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The Boss: On the Unresolved Question of Authority in Joseph Beuys’ Oeuvre and Public Image


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To be certain, art offers answers. Its strength, however, often lies in its unresolved problems. In his statements about his own work, Joseph Beuys absolutely inundated his listeners and readers with answers. As a consequence, the inner tensions and unanswered questions at the heart of his oeuvre are scarcely recognized. An unconditional acceptance of Beuys’ interpretive authority over his own practice has caused the discourse surrounding the oeuvre to fail to touch on a central unresolved question within it: the question of authority itself. In order to understand the significance of Beuys’ work in the context of the artistic and political debates of the 1960s and 1970s, however, it is crucial to grasp the inner conflicts and unresolved contradictions that run through it, as well as the way Beuys publicly performed the role of the artist with regard to this question of authority. On the one hand he incessantly attacked traditional notions of the authority of the work, the artist, and the art professor, with his radical, liberating, and humorous opening up of the concept of art with regard to what a work, an artist, or a teacher could still be and do beyond the functions established by tradition, office, and title. On the other hand, however, it seems that in the presentation of his own interpretative discourse, Beuys regularly fell back on the very tradition of staging artistic authority with which he was trying to break.

While he abolished the common understanding of the artist’s role and demonstrated in his own practice that an artist could be not only a sculptor or painter but also a performer, politician, philosopher, historian, ethnologist, musician, and so on, he nonetheless had recourse to a traditionally established role model when projecting an image of himself to the public through the role of a visionary, spiritual authority or healer in full agreement with the modern myth of the artist as a messianic figure. While at one moment he provoked free and open debate through perplexing, if not deliberately absurd, actions that left himself open to attack as an artist, at the next moment he would bring a discussion on the meaning of these provocations back to orderly paths by seeking the seamlessly organized worldview of anthroposophy as an ideological justification for his art practice. On the one hand, he gambled on everything that traditionally secured the value, claim to validity, and hence authority of art and artists, while on the other hand he assumed the traditional patriarchal position of the messianic proclaimer of ultimate truths.

That Beuys sought such a role is affirmed in the artist’s own words. The style and content of his programmatic statements—the ceaseless explanation of his art, the world, its problems, and their solutions—appear to be consistent with the image he projects of himself as a shamanistic healer: he speaks with the authority of a man who knows all the answers, and in doing so consolidates his auratic authority as an artist with his message of salvation. Orthodox interpretations of Beuys’ work accept this authority without reservations, and this makes a critical understanding of his work more difficult, if not impossible. In the following section, I will use the example of one such orthodox interpretation to delineate the artistic and political impasse that inevitably results from such an understanding of Beuys’ oeuvre. In contrast to this, I will subsequently try to develop an approach to understanding the problem of auratic authority in Beuys’ work and self-image through a close reading of selected works. Using several performances as examples, I intend to argue that the artistic quality and historical significance of Beuys’ work are not, as the common view would have it, based upon a realizing of his declared intentions, but rather upon his staging of an unresolved conflict between the urge to demolish authoritarian definitions of what artists are traditionally supposed to be and the need to recoup certain aspects of fascination with the auratic authority of the artistic act and the artist’s role.

One revealing example of an art historical interpretation of Beuys’ oeuvre that is wholly under the spell of the artist’s authority is found in The Cult of the Avant-garde Artist by the American critic Donald Kuspit.1 Kuspit reads Beuys’ entire practice through the image of the shamanistic healer that Beuys projected to the public, portraying him as the last representative of the venerable tradition of avant-garde artists who believed their task to be one of helping humanity to heal the alienation of modern life (in Kuspit’s view, Warhol’s consent to alienation sealed the decline of that tradition). As evidence for this interpretation, Kuspit quotes two programmatic statements by Beuys: “My intention: healthy chaos, healthy amorphousness in a known medium which consciously warmed a cold, torpid form from the past, a convention of society, and which makes possible future forms.”2 And in conclusion: “This is precisely what the shaman does in order to bring about change and development: his nature is therapeutic.”3 Now, the concept of healing raises a series of questions: whom does Beuys claim to heal? And of what? By what means, and by whose authority? Kuspit answers these questions succinctly: the Germans, of the trauma of national collapse, and through the healing energy of an original, pagan creativity that he taps, for them, by virtue of his authority as healer.

Read the full article here.