Joseph Beuys The New Order: Kim Levin

Joseph Beuys, Düsseldorf Art Academy, 1973

Joseph Beuys, Düsseldorf Art Academy, 1973

"I am interested in transformation, change, revolution—transforming chaos, through movement, into a new order."—Joseph Beuys[1]

Joseph Beuys would probably have labeled his own death, of heart failure on January 23, 1986, as his last piece, a controversial cult figure—the ultimate artist-as-creator—he made the events of his life into his works of art, starting with his birth in 1921, which he claimed as his first performance. If Duchamp at the start of the century demonstrated that the most ordinary objects in the world could be art, Beuys insisted that art could also be the ordinary actions of life in the world. The art object for him was just a by-product, a relic.

With his grandly utopian ideology, his belief in creativity and the therapeutic potential of art, and his hopes for improving humankind, Beuys may have been the ultimate modem artist. But in shifting the terms from progress to survival, in dredging up the horrors of history as well as the errors of art history, his work not only ceased being modern but almost ceased to be art. Of the first-generation Postmodernists with social consciences, he was not only the most influential but the most extreme.

The Beuys retrospective is over. We have seen his disciples in red overalls, listened to his economic theories, watched his "participatory democracy" in action as he turned an audience of almost a thousand at Cooper Union into an intimate group-therapy session. We have been exposed to the objects, the utopian social ideology, and the superstar status of the former Luftwaffe pilot who called himself a "local boy”[2] and refused to bring his art to America until the Vietnam war ended. And we still don't know what side he's on. "The logical result of fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life," wrote Walter Benjamin. Does it follow that the politicization of art is its corollary, or is it an antidote?

The opening of the retrospective at the Guggenheim in November 1979 was an elaborate media production, with lights, microphones, cameras, cordoned-off walkways for filming. German television crews were everywhere. The spectators lined the spiral ramp, looking not at the art but over the edge, a little like an audience at an opera, waiting for the Walkure, or like the layers of cherubs in the spiraling clouds of a Baroque German church ceiling, waiting for some holy ascension. The transformation of Frank Lloyd Wright's structure into the chance metaphor of an anachronistic gemutlich German past was the first clue.

Joseph Beuys himself was at the bottom, in the middle of the maelstrom, the image of the survivor—skeletal, pale, and hollow-cheeked, wearing his famous hat and his lifesaver vest. By now we have been told countless times how his materials relate to his wartime trauma of being shot down, left for dead in the snow, and rescued by Tartars, who wrapped him in fat and in felt to warm him. But we hadn't been warned that his oeuvre is about not only lifesaving but death.

His work reenacts over and over again that experience of survival, with its fat and felt, its red crosses and ambulance sleds and references to heat and cold, its tubings and membranes and intimations of broken bodies. Joseph Beuys is the good German: he redeems all of Germany with his suffering transformed into art, and his affirmations of the value of all life. In other words, he is great propaganda, he is good for a guilty conscience. Which explains the German government funding, the German media attention, the official approval of his eccentric acts.

He is also quintessentially Germanic. If he looks as if he stepped out of a medieval altarpiece and as though he came back from the dead, his work—heavy, somber, haunted by private demons—is suffocating, stifling, disturbing. His art wallows in morbidity. It resonates with the dark Romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich or Richard Wagner, the agonized torments of German Expressionism, the alienated despair of the Weimar Republic. It is powerful, personal, and painful—an exorcism of secret horrors, a therapeutic act—and it exudes a Teutonic cruelty. There is something slightly maniacal in its continual reliving of that extreme experience of being saved from death. There is also something elemental about the human condition, which we'd rather not confront. And there is a specific symbolism, of which we have been ignorant.

Ten years ago and more, Beuys was an underground name in the American art world, and a hero to art students. His reputation preceded him to this country. When we saw bits and pieces of his work—a felt suit, a silver broom, a blackboard with scrawls—we related it to Oldenburg, to Pop Art. When we heard of his use of fat, we thought of our own post-Minimal involvements at the time in nonart materials and informal structure. When he came to New York in 1974 and talked to a coyote in a gallery, we interpreted it in terms of our own performance art. The parallels were misleading. In our literal climate, we never suspected that he was a symbolist, an expressionist, a mystical romanticist. It was our mistake.

Beuys made of his retrospective at the Guggenheim a new art-work: a series of twenty-four Stations on a spiral path. The little birth tub, bandaged and tubed and full of pain, is Station 1, as if to proclaim that the artist's life is the art and the net itself is only a prop—and most of it is: relics of past actions. For Beuys has taken on a suffering-savior image, not only in the work itself but by referring to the Stations of the Cross, by the cross he attaches to his signature, by the red crosses affixed to his felt, and by his ritualized presence. For him, life is a matter of coming back from the dead, and art is a way to heal the wounds of society.

But his art is more than religious: it is political. And its political content is specific. While reviewers of the retrospective commented broadly that his work moves into the realm of political and social life, and while they related the story of his wartime adventures as a Luftwaffe pilot, they sidestepped the question of that historical back-ground by using his words—"everyone went to church and everyone went to Hitler Youth"—as if to prove that saintliness triumphed. But his politics and his art have to do not only with an idealistic vision of the creative future but with unforgettable memories of a destructive past. Speaking of the late 1940s and his postwar impulses to become an artist, Beuys has said: 'The whole thing is a therapeutic process. For me it was a time when I realized the part the artist can play in indicating the traumas of a time and initiating a healing process.”[3]

His belief in the therapeutic powers of art—art as medicine—leads to strange certainties. He calls his art "dutiful." He asks, on a video documentary, 'Is my thinking the right thinking or is it false'" He speaks of "social sculpture," of "shaping a new world," of creating "a society of living beings." But the society he comes out of is not the bourgeoisie but a world of stolid righteous burghers who never came to terms with being on the wrong side of a monstrous war. And by displaying his work as the remains of past horrors, by creating images of suffering and death—hares hearts and skulls, crosses with stop-watches, a bandaged knife, a kneecap—he is attempting to purify the past. By making toenail clippings, molds of teeth, back braces, charred sausages, and stained gauze into art, he's exorcising his own and his country's collective guilt. Ambivalent images of putrefaction remain.

Station 1 was the tub: wash it clean. Station 23, down in the rotunda, was five mammoth slabs of fat, white as icebergs, hooked up to wires and transformers and a digital thermometer: twenty tons of tallow having its temperature taken every day, collapsing from within, and necessitating that the museum be kept frigid, as a mute, shivering guard informed me, showing a thermal undershirt beneath his uniform. Twenty tons of tallow like a sick patient, a living dying thing, losing its heat like Beuys himself buried in the snow and left for dead. But it is more than autobiographical. Although we are informed that its form was cast from a useless architectural space under the ramp at a German university and is a comment on urban planning and social malaise, its allusions to the millions of people melted down in concentration camps is inescapable, particularly in view of the fact that also in the exhibition is a small work in a vitrine called Auschwitz, which is simply a two-burner hot plate with a chunk of fat on each burner.

There is a secret narrative in the work of Beuys, of which no one dares speak. Autobiography is by now an acceptable content for art; the atrocities of Nazi Germany are not. But with a little effort, the Stations—which are neither chronological nor exhibited in numerical order—are decipherable in terms of what is now euphemistically called the Holocaust. Station 22, Tram Stop, is an iron track alongside a rusty cannon. Besides the purely autobiographical childhood memories mentioned in the catalogue, Tram Stop—with a head protruding from the end of the cannon—suggests the end of the line at the concentration camps. Unraveling this hidden narrative backward, Station 21, Hearth II, is a large pile of felt suits: the clothing the victims stripped off. And although Station 23, Tallow, seems the culmination of the show, there is also Station 24, Honey Pump, with its tubes full of honey, vats of honey and fat, and generators. Beuys calls the Honey Pump "the bloodstream of society" and says it is "only complete with people." In its metaphor of regenerated energies and transformation, there is a curious echo of Nazi concepts of the New Man. Hitler, who also saw himself as a messiah, spoke of "the blood-stream of our people”[4] and thought he was restoring his people to "racial health." It makes us look at the iconography of Beuys in a new light: a suffering bathtub may be referring less to Duchamp's urinal than to the gas showers.[5]

The content of his work includes not just the atrocities but the ideologies of the Nazi past. For in the progression of stations along the way of Beuys the suffering godlike artist—the post-Minimal savior of human content who sees himself as shepherd of living things—there is a political program calling for the transformation of the human race. The Christian allusions are a decoy. Beuys's doctrines as well as his objects can be seen as conscious parody, critical revision, or ambivalent refection of early exposure to Nazi teachings. He himself has laid hints for such a reading, stating that "the human condition is Auschwitz," and proposing, on the twentieth anniversary of the attempt to assassinate Hitler, to raise the Berlin Wall by five centimeters.[6] His art is indicating the specific traumas of a specific time, and it is doing so by subtle mimicry.

His references to Celtic and Nordic mythology recall the idea of Aryan ancestors, his use of Tibetan symbolism relates to the belief that the original Aryans came from Tibet; his insistence on the atavistic and irrational restores elements exploited by the Nazis and discredited after the war. His Siberian Symphony and Eurasian Staff, performance pieces referring to the continuous landmass of Europe and Asia, relate to Nazi desires for expansion to the east. Beuys mentions, in passing, a "Rosicrucian intention" in Siberian Symphony, and this may be more than a reference to an occultist red cross: the Vril society, a mystical pre-Nazi group in Germany, had been inspired by Rosicrucian ideas in a novel, The Coming Race, by Bulwer-Lytton.[7] Beuys has a concept of Lebensgefuhl,[8] or "living-feeling," which calls to mind the Nazi cries for Lebensraum, playing the need for mental room against the old desire for physical space and "race-feeling." The divided crosses and modified crucifixes that he makes carry memories of the hooked cross that was the swastika. Even his use of scattered rods and an ax in his art may be symbolic:[9] the word "fascism" derives from the Roman fasces, a bundle of rods (originally sheaves of wheat) bound around an ax. Beuys's political activities in the name of "social sculpture"—the fact that he founded his own political party, the "Greens," that he was dismissed from the Düsseldorf Academy on grounds of "demagoguery," that he launched his own Free University and formed an Organization for Direct Democracy, working within and outside the political system, running for office and becoming a folk hero in the process—compound the curious connections.

An unlikely parallel can be drawn between Hitler, who wanted to be an artist, and Beuys, who claims the creation of a political party as his greatest artwork. Hitler came out of World War I with the ambition of restoring order to a people: Beuys came out of World War II wanting to restore order to humankind. Perhaps "parallel" is the wrong word. The similarity is more like a parallax: Beuys, subtly appropriating the symbols and catchphrases of an odious ideology, shifts the direction, alters the meaning, and by a corrective change in observational position, provides a new line of sight. If Hitler sometimes looked comic, Beuys, who has been described as 'between clown and gangster," seems to be reenacting history.[10] The performances of both have been described as "mesmerizing," but history, repeating itself as art, is transformed from tragedy to farce, which may be the therapeutic process of which Beuys speaks.

His iconography is elusive as well as ambivalent. For example, in Beuys's deceptively Dada-like score for 24 hours . . . and in us . . . under us . .. landunder, a Fluxus action that has been explained as being about the development of expanded perceptions of space and time, and during which Beuys listened to wedges of fat, the words "chief of the stagleaders" appear in proximity to "warmtime machine." 24 hours is about more than a potential mystical physics of the future going beyond Einstein and Planck: it is full of references to the war-time past, and the enigmatic term "stagleader" may well be one of them. Besides the obvious reference to the animal that, according to Beuys, "appears in times of distress or danger," "stagleader" could be a bilingual pun on the Reichstag, the German parliament responsible for giving Hitler power when Beuys was twelve years old. Beuys, who speaks English as well as German, could easily pun between his two languages the way Duchamp did.

Also in that same score, along with an "energy plan" that includes ominous instructions for operating an oven, Beuys mentions "the great Khan." Genghis Khan is a name that recurs elsewhere in the work of Beuys, and this, too, is probably a reference to Hitler: In 1932 Hitler was being called "a raw-vegetable Genghis Khan.[11] And when Beuys writes that "the formulae of Planck and Einstein urgently need expanding," he may be referring to the fact that Hitler discredited those scientists.

Later in the score for 24 hours, which Beuys performed during the twenty-four hours preceding the anniversary of D-day, there is a passage about warmth and cold and "life after death," in which the cryptic message "PAN XXX" occurs. Just as "SOS" is a distress signal, "PAN" and "XXX" are the international urgency signals, indicating an urgent message about the safety of an aircraft or a pilot. Beuys was trained as a radio operator before becoming a pilot, and besides those cryptic signals hidden in a written score, his work is full of references to batteries, antennae, transformers, radio equipment. "I am a transmitter, I radiate," he has said. His objects for transmitting energies, his materials that carry current—copper, lead, zinc—and others that insulate sound, his acts of listening to fat, and the acoustics of his actions, all relate to his wartime activities.[12]

We knew about his fat and his hat, but we didn't know about the quasi-mystical private meanings of his materials and actions or their mock.historical political symbolism. We never imagined that his work contained ideas about "generators," or that it was based on his "Principles of the Insulator," as the catalogue informs us. Beuys has a theory of sculpture that rivals Wolffiin's in complexity, and an obsession with heat and cold that is not just autobiographical—as the catalogue would have as believe—but is strongly reminiscent of the doctrine of a mystical German scientist named Hans Horbiger. Horbiger's theory of the frozen world (Welteislehre: the doctrine of eternal ice) became a widespread belief in Germany in the late 1920s and the '30s.[13] His doctrine that ice was the elemental matter of the universe—that moon, planets, and Milky Way were made of ice—was promoted with newspaper announcements, wall posters, and pamphlets delivered by volunteers from Hitler Youth. As a child interested in natural science, Beuys must have come in contact with Horbiger's ideas that transformations in the state of water (liquid, ice, steam) fueled the universe. Beuys substitutes warmth as an antidote for cold and speaks of changes in the state of fat, but his ideas of transformation and of magical relations between man and the cosmos are oddly similar.

"It is impossible to understand Hitler's political plans unless one is familiar with his basic beliefs and his conviction that there is magic relationship between Man and the Universe," wrote Rauscnhning in 1939.[14] Hitler, in the aftermath of the chaos of the Weimar Republic, promised a "moral rebirth" and spoke of a superior future race and the regeneration of the German people. "The doctrine of eternal ice will be a sign of the regeneration of the German people," wrote Horbiger in 1925.[15] "I believe the ailing earth must be regenerated, and I believe man most be regenerated," said Beuys recently.[16]

Buried somewhere in the depths of Beuys's self-created image are echoes of those Nazi beliefs that the way was being prepared for a higher being, a superior species—a godlike superman who could conmmand the elements. When Beuys speaks of the transformation of humankind and of the necessity to create a higher level of consciousness, to shape a new world and prepare "new soil," he echoes the idea of the Volk—the "folk," the essence of the German people—a romanticized concept of the healthy peasant and the native soil that was popular in the 1920s and 30s.[17] Hitler promised Volkswagens to the people; Beuys brings a Volkswagen bus to the Guggenheim and brings the basic idea of German nationalism to all humankind. He speaks of "the social body as a living entity" and of working "with organic prototypes." He talks about money as the cause of social oppression, calling people "the real capital." His intention: healing chaos.

Hitler, too, talked of money as evil and felt he could mold a better race, and he, too, believed in education. 'The entire work of education is branding the race feeling into the hearts and brains of youth," he said. Education in Germany, in the time of Beuys's adolescence, served the state, and learning was dominated by Nazi ideologies. Beuys may have rescued a book from the fire, but he could not have escaped the teachings of that time. If the iconography of his artwork deliberately indicates the traumas of the past, the rhetoric of his own teaching may echo that past less consciously, or it may be a deliberate corrective process. Instead of molding a master race, Beuys wants to make everyone an artist. Substituting internationalism for nationalism, creativity for destruction, humankind for the Volk, "living-feeling" for "race-feeling," Green for Brown, and warmth for cold, Beuys may be modifying Hitler's ideas, correcting his errors.

Beuys presents himself as the New Man, teacher and savior of society, and exhibits his work as relics of himself. He even generates the adulation and the hostility saviors incur: he is accused of being a fraud, the dates of his work are suspect, his grand political pronouncements are greeted with derision as well as awe. His retrospective was viewed in New York with a mixture of fascination and distaste. Spectators reacted with nausea or headaches, with strong visceral responses, and didn't know why.

I don't mean to imply that Beuys is a Fascist, or that his art is neo-Nazi, but wish to suggest that there is another level of meaning in his persona and his work beyond the purely autobiographical and behind his idealistic visions of future society. And that this cultural, political, historical iconography and rhetoric relate—intentionally and, I think, sometimes unintentionally—to discredited embarrassing beliefs in the German past that for thirty-five years have been unmentionable.[18] It is time someone exhumed and examined these skeletons in the German closet, and that is what Beuys is doing. "Similia similibus curantur: heal like with like," Beuys has said more than once. 'That is the homeopathic healing process." His art mimics the symptoms, echoes the causes of the trauma; his intention is therapeutic. The effect is harder to assess. Like may cure like, but likeness can also be mistaken for emulation. And homeopathic remedies—wolfsbane for fever, arsenic for ptomaine—work only in small doses. Otherwise they can cause the symptoms they are meant to cure.

Although rumors of his activities were reaching us in the '60s, and his actions—incompletely understood—may have instigated some of our own,. Beuys was speaking to a different culture, was coming from a different past. We may have made use of his eccentric materiality, but we never knew his intentions. He has stated that "art is a pill," and by referring to vanquished Nazi beliefs and their results in the fictional guise of art, it may be an antidote to German postwar traumas. But as we suffer from different symptoms, it may be too bitter a pill for us to swallow.


1   Quoted by Gerald Marzorati, "Beuys Will Be Beuys," SoHo Weekly News, November 1, 1979.

2   His comment about being a "local boy" is apt. In Ireland he sandwiched peat brickettes with Irish butter and Welsh coal. In the U.S. he chose a coyote and the Wall Street Journal as materials. The retrospective, however, emphasised the predominantly Germanic content of his work.

3   Unless otherwise indicated, Beuys is quoted either from the Guggenheim Museum catalogue by Carolyn Tisdall or from his remarks during the panel discussion at the Guggenheim on January 2, 1980, or his Cooper Union dialogue with the audience, January 7, 1980.

4   Hitler quotations are from Mein Kampf, translated by Ralph Manheim (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943). Beuys had earlier used hares blood in tubes in a 1960 piece called Horns. The emphasis on blood recalls Bismarck's "blood and iron," which by the 1920s had been transformed into the mystical Volkist doctrine of 'blood and soil," as well as Hitler's "Law for the Protection of German Blood." Honey Pump, with its metaphor of heart and arteries, is a relic of Beuys's hundred days of social workshops at Documenta 6.

5   The tub could also be an allusion to an event that took place in Germany shortly after Beuys's birth. When Hitler was sentenced to imprisonment after the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, "several [women] requested permission to bathe in Hitler's tub. The request was denied," according to John Toland in Hitler: The Pictorial Documentary of His life (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1978).

6   Besides this proposal, which commemorates a wartime anniversary, there may be other significant but unacknowledged commemorative dates in Beuys's oeuvre, which might be obvious to a German audience. For example, it would seem to be more than coincidence that in 1967 Beuys founded the German Student Party on June 22. June 22 was the date on which, in 1941, Germany's ill-fated invasion of Russia began. And it may be significant that his 24 hours . . . and in no . . . under no . . . landunder, an "action" full of hidden wartime references, ended at midnight on June 5, 1965: D-day was June 6. Or that on October 14—the date on which Hitler was wounded in 1918 in World War I and hospitalized, and on which in 1933 Hitler announced Germany's withdrawal from the League of Nations—Beuys performed Eurasia, 34th Section of the Siberian Symphony in 1966 and Vacuum-Mass in 1968.

7   Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, The Morning of the Magicians, Part II (New York: Avon Books, 1968).

8   Beuys's concept of Lebensgefahl is mentioned by his former student Johannes Stuettgen in -The Warhol-Beuys Event" (three chapters from a forthcoming book), published in Xerox by the Free International University in 1979. He translates the German word as "a conscious feeling of living."

9   The ax appears most notably in This is my axe and this is the axe of my mother, in 1967. About this action, Beuys says: "Implied are the mysteries of blood lines, families, races and what is passed on through history." The rods appear in several pieces. They surround the pile of felt suits in Station 21, Hearth II. The history of this piece further clarifies the hidden narrative. The catalogue tells us the hearth idea first appeared in 1956, as a small fire warming Genghis Khan's Cradle and that Hearth II was carried through the streets during the Carnival in Basel in 1978. A photograph shows a procession of men dressed in the felt suits, carrying the rods and wearing pig's-head masks. They are marching alongside pallbearers carrying a large object in the shape of an upside-down fireplace or tombstone, which appears to be painted with flamelike forms and is emblazoned with the title Feuerstatte 11. Feuerstatte translates more literally as a sacrificial fireplace or fire-spot than as "hearth." "The rods were later clamped into bundles," Beuys informs an in the catalogue.

10   Even his hat may have something to do with childhood memories of Hitler, who in photographs from the 1920s was almost always wearing or carrying a fedora. John Toland in Adolf Hitler (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1976) quotes Eva Braun's recollection of meeting Hitler in 1929: "a man with a funny mustache, a light-colored English-style overcoat and a big felt hat in his hand."

11   Friedrich F. P. Reck-Malleczewen, Diary of a Man in Despair (New York: Collier Books, 1970).

12   According to Brian Johnson in The Secret War (London: BBC, 1978), the long radar aerials on some German fighter planes were "known as 'Hirsch-geweih'—stag's antlers—to the German crews.""Action," the term chosen by Beuys for his performance events, was also a term used by the Nazi military in reporting on the roundup and liquidation of "undesirables." As for Beuys's choice of the defenseless hare as an emblematic animal, it counters Hitler's identification with the predatory wolf (he called his hideaway "Wolf's Lair," he named his dog Wolf).

13   Pauwels and Bergier, op. cit.

14   Hermann Rauschning, The Revolution of Nihilism: Warning to the West (New York: 1939).

15   In a letter delivered to the scientists of Germany and Austria in the summer of 1925. "While Hitler is cleaning up politics, Hans Horbiger will sweep out of the way the bogus sciences," the letter stated. Hitler supported Horbiger's theory and called it Nordic science, and his inexplicable Russian winter campaign—in which Beuys was wounded and thousands of German soldiers were frozen to death—has been explained by Bergier and Pauwels as the result of Hitler's conviction that he had formed an alliance with ice and could conquer the cold. This Nordic science may also account for the large number of "freezing experiments" among the medical experiments carried out on concentration camp inmates, as described by William L Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960).

16   Quoted by Marzorati, op. cit.

17   "The Germans were in search of a mysterious wholeness that would restore them to primeval happiness, destroying the hostile milieu of urban industrial civilization," according to Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945 (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1975).

18   The subject is still taboo, in the U.S. perhaps even more than in Europe. At his Cooper Union dialogue with the audience on January 7, 1980, when someone in the audience asked Beuys about the Nazi past, the auditorium erupted with hisses and shouts, and the subject was quickly changed.

19   Robert Morris's use of felt is an often mentioned example. Morris was familiar with the work of Beuys through Fluxus. In December 1964 Beuys did a Fluxus performance in Berlin that was done simultaneously by Morris in New York. Eva Hesse, who spent 1964-65 in Germany, also must have known Beuys's work, and her own imagery of human fragility is at times reminiscent of his. It is also possible that Beuys was in turn influenced by American artists. His piled squares of felt and copper, the earliest dating from 1969, may reflect the work of Carl Andre. His Vitus Agnus Castus, performed in June 1972, in which Beuys lay on the floor symbolically rubbing a piece of copper for several hours, with the herb that is a homeopathic remedy for excessive sexual desire fastened to his hat, may have been a response to Vito Auonci's masturbatory Seedbed of January 1972.