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Prophet or charlatan: Who was artist Joseph Beuys?

Stefan Dege
May 12, 2021

Beuys would have turned 100 on May 12. Decades after his death, the celebrated postwar conceptual artist continues to polarize critics and the public alike.

A portrait of Joseph Beuys in a wide-brimmed hat.
Arts Joseph Beuys would have turned 100 on May 12, 2021.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

2021 marks the 100th year since the birth of Joseph Beuys, who died 35 years ago. To celebrate the centenary, his work has been the subject of countless exhibitions around Germany.

Across the decades, many labels have been attached to Beuys: social critic, environmental activist, shaman, media star. But the artist remains the subject of considerable debate. 

One essential part of the Beuys legacy relates to his egalitarian ideas about the role of art in society. 

"Beuys tried to take art off its elitist pedestal with his 'social sculpture' and transfer it to the reality of people's lives," says Bettina Paust, former director of the Beuys Archives of Germany's Museum Moyland and co-editor of a recently published book on the artist.

A black and white photo of Beuys behind barbed wire from 1972.
Joseph Beuys pushed the boundaries of postwar artImage: dpa

'Every person is an artist'

The idea of Social sculpture was to move art from the realm of object to concept that anyone could engage in. Developed in the 1970s, Beuys' guiding principle — "Every person is an artist" — states that all hold a creative power through which they can change themselves and the world. More than just objects created to be shown in a gallery, art for Beuys included thoughts, events and conversations. For Beuys, art was an act of participation.

For this reason, Beuys once accepted hundreds of students into his Düsseldorf Academy class, causing him to be expelled as an art professor.

"Beuys' slogan was part of that promise of social participation that even made a democratization of the art business conceivable," wrote art historian Christian Saehrendt in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

"[But] Beuys' most important legacy remained unfulfilled," he added. "A deeper democratization of society did not take place." 

Joseph Beuys und Andy Warhol stand together
Beuys rubbed elbows with other big name artists of the time, like Andy Warhol (left)Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Dürrwald

Happenings and social sculptures

As economic recovery and social-liberal politics set the tone in postwar Germany, Beuys was busy critiquing the ruling capitalist system with his countless sculptures and installations, many using grease and felt. Above all, however, he gave expression to his socially transformative, grassroots democratic ideas with art actions and "happenings."

One of the most spectacular performance pieces took place in 1982 at documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany. His 7000 Oaks installation was to plant trees in the city in accordance with the need for "Stadtverwaldung statt Stadtverwaltung," a play on words in German translating as "urban forestation instead of urban administration."

The artist had already attracted global infamy in 1974 with his performance art piece, I like America and America likes Me, in which he locked himself in a New York gallery for two days with a wild coyote. Earning Beuys a reputation for being somewhat of a shaman, the performance also caused a steep hike in the value of his work on the global art market.

There is no disputing the value of Beuys' art. Already by the fall of 1979, the Guggenheim Museum in New York hosted a monumental retrospective of one of the world's most important postwar artists. Today, his works can be found in private collections and major museums across the planet.

A man and a dog walk along a road lined with trees planted by Beuys
His work "7000 Oaks" can be enjoyed today in Kassel, Germany.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Inventing the myth of the artist

Beuys based his art on biographical myths. He invented the "Tartar legend," according to which his plane crashed over Crimea when he was serving as a pilot in World War II, and he was nursed back to health by Tartar tribes people. "They covered my body in fat to help it regenerate warmth, and wrapped it in felt as an insulator to keep warmth in," he said.

Beuys invoked this story to justify the use of felt and fat in many of his works.

But many such legends were proven to be untrue. Beuys did not wander around with a traveling circus as a schoolboy, as he claimed. His military rank, his medal for bravery, his head injury that forced him to wear his signature hat; all these stories were part of the artist's self-mythology.

In 2008, art historian Beat Wyss, a professor at the Karlsruhe University of Design, criticized Beuys as an "eternal Hitler boy," saying the artist's time in the Hitler Youth had left a strong mark on him.

On the occasion of a Beuys retrospective at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, Wyss branded Beuys a political right-winger who had succeeded in a "fusion of folkloristic wanderer and 1968 rebel." Beuys' idea of politics as "social sculpture" is "patriarchal to the core," he wrote.

The artist's legion of fans were outraged, while his critics felt vindicated. The debate about Beuys' artistic legacy had been cracked wide open — and continues to this day.

This article was translated from German by Sarah Hucal.