Joseph Beuys was the original of the daft, cod-political art world we now know so well. But he did it first, and best, and silliness has not diminished his importanceby Ben Lewis / May 21, 2005 / Leave a comment
I remember the day Joseph Beuys died the way my mother remembers Elvis’s passing. It was a winter’s day in 1986, and I was an amateur performance artist. I felt art would never be the same again. Shortly thereafter I performed a work in tribute, entitled No Replacement for Beuys, in which I donned a grey polyester suit, splashed it liberally with fake blood and then wrapped myself in bandages. The performance ended when I deliberately threw myself off the edge of the stage and hurt my knees. Little did I know then that my terrible aktion was simply one of countless works which would debase the artistic language of Beuys, the saint, if ever there was one, in the canon of modernism.
Beuys (1921-86) was Europe’s Warhol, a giant, one-man art factory, whose career extended from the 1950s to the 1980s. But Joseph was the opposite of Andy: instead of embracing consumer culture and industrial production, Beuys tried to rescue us from it. Instead of posing as an amoral businessman, he posed as a new messiah—and from the 1960s to the 1990s, most curators and critics of note were blind disciples.
Beuys was initially loosely allied to a late 1950s/early 1960s art movement known as Fluxus, whose members thought art should be left-wing and made from inexpensive materials, but Beuys’s wayward blend of new age spiritualism and grand artistic ambition soon set him apart. Cobbling together anthroposophy and Marxism, he gave lectures about his beliefs, wearing a hunting jacket and a dented cowboy hat. To explain himself, he scribbled pseudo-scientific diagrams and equations on blackboards (most famously, “Art=Capital”). Afterwards, the boards were sprayed with fixative and sold for large sums to collectors. Beuys saw his teaching as works of art, and saw his works of art as political actions—he coined a phrase for it, “social sculpture,” founded a movement called the Organisation for Direct Democracy, planted oaks and campaigned for the German Green party. We all know his most famous aphorism—”Everyone is an artist”—but not all of us know where it comes from. Nowadays most artists scale down this utopian hyperbole. Now that modernism is over, and as Tate Modern’s Beuys exhibition draws to a close, it is worth asking how his reputation has fared.
The Tate’s show ends with Economic Values (1980), an installation in which Beuys exhibited old packets and jars of food from communist East…