Joseph Beuys, La Rivoluzioni Siamo Noi (1972). Photo: Courtesy Bergamin & Gomide.
Joseph Beuys, La Rivoluzioni Siamo Noi (1972). Photo: Courtesy Bergamin & Gomide.

O artist Joseph Beuys was born on May 12, 1921 in Krefeld, Germany, near the Netherlands. In this pandemic year, therefore, its 100 years of birth are celebrated. Forerunner of issues that we are systematically debating in these months of confinement, such as the defense of nature, his figure also stands out for rethinking the art system. This topic was addressed by me in a lecture at the Goethe Institute, in 2011, in the Third Cycle of German Thought, which became a chapter of a book with the same name as the event the following year. The debate remains current and we consider it pertinent to republish the text now, without major changes.


One of Beuys' most significant works is the end of the 20th century (Das Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts) (1982-83), exhibited at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin, an installation composed of 21 basalt rocks that can represent numbness, solidification or even a collective cemetery. Basalt, remember, contains crystals that cannot be seen with the naked eye. In each rock, the artist made a circular hole and from there he removed a cone, reintroducing it again, this time glued with felt and clay, as if to signal that even the most solid and immutable can undergo transformations through human action. 

According to Peter-Klaus Schuster, curator of the show A century of German art, which took place in three major museums in Berlin in 1999, and which placed Beuys as the central artist in his selection of German art in the 20th century, the end of the 20th century it deals with “the ambivalence of the enormous catastrophes of the century and, at the same time, as a positive image of the value of human life”.

It is this essentially humanist vision, which elects every man not only as a revolutionary, but also as an artist, responsible for contributing to the construction of a new society, defined by Beuys as “social sculpture”, which places him as one of the main thinkers of the world. 20th century and whose ideas I intend to address in this text abandonment to art – inspired by a 1985 postcard titled With that I leave the art – to reflect on the absolutely radical character of his propositions.

The original title of this work, by the way, is Hiermit trete ich aus der Kunst aus and the translation I adopted is the one in the book Joseph Beuys, by Alain Borer. Literally, it may not be the most adequate translation, but conceptually, as we will see below, it is entirely pertinent.

1 – Beuys: the myth

To understand Beuys' thinking, it is essential to know his own biography. It is not a question here of justifying his work as an illustration of his life, but of the very interrelation he sought between art and life, a link that became essential in the way of conceiving art in the 1960s and 1970s, a period that has in Beuys one of its main figures. 

This particular moment of the 20th century made artists such as Andy Warhol, Hélio Oiticica or Beuys himself create a series of legends around themselves, as a symbolic display of their conceptions about art. Each one, in their own way, created a series of legends about themselves that, whether true or false, it doesn't matter, are the way they embodied their own conception of art. 

In the case of Beuys, his uniform was always of a simple type: the felt hat, the fisherman's jacket, the jeans and the heavy shoes, like someone ready to do manual labor in one of the oldest professions. The construction of his public figure, a kind of fisher of souls, is still directly related to the legend that the artist built around his biography. As Borer says in the quoted publication:

A legend is neither true nor false, it is, in Latin, what must be read and said, what is narrated about the work and its author, “the point at which biography ceases to be extrinsic”: everything with what the legendary figure contributes and collaborates to the extent that the artist himself zealously watches, and that in every work, what will be said about him (BORER, 2001, p. 12).

This, then, is how we should read the mythological story of Beuys and his plane crash in the Crimea: as a preamble to his work. It is narrated, in his biography published by Heiner Stachelhaus, as follows:

At a young age, he began the study of medicine, intending to devote himself to the humblest. That desire, however, was shattered when he piloted his Stuka after joining the Luftwaffe. [the Nazi air force] in 1941. In the year 1944, at the age of 22, he miraculously escaped death in Asia. His plane, a JU 87, crashed in a snow-covered region called Crime or Crimea. Joseph was unconscious for several days, half-frozen, was taken in by genuine Tartars, who tended to his wounds. The local people soon took him for one of their own: “You not German, you Tartar”, and brought him back to life, wrapping him in their traditional felt blankets and heating him with animal fat. After his return, having found shelter on a farm, Joseph faced a profound crisis, familiar to all great artists, which allowed him to work out the basic principles of his art. (BORER, 2001, p. 13).

We cannot forget that Beuys assumes that he participated in the Nazi fleet and his martyrdom becomes, thus, a kind of redemption, as if he were transformed in such a vital way with this episode that it had its genesis from the help of the Tartars, with their fraternal and primordial means of rescue.

It is from this history that Beuys justifies not only the character of his artistic propositions as a field that must save human beings from their crises, giving them a therapeutic character; but also explains the materials involved in his works, especially felt and animal fat, elements that represent a form of protection, through heat, as organic materials that enable a vital relationship with nature, remembering how the human being is an integral part of it. .

Art shouldn't be limited to the retina – that's why I'm engaged with substance, as "a process of the spirit (soul)" (HARLAN, 2004, p. 14).

This is how Beuys justifies the use of natural elements in his work. in the version of chair with fat, 1981, (the first was held in 1964) or in Felt suit, from 1970,  see as the artist is not concerned with creating a sculpture in a traditional way, but with provoking a reflection on the role of the artist, building a narrative from these materials. Thus, Beuys is concerned with reorienting the meaning and function of art. 

During Nazism, modern art was officially fought through the exhibition degenerate art, a kind of manifesto against modernist movements such as the Bauhaus, Cubism and German Expressionism, which preached a new way of looking at the world in art. What the Nazis defended, then, was the return of the fine arts, of the classical forms as the most adequate to the Aryan society that they intended to erect as sovereign. 

degenerate art, the exhibition that began at the Haus der Kunst in Munich in 1937, and then went on to 11 more cities in Germany and Austria, brought together 650 works by 112 artists, including Paul Klee, Kurt Schwitters, Marc Chagall, Mondrian and Lasar Segall. In four months, in Munich, the show attracted more than two million visitors.

Almost twenty years later, in 1955, Arnold Bode created an exhibition in Kassel, Documenta, whose main objective was to reintroduce to the German public the modernists censored in the Nazi regime. This show, which would become a five-yearly exhibition and today serves as the great beacon of contemporary art, was one of the great platforms used by Beuys for his ideas. He participated in four of its editions - in 1964, 1972, 1977 and 1982 -, contributing to the reconstruction of German artistic thought in a decisive way. And what was that way? In Beuys there is an essential question: “What is the need that justifies the creation of something like art?”. And his own answer is quite clear:

If this question does not become the central focus of research and it is not resolved in a truly radical way, which in fact sees art as the starting point for producing something, in any field of work, then any thought of further developments is just waste of time (HARLAN, 2004, p. 10).

When Beuys defends that art is the starting point for producing something in any field, he is in tune with those who, in the 1960s and 1970s, saw in art the only possible space for new practices that would decondition the human being from, at least , two then hegemonic visions, faces of the same civilizing process, as described by Norbert Elias: the rationalist thought and the conditioning of the body through forms of behavior then seen as civilized, but that oppose it to the forces of nature, as if man were excluded from them.

One of the central points of Beuys’ thinking is precisely the “defense of nature”, as he preaches in a work, a photograph from 1984, in a holistic conception, which is largely related to the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), that is, the need for integration between man and nature. It is from there that, explains the artist, his work must be understood. 

My objects are to be seen as stimuli for the transformation of the idea of ​​sculpture, or of art in general. They should provoke thoughts about what sculpture can be and how the concept of sculpture can be extended to invisible materials used by everyone:

Ways of thinking – how we shape our thoughts or

Ways of speaking – how we shape our thoughts or

SOCIAL SCULPTURE: how we shape and shape 

to the world we live in: 

Sculpture as an evolutionary process;

everybody artist (HARLAN, 2004, p. 9)

In this way, we arrive here at the heart of Beuys' conception of art: using art as a platform for the transformation of society, as a stimulus for the reconstruction of the world. As stated by Harlan, in another publication:

The main concern of his artistic work is the reformulation of the social field. He calls the social organism a social sculpture. (FARKAS, 2010, p. 27).

However, this is not a merely political platform, Beuys is not only a militant of transformation in the social field, but also a revolutionary of plastic forms, so his discourse and his artistic practice cannot be separated: “Art is a kind of science of freedom” (HARLAN, 2004, p. 10), affirms Beuys, in a conception very close to that defended by the Brazilian art critic Mário Pedrosa, for whom “art is the experimental exercise of freedom, his best known and best-known idea. publicized”.

Beuys used various media as instruments for the dissemination of his ideas. He was the author of a monumental production, dozens of works, but especially multiple ones, which, due to their democratic character, another of the flags of the 1960s and 1970s, were more suited to his proposals. Between 1965 and 1986, he produced no less than 557 multiples, some with a print run of 12 copies, such as the wooden box inscribed “Intuition!”. He also produced about 300 posters, still appropriating propaganda as one of his means of expression, the same as the Nazi regime, but obviously with totally different goals.

Joseph Beuys, La Rivoluzioni Siamo Noi (1972). Photo: Courtesy Bergamin & Gomide.
Joseph Beuys, La Rivoluzioni Siamo Noi (1972). Photo: Courtesy Bergamin & Gomide.

When Beuys created the poster the revolution is us, in Naples, in 1971, he explained, in an interview with Giancarlo Politi, from Flash Art magazine (n. 168), the meaning of using this medium:

To communicate, man makes use of language, uses gestures, writing, paints a wall, takes the typewriter and extracts letters from it. In short, he uses means. What means to use for political action? I chose art. Making art is, therefore, a means of working for man, in the field of thought. This is the most important side of my work. The rest, objects, drawings, performances, come second. Basically, I don't have much to do with art. Art interests me only insofar as it gives me the possibility of dialoguing with man.

Here, then, we see a little of the meaning of his postcard, which gives the title to this speech, With that I leave the art. Art, for him, was not reduced to conventional spaces, the gallery and the museum, even though he also regularly occupied these places. 

2 – The places of Beuys
2.1 The academy

To defend his proposals, Beuys used and problematized several fields: academia, art institutions such as museums and galleries, political institutions, becoming one of the founders of the German Green Party in 1980. His presence at the Düsseldorf Art Academy , for example, was remarkable. There he studied, became a professor of sculpture, in 1961, and remained there for ten years, until 1972. For him: 

Being a teacher is my most important work of art […] the rest is a disposable product. If you want to express yourself, you need to present something tangible. But after a while, it just has the function of a historical document. Objects are no longer important. I want to get to the origin of things, the thought behind them (Artforum, 1969).

In this sense, Borer states that in Beuys, “speech is sculpture”, as if his thinking materialized in the dialogical relationship with the students. 

His classes were very popular and this facet is the motto for the show. Beuys and beyond – Teaching as an art, organized by Deutsche Bank from its own collection, on display at the Tomie Ohtake Institute [in 2011], which also features works by students such as Blink Palermo, Katharina Sieverding and Lothar Baumgarten, in a somewhat formalist approach, which I intend to address further on.

In Düsseldorf, “the traditional and strongly hierarchical forms of the classroom were replaced by collective debates, in which both art and social issues were discussed”. In 1971, Beuys came to occupy the secretariat of the Academy of Art, to protest against restrictions on the admission of students, founding, then, the Organization for Direct Democracy by National Referendum.

A little earlier, that same year, he had already admitted to his class the 142 candidates who were rejected by the Academy, but this set of protests ended up costing him his job and a lawsuit, which he won in 1978. Fundamental here is to reinforce the libertarian character of his activity as a teacher, which means enabling each student to develop their own work, independent of their work, as he stated in a 1972 interview:

It is often said that in my classes everything would be conceptual or political. But for me it is very important that it results in something sensually palpable, with broad epistemological foundations. My main interest there is to start with the language and let the materializations follow as a correlation of thought and action. The most important thing for me is that human beings, through their products, experience models of how to be able to co-act in the relationship with the whole; and not only produce articles, but also become a plastic artist or architect in the entire social organism. The future social order will be formed according to the principles of art (CHRISTENSEN, 2011, p. 12).

His belief in the power of institutional education did not end with his departure from the Art Academy of Düsseldorf, in 1971. Three years later, he founded the Free International University (FIU – Freie Internationale Universität), which served for the development of many of his projects. , how seven thousand oaks, at Documenta in Kassel, in 1982.

At Documenta itself, but in 1977, at its 6tha. Edition, the FIU was responsible for organizing Honey pump in the workplace, a room in which Beuys and his collaborators spent one hundred days – the usual length of time for the show, debating “social sculpture”, that is, the new model of society. However, the FIU was not created as simply an alternative to the German university system. As Beuys stated in 1985:

The Free International University is an international research community. Its circle of collaborators is relatively small. It is not possible to attend the FIU It is simply the project of a new society, beyond capitalism and communism. To carry out this task, each one has to find support in himself. (FARKAS, 2010, p. 45).

As in all of Beuys' work, the FIU did not constitute a conventional structure, with already established standards, but proposed a new possibility to disseminate the artist's thinking in a pragmatic way. To think, in Beuys, is to perform.

2.2 The political system

In 1979, the FIU was one of the five organizations that created the Green Party in Germany, which makes Beuys one of its founders. Earlier, in 1967, he had already created the German Students' Party (Deutsche Studentenpartei), on the eve of the May 1968 revolutions.

Then, in 1970, he created the Organization of Non-Voters – Free Plebiscite (Organization der Nicht Wahler, Freie Volksabstimmung), and in 1971, due to the crisis at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art, the Organization for Direct Democracy by Plebiscite (Organization fur direkte Demokratie durch Volksbastimmung). All these organizations demonstrate how much Beuys believed in transformation through institutional channels, at a time when Germany was being shaken by groups that also sought change, but through illegal channels, such as the extreme left guerrilla group Baader Meinhoff, which existed between 1970 and 1988. XNUMX. The use of direct democracy instruments also points out the importance of each individual's thinking, against the principles of representative democracy.

Even so, Beuys even ran for the European Parliament, in 1979, for the group Another Political Association (Sonstige politische Vereinigung), which the following year would become The Greens. On that occasion, he launched the manifesto “Call for the Alternative”, published in the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper on 23/12/1978, and reprinted in 1979, for the first election to the European Parliament. The text defended non-violence, the transformation of the use of money and the organization of the State, questioning the escape from reality and even the use of drugs. This manifesto became the poster that integrated his participation in the 15th Bienal de São Paulo, entitled Call for a global alternativeIn 1979.

From 1980 to 1986, the Greens maintained, under the direction of Johann Stüttgen, a coordination office in room 3 of the Dusseldorf Academy, the former room of Beuys.

2.3 The art system

On December 11, 1964, Beuys presented the performance Marcel Duchamp's silence is overrated (Das Schweigen von Marcel Duchamp wird uberbewertet), action broadcast live by the German TV ZDF, as a member of the Fluxus group, using, in addition to speech, his typical materials such as fat and felt.

Duchamp was an indolent who created beautiful and interesting provocations for the bourgeoisie and brilliantly made affronts to the aesthetic typology of his time. (CHRISTENSEN, 2011, p. 32).

This anti-bourgeois spirit in Beuys' speech is exactly one of the main characteristics of the Fluxus group, created in 1961 at the AG gallery, in New York, by the Lithuanian artist George Maciunas.. With an international character, Fluxus was not characterized by a formal style among its components, but by a common principle: to abolish the objectual question of art as a primacy of its existence and to value the process in its constitution.

Beuys joined the group through colleague Nan June Paik, a Korean artist who was also a teacher in Düsseldorf. In addition to them, artists such as the American musician John Cage, whose experiments were decisive for the group, and the Japanese Yoko Ono, also participated in the events organized by Fluxus. In Fluxus festivals, Beuys carried out especially actions, anticipating the idea of ​​performance, which had not been characterized as a language. 

Fluxus is generally linked to the anti-art character of the Dada movement, which also used elements of everyday life and ephemeral actions, questioning the commercial value of art. Maciunas, for example, created several multiples, such as the Fluxus Boxes, an idea that would later be used by Beuys. The use of video, especially under the influence of Nan June Paik, was also recurrent in Fluxus, not only because of the emergence of the new medium, but because of the characteristics it provided, that is, the possibility of its retransmission, which would also be very used by Beuys. However, while Dada had a negative character, as defined by Giulio Carlo Argan, for “demonstrating the impossibility of any relationship between art and society”, Fluxus had a more positive vision, which sought to link life and art.

It is notable that the performance Marcel Duchamp's silence is overrated took place precisely within a Fluxus event, because its members had great appreciation for the French artist who created the ready-made. Beuys' connection with Fluxus was intense, but it did not last long, and the performance shows how the critical character of the German artist was realized in the confrontation, within the very space of the institutions where she worked.

This critical capacity is also seen in the performance I like America and America likes me (I like America and America likes Me), in May 1974, for three consecutive days, eight hours a day, on the occasion of the opening of the gallery by the German artist René Block in New York.

Beuys arrived in the US by plane and, from JFK airport, left in an ambulance, going straight to a cage built in the gallery, where he lived with a coyote, an animal considered sacred by the native peoples of the US. According to the performance myth, after three days, the artist would have been taken back to the airport, without having set foot on North American soil.

Beuys had worked with Block for a long time. It was in his gallery that he once covered the corners with grease, rounding off the rigid shape of his architecture, giving it an organic character, which it morphed over the days the grease was exposed. Here we can see how Beuys is concerned with the plastic issue, but it is a vehicle for his ideas.

Em I like America... its action is more radical. He lives with an animal, wrapped in felt and, leaning on a cane, approaches the interactivity with nature, so important to the idea of ​​“social sculpture”. The performance, in fact, points out how the artist lived his own utopia in his work, showing that the realization of his proposals is viable, in addition to pointing out a non-objectual, non-commercial, anti-representational character of art. This is because Beuys, who claimed to be “a reincarnated caveman” (BORER, 2001, p. 30), was living his proposals, not creating mere illustrations for them. Experience is an essential part of his actions.

This action is also a good example of how, in Borer's conception, Beuys can be seen as a shepherd: 

The shepherd leads his disciples to a place known only to him – the promise of a higher state; he is the man looking for a way, a way longer and vaster than he is: he makes way for (BORER, 2001, p. 23).

This happens in a big way in your project. seven thousand oaks, which the artist started in 1982, on the occasion of Documenta 7, created from the FIU. His objective was that 7 trees of this type were planted throughout the city, always next to a basalt column. Here again, one sees Beuys' astute ability to work with images: to this day, anyone who visits Kassel is faced with the oaks planted by Beuys and his collaborators.

The symbolic beginning of the Earth's vital reforestation must take place in Kassel. […] It is an action of a rational character; in this case, planting trees. […] A global understanding must first be created to – wherever possible – make such processes sustainable. (FARKAS, 2010, p. 41).

Em seven thousand oaks, Beuys realizes his idea of ​​“social sculpture”, transforming the environment. And he does it with the collaboration of those who are willing, so that each one, each person who lives on Earth can become a creator of forms, a sculptor, a designer of the social organism.

However, all the radicalism that marked the period of consolidation of Beuys' work, in the 1960s and 1970s, with the exercise of broad dialogue with other artists and groups, such as Fluxus, Arte Povera, in Italy, and the strong presence of performance artists such as Marina Abramović and Ulay will transform in the following decade.

Joseph Beuys. "Hiermit trete ich aus der Kunst aus" (1985).
Joseph Beuys. “Hiermit trete ich aus der Kunst aus” (1985).

The 1980s are marked by the idea of ​​a “return to painting”, especially in Germany, with the emergence of the so-called neo-expressionists, such as Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer. This new context was certainly very discouraging for Beuys, which probably led him to create the multiple postcard With that I leave the art, on November 1, 1985, practically three months before he died, on January 23, 1986, of a heart attack.

This postcard is part of a series of nine sentences, all handwritten, in chalk, on a dark background, like a blackboard, material that he used so many times in his works, related to his facet as a teacher. It is worth noting that, knowing that he was ill – Beuys had long been weakened as a result of his air accident – ​​he leaves this last set of works where there is no image, no color, only text. Another of the texts written in this series of postcards is: “The mistake starts when someone prepares to buy a canvas” (der Fehler fängt schon an, wenn einer sich anschickt, Keilrahmen und Leinwand zu kaufen).

Therefore, the message of the postcards is clear: Beuys no longer saw the possibility of conveying his ideas in the field of art, nor taking part in it. Just as he was fired from the Academy, and never elected by his political associations, the artist found that his message did not reach the necessary repercussion in art either. An emblematic artist of an experimental period in the history of art, which began in the post-War period, Beuys arrived pessimistic in the 1980s, when the art market gained strength and power again and experimentation took a back seat. It is the decade of the end of history and, according to Arthur C. Danto, of the end of art.

Beuys has participated in all the important exhibitions on the art circuit: four times at Documenta; once at Skulptur Münster in 1977; represented Germany in Venice in 1976 with the work Tram Stop (Tram Stop) – Monument to the Future; and in 1980, with Das Kapital Raum 1970-1977; he also represented Germany in three São Paulo Biennials (1979, 1985, 1989) and was consecrated with a retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York, in 1979, which earned him great prestige in the United States.

His epitaph, however, points out that, in fact, these great exhibitions meant little to Beuys, and that he already envisioned an unpromising future for art. Sad finding for those who defended that:

Only art, that is, art conceived both as creative self-determination and as a process that generates creation, is capable of freeing us and leading us towards an alternative society. (BORER, 2001, p. 28). 


CHRISTENSEN, Liz (org.) (2011). Beuys and beyond. teach as art🇧🇷 Frankfurt: Deutsche Bank.
Borer, Alain. (2001). Joseph Beuys. Sao Paulo: Cosac Naify.
FARIAS, Agnaldo. (2001). Biennale 50 years. São Paulo: Fundação Bienal de SP.
Farkas, Solange (2010). the revolution is us. São Paulo: Videobrasil Cultural Association/Sesc.
HARLAN, Volker (2004). What Is Art?: Conversation with Joseph Beuys🇧🇷 East Sussex: Clairview Books.
SCHUSTER, Peter-Klaus (1999). The XX. Jahrhundert: ein jahr hundert kunst in Deutschland🇧🇷 Berlin: Nicolai.

Sign up for our newsletter

Leave a comment

Please write a comment
Please write your name