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Beuys, Joseph

Category: Artist and sculptor

 

Joseph Beuys (12 May 1921 – 23 January 1986) was a German multi-media artist as well as a sculptor, installation artist, graphic artist, and art theorist. 

His career was characterized by passionate, even acrimonious public debate.  

The Artistic Alchemy of Joseph Beuys – Dr David Adams

From the 1960s through the 1980s, the ground-breaking sculptures, drawings, installations, and performance art of Joseph Beuys have frequently been valued as the most significant expression of avant garde art in post-war Europe.  In his familiar felt hat and air force ammunition vest, Beuys became a cult figure. Since his death in 1986, the interest of art critics and artists in Beuys's forty years of work has skyrocketed.
Through his own striking but enigmatic artworks as well as his extensive teaching, Beuys influenced two generations of contemporary artists, particularly through his many pupils in Germany. Beyond the art world, Beuys also played a role in European politics, higher education, environmentalism, and social reform.

Beuys wanted to abolish the distinction between artistic and non-artistic practices of creativity, in effect whatever endeavour one pursued it should be pursued as an artistic one – an act of imaginative creation. 

 

His motives for promoting this idea were based on social and spiritual ideals.  Every job can be made more pleasurable and its results more meaningful and spiritually rewarding for everyone, not just the creator, if art is added to the equation. Thus, for example, no longer should we have segmented job titles that say ‘he is an artist’ or ‘he is a cook’, instead we should have creative artistic cooks – and of course now we do and we call them chefs.  Beuys simply wanted this to be extended to everyone – for imagination and creativity to be a part of every job.  He saw machines doing the repetitive tasks, with people free to be as imaginative as they wished.

This idea was totally counter to the way education and work was organised.  Beuys  promoted individuality, diversity and difference.  Those in power during the 20th century, via the education system, business, politics and housing were constantly trying to force people into sameness - mass produced cars, mass produced education, mass produced identical housing and even clothes.  Big Brother and control.  It was no wonder there were clashes.

Unravelling the meaning

In order to understand the art of Joseph Beuys one therefore has to have a very good grasp of the times in which he lived.  Materialism was at its height, Science as religion was getting stronger by the year and although people who were spiritually inclined were no longer burnt at the stake, their careers metaphorically were and so was their work.   

It has always been the role of the artist – musician, poet, painter, playwright, story teller, film maker – to preserve spiritual truths. 

 

The artistic have used myths, stories and parables to try to explain what is essentially unexplainable using normal terms. 

It is not possible to explain the spiritual using terms designed to describe the physical world.

On this site, we have used the analogy of 'spiritual' being the 'software world' and the 'physical world' as 'hardware', but even this analogy is not totally satisfactory as in fact all is spirit,  it is just that the physical gives the illusion of being a bit 'harder' than the rest!

From the times of the Bible to the present day, the means by which the spiritually aware have used to represent spiritual 'truths' has thus been via symbols.  Artists like Joseph became the last vanguard who preserved the spiritual truths through symbols.  Thus in the wholly hostile world in which the artistic  lived during the entire 20th century, all they could do to keep at least some remnant of the spiritual active in people’s lives, was to continue to represent the key symbols and do it in unusual shocking or truly memorable ways.  Ways which made sure the symbol was painted on people’s minds, leaving them intrigued but in fact none the wiser until better times came along and the meaning could be explained.

 

Marcel Duchamp set himself the same task, so did Magritte and Dali.  In many ways it was as if their entire lives were dedicated to preserving as many symbols as possible in as many unusual ways as possible, so that none was left behind.   Whilst Duchamp worked in France, Magritte in Belgium, and Dali in Spain, Beuys worked in Germany.  In the UK it was the story teller who preserved the symbols – Tolkien and C S Lewis, in Ireland it was the poets, like W B Yeats.  In the USA it was Robert Frost.

The tawdry materialism of the time, the greed, the selfishness, the lack of colour and joy were all represented in Beuys' work.  Art always reflects the society in which it is created and thus Beuys' art is a mirror of the 20th century, as seen by an artist with a great deal of sensitivity.  Today nobody understands Beuys’ work, but they certainly remember it – and that was the whole point.

The Artistic Alchemy of Joseph Beuys – Dr David Adams

Beuys is known for his ritualistic "Actions" (performances), his provocative uses of unfamiliar artistic mediums (for example, fat, honey, felt, iron, copper, horns, bones, gelatin, peat, blood, chocolate, conversation), his challenging arrangements of objects and artworks in gallery installations and vitrines, his creative blurring of the boundaries between art and life, his articulate theoretical statements on art and social reform, and his intense, wiry drawings. These creations have fascinated and intrigued, but also largely puzzled, the international art world for more than three decades.
Although Beuys adapted for his work aspects of the 1960s and 1970s avant garde movement …. he used them in personal and unusual ways to shape creations whose meanings remain elusive.

 

References

We have used the observations to provide extra details about Beuys, his philosophy and his life and work, and at the same time provided the cross references to all the symbols he used - from fat to bathubs to show you how he was attempting to preserve the Universal symbol system.

Beuys's primary purpose was ultimately to stimulate social and spiritual reform, and, in addition to his political endeavors, he turned to innovative contemporary art forms as his means for conveying this message in a way that would reach people more deeply than purely intellectual proposals and, hopefully, motivate them to creatively get involved in changing themselves and their world.

Rather than an attempt to create yet another formal innovation within the ivory tower of avant garde art, this call to reform is the meaning, justification, and potential of his social sculpture and its associated dictum: Everyone is an artist. Although he was several times disappointed by attempts at political reform, Beuys never lost faith in art as "the sole, revolutionary force capable of transforming the earth, humanity, the social order...."[ David Adams, Ph.D.- Penn Valley, California, 1998]

 

Observations

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