Without a doubt, Joseph Beuys was the single most important continental European artist of the second half of the 20th century. I say continental for while Beuys’ influence on art in the German speaking countries (as well as in Italy and Scandinavia) has been enormous, his impact in the UK was quite different, perhaps due to the philosophical divide between continental existentialism and phenomenology, and the analytic philosophy and positivism that was more influential in the UK. It makes sense to me that Beuys’ art may not have appealed as strongly to British artists as it did to the continental ones, possibly due to the Heideggerian dimension of his work. As Betrand Russell once wrote, ‘Heidegger’s philosophy is extremely obscure and highly eccentric […] One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot. As with much else in Existentialism, this is a psychological observation made to pass for logic.’ Whether one agrees with Russell’s assessment or not, one could make similar claims about Beuys. He, too, was a swindler of sorts, and everyone who ever listened to him talk or has read anything he wrote, will know that he was as logically inclined as a boiled cabbage. 

Beuys presented himself as a kind of the archetypal art shaman, and to bolster his image and his art he told a story that, for art historians, became what the arts writer Ulrike Knöfel has described as ‘a founding episode of a new avant-garde.’ In March 1944, claimed Beuys, while serving as a Luftwaffe pilot his plane had been hit by Russian artillery and crashed in the Crimea. He almost died but was found and nursed back to health by Tatar shamans who rubbed his body in tallow and wrapped him in felt. This is widely accepted as the explanation for his obsession with these two materials in his work, and yet, this story isn’t quite true. For one thing, Beuys was never a pilot during the war; he was a radio operator, although there is no question that he did crash, and there can be little doubt that the experience was a pivotal moment in his life, and in his move towards making art. Over the last decade, however, there has been much debate about the mythos surrounding Beuys, and not least in Germany. New biographical information has come to light that sows doubts upon several of the things that Beuys claimed. 

Joseph Beuys ,  Richtkraefte einer neuen Gesellschaft, (Directional Forces of a New Society) , 1974-77, & Filzanzug, (Felt Suit), 1970. Installation View, (courtesy Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía Photographic Archive, 1994).

Joseph Beuys, Richtkraefte einer neuen Gesellschaft, (Directional Forces of a New Society), 1974-77, & Filzanzug, (Felt Suit), 1970. Installation View,
(courtesy Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía Photographic Archive, 1994).

Beuys wasn’t the only artist in the history of art to claim things about his past that weren’t true, of course. Arshile Gorky made up plenty of colourful stories about himself – his claim to be a Georgian nobleman or a relative of the famous Russian writer Maxim Gorky are but two examples. As the saying goes, never trust the artist, trust the tale, and I cannot think of any other artist than Joseph Beuys for whom this could be more appropriate. As a critic, I read a lot of statements from artists and I listen to them talk about their work, but in all honesty, sometimes I wonder if they’ve ever actually looked at what they are making. It’s a heretical point of view perhaps, and Beuys’ devotees will no doubt object, but Beuys is the most extreme example of this. When asked about his work Beuys would talk about creativity and evolution and “revolutionary change”, about “social sculpture” and transforming social organisms into works of art. Take, for example, the opening lines from his text for I Am Searching For A Field Character (1974): ‘Only on condition of a radical widening of definitions will it be possible for art and activities related to art [to] provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the death-line: to dismantle in order to build A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART.’ A load of hogwash? Beuys certainly developed all of these ideas, and that’s fine, but they had very little to do with the art that he was making. 

Beuys fully sensed both the magnitude and the urgency of his project as a shaman but, at times, he clearly confused the importance of his mission with the importance of himself as a person.

The poet Paul Celan wrote in German. Despite everything he kept writing in German, the language of what, in his most famous poem Death Fugue (1948), he referred to as the ‘Meister aus Deutschland’, the Nazis who gave the Jews ‘a grave in the sky’. Himself, a Jew, the more Celan wrote, the more his poems became sparser. Reading his poems, one gets the sense that language became an up-hill climb for him, until it finally broke him. In 1970, Celan took his own life, drowning himself in the River Seine; and then, silence. Isn’t this what Beuys’ work was also about? There is a statement made by Martin Heidegger that his detractors often quote because, to them, it proves what a nutcase he was: ‘Die Welt weltet,’ the world worlds. In Celan’s case, the silence, it silences. It’s not just Paul Celan’s silence, but also the silence after Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Treblinka, and Theresienstadt. When the war ended Europe got busy with new technology, popular culture, rock and roll, attempting to fill the silence, or simply drown it out. It all went rather well, up until the Bosnian War of 1992-95 and its 100,000 dead. ‘After Auschwitz,’ the philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote, ‘writing a poem is barbaric’ – but at the same time one had to. One had to write poems and make art and music, for not doing so would be like allowing horror to triumph: one had to be ‘barbaric’ or the silence would keep silencing. Alternatively, one could become a master magician, working with that silence, channelling it, and turning it into something else. Now there’s a job for a shaman!

Despite all of the noise and the brouhaha that often surrounded Beuys’ work it was, ultimately, about silence. It was a series of gestures against silence but in a silent way. Beuys summoned up the silence and argued with it. All of his works have this quality to them, and, to that extent, Beuys was extremely successful – he did in fact manage to channel it. Place a work by Beuys in a silent room, and the room will become even quieter. Arguably, none of his works are more significant than Infiltration from Piano (1966) – a piano covered in felt and tagged with a red cross. In a straightforward sense it was about Beuys healing the silence of the piano just as the Tatar shamans had done for him. Many of his works have this air of occultism or mysticism to them – his two famous performances How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) and I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), for example: Semi-religious rituals, both of which could be described as ‘barbaric’. 

Joseph Beuys ,  Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt (How to explain pictures to a dead hare) , Galerie Schmelan, Düsseldorf, 1965. (© zeroonefilm / bpk / Stiftung Schloss Moyland / Ute Klophaus).

Joseph Beuys, Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt (How to explain pictures to a dead hare), Galerie Schmelan, Düsseldorf, 1965. (© zeroonefilm / bpk / Stiftung Schloss Moyland / Ute Klophaus).

The jury is still out, but maybe on a personal level Beuys was cynical enough about the war and his own role to lie about it, and not just about the details. Whatever the verdict, however, it won’t change the fact that on a deeper, artistic level he was profoundly affected by the horrors, or the fact that (more than any other visual artist I can think of) he was so morally concerned with what had occurred that it came to influence everything he did. Dead hares are relatively easy, but when it comes to people things tend to get complicated. There can be little doubt that Beuys fully sensed both the magnitude and the urgency of his project as a shaman but, at times, he clearly confused the importance of his mission with the importance of himself as a person. Many Beuys pieces are just photos of the artist, or scraps with BEUYS written on them, and none of them have any true artistic value. There is (or at least there has been) a Beuys personality cult, and Beuys was partially to blame for that. Although, when he died in 1986, he left us with an incredible body of work (and even though he did in fact turn out to be quite accomplished with regard to taming the Celanian silence), ultimately, he failed. Referring to Paul Celan’s poem Count The Almonds: if Beuys had been swinging the hammer in the ‘Bell-Cradle of Silences’, what was left was just an even more resounding silence. 

Beuys and Danish composer Henning Christiansen once recorded an LP together, one side of which contained a 36-minute long piece titled Requiem of Art (1970). It has church bells in it. We all know that when the church bells stop, we hear the silence more clearly. T.S. Eliot writes about ‘fragments,’ ‘shored against ruins,’ and Heidegger also says that, ‘to be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. This is why the poet in the time of the world’s night utters the holy.’ Heidegger was writing about Friedrich Hölderlin, the great German poet. When Paul Celan decided to end his life, instead of a suicide note he left behind his copy of Wilhelm Michel’s Hölderlin biography on his writing desk with a single passage underlined; ‘Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks into the bitter well of his heart.’ The work of Joseph Beuys consists of such fragments shored against ruins, our ruins, and Heidegger’s phrase ‘the trace of the fugitive gods’ aptly describes what I have referred to as the occult or mystical in Beuys’ works. 

The silence following the Holocaust, one could argue, was the silence after God. In an interview (rambling as always) Beuys talked about the Christ visible to, ‘those who try to see with an inner eye [who] breezes through every single room and every moment in time, in a substantial way.’ I will be completely frank and say that I think this is a lie. What Beuys saw with his inner eye wasn’t Christ ‘in a substantial way’. It was the opposite. It was the absence of Christ. Which is exactly why Beuys felt compelled to put some art in there, to summon him. ‘Only a god can save us now,’ wrote Heidegger, the same year Beuys made Infiltration For Piano. After the Holocaust it became impossible to believe. Never had a god been more needed. 

After the Holocaust, in Denmark, Belgium and Holland there was first COBRA, a sort of European form of Abstract Expressionism, and then the Situationist International. In Denmark, Asger Jorn was a leading member of both these movements. Later, art got infused with dogmatic Marxism. What all of these had in common was that they were basically saying the same thing, which was Let’s party! Let go. Make a lot of noise. Splash some paint around. Bring the revolution to the streets. Pop Art embraced and paid tribute to the attempt to just gloss over it all, though. Op Art pretty much gave up on everything except optical illusions. But the art of Joseph Beuys was different – he was aligned with the Fluxus movement that included artists such as George Maciunas, Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono, and ties to situationism – but still Beuys was something else. Beuys was never funny or light. The one time when he tried to be was when, in 1982, he recorded a political pop song titled Sonne statt Reagan, but the result was painful. No matter how much he liked to talk about the social aspects of his work, it was essentially made by one and for one, and deadly serious. With Beuys there was no party, only the silence, and the same is true for his most important student and successor, Anselm Kiefer. Another artist influenced by Beuys who possessed the same kind of seriousness was the Danish painter Per Kirkeby. 

Joseph Beuys during the eviction of the secretariat of the State Art Academy in Dusseldorf, 1972 . (© zeroonefilm / Bernd Jansen). (Photos from the film BEUYS, 2017, Directed by Andres Veiel, courtesy Zero One Film / Piffl Medien GmbH / Arne Höhne Presse).

Joseph Beuys during the eviction of the secretariat of the State Art Academy in Dusseldorf, 1972. (© zeroonefilm / Bernd Jansen). (Photos from the film BEUYS, 2017, Directed by Andres Veiel, courtesy Zero One Film / Piffl Medien GmbH / Arne Höhne Presse).

Back in 1989, there used to be graffiti on the West-German side of the Berlin Wall. It wasn’t art – someone had just written I LIKE BEUYS in black spray paint. Later, someone else had used red spray paint to cross out BEUYS and replace it with BOYS. A Berlin bookseller made a postcard of it. It’s such a small thing, but it’s one of those images that will forever be stuck in my head. Fed up with agitprop and art emphasising the social over the individual, the 1980s were the decade of neo-liberalism, ‘yuppies’, and commercial glitter-pop: everything that post-war era art had been against. Adorno had railed against the culture industry and the substitute gratification that cheats people ‘out of the same happiness which it deceitfully projects.’ Art was supposed to be the opposite of this; deep. challenging and questioning rather than affirming. Now millionaires-to-be were dancing to Hip To Be Square by Huey Lewis and the News, or Madonna’s Material Girl. 1980s Pop culture contributed more directly to the fall of the Berlin Wall than the avant-garde. As Adorno also said, ‘people know what they want because they know what other people want.’ And the people in the Eastern Bloc wanted that. They didn’t want Abstract Expressionism or situationism or Fluxus or Joseph Beuys – just that. Pop! They were looking for the good time, not A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART. What Beuys made – his Art – mattered greatly, for sure, and it’s just as relevant today as when he made it, but it had no direct political consequences. None whatsoever. Artistically, in continental Europe, it remains extremely important, for sure, but make no mistake – none of what he actually said really mattered at all.

Bo Gorzelak Pedersen is an artist and critic based in Randers, Denmark. The above text is an edited extract from his most recent book, ‘How To Begin’ – Banner Image Credit: Joseph Beuys, Unschlitt / Tallow, 1977, Installation View (Photo: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / 1995 erworben durch das Land Berlin / Jan Windszus. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018).


Dunoon Burgh Hall, Argyll St, Dunoon, Scotland.
From 8 February – 17 March 2019.

(Group exhibition including many of  Beuys’ most significant works)
The Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Germany.
Until: 8 September 2019.

LWL-Museum für Kunst und  Kultur, Münster, Germany.
Until: 29 September 2019.

Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada.
Until: October 2019.

(Beuys’ only cast bronze installation, currently on extended loan from Philadelphia Museum of Art)
MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, USA.