Joseph Beuys( 1921-1986 ) believed that performance art could evoke a spiritual response in the audience, ultimately providing a healing process. He sometimes compared his role to that of a shaman.A witch doctor of Art who prescribed art as the only medecine or potion capable of saving humanity.His threadbare poverty-chic clothing, and seriousness lended credence to an apparition of the wild, scary and unsettling pesonna; a pied piper both soothing and equal part disturbing His performances, or ‘Actions’ were ritualistic, incorporating powerful symbols of birth, death and transformation.A world of myth, ideas, obsessions and hope in which his proper personna wrestled with the art to eventually overshadow it.
These ”actions” were antidote’s to accepted norms of beauty and showed the power of conceptual art in a realm where fact and fiction inhabit the same conceptual space and are indistinguishable.His theories on the social utility of art challenged art as commodity and the consumption function function it adopted in conformity with mercantilist principles. Beuys expanded on the axiom of Marcel Duchamp who proposed that art should not be judged on quality of craftsmanship but by the quality or value of the idea behind it. The concept trumping the artisan.Absurdism as antidotal response to the horrors of history which no craftsman could reproduce.
But to regard his work simply as an entertainment to nullify the realities in which it was created, is to miss the point of its revolutionary nature. He pioneered and reinvented the avant-garde and cutting edge after the long period of Nazi repression and its hangover; through an exploration of a buried collective past amidst a generalized German reluctance and uneasiness that had been anaesthetized .”The whole Nazi appropriation of the old myths of blood and oak and earth had made even the folk songs taboo. He felt he had to confront the past, and that Germany had to confront it, or it was in danger of becoming what he called “historyless”. He said over and over, “A rootless people are a dangerous people.”
Beuys art is however inextricably linked to 20 th century Germany, and about coming to terms with these unmanageable elements, his art a metaphor and exploration of personal and national guilt and a recociliation of multiple identites.Ever since Theodor Adorno argued that ” to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” all kinds of artists, have been questioning whether or not one can depict life optimistically. Although the problem of evil is not a new or novel phenomenon, Adorno argued it imposed limits on morally conscientious art. Beuy’s, himself a victim, is in a irresolvable state of trauma, pain and torment and his art is in part an approaching and distancing of those events, a pushing of both these limits. Coherently, his artistic aesthetic has a deconstructive point of view as point of departure.
Beuys intentionally devised a challenging formal vocabulary,not accesible in the same sense as Andy Warhol, but appropriating himself as a ”brand” similar to Warhol.Beuys was a major innovator of performance art. In his “actions,” as he called them, he used time, sound, and objects as sculptural materials. The narrative however, went far deepr than the object fetish often associated with Warhol. The foreboding sense of nothing happening. No conclusions of the Dickens variety. In Beuys, there appears an unmistakeable nostalgic longing for a historical loss, a loss itself that is imaginary and cannot be rectified since it based on myth. This conveys the sense of compositional trauma,paralysis of time, and sense of endless meaninglessness. Like central figures used by Kafka, resoluis endlessly deferred, no progress can be made and all one can do is wait without hope.
”Perhaps it is his eclecticism, though, that makes Beuys such a problematic artist. There is an air of unfinished business about most of the work he created, which some interpret as a lack of rigour. On to that work, too, he loaded all manner of often obscure mystical beliefs, insisting, above all, on the now unfashionable notion that art was a magical, even occult, pursuit. Beuys elevated the artist – and himself in particular – to the role of a latterday shaman with the power to heal his own, and the world’s, ills.”( Sean O’Hagan, The Observer )
For Beuys, a moment of rapture in engagement with an art article, or art as a respite from the daily grind, is a sentimental act that has no purpose in today’s world. He calls for nothing less than a complete overhaul of that system in which art is a product of a consumer society who needs paintings to decorate walls, to use as barter, or to receive momentary uplifting. “Art is,” he said, “a genuinely human medium for revolutionary change in the sense of completing the transformation from a sick world to a healthy one.”
Joseph Beuys, As clown, shaman, and creative force whose artistry respected no boundary lines, the public welcomed this alert distraction from the immense shadow of the recent past, without really understanding Beuys play on the myth of progress; a broken promise that humankind is not bound for the promised land. Beuys answered a need of the population, waking up from the shock of its economic social and cultural lethargy following the war, who focused on the persona and phenomenon of Beuys and not his position as a witness, recalling events as if destined to recurringly experience them for the first time. The reconciliation by the population was limited to that part of Germany that is most acceptable, most generative, least harmful or threatening, and certainly, most profitable, and not the side that a Werner Fassbinder would later explore in film on the enigma of defining art as a consequence of particular events .Beuys, like Fassbinder saw past the bourgeois intent of perpetuating itself with stock, copyright-free images of beauty,or what a Maurizio Cattelan would refer to as the art of the readymade, off the shelf archetypes that recall the familiar and which fail to provoke any critical thought. Art as a drug, giving the comfortably numb sensation of pleasure in the comfortable and accepted.
” Beuys’s project challenges the established assumptions. The subscription audience expects its standards to be played year after year. These rules are put in place by the powers that be to enforce their own perpetuation. Large doses of the repertoire—Mozart,Picasso, Schubert, Hemingway—uphold the values of the ticket buyers. They’re made into cultural icons, like flags waving, like a crest for the bourgeois. These are the models, we’re told. This canon is defended by the tastemakers to preserve their values and to acclaim them as the standard. … He does, however, break with the tradition that would have him making precious objects to be exhibited in a system that needs these accouterments to congratulate itself for its creative achievement or to applaud itself for its taste. ”
Beauty, however, becomes an archaic, imaginary, phantom concept in Beuys’s sphere.The limitation of regarding beauty as an object of veneration or a holding a mirror up to the ideal is extended.The ideals are banished and replaced or substituted by new, vague ambiguous approximations discerned through a mist that may or may not be serene, reassuring or appealing. Beauty as self-portraits of our inner states.
” I’d contend that beauty is found in the unfamiliarity of Beuys’s work. To the person who comes to a Beuys’s piece of action, who is open to the encounter, a whole new realm, unconceived before, is made available. Beauty comes in the steering of us into new places where we transcend the familiar relation we had with objects. In his ritualizations, those objects or materials—like fat, felt—are transformed into instruments of a secular upheaval. It is that moving away from the traditional models, Beuys’s insistence on rejecting just those standards the usually less conservative Danto defines as necessary for the beauty experience, that openness to a multicultural model, a willingness to include all models not just the white bourgeois crowd pleaser standard, that shapes what Beuys has called his ‘social sculpture.’ ” ( Greg Master, Joeseph Beuys: Past the Affable )
Beuys’s most famous Action took place in May 1974, when he spent three days in a room with a coyote, and is proof of his powers of showman , shaman, voodoo priest, and somewhat less inspiring as obsessive political idealist. After flying into New York, he was swathed in felt and loaded into an ambulance, then driven to the gallery where the Action took place, without having once touched American soil. As Beuys later explained: ‘I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote.’ The title of the work,” I Like America and America Likes Me” is filled with irony. Beuys opposed American military actions in Vietnam, and his work as an artist was a challenge to the hegemony of American art…. In addition, fifty new copies of the Wall Street Journal were introduced each day, which the coyote acknowledged by urinating on them…”.For Native Americans, the coyote had been a powerful god, with the power to move between the physical and the spiritual world. After the coming of European settlers, it was seen merely as a pest, to be exterminated. Beuys saw the debasement of the coyote as a symbol of the damage done by white men to the American continent and its native cultures. His action was an attempt to heal some of those wounds”.( Tate Modern )
Like the Day of the Dead, Le Jours des Morts in Haiti, Beuys, in his ”actions” is like a Priest of Exorcism, whose art dipped into the etheral world to summon Ghede, the family of spirits who rule over death and fertility. Exalted spirits that encompassed his world, and his 20 th century Germany in an ecstasy of possession; a pushing out of past curses and replaced by other, more hospitable versions of Baron Samedi and his priestesses, in a gift of surrender in his ritualized, stylized enactments .Is the aryan whiteness, valorized by Nazi Germany through absurd racial ”laws”, an honour to Ghede, where ancients in West Africa whitened their faces with chalk, imitating the pale mask of death?
” Beuys’s art is an almost totally cheerless world, heavy as metal, mournful as winter, its objects rusting, decaying and discoloured, even when they were first brand new. It directs itself uningratiatingly at the heart and body rather than the mind, with its poetry of bare subsistence. …that there is scarcely a work that doesn’t depend for its impact on German history, specifically Beuys’s own.” ( Laura Cumming, Guardian )
”What is true and not true in Beuys’s work, what can or cannot be read in terms of his self-invented symbolic universe, is not really what matters. Where The Pack is headed doesn’t matter. The shabbiness matters: the atmosphere, the startling conjunctions, the unease. Beuys as a figure matters, and his art matters more. His sense of sculpture, and how to make it resonant, is impeccable. His art is so rich. His own influences, and his subsequent influence on the art that has followed him, lead us in all kinds of directions. He is a repository of bad memories and good intentions, of unworkable ideas and uncomfortable truths.”( Adrian Searle, The Guardian )