Sunday, September 07, 2008

Joseph Beuys

Been watching interviews with Joseph Beuys, conceptual artist from Germany who was active from the '50s up to his death in the '80s. In particular, the record of his first talk/discussion given in New York City in the early '70s. Here is a guy who made the biggest breakthrough in conceptual art since Marcel Duchamp, who in his talk said that he believed in "Freedom, Democracy, and Socialism" and that each of those depended on the other for their true realization, and he's called a fascist by one of the students for having an idea of art that was different and more abstract than that which audiences of the time were familiar with, that came out of the philosophical tradition of 19th century Germany. Basically, it comes off as appearing that they disagreed with him not because of anything he said, because they don't seem to understand what he's trying to say, but because he was German and more knowledgeable than them. There was, however, enough meat before the disruptions to get an idea of what he was talking about, but the trend of abuse crescendoed after his departure from NYC in a denunciation by an academic named Bachloch that labeled him politically incorrect, a proto-fascist, and insufficiently contrite about world war II and Nazi germany. It's for that reason that Beuys isn't known in the U.S. although he's regarded as one of the most important post-war artists in Germany.

Let me repeat that: Beuys, in talking about his ideas on art, talked about the necessity of freedom, democracy, and socialism to be linked and took it further by saying that there needed to be a way to make creativity a part of people's lives as a whole so that society wouldn't be broken up into people given the permission to be creative and those not given it. Similarly, the idea of creativity was broadened to include meaningful work in general in order to oppose social alienation, an idea from the Young Marx that was a central tenant of the New Left.

Yet, surprisingly, when he was labeled a fascist he started to get angry and agitated.

So what was Beuy's idea of art besides how art as part of the creative process could lead to the transformation of society? His works are conceptual, but rely on a sort of confidence in meaning that artists in the United States and elsewhere have lost. Duchamp is where most of our ideas about installation art come from, and that tradition emphasizes economy of expression and doubt about the range of ideas that can in fact be communicated. Beuys, on the other hand, integrates common associations stemming from regular experience of objects and substances into his art so that the sculpture or installation generates a kind of mental space or swarm of mental associations around it that enables the art to transcend simple formal meaning and instead to bring into it the full range of ideas associated with painting and sculpture in its less-than-completely-abstract forms; this is very impressive considering that some of his installations are composed of things like metal rods arranged in a semi-circle, with maybe another piece of metal over them. It could be said that his works are examples of conceptual thought that don't rely on literary or linguistic strategies to communicate meaning. What I mean by that is that some of abstract art and much of conceptual art communicates through formal elements corresponding to thoughts being arranged in a way more like a code than like a pre-abstract painting. And it doesn't really communicate concepts either when the original techniques are applied in a stiff and formulaic way.

Yet we have the fruit of post-structuralism in the art world, which has created barren, faux-ironic, shit wherever it's reached maturity, and Beuys is unknonwn. I'm curious if there's a connection between his unknown-ness in the United States and the ascendency of the type of criticism that lauds stiff formalism, whether the latter, in fact, come from a common conceptual matrix.

No comments: