of citizen artists universally contributing to a grand, collective “sculpture” in which society would be nursed towards a state of rehabilitated wholeness. In 1961, Beuys obtained his first professorship.
“Throughout Beuys’ work from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, a sense of starting over, of going back to a tabula rasa, is pervasive,” comments one scholar. “Appropriately, drawing now became a public activity for Beuys, rather than a private one, as it’s more commonly perceived to be. When he spoke to an assembled throng about the social, spiritual and political nexus of art, he drew with chalk on slate blackboards–literal tabulae rasae–diagramming the complex relationships” while striving “towards forming and expressing a totality of existence that could effect a transformation of human beings.”
“The 1950s,” the commentator continues, “would prove on the whole a difficult time for Beuys, in regard to both his personal life and his work. Haunted by wartime memories and constantly suffering financial hardship, he devoted the majority of his time to drawing – ultimately creating several thousand works over the course of the decade. Beuys was in pursuit of a new artistic language, one that might emerge from intense solitude and introspection.”
Beuys was an early adherent of Fluxus, a radical art movement most active during the 1960s and 1970s which has been described as “an international, interdisciplinary community of artists, composers, designers and poets who engaged in experimental art performances which emphasized the artistic process over the finished product. Fluxus, whose constituents included Christo and Yoko Ono, is known for innovative contributions to different artistic media and disciplines and for generating new art forms.” Fluxus was preceded by the 1950s Japanese aesthetic collective called Gutai. It has been said that the members of Fluxus strove to “integrate life into art through the use of found events, sounds, and materials, thereby bringing about social and economic change in the art world. Fluxus artists rebelled against the elitism of the art world while imagining a world in which art and life were one and the same. Adopting an anti-art world view descended from Dada, Fluxus” aimed to collapse what is considered the false wall between art and life.” While mocking the pretentiousness of modern art, it is said that Fluxus “encouraged a ‘do-it-yourself‘ aesthetic valuing simplicity over complexity. Like Dada before it, Fluxus disparaged the conventional market-driven art world in favor of an artist-centered creative practice.”
According to one critic, Fluxus “owes in large part its lasting legacy to Beuys’ widely acknowledged practice and example. Beuys believed that if one were, by default, an artist, then one might be an artist everywhere, or in every context in which one finds oneself – the art studio proper, the classroom, and the street offering equally advantageous circumstances for the creative experience.”
“Art is an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.”
“To make people free is the aim of art, therefore art for me is the science of freedom.”
“Only on condition of a radical widening of definition will it be possible for art and activities related to art to provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary – revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system to build a social organism as a work of art.”
“Eliminate the State—that’s the real art.”
“Anyone can be an artist, anything can be art.”
“Thought is sculpture. Thought affects the world.”
“The work of art enters into the person and the person internalizes the work of art as well. It has to be possible that these two completely sink into each other … Art enters into the person and the person enters into the work of art, no?”
“My intention is to stress the idea of transformation and of substance. That is precisely what the shaman does in order to bring about change and development: his nature is therapeutic. It is the transformation of substance that is my concern in art, rather than the traditional aesthetic understanding of beautiful appearances.”
As distinctive as he was, Beuys was not without precedent or predecessor. One direct forebear was the French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet. Adopting the attitude espoused by Dubuffet’s treatise Asphyxiating Culture, Beuys advocated for the ascendancy of individuality in art production over commercialism and marketing factors. Like Beuys, Dubuffet was a rogue and a renegade who worked with unorthodox materials such as sand, tar, asphalt, feathers, gravel, string, glass shards, pebbles, plaster, cement, and straw.
Dubuffet’s aesthetic championed naive art and eschewed traditional aesthetics. He codified the genre of Art Brut – crude, primitive, untutored art by children, self-taught outsider artists, prisoners, and mental patients – and assembled the renowned Collection de l’art brut housed in the museum of the same name in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Dubuffet was a standard-bearer for what he called “rawness”, in defiance of the pretensions and affectations of the prevailing canon of high visual culture. He felt, according to one observer, “that the simple life of the everyday human being contained more art and poetry than did academic art, or great painting.” Dubuffet issued a call to arms against the “intellectual terrorism” imposed by the cultural establishment and cited the necessity for a “demagnetization of brains” – by which he meant an imperative for purging a general public brainwashed by the schools. “People have seen,” Dubuffet contended, “that I intend to sweep away everything we have been taught to consider – without question – as grace and beauty; but have overlooked my work to substitute a vaster beauty, touching all objects and beings, not excluding the most despised – and because of that, all the more exhilarating….” – a sentiment echoing Beuys’ idea of Everyman as artist and of life itself as a continuous work of art.
In the early 1960s, Dubuffet began to create large-scale sculptural habitats built from polystyrene and papier-mache, within which visitors could loiter, contemplate and circulate. These structures foreshadowed aspects of the Happening, Installation Art, and Environmental Art and directly anticipated Beuys’ own performances and installations.
During the same period, Dubuffet was associated with the CoBrA group and coordinated an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam which nearly instigated a riot. This disturbance was in the direct line of descent from the Hernani Riot at the Paris Opera House in 1830, through the Dada outrages at the Cabaret Voltaire, the manifestations, strikes, and protests of the 1960s, down to Beuys’ own celebrated aktionen such as grunting animalistically into a microphone at an academic review board, staging a boxing match with a critic at Documenta 5, or making a well-publicized suggestion that the Berlin Wall might be visually improved by being heightened by five inches. Dubuffet endured his share of negative critical reception and underwent a series of clashes with detractors, which tradition Beuys was to carry on in years to come.
Another notable Beuys antecedent was itinerant art critic, magazine publisher, Dada idol, poet-pugilist, proto-performance artist and professional provocateur Arthur Cravan. Born in Switzerland, a nephew of the wife of Oscar Wilde, he was, at age sixteen, expelled from boarding school for spanking a teacher and thereafter embarked on a globe-trotting life of adventure and derring-do, impersonating practitioners of various colorful occupations, forging disreputable associations, assuming multiple pseudonyms, and claiming citizenship in a dozen different countries. Described as “a world tramp… a traverser of borders and resister of orders,” Cravan traipsed from continent to continent, “forging documents and assuming false identities, preening, harassing, and haranguing, as he went. He was hailed by André Breton as a pivotal precursor of Dadaism, and belonged to that category of floating prewar avant-gardists whose legacy resides more in their mode of living than their artistic creations.”
At six foot four and two hundred thirty pounds, Arthur Cravan, whom his lover, poet Mina Loy, nicknamed “Colossus”, assumed the identity of a prizefighter. He held the title of European Champion by default when no one showed up to challenge him in an official bout. On the strength of this dubious credential, he managed to book a highly publicized contest with World Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson in a bullring in Barcelona in 1916. Johnson carried Cravan for appearances’ sake for six rounds before dropping him like a stone with a resounding knockout punch. Spectators booed what was clearly a grotesque and obviously contrived mismatch. Cravan nevertheless dined out on this fiasco for the rest of his short life.
Bouncing between New York and Paris in a swelter of self-promoting swagger, Cravan lectured flamboyantly, heaping abuse on everyone in attendance. He described himself as a snake charmer and a sneak thief and lauded homosexuality. He consorted with Apaches and gypsies at the Bal Bullier in central Paris and with Greenwich Village bohemians camped in Central Park. He scuffled and brawled, scandalized and confounded the artistic vanguard, and systematically courted controversy and acclaim in equal measure. He incensed, exasperated, offended and affronted, reveling in disrepute and relishing reproach. He published a magazine called Now, in which all the contributions were authored by himself and which he exploited as a grandstand for denigrating popular cultural figures of the day. He infuriated the poet Guillaume Apollinaire who challenged him to a duel. He became a celebrity by creating an image of himself as an off-the-leash madman and by making a full-time profession out of being an insult artist, intent on shocking and antagonizing the world at large.
As one historian notes, Cravan “staged public spectacles and stunts with himself at the center,
intended to make the audience as uncomfortable as possible. He advertised one performance promising it would climax with his suicide, only to profanely rebuke those who packed the venue for being so depraved that they would pay to watch a man take his own life.” On one occasion, he was arrested for exposing himself while drunkenly delivering one of his infamous talks. Cravan’s “anarchistic lectures and public appearances earned him the admiration of young artists and intellectuals,” according to one observer, “though his individual brand of studied obnoxiousness in the face of societal malaise was much more his own manifesto than representative of any movement.”
While sailing solo from Mexico to Argentina In 1918, he vanished without a trace. Cravan is still revered for what has been termed his “life-as-art antics” which directly anticipated Beuys.
During a performance at a college campus in 1964, a student abruptly attacked Beuys and slugged him in the face, bringing the event to a halt. This spontaneous act of “attack art” resulted in a famous photograph showing Beuys’ bloodied face while holding up an art object in one hand as his other arm is upraised like that of a prizefighter signaling victory.
Another, more structured fistfight involving Beuys occurred In 1972 during Documenta 5. A verbal dispute between Beuys and a disgruntled student led to an impromptu challenge to a boxing match. On Documenta‘s final day, the bout convened in a large auditorium called the Fridericianum. Although Beuys wore no head or dental protection, he won the contest in three rounds.
The spawn of this curious occurrence is Beuys’ Boxing Match for Direct Democracy – a vitrine consisting of a wall-mounted zinc shelf displaying the boxing gloves, the cordon for the improvised ring, and other residual items arranged as a makeshift reliquary and housed at the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt.
This fight was, of course, purely symbolic. Beuys’ weapons of choice were not his fists, but ideas and his chosen conveyance was the blackboard. For Beuys, the blackboard and its inscriptions represented concretized thought and served as a perfect tool for the transmission of doctrine and for sowing confusion amongst the ranks of “the enemy”.
In his chosen role as teacher, polemicist, and proselytizer, Beuys frequently augmented and documented his lectures with expansive diagrams and doodles drawn on blackboards to illustrate a theoretical principle or point of discussion. In a number of cases, blackboards thus embellished were preserved for posterity. Beuys created a total of 70 such blackboards of which it is estimated that approximately 40 have been conserved. Ownership is spread unequally, with 75% of blackboards held by museums and only 25% in private hands. Beuys was utilizing the blackboard as an integral component of assemblages at least as early as 1963.
Of the entire repertoire of Beuysian objects, blackboards are among the most prized since they are thought to quintessentialize Beuys persona as theoretician, sage, and shaman. They satisfy the need for a backdrop for his ideological concerns and typify his performances or “actions”, as well as his love of ritual. Moreover, the blackboard epitomizes ephemerality but, when its messages are accorded permanence through the act of preservation, the result is a sublime irony in which abstract thought, frozen at a particular moment in time, is alchemically transformed into a concrete, physical “artifact”. Classic examples of Beuys’ blackboards are those on display at The Tate Modern in London. Three of the four blackboards in this group dating from 1972 were originally contrived by Beuys as accompaniments to a lecture he gave on-site that year with a fourth acquired later. Perhaps still more notable are a pair of blackboards from the same seminal year – 1972 – executed in Kassel, Germany at the historic art expo Documenta 5. While typical in appearance with the casual, chaotic line and random doodles and squiggles, they stand apart because of their distinct messages very much embodying Beuys’ political idiosyncrasies and the urgent concerns of the day: socioeconomic equality for women and freedom through a democracy by referendum. These blackboards, each 151.5 cm. x 101 cm., are respectively titled, in English translation, Housewife content! and Who elects parties selects minorities that prevail by their party privileges.
Documenta 5 is considered the world’s most influential exhibition of modern art after the Second World War. It was organized at the Fridericianum Kassel Museum high office and, instead of being a commercial showcase, it was turned into a happening by Beuys who discussed with visitors 100 days of politics, business, and art to advocate for direct democracy through a referendum. Documenta offered Beuys the ideal platform to make his point far beyond conventional art exhibition and to deliver his far-reaching ideas directly to an audience. With his development of a socially all-embracing, “expanded concept of art”, Beuys tried to change the structure of conventionally accepted educational, legal and economic standards. In Documenta 5 he called for the “recognition of domestic work as a profession.” In Germany, this idea was new, while feminists had, for some time, discussed the topic in English-speaking countries. At Documenta 5, Beuys opened an Information Office of the Organization for Direct Democracy through Referendum on the Versammlungort and remained throughout the day, so that he could talk with the audience and answer their questions.
Contemporary artists noted for following Beuys’ lead in the use of the blackboard as a medium include Adrian Piper, Gary Simmons, Roman Opalka, Tacita Dean, Jorg Immendorff and George Brecht.
By the 1960s and 1970s, as an offshoot of his engagement with Fluxus, Beuys soon launched with a vengeance his first sorties in the performance genre, designating these exercises aktionen (“actions”).
These live presentations were epochal. In How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), Beuys smeared his scalp and face with a lurid layer of gold leaf and honey and, as one historian puts it, “like a morbid soothsayer, sat himself in a store window, clad in felt and cast iron foot piece” and while cradling the limp carcass of a large rabbit, whispered to his furry companion while manipulating its ears and feet. Beuys wandered through the gallery, pausing at various points to confer with his lifeless collaborator, “as though the fate of the world hinged on the mysterious rhythms” of this queer spectacle. After three hours, the audience entered the gallery to find Beuys seated on a chair with the rabbit on his lap and his back to the audience.
During these years Beuys systematically rolled out a dazzling parade of installations and sculptural inventions comprised of a wide array of signature objects and materials often highlighted by the familiar repertoire of fat, felt and similar “life-sustaining materials”, and intended to engage spectators on “both physically and psychologically visceral levels.”
The Sled (1969), a multiple issued in an edition of 50, “goes even deeper into Beuys’ obsession with warmth and protection,” according to a noted authority. “Featuring a miniature sled equipped with a survival pack of a flashlight, a felt blanket and a lump of fat, it speaks articulately about the fragility of life” and alludes to Beuys’ salvation from the Crimean snows by a tribe of Tartars who extracted him from his ruined warplane.
The Pack (1969) is a celebrated installation that presents a vintage camper van disemboguing a strand of two dozen sleds outfitted with survival kits consisting of flashlights, webbing, felt and tallow.
Felt Suit (1970) was one of Beuys’ most recognizable fetishized objects, being a loosely patterned, outsized article of men’s apparel contrived just as its title indicates. It represented “protection of the individual from the world,” Beuys asserted, and “refers directly to his idea of warmth as one of the basic guarantors of life.”
“Beuys’s art performances grew ever more elaborate throughout the 1970s. While continuing to utilize his already standard wares of felt, animals, and organic materials,” says a historian, “he supplemented them with new elements in order to suggest new symbolic meanings, no less to infuse his own particular brand of art with a new visual syntax. His works included felt crucifixes, grease-smeared chairs or arrangements of rabbit parts or toenail clippings.” During these years, Beuys inspired Arte Povera and was inspired and validated by it, in turn.
In 1972, Beuys was fired from his professorship for allowing anyone to attend his classes and for supporting a student strike. He always maintained that anyone could be an artist if he set free his inner creative powers. Where formerly he had been polemical and confrontational, he now became overtly political. His rebellious activities forced the question of revamping or closing the institution which employed him and even caught the attention of the German Ministry of Culture. Beuys’ image as a radical iconoclast at the pinnacle of his fame was now cemented.
For his 1974 performance I Like America and America Likes Me, Beuys flew to the Rene Block Gallery in New York City for a history-making three-day sojourn. Swaddled in a felt blanket, Beuys ensconced himself in the gallery space whose floor was festooned with scattered straw and to which he admitted a wild coyote. Beuys was transported from the airport to the gallery in an ambulance so that he never set foot on U. S. soil. He had nothing but a shepherd’s crook for self-defense. In the view of Beuys biographer Caroline Tisdall, “Joseph Beuys believed that Western society, and particularly Germany, had become spiritually bankrupt. He believed that Western society was wounded. In his famous I Like America and America Likes Me, the wound motif reappears. Over the course of their cohabitation, Beuys is able to tame the wild coyote, and at one point the coyote actually lays harmlessly upon his lap. In this remarkable piece, the wound is recognized and healed. This is why Beuys urgently appealed to humanity to restore their connection with spiritual reality.”
In the decade of the 1970s, Beuys underwent a seismic shift in identity from “from the maker of objects to artistic philosopher.” Beuys saw himself as a sort of shaman ordained to heal the spiritual malaise of Western culture.
The Man with the Hat
“Beuys’ visage has acquired a resonance that is likely to endure forever, especially when people recall his period of cultural ferment. The intensity of Beuys’ narrow, nearly emaciated face, with its high cheekbones and facial scars only slightly hidden by surgery over his right eye, stare at us with passionate intensity even now. And, of course, every great photo of Beuys is set off by his fedora, the hat that became his trademark.”
“Beuys gives Charlie Chaplin a run for his money for the most expressive face of the 20th century. It is hard to find words for his visage as water douses his face in a performance art piece, the forlorn sag in his eyes as he talks about crashing his plane as a pilot during the war, the surging electricity in his gesticulating hands as he led a demonstration at the Düsseldorf arts academy, or the graceful, calm demure in the way he tries to convince a German woman to take a green party pamphlet on the street. This critical dimension — Beuys’s unique physical presence — could only reveal itself in a film like this. His gnashers fill the screen and he has the hopped-up twitchiness of a classic character actor.”
“With his deathly stare and stylish derby, he conveyed both the intensity and the ridiculousness of Friedrich Nietzsche or some other 19th-century podium pounder. He has attained heroic status on these shores. Many critics have echoed the judgment of the New York Times, who called Beuys “Europe’s most influential postwar artist.”
“Beuys the man emerges from behind the familiar visual tokens – the Homburg he wore indoors and out on all but rare occasions, and those expressive, tragic eyebrows.”
“Far more compelling is Beuys himself, with his signature hat and haunted gaze.”
“He always wore a hat. Like everything else he touched, it became a totem drenched in personal meaning, the symbolic headgear of a self-appointed shaman. In reality, according to those who knew him, the hat covered scars from a Stuka crash, in which rear gunner Beuys was seriously wounded, on the eastern front in 1944.”
“Joseph Beuys, one of the most prominent, controversial and colorful figures of the twentieth-century art world, whose brimmed hat and multi-pocketed vest became familiar through his frequent exposure in the media…”
Joseph Beuys died in Dusseldorf in 1986.
Beuys has been called:
“…a Pied Piper of sorts, an inspirational, mischievous tour guide to unknown destinations.”
“…this puckish, maddening, criminally charismatic man.”
“…the living, breathing, mystical force of nature Joseph Beuys.”
Of Beuys it has been said:
“Healing was the goal of all his art.”
“Beuys was a radical democrat who proselytized the idea that everyone was an artist – meaning that all labor done with heart and soul shared integrity comparable to the work of the artist.””His performances, in which, for instance, he tried to explain pictures to a dead hare or spent a night in a gallery with a coyote, became legends among those who were expanding the definition of art beyond painting and sculpture.”
Beuys remains, to this day, one of the few artists whose life and work continually spark debate and a sense of mystery over what constitutes art’s legitimate province, and what might constitute the true limits of human expression.
“Beuys is considered one of the most influential sculptors and performance artists of the 20th century, but it was his unwavering altruistic ideals and his larger-than-life, charismatic personality that really gave him his star quality. Common themes in the artist’s impassioned dialogues and social debates included the crisis of the human spirit and the importance of self-healing, revolution, and transformation.”
“Cognoscenti hold the German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys in similar standing to Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol as a key figure in expanding the field of art to include, potentially, just about anything.”
Like Yves Klein with his exploding machines and Damien Hirst with his butterflies, Beuys made a science of commemorating the ephemeral. Both his performances and his objects embodied this principle and have exerted a lasting influence ever since. Perhaps the most exemplary works embodying this principle were Beuys’ blackboards, and their messages, transitory in nature yet conveying precious secrets. Why does the blackboard symbolize Joseph Beuys and his vision? Why is the blackboard emblematic of his role as instructor, sage and oracle? Because, as an accompaniment to his lectures, it is an archetype of a mystical conduit for thought, a touchstone of insight for the reshaping of minds.
During the fervent nineteen sixties and seventies, which saw an explosion of genres and subgenres, and a dramatic expansion of the vocabulary of art, due in no small part to the efforts of artists such as Beuys and Andy Warhol, the comradeship of these two celebrities was somewhat paradoxical. Although Warhol and Beuys were friends and Beuys was the subject- specimen of one of Warhol’s best-known portraits, they were profoundly divergent in professional outlook. While Warhol glorified consumerism and commodification, Beuys did the opposite. He dematerialized art and democratized it. Both men demystified traditional “high art” and academism, but took different points of departure from there: Warhol elevated the hitherto unrespected “commercial” genres; Beuys embraced everything as art, redefined it, and placed it beyond the reach of officials such as curators, critics, and brokers who kept it sequestered in a private preserve or elite fiefdom. Beuys exploded all that. Just as Andy Warhol was at first condemned for the heresy of elevating commercial art to fine art status and was later coopted and championed by the high art establishment, Joseph Beuys was initially reviled for challenging the same establishment with the idea that anything can be art and was later assimilated and exalted as well.
Beuys showed that a work of art does not always have to involve an artifact and that when an artifact is involved, it may be of an ephemeral nature. Beuys further demonstrated that a work of art may be intangible altogether. This phenomenon, known as “dematerialization”, conversely has been called “materialization of the invisible”.
In recent years, some Beuys’ pieces have sold at auction in the $1.25 million range, although very few significant pieces ever go to auction. Beuys has a record of 9,000 auction sales, making him number three behind Picasso with 33,000 auction sales and Warhol with 27,000, but very few of Beuys’ major works have changed hands other than through non-auction private transactions. Ropac Gallery in London cites instances of sales in the range of $20 million and above for major Beuys pieces. The significance of Beuys’ achievement transcends ordinary market considerations and puts his work in a unique category.
Despite the fact that his work was predicated, as one author wryly points out, “upon the power of anti-capitalist, anti-market, anti-elite art: art that can be owned by the masses, art that throbs with the force of egalitarianism;” despite the fact that, throughout his career, Beuys represented himself, without benefit of agent or manager, and despite having to compete in the current marketplace with flavor-of-the-month artists who have become the darlings of the “in” crowd or are temporarily in vogue with a critico-curatorial apparatus whose otherwise reputable representatives, during the doldrums of the twenty-first century, are desperate for novelty, however shallow, appraisals of Beuys both critical and commercial continue to climb.
Why does the Hip Hop Generation admire Joseph Beuys? Because, for Beuys, art is life and life is art and because he was a consummate showman who went all the way. Beuys represented freedom – he represented the absence of rules or, at least, a set of new ones. “Throw away the old rules,” he urged. “Make up your own!”
He was a fighter who put his heart and soul into fulfilling his mission: in short, a revolutionary struggling to achieve the total transformation of society through his trademark process of “social sculpture”. Neither was he necessarily non-violent. Like a Zen master who swats an acolyte, he staged mock fights and engaged in real fights if they served an instructional purpose. He had been a real-life warrior under the regime of another individual bent on transforming society and, following the failure of Hitler’s experiment and a decade and a half of depression and introspection in the aftermath of the collapse of the Third Reich and its apocalyptic repercussions, Beuys resolved to undertake nothing less than the total overhaul of society through art. He regarded every act, including physical conflict, a work of art. This is why he has become a cult figure revered by present-day rap musicians and martial artists. He considered life itself as a battle, and he approached it as such with a willingness to mold it into something redemptive and meaningful.
Beuys rejected the dictates of critics, curators, collectors, dealers, art historians, and other contemporaries, colleagues, and peers and disregarded their interests. He strove to prove by example that it is possible to defy the strictures of the art establishment and yet succeed.
To be free, Beuys insisted it is necessary to be heroic in facing down an entrenched system of art market machinery which can steal your soul and kill you just as surely as war. Beuys’ weapon of choice was the blackboard. He was waging a war of the mind, leading a crusade for a new concept of art which swept away the old traditions. “To be a teacher is my greatest work of art. The rest is the waste product, a demonstration,” Beuys declared.
An accomplished entrepreneur who is a graduate of the USC Marshall School of Business, postmodern renaissance man David Roberts divides much of his time between motorsports and mixed martial arts, in both of which endeavors he has enjoyed a number of notable successes. An outstanding racer and indomitable fighter, he is a consecrated devotee of the art of performance. He is also a discerning collector with special expertise in Russian “Sots” Art.