Notes for Discussion

"The whole question of potential, the possibility that everybody has now to do his own particular kind of art, his own work, for the new social organization. Creativity is national income." – Joseph Beuys

Joseph Beuys was born in 1921 in Krefeld, a city in northwestern Germany near the Dutch border. In 1940 he joined the military, volunteering in order to avoid the draft. He was trained as an aircraft radio operator and combat pilot, and during his years of active duty he was seriously wounded numerous times. At the end of the war he was held in a British prisoner-of-war camp for several months, and returned to Kleve in 1945.

Coming to terms with his involvement in the war was a long process and figures, at least obliquely, in much of his artwork. Beuys often said that his interest in fat and felt as sculptural materials grew out of a wartime experience--a plane crash in the Crimea, after which he was rescued by nomadic Tartars who rubbed him with fat and wrapped him in felt to heal and warm his body. While the story appears to have little grounding in real events (Beuys himself downplayed its importance in a 1980 interview), its poetics are strong enough to have made the story one of the most enduring aspects of his mythic biography.

During the early 1960s, Düsseldorf developed into an important center for contemporary art and Beuys became acquainted with the experimental work of artists such as Nam June Paik and the Fluxus group, whose public "concerts" brought a new fluidity to the boundaries between literature, music, visual art, performance, and everyday life. Their ideas were a catalyst for Beuys' own performances, which he called "actions," and his evolving ideas about how art could play a wider role in society. He began to publicly exhibit his large-scale sculptures, small objects, drawings, and room installations. He also created numerous actions and began making editioned objects and prints called multiples.

As the decades advanced, his commitment to political reform increased and he was involved in the founding of several activist groups: in 1967, the German Student Party, whose platform included worldwide disarmament and educational reform; in 1970, the Organization for Direct Democracy by Referendum, which proposed increased political power for individuals; and in 1972, the Free International University, which emphasized the creative potential in all human beings and advocated cross-pollination of ideas across disciplines. In 1979 he was one of 500 founding members of the Green Party.

His charismatic presence, his urgent and public calls for reform of all kinds, and his unconventional artistic style (incorporating ritualized movement and sound, and materials such as fat, felt, earth, honey, blood, and even dead animals) gained him international notoriety during these decades, but it also cost him his job. Beuys was dismissed in 1972 from his teaching position over his insistence that admission to the art school be open to anyone who wished to study there.

While he counted debate, discussion, and teaching as part of his expanded definition of art, Beuys also continued to make objects, installations, multiples, and performances. His reputation in the international art world solidified after a 1979 retrospective at New York's Guggenheim Museum, and he lived the last years of his life at a hectic pace, participating in dozens of exhibitions and traveling widely on behalf of his organizations. Beuys died in 1986 in Düsseldorf. In the subsequent decade his students have carried on his campaign for change, and his ideas and artwork have continued to spark lively debate.

The bridge between the earthly and spiritual realms is represented in Beuys' work more often by animals, which he thought of as "figures that pass freely from one level of existence to another." In many cultures animals are guardian spirits for shamans, companions on their celestial journeys. Beuys often used animals in his actions, bringing them along, so to speak, on his own journeys. He carried a dead hare in several early performances, shared the stage with a spectral white horse in the action Titus/Iphigenia (1969), and most famously, spent a week in a gallery space with a coyote in I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), an action described as a "dialogue" with the animal. All of these performances suggest the shaman's special affinity with animals: he can understand their language, share their particular abilities, even transform himself into one of them.

Readings from Energy for the Western Man, Joseph Beuys

"These signs of freedom, and this declaration of art, which are related to a principle: the possibility to mold the world, to design the world, to sculpture the world, are not restricted to the prob lems of the artist. There is an anthropological determination of everybody's existence to be an artist in the society."

According to Beuys, everyone is an artist in this redefinition of the artist, in which to empower oneself is to become an artist, and to take this power into the social, economic, and political spheres.

But in enlarging this understanding of art, we are in the process of the totalization of the idea of art," that is, embracing its intermedial possibilities, in relation to life and those things which are outside of the realm of art.

But the most important thing is to organize, and now appears the idea of organization as the idea of sculpture, as the idea of design, as the idea of molding and sculpturing the society." This describes the notion of collective agency, the ability of the individual to coalesce with others and take this collectivity out into the world where it can effect change.

Beuys inspired new sculptural forms that took into account the social relations among individuals, in an effort to bring about new social systems and transformation through artistic processes. He defined this new sculptural form as Social Sculpture, "how we mold and shape the world in which we live: Sculpture as an evolutionary process; everyone an artist."

Beuys expanded the notion of the artist through new forms of engagement with the audience. This took the form of performances or actions, installations, and large-scale environment projects such as 7000 Oaks at Documenta 7 in 1983. He felt that art is more than the process of creating objects, but that art must be connected to lives of individuals and communities, a social force for change. He believed in the power of creativity as a spiritual force of transformation, in which art served as the catalyst for new egalitarian and democratic structures. In this sense, Beuys work was highly political, believing that through art and its processes that artist can be involved in encouraging higher forms of social relations. "Only on condition of a radical widening of definition 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 deathline: to dismantle in order to build A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART.

These ideas grew out of the action art of Fluxus and the Happenings, the work of such artists as John Cage, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins, Alan Kaprow, and others. The collective nature of these performance works provided the foundation for new forms of art that drew from audience participation, the use of material drawn from everyday life, and the intermedial relations art and life, forming the interdisciplinarity of his approach. Drawing from these techniques, he focused his thinking on the transformation of the individual in the social sphere. Later, media artists, software programmers, and theorists such as Roy Ascott, Pavel Curtis, Peter Weibel, and Pierre Lévy have explored the new media of telematics as a vehicle for artistic expression, social interaction and collective experience.

Beuys viewed the artistic process as a means to empower the individual, to promote "self-determination and participation in the cultural sphere (freedom); in the structuring of laws (democracy); and in the sphere of economics (socialism). Self-administration and decentralization (threefold structure) occurs: FREE DEMOCRATIC SOCIALISM." Teaching represented a means for change and the dissemination of democratic principles, as he embraced the idea of the free university. Within academic structures he proposed and implemented initiatives and organizations such as THE ORGANIZATION FOR DIRECT DEMOCRACY THROUGH REFERENDUM.

Actions and Performance

Joseph Beuys viewed performance art as a medium with the potential for self healing and social transformation. He believed that by enacting self-invented rituals, he could assume the role of a modern-day shaman and affect the world around him. His performances, or "actions," utilized elements of the absurd and contained layers of meanings and symbols. But even within a seemingly chaotic environment, Beuys attempted to create an atmosphere for his viewer that would unite the intuitive, passionate soul with the intellectual mind, and thus prepare the individual for a spiritual evolution.

Beuys was introduced to performance art in 1962 when he encountered Fluxus, a nonconformist international group of artists who sought to upset bourgeois perceptions of art and life. Fluxus included fellow artists George Maciunas, Nam June Paik, John Cage, George Brecht, Robert Filliou, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Yoko Ono, Ben Patterson, Daniel Spoerri, Wolf Vostell, and Emmett Williams. According to Erwin Heerich, a friend of Beuys, "The contact with Fluxus endowed the issue of art and life, in Beuys' mind, with a radically different significance. In Fluxus he recognized a vital current that released new impulses in himself--and here the other side of Beuys emerged, his powerful sensitivity to, and talent for, the public arena and the media."

In 1977, Documenta 6 featured the first live international satellite telecast by artists. Performances by Nam June Paik, German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, and Douglas Davis were transmitted to over twenty-five countries. Paik and Charlotte Moorman are seen live from Kassel in Fluxus-inspired collaborative performances, including TV Bra, TV Cello, and TV Bed. They fuse music, performance, video and television in an homage to global communications. Also from Kassel, Joseph Beuys presents a direct address to the public, elaborating on his utopian theories of art as "social sculpture," which were crucial to his conceptual project. From Caracas, Venezuela, Davis performs The Last Nine Minutes, a participatory piece in which he addresses the time/space distance between himself and the television viewing audience.

Social Sculpture

7000 Oaks, Documenta 7, 1982

My point with these seven thousand trees was that each would be a monument, consisting of a living part, the live tree, changing all the time, and a crystalline mass, maintaining its shape, size, and weight. This stone can be transformed only by taking from it, when a piece splinters off, say, never by growing. By placing these two objects side by side, the proportionality of the monument's two parts will never be the same.

So now we have six- and seven-year-old oaks, and the stone dominates them. In a few years' time, stone and tree will be in balance, and in twenty to thirty years' time we may see that gradually, the stone has become an adjunct at the foot of the oak or whatever tree it may be. - Joseph Beuys

One of his projects, perhaps the grandest in scope, was 7000 Oaks. Begun in 1982, this ambitious project became a five-year effort in which he and others planted 7,000 trees of various types throughout the city of Kassel in Germany, each with an accompanying basalt stele as a marker. The solid stone form beside the ever-changing tree symbolically represents a basic concept in Beuys' philosophy, that these two natural and yet oppositional qualities are complementary and coexist harmoniously. Local community councils, associations, and citizens' initiatives determined where the trees would be planted. The organization of this project resulted in a series of conversations among participants concerning a wide range of issues, from its impact on city planning to its meaning for future generations. Completed in 1987 by his son, Wenzel, on the first anniversary of his father's death, 7000 Oaks truly epitomizes Beuys' ideas about art and its ability to effect change in society.

The action continued over the next five years under the aegis of the Free International University, the diminishing pile of stones in front of the Fredericianum indicating the progress of the project. Planting in public spaces in the inner city was carried out on the basis of site proposals submitted by residents, neighborhood councils, schools, kindergartens, local associations, and others. The result, according to Norbert Scholtz, offered significant opportunities for "occupying and utilizing 'public' open space socially."

"Whilst in the old days they have been found in the districts of the Eifel, showing this most beautiful and organ pipe like clearness and can be discovered around there still today, but partly put under preservation by the national trust property meanwhile. However I haven't been too keen on those very fine and special organ pipes. Indeed it has been of much more importance to me having a material at disposal which is to find inside the landscape of Kassel and which on the other hand shows the characteristics of basalt. In whatever way, I made out the kind of basalt exhibiting a halfway crystalline and angular shape besides a certain amorphous tendency too. In order to have an imagination of the character of the columns, I should like to say: in some way it is as "Hoffmanns" rich-starch looks like, which is not produced anymore today. Its granules were kind of conical, angular, halfway crystalline and crooked-backed altogether at the same time. The stones accurately resemble the above mentioned laundry starch granules, as far as their particular shapes are concerned." - Joseph Beuys

All columns will be transported from the quarry near Kassel down to the core of the town to Documenta Art Center and stored there at the large field in front of the Fridericianum. In the very beginning already, the entire mass of stones, compared to the number of provided trees, expresses an image of the complete production. The imagination becomes perfect by comparing again the single constellation of the very first planted oak tree, accompanied by its column let into the soil, to the mountain of basalt blocks piled up opposite, on the border of Friedrichsplatz. While time goes by the proportion of the image will be modified on account of the three steps to come:

1. The planting process will continue for several years in Kassel. The amount of stones will diminish related to the number of the trees. Always one stone will be moved out of the depot for each tree to be planted. Everybody is given the possibility to persecute the process: the more the lot of laid down stones decreases, the more the number of planted trees increases.

2. Likewise a proportional displace occurs to the stones depot, rather gigantic in the beginning, compared with the small, slim and young oak tree opposite. The process will continue without interruption until the last column has been removed from the hoard and nothing remains, but the first planted tree and the stone at its side, standing alone, like in the beginning before the action was set about.

3. The circumstances of the prototype- tree and all other examples realized, are subject to an alteration process whilst their growth proceeds: more precisely spoken, as far as width and height of the stone is concerned they are not exposed to any change actually, but they will diminish optically compared to the growth of the tree. In the end the casting point is the motive power, which determines the permanence of the whole process. Movement and activity, entirely considered, point out instruction orders toward the New Age, bearing in mind already the many generations still to come."As far as the first 7000 trees are concerned, it has been of great importance to me to obtain the monumental character, obviously indeed through the fact, that each single monument is composed of two parties, the living being, the oak-tree, steadily altering due to the season of the year and the other one, the crystalline part, preserving its shape, quantity, height and weight. The one and only possible incident, able to evoke a change to the stone could be, for instance, by taking away a piece from it or if something splinters off, but never by means of coming up, like the tree does. Hence the two things are united, an always changing proportion happens between the two parties of the monument. For the present we should keep in mind, that the above mentioned trees do have an age of 6 or 7 years now, therefore the stone rather dominates at first. However as years go by, the balance between the stone and the tree will be achieved and after a course of time of about 20 or 30 years to come, perhaps we might notice and become aware of it, that the stone gradually and step by step becomes accessories to the evergreen, oak, or any other kind of tree." - Joseph Beuys

The Dia Art Foundation provided the initial financing for 7000 Oaks in Kassel.11 Now, as Dia Center for the Arts, it has continued the project in New York with the planting of several different kinds of trees, each aligned with a basalt stone, in front of its exhibition facility at 548 West 22nd Street. Further expansion will take place in 1995 with the siting of additional trees and steles on the north side of the street at Dia's new venue.

Political Activism

"CAPITAL is at present the work sustaining ability. Money is not an economic value though. The two genuine economic values involve the connection between ability (creativity) and product. That explains the formula presenting the expanded concept of art: ART=CAPITAL." -Joseph Beuys, 1985

Beuys' involvement in politics was far from traditional. According to him, art is the primary factor governing our existence and our actions. Politics is art in this sense as well, not as the "art of the possible," but of the freeing of all creative forces. Beuys didn't have time for democratic compromise, yet wanted to break through the limitations to establish a kind of primeval democracy. His goal was the restructuring of society as a whole.

In 1967, the German Student Party, so named because every human being was considered a student, grew out of the public discussion circles that Beuys regularly held in his class at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. Together with Bazon Brock and Johannes Stüttgen, he defined objectives for the German Student Party to set his expanded concept of art into operation, which included such topics as self government of law-culture-economy, absolute disarmament, and the answer for life after death, among others. "Between birth and death, human beings have collective work to do on earth" was their declared sacred duty. In 1968, the party changed its name to Fluxus Zone West. The Organization of Nonvoters Free Referendum was later founded in 1970, and attracted some 200 members.

The basis for Beuys' expanded concept of art were the theories of anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner (1861ú1925) about a "threefold social organism." This organic structure of society draws parallels to the threefold human organism of head (center of nerve and sense activity), rhythmic system (breathing and circulation), and metabolism. Steiner's analysis examines three independent spheres of society: the cultural life (science, art, religion, the educational system, information), the rights life (legislative, executive, judiciary, state, and politics) and the economic life (production, distribution, and consumption of goods). He observed in 1919 that the current social order is dictated by economics, which is the cause for unlimited profit-seeking, permanent inflation, unjust distribution of wage and property, and the unequal position of the human being before the law. Only when each sphere is organized under its own principle--freedom, equality, solidarity--the healing of the social organism can occur.

In June 1971, Beuys founded the Organization for Direct Democracy through Referendum, and worked tirelessly using nearly all his exhibitions, actions, and lectures to propagate these radical ideas and programs. For example, on a busy street in Cologne he handed out shopping bags printed with his diagram of the organization, the multiple How the Dictatorship of the Parties Can Be Overcome (1971). In May 1972, he literally swept out the Karl-Marx-Platz in West Berlin after a Labor Day demonstration, collected the garbage in his printed plastic bags, and exhibited them in an art gallery while debating with tired demonstrators about freedom, democracy, and socialism. During this year Beuys also established his Information Office in the documenta 5 exhibition, where he debated issues with gallery visitors for 100 days. On the last day, he fought a Boxing Match for Direct Democracy.

In October 1972, after conflicts about the over-enrollment of 125 students in Beuys' classes, he was dismissed without notice from his teaching position at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, which was followed by an international wave of protests. (Beuys filed lawsuit, which he eventually won at the Federal Labor Court in 1978.)

The foundation of his own Free International College was on its way, yet not intended as a private teaching venue for Beuys himself. The primary objective was to reactivate the "life values" through a creative interchange on the basis of equality between teachers and learners. In February 1974, after his return from his first lecture tour through the United States entitled "Energy Plan for the Western Man," Beuys and poet Heinrich Böll announced the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research (FIU).

Beuys participated at documenta 6 in 1977 with the installation Honey Pump in the Workplace (1977), in which students in the FIU workshops were an integral part. Since this exhibition, the FIU has expanded as an international working collective. "Appeal for an Alternative," first published in the newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau in December 1978, was a lengthy manifesto that embodied the ideas, realizations, and demands that Beuys had debated over the years at the FIU and during the congresses at Achberg. He also used the text in several multiples.

In turn, this manifesto became a fundamental document for the Green Party, Germany's grassroots alternative to a political party, in consolidating certain vital social and ecological aspects of their platform. Beuys saw the Greens as a reservoir for grassroots initiatives. His slogan was "Unity in Diversity," in terms of a spirit of active tolerance. In 1980 Beuys headed the list for the Greens in the Bundestag elections for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, but he was not elected. The Greens later entered the parliament in 1983, and during the course of their establishment, Beuys was cast aside. With their focus on "political realism," neither Beuys' radicalism nor his depth were understood.

Undaunted in his efforts, in 1982 Beuys' and participants in the FIU started the action 7000 Oaks in Kassel for the documenta 7 exhibition. "Urban Afforestation Not Urban Administration" was his slogan. Although there was a storm of protest, it became a rather glorious success. Beuys had intended to go further with his land-healing efforts. He had planned a gigantic ecological project entitled Spülfelder Hamburg 1983/84, which involved the transformation of heavily polluted, flooded fields. Government refusal hindered the realization of this project.

Long before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Beuys spoke about his "Action Third Path" as a bridge beyond capitalism and communism that could bring solidarity to the economic life. With this "free democratic socialism," capital would be constantly neutralized in an organic circulation economy, where any surplus is returned to the cultural life.

Beuys' ideas for a new concept of economics were inspired by Wilhelm Schmundt (1898-1992), whom he had met and who had developed Steiner's ideas further. Beuys saw the concept of supply and demand precisely the other way round, in which the "demand" has to exist first, stated actively by the consumer, so that the "supply" can answer. According to Beuys, the inner needs of a human being should be met first through the "production of spiritual goods" in the form of ideas, art, and education. "We do not need all that we are meant to buy today to satisfy profit-based private capitalism." When these soul needs are satisfied, products of daily life could be very basic and simple, as can be seen in Beuys' studio and private home. Numerous multiples called Economic Value, which included basic groceries and other simple products manufactured in Eastern Europe, express this reduction to the essentials and provoke a "counter image."

"Art that can not shape society and therefore also can not penetrate the heart questions of society, [and] in the end influence the question of capital, is no art." -Joseph Beuys, 1985


Christo and Jeanne-Claude are artists working in a parallel vein to Joseph Beuys. Their large scale earthworks and environmental installations are deeply invested in the process of engaging individuals, communities, political organizations, government, etc., in the artistic process. Such works as Valley Curtain, which stretched across a large canyon in Colorado, and Running Fence, a 24 mile fence constructed in 1974 in the hills of Northern California, engaged local individuals in authorization and construction of the work that echoes Beuys notion of social sculpture.