Joseph Beuys Essay

Joseph Beuys, How to Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare, Nov. 26, 1965

The 1965 photograph of Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) cradling, almost mothering, a dead hare today seems iconic. It’s certainly more accessible and far-reaching than his drawings and installations. What was he explaining to the dead hare in 1965? The failure of the modernist revolution? The end of old German culture? Why does he always look like a hunter without a rifle? Or is this part of the performance art?

The dead hare figures as a motif in numerous Dutch still-lifes, and the living hare is the subject for one of the greatest portraits achieved by Albrecht Dürer. When we appropriate or employ nature in art, we create new creatures of design and appetite. The hare of Dürer has the fine lines and detail of the artist’s own self-portraits. Strangely, Beuys’ performance with the dead hare creates a similar mirror effect, conveying the artist’s charity and warmth through dialogue with it . . .

The pose, with Beuys’s face covered in honey and gold leaf, conjures several associations, beginning with the classical pose of the Madonna and child (Christ). This religious association is not far off the mark, since Beuys was a spiritual man, influenced by the teachings of the anthroposophist, Rudolf Steiner, and throughout his career as an artist, Beuys was keen on the redemptive and regenerative aspects of creation.

In his autobiography, he identified with the Tatars of the Crimea who he claimed rescued him after he was shot down during the Second World War. They kept him alive in furs and animal fat–hence his almost fetishistic interest in fat. The mythic rescue evidently brought him closer to nature and metaphysical forces.

The dead hare is then emblematic of nature and also death, in which the “shaman” Beuys attempts to raise the animal back to life. The hare figures throughout his oeuvre, but no image is more fascinating than the photograph of Beuys as he sits zombie-like, explaining art to a dead hare.

Yet this picture we have of him is outside the context of the original performance of the dialogue with the hare, and the still wider context of the international Fluxus movement emanating from the experimental music of the American composer John Cage. To some, Beuys’s antics were a vaudeville act, and his performances visual gags, not to be taken seriously–akin to the fun of the Dadaists.

We would see on the Flux “bill” many such visual gags, and all of them testing and provocative. However, there is something different going on with Beuys, and perhaps we should consider what exactly that might be. The hare, apart from its symbolic value, is game. It has been hunted and eaten for centuries. Also consider: Joseph Beuys, like Andy Warhol, wore easily-identifiable clothes. For Beuys, it was a hat that covered his war wound (the “wound badge” he received from the Nazis), a fur coat that made him look like a Berlin pimp, or a hunter’s jacket.

I like America and America likes me, 1974
Action piece. Photo credit Caroline Tisdall.

He frequently draws on canidae (carnivorous mammals), including the wolf and coyote. His affinity and obsession with fur and animal fat is suggestive of the carnivore. Here an identification with wolf-like animals, and a love of the holistic and the regenerative, have their parallels in Nazi culture, whose leader saw himself as a Wolf. That dangerous line of thought should be qualified, however, since Beuys himself was against Nazism, and his art was heavily influenced by the so-called “degenerate art,” destroyed or censored in the cultural purges of the 1930’s.

Moreover, he first came to the public eye after being assaulted during a cultural performance that commemorated the anniversary of the failed assassination attempt of Hitler. But like the novelist Günter Grass, who had problems connected with his Nazi past, Beuys was plagued by doubts. This is the very rub of the German artist living at this time. German culture after 1945 had been effectively orphaned. It lay in ruins. The projects of Beuys served several functions, one was to bridge the period prior to 1933, the well spring of German culture, and another was to create a new, regenerated culture from the subject matter of Germany’s ruins, hence the vitrines and the lectures.

Schlitten mit Filter (Sled with Filter), 1983
Vitrine. Mixed Media. 205.7 x 219.7 x 49.5 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

We can see Beuys having a curatorial role in re-writing or re-inventing German culture. There was a need for a new language after the War. Beuys’s performance art, or “actions,” were linguistic experiments. There was also a sense of rebirth. Part of this rebirth involved the appropriation of foreign cultures. In the era of German Expressionism, the sources of exoticism were from other continents, and they coloured the lens that saw the landscape at home. In the case of Beuys, his interest lay in cultures that enjoyed a contiguity with the Teutonic, for example, the Turkic-Slavic and Celtic. There he could draw on imagery and mythology that was similar to the German culture. Despite the assertions that Beuys and other German artists of his generation were poking fun at the academy, Beuys’s artistic mentor was Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-1919) whose sculpture while not formally academic, subscribed to the same values.

Importantly, Lehmbruck’s naturalist nudes were inspired by Gothicism. Throughout his career, Beuys would draw the nude and had the figurative in mind. One could argue that his approach to art was similar to the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994) who raged against the scientific method, although he needed it to situate his own anarchic philosophy. I argue that both were conservative in this respect.

Returning to the 1965 performance, if we compare it with the Expressionist and Dada schools and the early work of the American Jim Dine, we will realize that there are significant differences. When the German artists of the WWI period performed or executed their installations, they had a specific target, namely the German middle class and military. Much of the art, though provocative in a fun way, was political. Satire in its traditional form asserts an alternative to the ideology or status quo that it attacks. The shitification of art by Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) is a case in point. Jim Dine’s installations, like those of the Flux movement, were an attack on consumer culture and the values of the American Dream. Of course later, as Raymond Duchamp complained, these artists became avaricious themselves. But in Jim Dine’s performance art we see, aside from references to 1950’s B movies, a centre of humanity. This does not seem to be the case in Beuys. The object of satire is not transparent, the hare is the victim and Beuys is the hunter. The hare recalls the leitmotif of High German art going back to Albrecht Dürer’s hare.

We might, momentarily, see in the original photograph (at the beginning of this essay) a sense of tenderness and aspects of the comic. After all, the artist has much in common with the silent movie star Buster Keaton. The tell-tale clothes, the “stone-face,” the installations, the gags. Yet Keaton’s father forced him to perform from an early age, and even constructed his son’s alter-ego. Whatever there was of the real Keaton, not much was left in adulthood. He had become the “stone-face”.

The identity Beuys created for himself similarly took over. In the case of Beuys it was brought about not by an abusive father, but by the Second World War. If Germany had won the war, he would have been a hero of sorts. Instead, he became the hated enemy. The physical and psychological trauma of his wounds, especially the wound to the head, must have exacted a dreadful toll. He could not express or expect comfort. Artists of the WWI period who sustained similar injuries, could vent their anger against the Third Reich. Unfortunately, Beuys fought on behalf of the Nazis. His performance as Joseph Beuys, like Andy Warhol’s dark glasses and Buster Keaton’s “stone face,” hid the real Joseph. He had wanted to be a zoologist or work with animals before the war. He had valued German culture and history. Both of these strands of his development were reintegrated into his art to provide a conservative foundation.

Toward the end of his life, in an interview, he articulated his feelings about German art and culture. His word choice revealed his deep affinity with the “spirit” of German culture–such language was typical of the Third Reich, though of course Beuys did not mean it in the same way Hitler did. Nevertheless, German culture was seen by Beuys as a transcendental force.

When we look at photographs of Buster Keaton (1895-1966), we see some notable differences. Though Keaton’s stone-face appears to lack empathy, he exudes a sensitivity to the presence of others. He has a humanity. His pathos invites the Other.

Buster Keaton in Go West (1925).

In the above picture, Keaton is staring into the remote distance. His body language and general posture, however, keenly acknowledge the presence of the cow.  He is standing with the cow, and their togetherness almost seems immutable. Ironically, the cow’s demeanor is more suggestive of a mood than Keaton’s, whose face is characteristically deadpan. This look was stylized and learnt through a brutal regime in vaudeville moves overseen by his father. It was a costly look.

Beuys on the other hand is enigmatic. What do the honey and gold leaf achieve? A de-facement? Are we to look at Beuys as the persona and not the person? Are we to take him as art?

The hare is dead. It does not respond. Its cousin was used to perform magic tricks. A rabbit once had its entrails pulled into a work of art. There is no compassion here: we are looking at the hare from the wolf’s point of view.

The twentieth century literary critic Paul de Man (1919-1983) spent years creating deconstructionist theory. His principal stance was against the romantic notion of the self. But in a sad twist of fate, he had hidden his real self in a drawer. The revelations of his past as a journalist of anti-Semitic articles were used to de-construct his own life . . .

Could it be possible that Beuys, like de Man, was disguising himself? Was the construction of Joseph Beuys a disguise?

Either way, Joseph Beuys has left us a great legacy to ponder.

I was born in London in 1956. I studied art at Herefordshire College, later went to UEA and studied literature. I worked abroad then came back to do a law degree. I have had poetry published in New Poetry, Snakeskin, Dada, Pif etc. I am a researcher in zoosemiotics based in Denmark.



an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 5, May-June 2008, ISSN 1552-5112

of Proceeding: Joseph Beuys, the Epistemological Break and Radical Thought Today

Gerry Coulter

The phantasm of science… there is an “epistemological break” that relegates all other thought to a senseless prehistory of knowledge.[1]

Freedom is not knowledge, but what one has become after knowledge. It is a state of mind that not only admits contradiction but seeks it out.[2]

I. Introduction

Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) lived and worked during a time when our present was only beginning to congeal. It was then still possible to see art as playing a role in transforming the world by pointing to a future based on individual creativity. His work was motivated by two driving urges: 1) A radical conception of politics (toward what he referred to as “social sculpture”) in which art is to play a healing role; and 2) by a desire to close the epistemological break which Jean Baudrillard refers to in 1973. This paper examines some aspects of the continuing place of Beuys’s art in closing this break despite the evaporation of the politics which motivated its maker. This takes us to the question: what is the role of the art of Joseph Beuys from the vantage point of contemporary radical thought?

Since Beuys’s death, social thought has become radicalized in ways he could not foresee due to the work of thinkers such as Baudrillard. Radical theory is no longer understood as imbued with radical politics but exists purely as a form of challenge – including a challenge to theory, art, and the political. Radical thought pushes theory toward an escape velocity from a degenerating political which has mutated into a “transpolitical”[3] wherein we can only await a possible “politics to come”[4]. In short, theory after postmodernism in general, and Baudrillard in particular, is not anything like it was in Beuys’s time.[5]

This has also been a period witnessing an incredible movement of social thought and art toward each other – but not as Beuys envisioned.[6] Beuys’s art was not meant to be either decorative or merely reflective but was to function in life as it was lived. Radical thought today, not unlike like Beuys’s conception of art, aims not merely to be reflective but to challenge.[7] While I am someone who is motivated by both Beuys’s art and Baudrillardian radical thought – I understand that it is difficult to imagine two more dissimilar thinkers. Yet Beuys’s work remains strong in its challenge to theory to close the epistemological gap precisely at a time when art and radical thought intersect so radiantly. While it may trouble some Beuyseans greatly, his art continues to function powerfully in an orbit well beyond his politics and ethics. This is a contradiction I have come to appreciate and which informs this writing. It is a contradiction worth pursuing as it provides a unique opportunity to see Beuys’s work anew.

Beuys’s art now endures into another time and plays an important role in the bridging of the epistemological break. This break separating art from social thought has been enforced in the social studies by empiricists who see art, and all non-empirical accomplishments, as forms of “non-knowledge”. The most important challenge to empiricism has been the development of theory that more resembles art than it does science. While literature and poetry have played more pronounced roles, artists (and their works) also play an important part in the intersections between social thought and art. Beuys’s works are especially important because they are a kind of ‘theory’ that makes significant demands on any social thought that seeks to be artistic. They, and their effect, are also still too imposing to be ignored and will, no doubt, remain so for some time. Today we can read his art works, like the best of contemporary radical thought, as efforts not to replicate the real, but rather, as negations of the “real”. In this Beuys meets a challenge of art that is also the challenge of radical theory: to help us live in a world in which we never know the real – merely the appearances behind which it hides. His art continues to live, as does the best of contemporary radical thought, a non-empirical existence.

The art of radical thought today, and its understanding of Beuys’s art, does not involve a search for universal meaning. Rather it involves the simulation (writing) of a world which is given to us as enigmatic and unintelligible, in ways which make it even more enigmatic.[8]Radical theory, like radical art, is both simulation and challenge. This does not mean that we have no meaning at all, but that meaning or truth are to be understood as multiple, restricted, and existing along local horizons. This is a philosophy attractive to thinkers like Baudrillard and also to Beuys who was motivated by Goethe’s insistence that the self is the only proper standard of truth.[9] The universals which traditional thought depends upon (be it traditional “critical theory” or aesthetics), are no longer accessible to us.

Jean Baudrillard is the leading thinker among those who have contributed to the idea of theory as “a challenge to the real” to expose itself as illusion.[10] According to this epistemology (devastating to empiricism), theory derives more from poetic and literary impulses than a scientific one.[11] Ironically, and much to the chagrin of empiricists in the “social sciences”, Baudrillard developed these notions indebted to scientists such as Heisenberg (author of the uncertainty principle). According to most scientists, even science is a story – the best one devisable until another (always provisional), story is formulated. Baudrillard’s radical thought is more “scientific” in this important sense than is that of the empiricists who loath him. Rather than the bastion of truth and objectivity, knowledge is here understood to be in a state of poetic uncertainty. It was, after all, science which gave us the uncertainty principle – and it is a principle that does not belong to science alone – it is “at the heart of all our actions, at the heart of ‘reality’”.[12] Among the more interesting aspects of our current uncertainty are the intersections of contradictory elements such as Beuys’s art and Baudrillard’s thought.

II. A Voyage To The Soul of Art

...the soul of Art… art with its power of illusion, its capacity for negating reality, for setting up an ‘other scene’ in opposition to reality, where things obey a higher set of rules, a transcendent figure in which beings, like line and colour on canvas, are apt to lose their meaning … in this sense, Art is gone.[13]

Art which travels to the soul of art is not imitation.[14] It is a voyage of exploration that can lead us into magnificent adventures. The twentieth century produced no more interesting explorer or brilliant adventurer than Beuys. He accomplished something few ever do – he produced works that take us to the indefinable soul of art. Beuys operated like a virus deeply challenging prevailing definitions of art by uncompromisingly following a personal vision of what art must do. Wandering through the devastated wasteland that was art after Duchamp (and Warhol), Beuys assembled the things he found and in doing so became the first great artist of the post-art era. Beuys, like (Odd Nerdrum or Francis Bacon and a few others) was an artist after the end of art (as modernism understood art).

At precisely the time when everything was gaining speed, driving to a new levels of programmatic functionality and the banality of the model – in increasingly high definition – Joseph Beuys made his art by slowing down. As art sped up (action painting, kinetic art, and the slick fast surfaces of geometric abstraction, serial Pop, and Op art), Beuys pointed to the necessity of slowness – of the poetry of finite human existence. It was Beuys’s own version of a “vertigo of delay in opposition to the vertigo of acceleration” as Octavio Paz said of Duchamp’s work.[15] Beuys gathered and arranged symbolic materials such as felt and wax and odd pieces of metal and an assortment of media almost as diverse as the planet, including his own charismatic persona. He is also extremely rare in the contemporary period in that he used “waste” to make art that is not itself actually garbage.

Among the incredibly diverse media Beuys deployed we find a coyote with whom he shared a room for four days (I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974); a swamp (Bog Action, 1971); and a large pump (Honey pump in the workplace, 1974-1977 (1977). Beuys produced an oeuvre which for me can only be understood as profoundly thoughtful, sincere, deliberate, and often poignant.

1. Beuys. How to explain paintings to

a dead hare (1965).[16]

He produced three main kinds of work. First there were the innumerable “actions” such as his intensely touching How to Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare – a work which provides a good deal of insight into his approach to art.With his head coated in honey and gold-leaf (wearing a felt sole on one shoe and a piece of iron attached to the other), Beuys undertook the mysterious and poetic action of carefully carrying the dead hare from one picture to the next at an exhibition. Beuys spoke to the animal and touched its paw to each work before sitting down to provide the animal with a longer explanation. Among Beuys’s gifts was the ability to convince us that such “actions”, which might seem impenetrably strange coming from someone else, could be taken seriously and accepted like generous gifts when they came from him. Beuys depended deeply on his personal charisma which was for him an important medium. Charisma is an especially warm, magnetic, and seductive medium with which to work and few artists possess the vast reserve of it Beuys enjoyed.

Second, there was his self described work as a Shaman – he saw himself more as an educator than an artist and it is quite possible to make the case that his works of art are not “art” at all, but pedagogic instruments.[17] This is an important aspect of why we still take Beuys seemingly “odd” gestures seriously – because first and foremost he presented a shaman-like presence in which we are enjoined to believe him because he so obviously and so strongly believes in his performance. Finally there was his “social sculpture” and his work as a catalyst for social change. This led him to found the German Students Party and a series of political actions and organizations, the net result of which, is today’s not insignificant German Green Party. As in How to explain paintings to a dead hare, all three aspects could inform a given work.

2. and 3. Beuys. Coyote Action: I Like and Likes me.[18]

Beuys’s belief that “everyone is an artist” was as generous as it was utopian and it was, ironically, undermined at every turn by the rare quality of his work which only served to demonstrate his own exceptionality. Even if we are each of us artists – some excel in their particular craft more than others do in theirs. Beuys himself acknowledged this in 1985 a year before his death.[19]

Whatever art is – and it is something we have been fortunate to have never adequately defined – the work of Joseph Beuys is as much at the heart and soul of it as is that of Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, Caravaggio, Duchamp, Picasso, or Rauchenberg. We cannot reach agreement concerning what art is by studying its diverse forms. We can however acknowledge that what is “artistic” about a work we can acclaim to be “art” is that it works on another plane than the “reality” we experience in the world. Art then, involves the “power of illusion” as Baudrillard puts it, setting up another prospect from the world of appearances we take to be the real. In Beuys’s case this involves work that gathers up ancient threads from our prehistory and ties them to a strong sense of the future. This is one more element in his work that sits well beside a Baudrillardian understanding of theory as challenge. Beuys even managed to turn his expulsion from the

4. Beuys. Democracy Is Merry (1973).[20]

university into an artistic provocation which is remembered as Democracy is Merry. This was an artist we can view today as knowing how, very early on in the transpolitical, to take a world that is given to us as enigmatic and unintelligible and to make it even more so.

III. Fragments

5. Beuys. Sheep in Snow (1952).[21]

As theory has itself become an illusory art, art (traditionally consisting of an object) has grown closer to theory (the medium of which has traditionally been words). Words were rare in the art of modernism. One of the important ways Beuys’s art diverges from modernism involves how much words matter to it. His work often relies heavily on the moment of the mutual volitization of the status of the thing and of discourse. Words (in the form of titles) simulate thought as gauze and wood simulate the illusion of a sheep and snow. In this particular doubling ofsimulation Beuys elevates the enigmaticalness of the work into a form of gestural poetry. Beuys, like Francis Bacon, produced work that relies on sensations and feelings rather than meaning and representation. This work includes a (very) short story, but one that we must continue to write after its maker has given us the first three words. Beuys, as did conceptual art generally, stressed the discursive side of art and this was an important step out of pure abstraction to a place where art and theory come closer together and may eventually enfold each other.

From the vantage point of radical thought Beuys’s art works challenge theory to communicate the illusion of the world with poetic elegance. In order to enter into a dialogue with such art one thing theory itself must do is be willing to leave words behind. It is interesting in this regard to find a leading radical theorist, Baudrillard, producing “photographs as theory” beyond his many written texts.[22]

6. Baudrillard. Saint Clément (1987).[23]

Baudrillard’s enigmatic car in the water simulates not only the catastrophe of the individual car but of all of technological civilization. We are reminded of Heidegger’s claim that technology is nihilistic in its pure expression of a will to power. The drowned car is in ecstasy, its entire presence denoting an absence, a catastrophe in slow motion as it dissolves into the water. This photograph of the car evokes slowness, inertia, the absurdity and ultimate illusion and unintelligibility of progress, and of the nothing which underlies everything – the nothing which haunts modernity represented here by one of its greatest objects of fascination and desire, the motorcar. It is a photograph that manages to gather up the indifference of the car and add to it what Baudrillard refers to as the “subjective disillusion of the world”.[24] Photographs, like theory seeking to make the world more enigmatic, bring us closer to pure appearance than they do the real. Like the world, this car will never be understood other than as an image of doubt, at most a fragment of an enigmatic appearance – the illusory appearances behind which hides the “real”.

Beuys’s Sheep in snow creates a similar effect as one fragment of an artist’s thought processes – a simulation of a fragment of the world. Like Baudrillard’s drowned car, Beuys’s Sheep in Snow possesses the power to seize our attention but not the power to clarify or simplify the world – indeed, the impact is the opposite. This is where art and the most radical of contemporary theory intersect. For me, Beuys objects and actions, despite what he might have wished, today serve to only increase the world’s inscrutableness.

I move no closer to an understanding of universal truth in my experience of Beuys’s work any more than I do by looking at Baudrillard’s photograph of the car or reading one of his texts. These two artists oblige me to become an artist or perhaps even a poet in the work of reading the texts they provide. By experiencing their texts in this manner, the burden of interpretation forces me to feel the enigmaticalness of the world and its fragmentary nature. I am provided with the opportunity to see the world anew – not as something at the service of any universally “true” meaning or narrative – but as something ever so much more mysterious and dependent on my (local) “reading” of it. Sheep in Snow, like Baudrillard’s photograph, leaps the gap between image (or object) making and text and we may look upon it today as an important moment, among many, in the closing of the gap between theory and art. Sheep in Snow does not function on the level of representation but neither is it an abstract work. Not unlike Francis Bacon’s art it seeks to evoke a feeling in the reader which is stimulated by the feelings of it maker. It trades, in object and words, at the level of illusion and appearances and our reading of it will never precisely coincide with Beuys’sintention. Beuys’s object like Baudrillard’s photograph signal an important movement of theory and art toward each other as they play upon the mutual volatilization of object and discourse. They stand as new kinds of texts which take us toward a kind of non-empirical thought in which the illusory nature of the world remains intact. Social theory and art proceed most elegantly without the empiricism which has for so long sought to separate them.

IV. Silence

7. Beuys. Silent Gramophone (1962)[25]8. Beuys. (Fond IV) Silent Loudspeaker[26]

Beuys Silent Gramophone and Silent Loudspeaker are works of a poetic quietude in a world increasingly inundated with noise. What today is more precious than a quiet place in which to carry out silent thoughts and the transcription of these simulations of the world in our preferred media? How often we wish that a loud speaker could be transformed into a silent block of felt. Against the pace and noise of late modernity, Beuys turned down the volume of the world in a bid to make it listen to the sound of silence – to feel the illusion of noise by its very absence.

Silent Gramophone and Silent Loudspeaker are each a visual rendering of hearing but in a manner in which silence is prioritized. Both of these works render observable our ability to hear. Hearing thus becomes a more delicate matter for thought as Beuys interrupts the normal flow of “ear to mind” alerting us to a new way of thinking the act of hearing from “eye to mind”. A silence is invoked – a silence that draws attention to the poetic beauty, not only of silence as auditory absence, but of a visual art that can make us “see” silence. By encouraging us to see silence, these works are useful for us today in our effort to formulate a strategy of indifference. This strategy of indifference responds to the system’s bid of neutralization and indifference by returning an equal (or even greater indifference) to the system. What has changed is that we no longer have the luxury (as Beuys did) of seeing the system as manageable. Today things are understood to be beyond anyone’s control – including collective control.[27]

“Why avail oneself of meaning when silence is sure to win” asks Baudrillard.[28] During Beuys’s time our world was rapidly becoming one in which we are today obligated at every turn to speak. The guarantee of freedom of speech is ever more a guarantee only of surveillance. [Today many loudspeakers are used primarily to hide listening devices for public surveillance]. In such a world art which celebrates silence carries a significant conceptual force. Silence becomes an important visual aspect of the world for Beuys just as words play a role, however uncertain, in the communication of objects and images. Beuys’s works which prioritize silence today intersect with a radical theory that values the enigmatic and unintelligible aspects of existence. This is a more difficult kind of knowing, one more in keeping with the unintelligibility of the universe. It is a kind of knowing in which works such as those made by Beuys are much closer to radical theory today than is the noisy clamor of statistics in empiricism’s quest for a real we can never know in any “objective” sense. Beuys’s work participates today in a different kind of “knowability” wherein uncertainty, flux, and temporality are prioritized.

V. Enshrouding

9. Beuys. The abandoned sleep of me and my 10. Beuys. The needles of a

loves (1965)[29]Christmas tree (1962).[30]

Death also appears as an important theme in Beuys’s work. The Needles of a Christmas Tree is a photograph of a tree Beuys left standing for four years in his studio. This tree is often understood as a constant reminder of death ever present in his creative space while he contemplated and executed works such as The Abandoned Sleep of Me and My Loves. It is however, also a work that, with each needle of the tree, makes palpable the physical accumulation (snowing down) of time. The illusion of “death as an ending” is the subject of this work. The deterioration of the tree is not its ending but its continuation into another endurance – not merely its life after death but its continued life in death. I know of no other work in the history of human art that makes so apparent the non-identical nature of time and death. We have in this work only the appearance of death. Beuys understands that time is master of all – including death.

The abandoned sleep of me and my loves is a reenactment in miniature of the sleeping facilities of the prisoners of the NAZI camps. For me it is also a silent contemplative work about time. Words and silence are once again called upon by the artist but now with an even greater enigma given the difficulty of speaking to the original event. Time slowly becomes conspicuous through the word “abandoned” which refers to the seemingly countless days and nights of life extinguished by the factories of death.

Beuys’s Abandoned Sleep also highlights the uncomfortable fact that all we have left of the years of the camps are simulations. We know that period and that war now – a war in which Beuys flew with the Luftwaffe – only through visual simulations such as this work of art or films such as Holocaust.[31] Today “abandoned” may also be read as the loss of the lived sense of the German camps which have already begun to fade into history and mass mediated simulations. This work perpetrates an act of elegance in memory for those we (always) abandon.Abandoned Sleep is a work concerning the illusory nature of remembrance. It leaves us to wonder if it is worse to forget or to remember and to ponder the notion that, in the end, time is the cruel master of memory which it fatigues into forgetting.

Snowfall is one of the most simple art works ever made consisting of sixteen pieces of felt cut into squares layered over three small tree branches. Like Needles of a Christmas Tree this work captures the slow, soft, inevitability of

11. Beuys. Snowfall (1965).[32]

the drifting down of time. I know of few other works which point so well to the fact that it is appearances which actually stand in for what we have long called “reality”. This work trades on the notion of the importance of being attentive to our slow accumulation of experience which, like a gentle snowfall, cloaks our existence. Each of us peer out from under the cover of this accumulation of fragments of existence. The more we think, the more uncertain we become, and this is the secret of the noise and haste of a consumer society predicated on thoughtless accumulation. Beuys works against such an ethos in this work which is akin to watching not only time, but thought itself, drift down over existence. As our experiences gather we do not become more certain, but rather, as a product of this enshrouding, less certain. Against modernity’s cherished notion of progress, we live in a world where as time passes, we do not “know” with morecertainty, but less. There is a passage in one of the theory diaries of Baudrillard which captures this feeling. The theorist as poet wrote:

Everyday experience falls like snow. Immaterial, crystalline and microscopic, it enshrouds all the features of the landscape. It absorbs sounds, the resonance of thoughts and events… Watching time snow down, ideas snow down, giving in to the vertigo of enshrouding and whiteness.[33]

Beuys possessed the ability to create work wherein we could witness the illusory power of death, remembrance, and certainty. It is especially by calling attention to these illusions that Beuys’s works continue to participate in the coming together of the concerns of radical thought and art. The shroud from under which Beuys’s work peers out is the veil of temporality. In a time after their maker’s time Beuys’s work intersects with radical thought along planes where Beuys would no doubt be uncomfortable. Interpretation too is one of the ravages of time.

V. Conclusion

Beuys, like Baudrillard, produced objects with which art and theory may continue to bridge the epistemological gap separating them. From the vantage point of the earliest steps along that bridge we begin to see all the better that empiricism, as its grand edifice begins to fade in the distance, was no more or no less a simulation than any of Beuys’s art objects and actions (or texts by Baudrillard).[34] Beuys’s art today can be read as sharing many of the concerns of radical thought given its truly “artistic” nature – works which take us more to appearances than they do to any firm understanding of the “real”. As such, Beuys’s work goes to the soul of art where radical thought may appreciate it’s approach to simulation, silence, time and experience. For radical theorists seeking to surpass the strictures of empiricism Beuys’s art works continue on with a certain power.

12. Beuys. Infiltration Homogeneous for Grand Piano

By removing the mythic mask of empiricism thought may relish the experience of an enigmatic and unintelligible world which it is the task of theory and art to explore. The empirical is a tenacious product of instrumental reason. This kind of reason is the enemy of illusion and the enigmatic as it constantly seeks meaning and to break through appearances into the real.[35] It is ironic that objectivity became so important to empiricism because – as Beuys and Baudrillard show us – in the most “objective” sense, the world is an illusion which can only appear to us as light breaks across the surface of it.[36] Beuys is in no way an irrationalist (neither is Baudrillard for that matter), but an artist who can be read as forcing reason to face the enigmatic.

Empiricism’s problem turned out to be its lack of artistry – its avoidance of the illusory and enigmatic quality of the world. It often tried to write a beautiful story only to end up with a not a very interesting one. In recent decades artists like Beuys have shown us that beauty is a meaningless concept better replaced by the criterion of interest. Knowledge rules only over truth and causality – it has no power over appearance and illusion.[37] Contemporary radical thought makes us aware that knowledge is part of the world but our world is profoundly illusory and bears no necessary relation to knowledge.[38] As we move toward a new, more artistic, horizon in the social studies – empiricism may be traded for a more poetic, artful, and uncertain epistemology – one more in keeping with the uncertainty and enigmatic nature of the world.This challenge to the real and to reason works with the knowledge of only indifference. In the place where art demonstrates its artistry by its perception of illusion and appearance Joseph Beuys’s work remains important.

Beuys’s work sets up “another scene” from the real. His simulated fragments point to aspects of the enigmaticalness of the world with works that hinge on fragments, silence, and enshrouding. Beuys’s art can be read today, from the vantage point of radical thought, as contributing to the enigmatic and unintelligible character of the world.Like the best of contemporary thought, these works heighten our awareness that it is appearances we know, never the real which hides behind them. And it is here where Beuys’s works continue their assault on the epistemological break although not at all in ways he foresaw. Theory, like any art form, can never settle for being made into a means for counting. As Beuys and Baudrillard understood, each in his own way, theory like art, is “a way of proceeding”.[39] In our time this is perhaps the best freedom we will know.

As for empiricism, it may only survive by slipping into the hyperreal worlds of cloning and artifical intelligence. We should remain suspicious for it is from these terrorist bases that empiricism and instrumental reason may well exact a catastrophic revenge.


an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 5, May-June 2008, ISSN 1552-5112


[1] Jean Baudrillard. The Mirror of Production (c 1973). : Telos Press, 1975:113.

[3] Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil. : Verso, 1993:24-25. By transpolitical Baudrillard is referring to a period of deep uncertainty, political corruption and the loss of faith in political parties and traditional radical (especially Marxist) politics. He uses the prefix “trans” in order to describe a “trans-ient” state of politics that is not politics as we previously understood it, but which, has not yet taken a new form.

[5] Beuys was making art as our current transpolitical condition was beginning to emerge. He was immediately aware of its presence and dissatisfied with any political party that became regularized and struck out on his own in an effort to make an art that could achieve the kind of healing that politics continually failed to achieve. While Beuys and radical theorist Jean Baudrillard are very different thinkers, Beuys challenge to art was of an order of magnitude similar to Baudrillard’s challenge to social thought and academe. The main difference between these two important thinkers is that Beuys held on to a faith that art could change the world. He was, of course partly right – it did participate in changing the theory which is now challenging the world to expose itself as illusion. The art objects of Beuys act as another kind of theory by forcing things to take on another existence – other than the real. Beuys works, like Baudrillardian theory (or photography) are a challenge to the real to expose itself as illusion.

[6] While we should not necessarily see it as an art, photography should be included in this conjunction as the work of Baudrillard shows us. I discuss his photography later in this paper.

[7] See Gene Ray “Joseph Beuys and the ‘After-Auschwitz’ Sublime” in Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory. : Macmillan, 2005:33-50.

[9] See especially Anne Seymour. “Transformation and Prophecy” in Anthony d’Offay et. al., Beuys, Klein, Rothko. An exhibition catalogue for the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, , 1987:15. For Beuys this linked very tightly with an understanding that the imagination is a power to be used to manipulate both mind and world (see Urszula Szulakowska “The Paracelsian Magnus in German Art: Joseph Beuys and Rebecca Horn” in Jacob Wamberg (Editor), Art and Alchemy, Copenhagen, Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006:171-192.

[10] Jean Baudrillard. “Forget Baudrillard: An Interview With Sylvere Lotringer”. In Forget Foucault/ Forget Baudrillard. : Semiotext(e), 1987:124.

[11] For Baudrillard’s thought on theory as literature and poetry see: Jean Baudrillard. “Revenge of the : An Interview With Guy Bellavance” in Revenge of the : Selected Writings on the Modern Object and its Destiny, 1968-1983 (1984:17-34); Jean Baudrillard. “Forget Baudrillard” in Forget Foucault, Forget Baudrillard. : Semiotext(e), 1987:24; and Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V. : Polity, 2006:11.

[12] Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories II (c 1990). : Verso, 1996:12-13; Jean Baudrillard. “Information at the Meteorological Stage” in Liberation (September 18, 1995) in Screened Out. : Verso, 2002:85-86. Or, as Baudrillard says: “the revolution of our time is the uncertainty revolution” (The Transparency of Evil. : Verso, 1993:43).

[13] I agree with Baudrillard on this point only if we read the final six words of the passage as exaggerating for effect. While I agree with Baudrillard that most of what passes for art today isn’t art, there are a few artists who do meet the stringent criteria established by Baudrillard. Baudrillard himself greatly admired Enrico Baj, Mark Rothko and Edward Hopper among a few others. In recent times I have come to understand that the art of Odd Nerdrum and Francis Bacon (Baudrillard also admired Bacon I have discovered), also meets his challenge that art do more than merely attempt to represent the real. The case of Beuys is an exceedingly difficult one to align with Baudrillard unless we acknowledge, and I do, that Beuys’s art has a life beyond that which its maker intended – the endurance of his art into the transpolitical.

[14] Aristotle famously said that art is imitation. Aristotle, the world’s first great empiricist, deeply underestimated the power of illusion. In this, Aristotle, like the birds who pecked at the grapes painted by Zeuxis, fell under the spell of the imitative. (The Greek painter and predecessor of Aristotle who was said to have painted grapes with such skill that birds pecked at them).

[16] Source: Alain Borer. The Essential Joseph Beuys: : MIT Press, 1997: Plate 87. [Action at Gallerie Schmela, (November 26, 1965)]. Photograph: Ute Klophaus.

[18] Source: Caroline Tisdall. Joseph Beuys: We Go This Way. : Violette Editions, 1998:175, 179. [May 21-25 action at , 1974]. Action: Gallery , May 21-25, 1974. Photographs by Senna.

[19] It emerged in a conversation with Jannis Kounellis, Anselm Kiefer, and Enzo Cucchi that Beuys did believe that while everyone is an artist there are qualitative differences between each of us as practitioners. For example: In this conversation Beuys points to the dustmen he observed working in who impressed him far more than many professional artists: “In those dustmen I saw something which filthy artists don’t have because artists are mostly opportunists… I noted that the dustmen were greater poets than many contemporary poets”. Meeting held in , October 28-29, 1985 between Jannis Kounellis, Enzo Cucchi, Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys . For a transcription of this discussion see Lucrezia De Domizio Durini. The Felt Hat: Joseph Beuys – a Life Told. : Charta, 1997:198-202.

[20] Source: Alain Borer. The Essential Joseph Beuys: : MIT Press, 1997: Plate 124. Postcard, Schellmann Catalogue No. 8. Beuys contested his expulsion and it was eventually ruled to be an illegal firing. Photograph by Bernd Nanninga.

[21] Source: Alain Borer. The Essential Joseph Beuys: : MIT Press, 1997: Plate 16.Block Beuys, Hessisches Landesmuseum, . Photograph by Ute Klophaus.

[22] For an assessment of how Baudrillard’s photographs are “theory” see: Gerry Coulter and Kelly Reid: “The Baudrillardian Photograph as theory – Making the world A Little More Unintelligible and Enigmatic” in International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 4, Number 1 (January 2007): In his photograph Saint Clement (1987) Baudrillard presents us with an image par excellence which takes a world given to us as enigmatic and unintelligible and gives it back to us as (if possible) even more enigmatic and more unintelligible.

[24] See Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Cool Memories III. : verso, 1997:96. The implications of Baudrillard’s thought for notions of the photograph as an “index” are devastating. In his view a photograph such as this provides us with an illusion quite different from the world which has been photographed (see Jean Baudrillard. “For Illusion Isn’t the Opposite of Reality…” Photographies: 1985-1998 Ostfildern-Ruit, : Hatje-Cantz, 1999:134.

[25] Source: Alain Borer. The Essential Joseph Beuys: : MIT Press, 1997: Plate 66. [Wax, pillow, sausage, record]. Block Beuys Hessisches Landesmuseum, . Photograph by Ute Klophaus

[26] Source: Caroline Tisdall. Joseph Beuys: We Go This Way. : Violette Editions, 1998:225. Installed at the Musée Ixelles in for the show Je / Nous (May-July, 1975). Photograph by Ute Klophaus (1975).

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