Joseph Beuys
Joseph Beuys Save the Woods, 1972
offset lithograph on paper
Alfred and Marie Greisinger Collection, Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1992
(c)1997 Estate of Joseph Beuys/ARS, NY



Joseph Beuys
Joseph Beuys How the Dictatorship of the Parties Can Be Overcome, 1971
printed polyethylene bag, felt, offset lithographs on paper
Alfred and Marie Greisinger Collection, Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1992
(c)1997 Estate of Joseph Beuys/ARS, NY


Joseph
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Joseph Beuys Economic Value Speisekuchen, 1977
graphite on package of instant gravy mix, ink stamp
Alfred and Marie Greisinger Collection, Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1992
(c)1997 Estate of Joseph Beuys/ARS, NY


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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 (1861­1925) 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). (See Teaching and Learning guide.)

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 (1898­1992), 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

-Regina Brenner, scholar and educational artist

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FURTHER READING

Budd, Christopher. Prelude in Economics. Hoathly Hill, England: Johanas Academy of Sociology and Econimics, 1978.

Gauss, Silvia. Joseph Beuys: Gesamtkunstwerk und Freie-Hansestadt Hamburg 1983/84. Achberg: FIU Verlag, 1995.

Groener/Kandler. 7000 Eichen--Joseph Beuys. Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, 1987.

In Memoriam Joseph Beuys: Obituaries, Essays, Speeches. Translated into English by Timothy Nevill. Bonn: Inter Nationes Bonn, 1986.

Stachelhaus, Heiner. Joseph Beuys. Translated into English by David Britt. New York: Abbeville Press, 1991.

Steiner, Rudolf. Towards Social Renewal. Hudson, New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1993.

Szeemann, Harald. Joseph Beuys, Beuysnobiscum. Zürich: Kunsthaus Zürich, 1993.