What can art be? Can a lecture or a public discussion be art? The 20th century has taught us that almost everything can be used as art. The photographs that record the teaching and discussion practices of Joseph Beuys force us to think about the borders of art.
Joseph Beuys lecturing in Achberg, Germany 1978 (Photo by Rainer Rappmann, CC: BY-SA 3.0)
We are also compelled to ask “what does it mean?” and even “why is it art at all?” Does it mean that everyone can be an artist? Can everything be art?According to Beuys, “everyone is an artist.” But to grasp the full meaning of this statement, one must look closely at the context of Beuys’ thought, which represents a general framework in which particular artwork appears.
For Beuys, there should be no clear demarcation between art and life. Human life means life in a community, with other people. Therefore, artistic activities (should) have a direct social impact. Beuys does not have in mind any kind of “applied arts” in service of a society, nor does he speak simply of “making society better.” He sees rather a metaphysical significance of human creative capacities and, consequently, art. Each human being has a creative potential in Beuys’ eyes. This potential is to be realized in communion with others. So the particular activities of individuals do matter but gain full meaning only if they lead to building a new society based on solidarity, creativity and freedom. In such a communion, man can reach his/her real identity, not only as a social atom, but as a person. This is the reason that Beuys perceives society as the greatest work of art, a “total work of art” (Gesamtkunstwerk).
This is what Beuys called the “social sculpture” (Soziale Plastik). This concept should not be understood in terms of aesthetics. “Social sculpture” does not mean that a society should adopt the aesthetic properties of, let’s say, sculpture, in order to become a total work of art. On the contrary, it is insistence on the very human capacity of freedom and creativity that should form the new society. In such a society, human beings will not just live “better” but will come to a broader exercising of their own humanity. In this sense, they will not only live a better life; they will also be able to be in a more fundamental sense. Here we see what the phrase “every man is an artist” (Jeder Mensch ist ein Kuenstler) really means.
Beuys did not think that each human being should paint or produce particular things we call “art.” He rather sees creativity as a universal human capacity which enables man to be what he/she really is. Thus one’s existence becomes the same as artistic creation. The form of this creation is not of particular importance. This is the reason why Beuys can teach, give public lectures, or engage in political action and consider these activities “art.”
Another aspect of the idea of the “social sculpture” consists in Beuys’ critique of the modern society not only as an extremely rationalized but also as a highly individualized one. His understanding of the society as a “sculpture” is based on the concept of community in which people are tied by personal relations not by laws or any force.
In his work Feet Washing (1971), Beuys is performing an action which reminds us of a famous story from the Gospel. It is the story when Christ washed the feet of his disciples showing his humility and demonstrating the principle “let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.”
Joseph Beuys, Celtic + ~~~~, 1 of 13 parts, 1971, silver gelatin print, 19 3/4 x 15 3/4 in. (Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, Kansas)
In this action, Beuys represents Christ himself, giving a lecture on modesty and service instead of dominance. The action also shows one of the principal Christian virtues—rejection of individuality and selfishness in order to make room for God in human souls. In this example, we can see the impact of Christianity on the formation of Beuys’ artistic concepts, not only as a symbol or illustration of Biblical stories but to which connect the artist’s work with his understanding of the Christian tradition. These relations touch on some of Beuys’s basic ideas on the world and art.
Beuys speaks of “the essence of Christ” (das Wesen des Christus) suggesting that every human being must be, potentially at least, “a kind of Christ.” Stressing creativity and freedom as fundamental values, Beuys sought a means to build a new society in which “every man is an artist.”