Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Jan Verwoert on Joseph Beuys: The Boss (e-flux)

.... excerpt

1. The Questionable Authority of the Artist as Healer

One revealing example of an art historical interpretation of Beuys’ oeuvre that is wholly under the spell of the artist’s authority is found in The Cult of the Avant-garde Artist by the American critic Donald Kuspit.1 Kuspit reads Beuys’ entire practice through the image of the shamanistic healer that Beuys projected to the public, portraying him as the last representative of the venerable tradition of avant-garde artists who believed their task to be one of helping humanity to heal the alienation of modern life (in Kuspit’s view, Warhol’s consent to alienation sealed the decline of that tradition). As evidence for this interpretation, Kuspit quotes two programmatic statements by Beuys: “My intention: healthy chaos, healthy amorphousness in a known medium which consciously warmed a cold, torpid form from the past, a convention of society, and which makes possible future forms.”2 And in conclusion: “This is precisely what the shaman does in order to bring about change and development: his nature is therapeutic.”3 Now, the concept of healing raises a series of questions: whom does Beuys claim to heal? And of what? By what means, and by whose authority? Kuspit answers these questions succinctly: the Germans, of the trauma of national collapse, and through the healing energy of an original, pagan creativity that he taps, for them, by virtue of his authority as healer.
Kuspit then proceeds to interpret National Socialism as an expression of exaggerated faith in technocratic rationality (and hence as an exemplary symptom of modern alienation), arriving at the conclusion that recovery from the pathologies of this strain of rationalism can only be achieved by liberating a Dionysian creativity of the very sort Beuys claimed to have released. Kuspit writes: “The Germans had to be cured of their pathological belief in the authority of reason, which they readily put before life itself.”4 Beuys, the shamanistic healer, is thereafter portrayed as the antithesis of Hitler, the technocratic dictator: “Beuys was warm where Hitler was cold.”5 This interpretation is bizarre. Nevertheless, it unfolds the logical implications of the concept of healing that Beuys established. The figure of the healer is messianic in nature, and is therefore of the same ilk as the messianic leader of men. A direct comparison therefore seems obvious. On somewhat closer inspection, however, this juxtaposition necessarily leads to a result that directly contradicts Kuspit’s interpretation. The messianic goal of healing modern man of his alienation by tapping primordial forces does not distinguish Beuys from Hitler but links them. The assertion that the German people could be cured of the maladies caused by the decline and decadence of modern culture through the rediscovery of their mythical, pagan (allegedly “Aryan”) creative powers was, after all, the core of the ideology by which the National Socialists justified their claim to power. The motto “Am Deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen” (The German spirit shall heal the world) was taken to articulate the association of the idea of healing with just such an ideology.6

However, the fact that, in the course of history, the idea of healing came to be associated with this particular ideology does not discredit Beuys’ approach to it per se. The motif of mythical healing—the notion that a rediscovery of a mythical creativity would offer a cure to the alienations of modern society—has occupied a central position in modern social criticism since early Romanticism (at the latest).7 In this form and function the motif can be found in the work of many modern thinkers artists, including (as Rüdiger Sünner has shown) Friedrich Schlegel and Nietzsche, as well as Helena Blavatsky (one of the key figures of modern occultism, the founder of theosophy, and an inspiration for Rudolf Steiner).8 If Beuys was enthusiastic about Celtic myth, for example, and saw James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to be the expression of the buried mythical, spiritual creativity of—as he literally says—“Indo-Aryan” culture, it is certainly reasonable to assume that his use of the term stems from authors such as Blavatsky.9 Channeled through authors such as Adolf Lanz and Guido von List, Blavatsky’s teachings were, however, also a source of inspiration for Hitler and Himmler, who developed the racial doctrine implicit to some extent in theosophy into a justification for their “völkisch” (racist and nationalist) doctrine of national recuperation.10 One application of the concept of healing cannot be directly reduced to the other. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that, seen in the context of the history of ideas, the idea of modern culture’s return to the supposedly mythical powers of a premodern culture was the impulse behind both Romantic projects to reform life and National Socialist ideology. That this ideological aspect is never really questioned or even acknowledged by Beuys and his orthodox interpreters (such as Kuspit) exposes the limits of the interpretive discourse Beuys established: he never submitted his own key concepts to a critical, historical analysis.

While he frequently dipped into the history of ideas for his discourse, Beuys did not apparently feel compelled to consider the fact that ideas have specific histories—ones that, in certain instances, might make it necessary to reject them, and the traditions they have come to stand for. In his artistic practice, however, the critical reconsideration of traditional forms was at the heart of his approach. The postcard work Manifest (Manifesto, 1985) offers a poignant slogan for this. In handwriting it reads: “Manifesto the error already begins when someone is about to buy a stretcher and canvas. Joseph Beuys, November 1, 1985.” The absence of a similarly critical approach to tradition in Beuys’ use of theoretical concepts may not ultimately be that problematic in terms of the content of the particular ideas he cites. What does have a significant bearing on the politics of Beuys’ overall practice is his adoption of a speaking position that is inextricably bound to the articulation of certain ideas precisely because this position is traditionally justified by these ideas: the position of the messianic speaker whose mythical authority is justified and authenticated by the invocation of the idea of primordial healing powers. The use of the concept of healing is thus synonymous with the creation of an unquestioned—and, by virtue of its superior justification, also unquestionable—position of power. However, if Beuys’ liberating approach to conventions of sculpture and to the possibility of art in general is understood as evidence of a critical attitude, it seems only fair to assume that the creation of such an unquestionable power position can hardly have been his primary concern. In positioning himself as a speaker, then, it would even appear integral to Beuys’ practice to distance himself from the power mechanisms at play.
No doubt, the desire for healing was an important motif in Beuys’ oeuvre. The question is whether the specific way in which he dealt with this desire in his work does indeed have a considerable artistic and historical significance, not because Beuys succeeded in being or becoming the healer he purported to be, but precisely because he (whether consciously or not is hard to say) allowed the inherent contradictions of the concept of messianic healing to become manifest within his work. One example to start with is Beuys’ complex interpretation of the motif of the Messiah in Zeige Deine Wunde (Show Your Wounds, 1976). In the Christian tradition, the act of showing the wounds is the gesture by which Christ reveals himself to his disciples as the resurrected Messiah. Strictly speaking, therefore, there can only be one person who is entitled to show his wounds: the Savior himself. The title of the work, however, is an appeal addressed to another person. Beuys here effectively changes the monologue of messianic revelation into a dialogue and thus multiplies the available speaking positions: anyone who feels addressed by the appeal is here invited to adopt the messianic position. This moment of multiplication is in fact also the primary formal characteristic of the installation. All of its elements are doubled. The central elements in the work are two stretchers on wheels, underneath each of which a zinc box and an empty glass vessel are placed. Anyone who encounters death or healing here does not do so alone. Death or convalescence is presented as an existential experience in which our lives come to mirror each other. The claim to uniqueness associated with the role of the Messiah is thus eroded linguistically in the title and literally in the space of the installation.

jon verwoert - e-flux

 'Show Your Wound' was an installation created by Beuys in 1974-75 in a bleak pedestrian underpass in Munich. Elements used there can be seen in these negatives; a pair of dissecting tables and the heads of two iron agricultural tools, mounted on wooden sticks. The wound was a recurring theme for the artist. On a personal level it referred to injuries he received in the Second World War, his breakdown in the 1950s and his heart attack in 1975. More generally, he used the idea to reference events in Germany's past and the divide between Eastern and Western cultures.

Mixed media 
107.00 x 79.00 x 5.00 cm 

National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008    

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