Thursday 31 March 2022

"Everyone is an artist" - what did Joseph Beuys mean?

I have been reading the avant-garde 'artist' Joseph Beuys recently (who some authorities regard as the most important 'artist' of the late 20th century) - from my recognition that his work was an explicit continuation of the philosophical insights of Rudolf Steiner; as expressed most clearly in The Philosophy of Freedom. 

In other words; if one engages with Beuys from a basis in The Philosophy of Freedom; we can see his work - especially its quantitatively-major element, the teaching - as directly derived from the same insights as Steiner described. Indeed, these insights were described, advocated and put into practice by Beuys across a wide range of activities.  

I said 'artist' in scare quotes - because Beuys was not really an artist in the traditional sense; or, at best, a rather mediocre one. Having surveyed the span of Beuys's work, it seems obvious that as a sculptor or in terms of his drawings, he was no better than most decent art school graduates. 

Indeed, his surviving artistic productions are mostly unpleasant in effect - being mostly dull, drab, depressing - and, in many instances (and sometimes deliberately) decaying

Yet Beuys was a genius - and this was based on (at least...) three major attributes:

1. Beuys was extremely intelligent - far more intelligent than 99% of the people around him in the art world - including the artists, students, gallery owners, critics and scholars (partly because art does not attract the best intellectuals and does reward confident frauds).

2. Beuys was extremely creative in his thinking. This is obvious in his speaking - the records of interviews and accounts of lectures. He (rather like Steiner) did a truly colossal amount of teaching and discussing - at times apparently up to 10 hours a day in public discussions, day after day, week after week. 

From the combination of intelligence and creativity; Beuys always seems to have something to say about anything (again, like Steiner); was very quick on the uptake and in response, and had considerable general knowledge at his command. 

3. Beuys had an extremely dominant, charismatic and magnetic personality - such that people who were in his presence were often overwhelmed, but could never ignore him - and those who spent much time with him seems to have been affected for the rest of their lives. 

Beuys was very influential, and launched several projects and 'organizations' - although it seems clear that from his point of view these were not intended to be moral, 'functional' institutions; but mostly venues for conversation, stimulation, and endlessly developing ideas and thoughts. 

His most famous slogan was "Everyone is an artist" which was apparently intended to mean that traditional art - the production of beautiful artifacts that could 'stand-alone' - was to be superseded by Steiner-esque Thinking from a condition of Freedom (which I regard as the same as my understanding of Primary Thinking). 

In other words, while an artist (i.e. everybody) continues to do and make things; the focus ought to be on the creative thinking which was primary, rather than the products which derived from thinking. 

This creative thinking was revealed more by discussions and conversations about 'art objects' and the thinking behind them - than it was by the objects themselves; this activity being embedded in a context of the evolutionary development of human consciousness under divine providence. 

In other words - I would regard Beuys as aiming to move from the 'medieval' (Intellectual Soul) world view, to the other-side of modernist meaninglessness and isolation - to arrive at the condition of Barfieldian Final Participation - when Men consciously choose to participate with divine creation in the creation of their own world-view. 

For Beuys to assert and operate on the basis that 'everyone' was an artist, was self-destructive from the point of view of a Professor in an art school - and indeed Beuys was sacked from his position. 

He regarded teaching as by far his most important activity; and went on to found (or develop the concept) of a Free University as providing a forum. But this is oxymoronic, and could not exist without refuting its own premises. 

Beuys's other projects had a similarly paradoxical and self-contradicting nature. He was a founder of the German Green party, but left it when the party began to operate as a party - winning elections, getting power etc.  

He also often asserted Rudolf Steiner's Threefold organization of society; which nowadays operates in a realm of quixotic idealism - and functions mainly as the basis for that kind of radical and open-ended discussion which Beuys so much enjoyed and advocated.

It seems that Beuys was a comprehensive failure at his articulated goals (whether in art, education, environmentalism. politics) - but that this was inevitable and indeed 'part of the plan' - since he was in reality a spiritual philosopher aiming qualitatively beyond current societal possibilities.

In the artistic productions, 'actions', teaching etc; Beuys was trying to 'cast a spell' (which worked only partially, and intermittently - and was heavily dependent on his presence) through which to imagine a personhood and society beyond our totalitarian bureaucratic materialism; and thereby inspire individuals to understand and adopt a Steiner-like understanding of Freedom rooted in primary and creative thinking, and an unorthodox Christianity.  

My impression is that hardly anybody understood what Beuys was doing, despite his repeated explanations - just as hardly anybody understood Steiner, Barfield or Arkle. People had very different metaphysical assumptions and interests, and were mostly trying to get along in society as-it-was; and their bottom line was ideological and pragmatic, rather than spiritual and idealistic. 

Like everybody must; Beuys operated in this mainstream world of ideology and practicality; and of course - like everybody - was prone to lapses, selfishness, vanity etc. - since this mortal life is about learning, not achieving perfection. Among his writings (as with Steiner's) there is a good deal of pretentious nonsense, showing-off, and pandering to the audience. 

There was definite dishonesty - especially in Beuys's claimed life-story relating to his self-propagated legend of having been a Stuka pilot rescued from a crashed plane by Tartar tribesmen, smeared in fat and wrapped in felt for warmth - which so many critics took as the basis for biographical and critical understanding. And the surviving 'works' mostly come across as enervating and miserable. 

Yet there is an underlying, implicit, but directly-knowable energy, seriousness and Goodness about Joseph Beuys; which stands in stark opposition to the evil inversions of the art-world that has perpetuated his memory and legacy. 

Indeed; Beuys's motivational Goodness and Romantic Christianity has become indirectly more evident recently, by high-level critical attacks on the man and his legacy - that derive from the heart of darkness constituted by the propagandists for the mainstream modern establishment. 

These attacks take the usual form of slurs alleging Fascism, racism, colonialist appropriation etc. - typical 'deplatforming' stuff deployed against any person or institution from The Past by evil powers when they detect potential danger from true values.  

My point is that - with the correct assumptions, and a willingness to sift and discern - there is potential value in the work of Joseph Beuys - despite his having been, while he lived, the darling of some of the most ridiculous and pernicious folk on the planet - i.e. the trendy, lefty, commissars of the 'modern art' Establishment.  


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I looked at some of his art, and it’s really terrible! Not the best way of advertising his genius.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm. Indeed, I take that as given; which I hope was clear.