Joseph Beuys: “He who refuses to think, gets tossed out”

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The Teacher

The Art Academy in Düsseldorf in the 60s: several students are standing in a circle and looking down upon the essays that are lying before them on the floor. Opposite me is our teacher Joseph Beuys, acutely present, concentrated, talking since hours about the papers lying before us. At the same time he pulls a cigarette from one of his many vest pockets and lights it from the cigarette still burning in his mouth. To me he is an exceptional, charismatic teacher. He takes no heed of himself, not only as a chain-smoker, but as well in his teaching.

The correction of a student’s paper turns into an all-encompassing lecture. There are intensive exchanges without pressure, but with an enormous indirect influence. Everyday he is in the Academy, also Saturdays and during the semester breaks, only Sundays is he not there. This presence is important to him, in order that the continuity of the teaching and learning remains upright and constant. With this extraordinary behavior he impresses his students, agitates his colleagues and goes against the bureaucratic rules.

 He is opposed to the Numerus clausus, and accepts every applicant to a seat in his class. He holds this to be practical educational policy. He dismisses the “file-folder method”: Beuys cannot accept that each of the papers lying before him are to be evaluated in just about two minutes. At the same time he accepts the demand that is placed upon the universities to take into account the people’s growing educational requirements. Beuys holds that this task can only be fulfilled when the educational system is decisively changed. Some of his colleagues only have a handful of students. He, on the other hand, has at times over 300. But it proves itself out, that the sorting process of his students functions on its own, without anyone having to intervene.

For Beuys’ teaching has a deeper meaning: the soul-spirit conception of his artistic achievement, rooted in a societal transformation process, is existential for him. When in 1972 he accepted the students who were denied a seat in his class owing to Numerus clausus, there followed his immediate dismissal by the minister of education for “trespassing”. This dismissal as professor was such a traumatic shock for him, that a short time later he had a heart attack.

The expanded art-term

When he was 17, Beuys saw in an art catalogue a sculpture by Wilhelm Lehmbruck. The observation triggered an initiatory experience:
“… and immediately there arose within me this idea […] ‘everything is sculpture’, this picture essentially called to me. And in this picture I saw a torch, I saw a flame and I heard: ‘Protect the flame’.”

“Everybody is an artist”.

With this expression Beuys did not mean that everybody is a poet or a sculptor. He meant moreover that every human has creative capabilities that he can recognize and develop. According to Beuys the term “art” must be applied to Man's work and, by extenuation, expanded to all areas of the working world. The creative power within all human activity is, for him, the most important formational moment of all humans, in order to have a hand in forming the future. To shape the future oneself, to be self responsible and, in this process, to newly form oneself, is the expanded art-term which Beuys presented as a challenge to all.

He characterizes it as “a basic rule of being, that changes everything”. Beuys calls this expanded art-term his best work of art. And he describes how it came to him: “The initial process was a general state of exhaustion which, however, quickly and decidedly turned itself around into a definite renewal process. The things within me had to fully transpose themselves, this transformation had to take place until the depths of the physis.”

The way in which we think is for Beuys decisive.

Thinking is “the first sculpture that Man creates”.

The invisible plays a decisive role. “To the invisible world there belong the unrecognizable power-intertwinings and energy courses-of-action, and, as well, what is usually called man’s inner being.” The duty of art is, according to Beuys, to turn the invisible into the visible. Thereby it is necessary, that at first an inner form takes shape, a form of thinking. This form can then be brought into visibility.

The Plastic Theory of Beuys hypothesizes an interplay between “the three creative basic powers thinking, feeling and willing with the imagination, the “Power-of-Imagination”. The quality of the latter depends upon if Man experiences “inspiration as a sudden suggestion, and intuition as an instantaneous, direct and clear recognition” (said Matthias Bunge about Beuys). Beuys had let himself be inspired in large part by Rudolf Steiner.

Social Warmth

He reported, that in 1943 he went down in a plane over the Crimean Peninsula, and was found injured by the Tartars. They rubbed him with fat and wrapped him in felt and then brought him into a nomad’s tent. This treatment saved him from freezing. It later influenced him to use “fat und felt” in his work as protection and insulation material.

Nature’s substances are not just simple raw resources for Beuys, rather, they are soul-filled through spiritual powers. He sees fat and felt as transporting elements for “social warmth”, which reveals itself in a violence free life against one’s self, fellow man and Creation. These materials are energy transporters. It is essential, that they depict a transition from a chaotic raw state into an orderly end state. The core thesis of his Plastic Theory arises out of the polarity of warmth-cold, chaos-form, willing-thinking. Between the poles mediates a moving process of formation.

These transformational processes play a central role in Beuys’ world of thought. They become, for example, sensorially tangible through the material fat. In a warm state fat is chaotically fluid and it changes to coldness and a solid state. Between the two poles there flows energy.

Felt is also an organic material that comes about by way of pressing animal hair together. Beuys became aware of the insulating property via the head wear of the nomads. His identifying feature, the felt hat, offers him, among others, protection of his war injuries. In addition, felt has the quality of absorption. Fat can be absorbed and taken up unchecked into the felt.

Fat, felt and, later, also honey and copper are, for Beuys, materials which stand in close proximity to his Plastic Theory. They become, through their malleability by Man, a simile for society’s transformability.

Social Sculpture

The phrase “Every Man is an Artist” refers, per Beuys, to the transfiguration of the “Social-Body” on which each human not only can take part, but on which rather is also required to take part: “so that we can as quickly as possible carry out the transformation”.

To shape a “social-sculpture” is a high expectation, a demand that is placed before each member of a democratic society. It should lead to a total renewal and restructuring of the educational, legal and economical systems. As a partaker each of us plays an equal role in, and has a hand in, the important task, regardless of his or her cultural background, religion, gender or age.

This “working together” is not meant in an arbitrary way, but rather specifically in the direction of a higher development of the Soul-related; the sensory organs must be sharpened and developed for the further Soul evolution. The inner transformation is the prerequisite for the external, societal success. For Beuys the social sculpture is a search for the “real embodiment” (Gestalt) of everything. It is an ongoing growing and evolutional process of recognition, not just a still-shot.

“I want to broaden, expand, the consciousness of Man.

I want it to span out over the real, the political, situation.” This however should not be formed from without, from outside experts, but rather from creative inner energies, the creativity of all people.

Action 7,000 Oaks

Beuys oaks

A completely different expression of his Plastic Theory can be found in his work 7,000 Oaks. At the Documenta 7 in Kassel, Beuys presented his ecological conception with the theme “City-forestation instead of City-administration”. The first tree of the 7,000 he planted himself in 1982 before the Documenta Museum. The last one was planted by his son Wenzel 5 years later next to it, one year after the death of his father.

 The 7,000 trees were Oak, Basswood, Sycamore and Maple. Next to each tree there was to be placed a basalt stele. “The tree grows ever higher, the stone remains always. This I wanted to oppositionally present, so that in time the proportions would continually shift” explained Beuys. The stone also represents an impending Age. Trees are, for Beuys, nowadays more intelligent than Mankind. In the wind that slashes through their crowns, streams as well the substance of Mankind’s suffering. The trees would feel this, they are sufferers themselves, all rights having been removed just as those of the animal world.

Beuys’ gift to Kassel cost him 4.3 million marks, then around 1.5 million dollars. A gift that is bound together with the uncomfortable demand that next to each tree there should be placed the rough basalt stone-stele. Thereby would the tree be marked as an artwork. Beuys had all the stones be split at one time and the entire 2.3 ton delivery be unloaded, in a wedge shaped pile, before the museum. The gigantic rock pile can only grow smaller through the planting of the trees, for each tree can only one stone leave the pile. That creates in itself a sluggish progression of the forestation, for planting can only take place at certain times of the year.

A shortage of financing stopped the action on occasion. At the beginning a New York art foundation provided funding, the rest should be funded by private donations: circa $175 per tree. However the cash flow slowed to a trickle. Beuys sold autographed Oak-posters for 2 dollars each. He had the copy of the Czar’s crown gifted to him, melted it down into an everyday normal rabbit and got around $260,000 from a collector for it, for the project. In a TV commercial he sold a whisky that brought in around $170,000. After 5 years, nearing the end of the project, he had pulled in approximately 2,500 active members of the public into the project.

Lukas Beckmann wrote: “Beuys appeals to the warmth in us, to our ‘ability to lovingly perceive the living earth […] with whom there is no longer a loving relationship’ (Beuys). It is important that we view and understand the message of Beuys about the expanded, social art-term, that we grasp the meaning of the messages of the dying forests and animal species […], it becomes ever more important, continually more pressing, to grasp the meaning of the shriek of Mankind, to understand the message of the flames […]. What we suppress, comes around back to us again.”



Lukas Beckmann, Josef Beuys – Begreifen, nicht Verdrängen, in::Hiltrud Oman (Hrsg.), Josef Beuys. Die Kunst auf dem Weg zum Leben, 1998

Bunge, Matthias, Joseph Beuys. Das Plastische Denken – Werbung für einen anthroposophischen Kunstbegriff, in: Helmut Gold, Margret Baumann, Doris Hensch (Hrsg.): „Wer nicht denken will, fliegt raus“, Joseph Beuys Postkarten, Heidelberg 1998

Sophia-Lucie Gernhardt, Joseph Beuys – Die Soziale Plastik, Studienarbeit Hochschule Karlsruhe, 2010

Alfred Nemeczek, Klimawandel im Beuysland, www.7000

Heiner Stachelhaus, Josef Beuys, 4. Auflage, Berlin 2010

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