Editorial of April 26th 2007
 

Maïté Vissault cultural myth, identity, and politics in the postwar period : the case of the reception of the work of joseph beuys

 

Jean-Philippe Antoine joseph beuys : antimyth ?

Seminar of April 26nd 2007
Maïté Vissault is a contemporary-art historian, a critic, and an independent curator living in Berlin. With a degree in Political Science and a doctorate in Art History, she is the author of a dissertation entitled La problématique de l’identité allemande à travers la réception de l’oeuvre de Joseph Beuys (The Problematic of German identity as seen through the reception of the work of Joseph Beuys). Vissault has been published in various books, reviews (ETC Montréal, Art Même, etc.), and catalogues in contemporary-art history (La provocation: une dimension de l’art contemporain [Paris: Sorbonne, 2004] and La Nouvelle Peinture allemande [Nîmes: Carré D’art, 2005]). Her numerous talks in universities and at fine arts schools in France and in Germany focus mainly on current affairs in the world of contemporary art and the art market. As a curator, she has mounted a major exhibition at the Münster Landesmuseum entitled Cremers Haufen on the theme of everyday life in art from the 1960s to the present. And in 2006, she created an art exhibition in the “Leere X Vision: ConneXions” public space in collaboration with the Marta Museum (Herford, Germany) and HISK (Antwerp, Belgium). She is currently working on the design for a new contemporary-art center in Berlin..
cultural myth, identity, and politics in the postwar period : the case of the reception of the work of joseph beuys


The Beuys Phenomenon

        Rightly described as a “phenomenon” by Heiner Stachelhaus,(1) Joseph Beuys is incontestably one of the most emblematic art figures of the second half of the twentieth century. More than any other artist, he was the vehicle that made postwar international recognition of a unique German cultural identity possible. As Benjamin Buchloh wrote in Artforum in 1980, “By thematizing the repression of German history, Beuys’s art has developed here its most characteristic force, specificity, and authenticity. . . . Thus, it seems that, in the work and myth of Beuys, the postwar German spirit has been able to find a new identity.”(2)
        Indeed, even more than “thematizing the repression of German history,” Beuys revamped a way of conceiving art that has its roots in Schiller, Goethe, and Wagner, that is, in a mythical conception, a kind of transcendence inspired by the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) and German Romanticism. These references, which were often perceived by his detractors as a thinly-veiled apology for Germanness, made him an extremely controversial media figure. In order to understand Beuys’s importance, we must review the historical and political dimensions of the question of German identity--or, to put it quite succinctly, the preponderant role of art as cement for the problematic idea of the German nation as it extends from the Hermann myth to the Cold War via Bismarck--as well as the process of political, economic, and cultural rehabilitation launched by the Federal Republic of Germany after the war. In such a context, Beuys represents in some ways the psychoanalytic couch on which the FRG, stricken with multiple symptoms of schizophrenia owing to feelings of guilt and repression, tried to treat its trauma.
        Given the complexity of this figure--an Actionist, a sculptor, and a draftsman who developed a highly unusual formal artistic language, but also a messiah, an orator, a professor, and a politician--I shall limit myself here to sketching a rough portrait of the “Beuys phenomenon” by drawing on a few polemical features that marked the reception of his work--indeed, those very same ones that were to lead the noted German weekly magazine Der Spiegel to headline the cover of its November 5, 1979 issue: “The Artist Beuys . . . The Greatest -- World Renown for a Charlatan?”
        Der Spiegel was celebrating, in its own way, the major retrospective the Guggenheim was devoting that year to this German artist. Through a superlative exclamation put in the form of a question, this famously polemical magazine was intimating that “the artist Beuys” maintained a more or less avowed connection with hero and genius worship. Der Spiegel was thus raising the question of the mythical nature of his work by rhetorically taking up the well-known charges of charlatanism and mysticism that had shaped the artist’s media success and that, at that very moment, were being splashed across the front pages of American newspapers.

The “Beneficial Effects” of the Cold War

        Not only through the figure of messiah but also through the figures of injury, catharsis, purification, tabula rasa, the German language, and native soil, or else those of the total work of art and of Eurasia, Beuys’s art tirelessly thematized the trauma of the postwar period while reestablishing thereby a historical and ideological kinship with Art and the German Soul. It is therefore hardly surprising to see Beuys’s name start to appear in the 1970s on FRG advertising brochures next to Dürer and the Munich Beerfest.(3) Beuys had in effect asserted himself--and was asserted--to be a “pure product of Germany.” The establishment of his international reputation (via the United States) in the early 1980s corresponded to recognition of the FRG on the cultural, political, and economic world stage. This self-affirmation, and along with it that of the German arts scene, was established almost exclusively in a tug of war with the United States--with, as a backdrop, the Cold War, whose objective was above all to make West Germany an outpost as impervious as possible to the influence of the Soviet bloc.
        To accomplish this, the United States supported a series of major “measures”: the Marshall Plan, creation of the Deutsche Mark in June 1948, the establishment of study groups made up of Americans and Germans responsible for rebuilding the educational, social, economic, and cultural system, creation of the FRG in 1949,(4) and so on. This political, economic, and cultural “rehabilitation” minimized the consequences of defeat and favored, beyond the achievement of what was called the economic miracle of the Adenauer era, the affirmation of a new German cultural identity.
        The Cold War thus made of the FRG fertile ground for American propaganda; and it determined, starting in the 1960s, how a young progressive West German arts scene would be constituted. This new arts scene was at the origin of Beuys’s critical fortunes as well as of the market in contemporary art. In this context, Documenta played a decisive role. In 1955, its first edition was designed as a kind of rehabilitation of modern art and as a propaganda tool for a new democratic Germany that adhered to the values of the free world, whereas the second edition made clear for everyone the Americans’ attempt to absorb the culture of old Europe for its own benefit.(5) With its outsized colors, American art, Jackson Pollock placed at the center, triumphed, the rather morose European form of abstraction being relegated to the rear of the stage. The consequences were phenomenal; to New York’s advantage, they sounded the death knell of the Parisian metropolis--the FRG becoming the Americans’ de facto European branch office.
        At this time, Cologne benefitted from the advantages of a very open cultural policy, which quickly allowed it stand out as the European avant-garde city. The activities of the Electronic Music Studio run by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mary Bauermeister’s studio brought to the Rhineland a whole new young international arts scene made up mostly of Americans (John Cage, Michel Tudor, Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, Fluxus, La Monte Young, Merce Cunningham, Otto Piene, and the New Realists). One could attend concerts, lectures, happenings, and art exhibitions, each more experimental than the last, which led to the emergence of a young new market for German art. This was the ideal spot for launching a contemporary-art fair, the gallery owners Rudolph Zwirner and Hein Stünke thought. Thus, in 1967, eighteen “progressive” German gallery owners inaugurated, to resounding success, the first Cologne Art Market, which end up garnering 15,000 visitors and one-million marks in revenue. Such events were emulated to an unprecedented degree. Beuys, who was represented at the fair by his Berlin gallery owner René Block, was already enjoying widespread media coverage, in particular on account of the various scandals provoked by Fluxus, with which he was vaguely associated between 1963 and 1970. Nonetheless, while the emergence of the Cologne Fair consolidated the assertive affirmation of a young German arts scene, the latter remained the site where American art and Pop Art, which represented the gallery owners’ commercial showcase, received recognition.

The Conquest of America: The Dahlem “Plan”

        The true affirmation of German art took place, rather, at the margins, around Beuys and in radical opposition to Pop Art. On the opening day of the Cologne Fair in 1967, Johannes Cladders inaugurated the first major exhibition of this artist’s works at the Mönchengladbach municipal museum, which was little known at the time and still temporarily installed in a private home. On the advice of the gallery owners Franz Dahlem and Heiner Friedrich, Karl Ströher, an industrialist from Darmstadt, bought out the entire show, one-hundred-and-forty-two works in all. This purchase was in itself a sufficiently spectacular event to propel Beuys onto the market. But the Dahlem plan did not stop there. The idea, which he had been able to sell to the collector, consisted in bringing together in one and the same collection the new American and West German art in order to allow the latter to gain greater visibility and competitive market value. By likening him, though in a distinctive way, to American art, Beuys could represent an ideal, charismatic figure on the young arts scene. All that was missing was the American counterpart, quickly located by Dahlem, who was dispatched to the United States at the beginning of the year by Count Ströher. There, he acquired, for nearly two millions marks, the collection of the late Leon Kraushaar, a rich American insurance agent who had died that Fall--around two-hundred Pop Art works, including a significant number from Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselman, as well as a major piece by George Segal. Shortly thereafter, Dahlem organized, again on behalf of Ströher, a huge exhibition that traveled for two years to Munich, Hamburg, Berlin, Düsseldorf, and Bâle. The exhibition, divided in two parts, showed the works of Beuys on the one hand and, on the other, Pop Art.
        The effect in the press was dazzling. Thanks to Ströher, a special room of d4 was devoted in 1968 to Beuys, whose work was shown between that of Dan Flavin and Edward Kienholz. In six months’ time, Dahlem and Ströher had placed Beuys--and, with him, contemporary German art--at the summit, now on a par with the Americans. Consequently, in 1969, René Block sold to Jorg Herbig, a young German collector, a Beuys installation called The Pack/das Rudel for the price of a Warhol.
        The self-affirmation of the German arts scene had begun. It continued throughout the 1970s with the gradual conquest of the American market by German gallery owners. Thus, in June 1974, René Block opened a gallery in Soho with an emblematic Beuys action: I Like America & America Likes Me.
        Were it only on account of its title, this action thematized the confrontation, the love-hate relationship, that characterized the FRG’s relations with the United States. Upon his arrival in New York, Beuys covered his eyes before deplaning, and then, wrapped in a felt blanket, was transported, without his feet touching American soil, to the gallery where a coyote locked behind a railing was awaiting him. “Modern man,” a tamer, spent three days in the company of the animal, a symbol of the original Indian civilization, of survival, and of the transition from chaos to order. And then he left as he had arrived. The gallery was declared, for the time of the action, an “extraterritorial zone.” Here again, Beuys was positioning himself as the messiah, a healer and mediator, this time attempting the spiritual rescue of American civilization.

Beuys and France

        A perfect strategist, Beuys knew how to look after his image just as much as he knew to avoid exposing himself unprepared to critics. This is surely one of the reasons that would prompt him to refuse to exhibit his work at too early a date in an American institutional setting--despite repeated invitations since the late 1960s--and that was going to determine his attitude of aloofness vis-à-vis France. Nonetheless, from an artistic standpoint, Beuys borrowed much more from such New Realists as Yves Klein and Arman, who were then being shown in Düsseldorf and Krefeld, or even from Duchamp--who was perceived, rather, as an American artist--than from American art, whether abstract, conceptual, or minimal. Indeed, he positioned himself as a counterfigure in relation to American culture, as ambassador of European culture, and he affirmed in all his works his allegiance to Germany. Nonetheless, through this struggle for recognition, above all it was the conquest of America that focused all his energies.
        Beuys finally won over America in 1979 when the Guggenheim devoted a major retrospective to his work. America was offering him ultimate recognition in the temple of modernity at the moment when the American market was being opened to such German artists as Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, and Sigmar Polke and recognition of the legitimacy of the FRG was taking place on the international geopolitical stage. Despite the critics, Beuys could therefore, with complete legitimacy, display the cavalier attitude of the victor.
        Thus, more than a top-shelf artist, Beuys was the epitome of the artist-ambassador, indeed a courtier. This explains in part his problems in relating to France. His first one-man show there took place only in 1982 at Durand Dessert’s with a reworked installation, Dernier espace avec introspecteur. Just as much as its sense of superiority and its critical skepticism toward whatever comes from Germany, France’s flaunted anti-Americanism surely did not facilitate establishment of a dialogue. What is more, when Beuys began to be recognized and “courted” by France in the 1980s, the latter had by that time long lost its status as international capital of the arts. At the height of his glory, he thus had little interest in begging for the recognition an arrogant France was offering him without any real conviction, and which the United States had already granted. Nonetheless, a period of detente began as a matter of fact in the 1980s, when the FRG was displaying a latent anti-Americanism and thus was establishing a rapprochement with its neighboring country. In 1982, Beuys, engaged at the time in setting up the Greens party, sang “Sun in the place of Reagan,” a play on words comparing the rain to the American president’s name (Sonne statt Reagan). It was then that one could perceive a sort of reconciliation, still arduous and tinged with skepticism.

 

Bibliography

Bark, Dennis L. and David R. Gress. A History of West Germany. Oxford, UK and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1989.
Bätschmann, Oskar. Ausstellungskünstler: Kult und Karriere im modernen Kunstsystem. Köln: DuMont, 1997.
Baum, Stella. Ed. “Die frühen Jahre: Gespräche mit Galeristen.” Kunstforum, 104:10/12 (1989): 215-94.
Haftmann, Werner, Eberhard Roters, and Karl Ruhrberg. Eds. Sammlung 1968 Karl Ströher. Berlin and Düsseldorf: Nationalgalerie, Städtischen Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 1969.
Herzogenrath, Wulf and Gabriela Lueg. Eds. Die 60er Jahre. Kölns Weg zur Metropole. Vom Happening zum Kunstmarkt. Cologne: Kölnischer Kunstverein, 1986.
Lange, Barbara. Joseph Beuys: Richtkräfte einer neuen Gesellschaft: Der Mythos vom Künstler als Gesellschaftsreformer. Berlin: Reimer, 1999.
Luckow, Dirk. Joseph Beuys und die amerikanische Anti Form-Kunst: Einfluß und Wechselwirkung zwischen Beuys und Morris, Hesse, Nauman, Serra. Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1998
Ray, Gene. Ed. Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy, New York: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 2001.
Schneede, Uwe M. Joseph Beuys: Die Aktionen. Ostfildern-Ruit: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1994.
Wiese, Stephan von. Ed. Brennpunkt Düsseldorf 1962-1987: Joseph Beuys Die Akademie Der allgemeine Aufbruch and Brennpunkt 2 Düsseldorf 1970 1991. Düsseldorf: Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf, 1987 and 1991.

 

Notes


1. In 1973, Heiner Stachelhaus published a long critical article in which he endeavored to take apart the commentaries made by Beuys’s powerful backers and to analyze the reasons for this artist’s considerable popularity: “Phänomen Beuys,” Magazin Kunst, 50 (1973): 29-46.
2. Stephan von Wiese (ed.), Brennpunkt Düsseldorf 1962-1987: Joseph Beuys Die Akademie Der allgemeine Aufbruch, trans: B. H. D. Buchloh (Düsseldorf: Kunstmuseum, 1987), p. 66. (original publication: “The Twilight of the Idol,” New York, Artforum, January 1980: 35-43). [Translator: On page 38 of the Artforum article, the original English reads as follows: “But, of course, the repressed returns with ever-increasing strength, . . . . Here lies, one has also to admit, certainly, one of the strongest features of the work, its historic authenticity . . . . In the work and public myth of Joseph Beuys the German spirit of the postwar period finds its new identity.”]
3. “In Europe, Beuys is considered a political artist. […] When, in 1970, I was preparing to visit Germany for the first time, I came across a tourist brochure that, apart from Rhenish castles, the Munich Beerfest, and Berlin After Dark, also presented Joseph Beuys over four color pages. [From then on] the suspicion didn’t leave me that the Federal Republic is using him to show how liberal it is” (John Perreault, “Felt Forum,” Soho Weekly News, November 8-16, 1979).
4. Though established in 1949, the FRG did not become a fully sovereign country until 1955.
5. An international committee was assigned the task of selecting European works, while the American section, financed by the Rockefeller Foundation, was handed over to Porter McCray of MoMA.
6. For a more detailed description of this action, see René Block in Stella Baum (ed.), Kunstforum, 104:10/12 (1989): 261-62, and Uwe M. Schneede, Joseph Beuys: Die Aktionen (Ostfildern-Ruit: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1994), pp. 330-39.
7. Relations between Beuys and Fluxus were bristling with misunderstandings, and his association with Land Art remains problematic on account of the political character of his works.