Barbara Gronau [University of the Arts, Berlin] on the enduring relevance of one of the most famous German artists
Interview: Stefan Donath
Joseph Beuys is considered to be one of Germany’s most famous artists. What constitutes this fame?
Joseph Beuys is definitely one the most important German artists of the 20th century for several reasons. Firstly, because in his person he represents the history of Germany in the 20th century. Born in 1921, he voluntarily joins the Second World War, experiences it most intensely, also being severely wounded, and works his entire life off of this trauma. He embodies the arts in the 20th century quite exemplary because, amongst other reasons, he is an artist who in his search for new forms, transcends and collapses genre-gaps that had been settled in traditional ways until then. He was at comfortable in all traditional art forms, except painting. He drew, made sculptures and performances, did installations and incorporated objects of the fluxus-art as well as elements of the avant-garde and neo-avantgarde. Such diversity is rarely seen in any artist’s body of work. Furthermore, he is an artist – and one of the rare ones, too – who has developed a distinctive art theory inseparable to his practice.
What characterizes Beuys’ own theory?
The theory has to do with his idea of an “expanded art concept” that breaks down not only the boundaries distinguishing one artistic genre from another but also those demarcating art from academia, the religious from the profane. It was his declared goal to link the aesthetic with the social and to equate the concepts of “personhood”, “art”, “sculpture” and “aesthetics”.
Beuys seeks to declare all of life to be art. In this view, creative work is not restricted to some specialist out there, but is a general anthropological asset possessed by everyone. It encompasses thinking as much as speaking, cooking soups, lecturing students or planting trees. All these different actions follow the very same universal principle, namely, that of a “plastic process”. Beuys’ so called “plastic theory” itself is an artistic practice.
To what extent was the specific post-war- situation of importance for Beuys’ artistic work, or rather which emotional and intellectual resistances did arts find itself encounter after 1945?
The situation after the war is highly interesting, because on the one hand it poses the question whether art is possible after the Shoa. What is art? What can art be? On the other hand it is about the question of, what artistic expressions to continue with. After the war, marking a political, social and aesthetic watershed, what art-forms can be drawn on? Beuys then occupies himself with the Nature Sciences, the Romantic Philosophy, the Anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner and his Catholic roots. From there, Beuys is always going to hold to the belief that especially with anthroposophy the answer to suffering, agony and a hideous political present can be found, because it contains the ideas of redemption as well as theological ideas of an ascending development.
Beuys was convinced of the singularity of his existence, he believed in a missionary calling from which he derived the capability of a healer of humanity. Quite an undertaking, wasn’t it?
Of course, such quotations always have to be seen as ironic, too. Beuys had a lot of humor and used it in an almost Dadaistic manner. That is also what makes all these teachings quite bearable because there is always this other side to them. I believe, that the experiences of World War II and the experience of having been wounded – one could say, Beuys’ entire body of work is fed by the topos of the wound – led to feeling responsible that it never happens again. And he took this responsibility quite personal, along with a distinct belief of, “I have found the truth”. Because he displayed this self-confidence, he had so many students and admirers. Because he was someone who unswervingly said, let us go in this direction, let us ask the question of ecology and the question of mankind, let us ask the question of action and creativity again he could have such an enormous impact.
In your dissertation, that has been awarded the Joseph-Beuys-Research-Award well deservedly, you intensively concerned yourself with his art. What was your personal interest in the works of Joseph Beuys?
In 1989, I was seventeen years old, I saw my first Beuys-exhibition in the still existing German Democratic Republic. I remember standing in front of an object displaying three little layers. A very heavyweight, very thick cardboard piece, a blotting paper, very thin and porous, and on it a band-aid encrusted with blood, on which you directly looked upon. Standing before this object, I instinctively understood that we all share this permeability and vulnerability. To take what’s inside us and covered by these layers – the thick epidermis, the thin layer dermis – what lives and pulsates in us, and make it public is a scandal. I remember a lot of comments expressing disgust with the piece. I believe that when you’re seventeen asking yourself who you are and living in a society that is in the midst of collapsing, this is an unbelievably radical answer. To say, “show your wound”, lay bare what’s not working. Beuys’ motto still remains valid.
How can the theme of the wound, its publication and the focus of your dissertation on performative spaces be connected?
What interested me in Beuys was the handling of materiality. One specific of Beuys’ art in the 20th century is that he works with material that continues to change during the period of the actual artistic intervention, the so called making of the sculpture. They are alive, dry out, mutate, decay. The large percentage of organic material is something entirely new and something that contradicts the sculpture’s static form. In many ways, Beuys has radicalized the concept of sculpture. And his material interested me incredibly. Because it always tells a story in this mutation and transformation alone as well as in the way what particular material is being used: huge chunks of fat, felt-suits, beginning to distort or taking an individual bodily shape.
Being a professor for theory and history of the theatre at the UDK [University of the Arts], you are working in an institution, similar to Beuys at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf [Art Academy of Düsseldorf], in which the relationship between art and science is being (re)negotiated on a daily basis. How does this relationship take form in your work?
In his way of connecting theory and practice, Beuys would be very affected by today’s questions. That also applies to the attempt of rethinking institutions. As you know, at one point he stopped participating in artistic admission exams and allowed all people to enter his classes. This led to his class consisting of a couple of hundred students – a logistic challenge to the institution of the Art Academy Düsseldorf, which ultimately resulted in his dismissal. While the state was lashing out with most severe measures to keep up the boundaries of its institution, I would say that Beuys was a trailblazer for questions we ask ourselves today.
How does your relationship to Beuys unfold in your own research?
In my own practice Beuys plays a role in the questioning of what theatre is. Not being closely connected with the institutionalised theatre, Beuys is one to make his own persona a “Gesamtkunstwerk” and thereby becomes an historic role model for artists such as Christoph Schlingensief. Beuys was teacher, family man, economist, as well as party founder, pop singer and shaman – the latter not being self- but descriptions of him. Those various roles he brought together in their explicit display through his own single person. This is a very interesting, almost postmodern attitude being adopted by Beuys very early on. He poses the question of how an artist creates an own persona, which becomes a recognizable figure in which different layers are combined.
Can this separation between the artist as a person, who creates an object or piece through artistic practice, be maintained at all using the person Beuys as an example?
The consequence would be to say, you are your own piece of art. But not – and this is of utmost importance – in the sense of a deception or illusion anymore. The continuous critical accusation has always been: It’s all just a façade, he’s taking us for a fool and slips into this role. On the contrary: There is no private beyond in that. Beuys was always Beuys in this multiplicity of possible roles.
Is it in that, where you see Beuys’ relevance for our times?
I would say, he is a role model for contemporary questions. A lot of impulses for contemporary artists come from his performances, the videos, the movie- and TV work or forms of audio-visual documentaries, these absolutely impressive performances, some of which went on for hours. In this respect, his self-confident dealing with the media is as significant as the question how he staged himself as a performance artist. Furthermore he was an artist, whose Œuvre always posed the question of the political. Beuys was struggling with what political art of his time can be.
Are the works of Joseph Beuys in that respect a reference impossible to ignore for contemporary artists?
Yes, sure. Just think of his performance “7000 Oaks” from 1982. The idea was to re-vegetate the city of Kassel that was void of plants, and had to be entirely reconstructed after the 2nd World War with this afforestation project. On one hand this contains the idea of an art of ecology which, I believe is cutting edge for us. On the other hand this is a sight specific art, declaring the very urban space where it takes place an art-zone. These are also tendencies still important and a source of inspiration for the 21st century.
Is Beuys still so relevant today because, with respect to the ever more quickly changing media use, social media and new technologies, everybody is becoming their own artist with self-produced YouTube-clips? Keyword: Beuys 2.0, has there been a shift?
That is an interesting question, because it actually is the question of Warhol and Beuys. Warhol and Beuys did appreciate one another quite a bit and also created works referencing each other. Warhol would answer the question whether we are our own artists with the aspect of the public sphere. Warhol states that to the degree in which we become visible to the public for a certain period of time, we are a contemporary object expressing itself in any artistic or staged way possible. Here, performance is synonymous with spectacle and acting in a certain mediatised setting. With Beuys it’s different or slightly more complicated. Beuys’ idea of performance – even when this term has not explicitly been mentioned – is one that proceeds inductively. Beuys assumes that the visible world is always enhanced by the invisible: radiation, forces, energetic correlations. His art aims at making these hidden layers visible, to bring them into awareness and make them sensible as forces of transformation. These take effect through us and in us. Performance according to Beuys means “to generate”. But in the very moment in which we become the cause of a transformation, bring something to the world and change it, shape a process or initiate one, we become the completer of the forces infusing the world.
It seems interesting, that Beuys who voluntarily reported for duty in World War II, is especially adored in Israel. How do you explain that?
Firstly, I think it is magnificent that there is this Beuys exhibition in Israel and that the artist Joseph Beuys and his Œuvre are being seen and questioned. Actually, this is the most important purpose of this exhibition. I believe, not the Germans should provide an answer on what can be done with Beuys nowadays. I find it awesome that Israel feels a need to ask that for itself.
What other references can be found between the artist Joseph Beuys and Israel?
I would name two aspects that could be interesting topics or questions: For one, we know that Beuys voluntarily reported for duty in 1941 and in 1944 his aircraft was crashed down. From this downing of his jet over the Crimean Peninsula he has created the legend of being taken care of and nursed back to health for several days by Tartars. The legend’s structure shows: ‘I am not only a German responsible for war but instead I am a man of the East…’ Beuys formula “Eurasia” as a connection between Europe and Asia is an essential motif in his artistic dealing with this time. For the longest time this argument was believed to be true. Only later, researching in archives, it was found that Beuys was back in a German military hospital only 24 hours after being shot down. The question is not if the legend is true, but what is its function?
The legend is part of a new beginning?
Many art critics have pointed out, that the legends operates to soften and relief him from the war-guilt and joint guilt by way of affirmatively approaching those who have suffered injustice through you. At the same time it has a second function, namely being the artist’s originating-legend. Beuys’ artistic practice is based on a trauma, that is, his old life ended and a second life, stemming from the downfall that is war, was bestowed upon him. I find that to be an incredibly important structure to be kept in mind and followed.
Did Beuys explicitly deal with the own guilt?
For one, here’s a very interesting thesis from the American scholar Gene Ray. He states, that in fact Beuys’ entire artistic practice is a mourning, an expression of grief for the own guilt and the destruction the Germans and thereby he himself was involved in. Then again, there is the well-known American criticism Benjamin Buchloh, saying that Beuys in fact did not learn anything at all. With his recourse to romanticism and anthroposophy, he ultimately took and perpetuated an entirely uncritical position. Therefore he is a representative for exactly that Germany, that didn’t ask itself the proper questions. With all difficulties the legacies of Christianity, romanticism and anthroposophy entail, Beuys was someone producing very innovative and novel forms, nonetheless.
You connected Beuys work with the wound or the trauma. Before Beuys took off as an artist, he is said to have suffered a deep personal crisis due to post-traumatic stress disorder. Is the experience of crisis something, to which a distinct connection to Israel can be established?
In the sense that Israel is a country in crisis?
Yes, precisely. My point is the crisis as an individual conflict about one’s own contextual positioning and the resulting necessity to find a way out.
I am not sure whether Israeli artists or intellectuals would all agree that they’re in a situation of crisis. This might be the case for a number of political questions. Altogether, I believe it is quite a self-confident nation, knowing exactly what it is based on and referring to. At least that was my impression, whenever I was there. And I do find that magnificent and admirable.
Is there nothing left to say about Beuys?
The question to be discussed with Beuys in this respect would be his relationship to the Shoa. There is a very early work, a concept for an Auschwitz memorial – which has not become realised – and is now part of the so called “Block-Beuys” installation at the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt [Hessian State Museum in the city of Darmstadt]. Beuys struggled to answer the question what ‘art after the Shoa’ could mean. Whether his answer is particularly good or intelligent, I am not sure about. At any rate it becomes clear that he dealt with it and the topos of suffering further infuses his body of work in different areas. The artistic work of Joseph Beuys seen from that perspective once again, would be an invitation. I’d find this to be quite reasonable because, I believe not all answers there have been found.
Barbara Gronauis professor for theory and history of the theatre at the University of the Arts in Berlin. Her dissertation “Theaterinstallationen. Performative Räume bei Beuys, Boltanski und Kabakov” has been awarded the Joseph-Beuys-Research-Award in 2011.
Stefan Donates Research Associate at the International Research Center “Interweaving Performance Cultures” in Berlin. He studied Theatre Studies, Political Science and Journalism at the Universities of Berlin and Paris and is completing his doctorate on “Choruses of Protest. Towards an Aesthetic of Resistance.” His research interests are in the fields of participatory art, pedagogy and performance, art and activism.