Beuys' fascination with the phenomena of transmutation of spirit and matter and of transubstantiation in a more specifically Christian context was influenced by his exposure to the teachings of the founder of anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Beuys was introduced to Steiner's writings at a young age but became more fully engaged with them after the World War II. Steiner's theories of social relations, education, and Christianity meshed with Beuys' longstanding interest in the natural sciences and his increasing interest in spiritual and social organization.
According to art historian John Moffitt, in conceiving of himself as an artist-shaman who performed ritualized actions, he performed "a kind of 'ekphrasis' "--an iconographic illustration of an authoritative, written text. Moffit believes that the majority of Beuys' artistic output and his pose as a shaman (his "shamanistic busywork") is wholly indebted to Steiner's theories."
It is enlightening to compare passages written by Steiner in 1909 with texts written by Beuys in 1978.
Steiner: "We are living in the present, materialistically minded age, and the inflow of spiritual knowledge into our culture is needed in order that mankind's longing for such knowledge may be satisfied. . . . Modern thinking is simply unable to cope with and master the chaos of outer conditions....Thinking itself will become rigid [and] soon no longer sufficiently fluid and flexible to grapple with and transform the complicated conditions of life....The true meaning of the mandate--"Know thyself!"--lies in our following in this way the [occult] evolution of the Cosmos....The self is formed out of, born out of the whole universe, and our own [spiritual] ascent leads us finally to merge in the whole Cosmos. The aim of self-knowledge is to give man his place in the great world in order to reveal to him there the true meaning of the word, self-knowledge."
"When we consider our own stage of materialism, and all the things we experience as negative in our current crisis, we have to admit too that this stage is also an historic necessity. I experienced it in the War, and I feel it now every day: this state of decay that comes with a one-sided understanding of the idea of materialism. When people might say that shamanistic practice is atavistic and irrational, one might answer that the attitude of contemporary scientists is equally old-fashioned and atavistic, because we should, by now, be at another stage of development in our relationship to the material. So, when I appear as a kind of shamanistic figure, or allude to it, I do it to stress my belief in other priorities, and the need to come up with a completely different plan for working with substances. For instance: in places like universities, where everyone speaks so rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear."
A number of Beuys' symbols can be traced to Steiner's writings--the black cross, the pentagram, and honeybees. Bees in Steiner's universe held a place of power as a symbolic microcosm of humankind. Beuys likewise was fascinated with the products of beeswax and honey, in their physical properties and symbolic mythological associations.
Compare Steiner's and Beuys' thoughts about the social organization of bees as a paradigmatic ideal for human beings:
Steiner: "The bees were held in the oldest times to be sacred animals. Why? They were held to be sacred animals because they actually showed, in their whole work, just what happens in Man himself. When one receives a small piece of beeswax, he actually has a middle product between blood, muscles, and bees. It inwardly goes into man through the wax stage. The wax in this way does not yet become firm, but remains fluid until it can be led over into the blood, muscles, or bone cells. Thus, one actually has in wax that which one has in himself, considered as powers or energies. When people in ancient times made beeswax crosses, and then lit them, they thus actually saw in them a totally hold action: this wax which was burning there, we had gotten it from the beehive. It became solid there. When the fire melts this wax and it evaporates, then the wax comes to the same condition which it is in their bodies....[This act] led them to look upon bees as especially sacred animals because they prepared something which man must also continually prepare in himself."
Beuys: "The heat organism of the bee colony is, without a doubt, the essential element of the connection between the wax and the fat and the bees. What had interested me about bees, or rather about their life system, is the total heat organization of such an organism, and the sculpturally finished forms within this organization. On the one hand, bees have this element of heat, which is a very strong fluid element and, on the other hand, they produce crystalline structures; they make regular geometric forms. Here we also find something of my Theory of Sculpture, as we do in corners of fat, which also appear in a geometric context in certain situations."
"What interested me [in bees] was the general warmth character, which forms an important part of the Theory of Social Sculpture, even extending to social and political concepts. This warmth characteristic is to be found in honey, in wax, and even in the pollen and nectar gathered from plants. In mythology, honey was regarded as a spiritual substance and bees were godly....This [belief was widespread and influenced by the whole process of honey production as [constituting] a link between earthly and heavenly levels. The influx of a substance from the whole environment--plants, minerals, and sun--was the essence of the bee-cult. The allusion to socialism [is also apparent].There you can see how many sculptures of bees [function] as symbols of socialism. . . a socialist organism in which all parts function as a living body....The whole builds a unity, which has to function perfectly, but in a humane, warm way, through principles of cooperation and brotherhood."
Scholar Thorsten Scheerer, on the other hand, disputes the usefulness of drawing connections to Steiner's theories. Rather, he would draw connections to such systems theorists and constructivists as Ernst von Glasersfeld, Niklas Luhmann, and Humberto Maturana, whose thinking is more closely aligned to Beuys'.
The theme or problem of a unity of polar opposites is a
pervasive theme in Beuys' theories and art. For example, the
solution to the philosophical and political disjuncture of the
eastern and western continents/hemispheres could be found, and a
healing of society would come if a unity of such ideological
polarities were sought. His Eurasia staff from the 1966 action Eurasia Staff symbolized such a possibility for unity, functioning as a
"conductor of energies" to link Eastern capacity for transcendental
thought with Western materialism, ultimately overcoming the split
between intuition and reason. Beuys explained, "The division of the
cross represents this split, successively perpetrated by the Roman
Empire and the various institutionalized forms of Christianity, and
finding contemporary expression in the rival political ideologies of
East and West and the divisions that result."
Art historian Franz-Joachim Verspohl in Saur's Allgemeines Künstler-Lexicon credits Beuys' interpretation of Novalis, the 18th-century German poet-philosopher whose works Beuys read in the mid-1950s, as that which influenced his conception of "art = human being"--the two were not equal, rather they are antithetical in nature, wherein art is the "symbol" of the human being and the human being the "symbol" of art. Verspohl also credits "the early Romantic epistemology--continued further in phenomenology and existentialism--that nature and spirit behave in an oscillating way and complete each other in their difference, Beuys strove for the mutual penetration of art and life. The theory of the 'expanded concept of art' and 'social sculpture' didn't aim to reconcile art and life, but to reveal the existence of each sphere within the other."
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