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Why Joseph Beuys' politics remain relevant to this day

Jochen Kürten als
May 19, 2017

"Everyone is an artist," the provocative 20th-century artist famously said. A new documentary about him, "Beuys," explores his humorous actions and how his approach still contributes to today's political debates.

Joseph Beuys (Copyright: zeroonefilm_UteKlophaus)
Image: zeroonefilm_UteKlophaus

"I leave out a lot of things," said director Andres Veiel about his film "Beuys," which just opened in German theaters. "I wasn't interested in giving a complete picture."

Rather than a classic documentary about the legendary artist and his biography, instead, the director aimed to focus on the person. True, Beuys was a world-famous artist who helped shape contemporary art through his many performances, sculptures, drawings, art theories and political rhetoric. Anyone remotely interested in art will be familiar with the quote attributed to him: "Everyone is an artist."

Veiel's approach in depicting Joseph Beuys is much more about that kind of inclusive attitude and less about the artist and his oeuvre. The film give space to the artist's surprising humor as well as his public statements and actions.

Joseph Beuys with a group out on the street (Copyright: zeroonefilm/bpk_ErnstvonSiemensKunststiftung/Stiftung Museum Schloss Moyland/U. Klophaus)
Beuys, wearing his famous felt hat, was a man of actionImage: zeroonefilm/bpk_ErnstvonSiemensKunststiftung/Stiftung Museum Schloss Moyland/U. Klophaus

Still prompting polarization

Not every art aficionado is going to like that. After all, Beuys remains a legend even today, so reactions to the film are likely to be polarized. "For such a pugnacious artist, the film is remarkably peaceable and a lot of credit has to be given to Veiel in that regard," wrote the Swiss daily "Neue Züricher Zeitung." In the film, "Beuys keeps out of the ideological battles of the 1960s and 70s," the daily continued. This led the Berlin-based, left-leaning "Taz" newspaper to find that Veiel's portrayal of the charismatic Beuys stylized him a as a contrasting figure to a humorless leftist.

Such varied opinions reveal just how much the artist and person Joseph Beuys still stands at the center of artistic and political debate. This aspect is also what fascinated the director.

Joseph Beuys drawing theories about art, money, and production with chalk (Copyright: zeroonefilm/bpk_Stiftung Schloss Moyland/U. Klophaus)
Not unusual: drawing theories about art, money, and productionImage: zeroonefilm/bpk_Stiftung Schloss Moyland/U. Klophaus

Distilling 400 hours of film material, 300 hours of audio material, as well as 20,000 photos into a two-hour documentary, Veiel and his team let the images and words speak for themselves in the film. The film is thus composed of nearly 90-percent archive material. There are just a few, brief interviews with Beuys' contemporaries of the day.

It was not Veiel's aim to create a documentary about the artist performing and provoking in the 1960s and 70s, Veiel said, but "what I find much more interesting and important is the here and now, and the political visionary spaces which Beuys plumbed and which are being reflected today."

Politics and art

"Beuys" is captivating in its focus on current political and philosophical debates and issues. Even at the end of the 1970s, Beuys was pondering the risks an uncontrolled economic system poses to democracy. Yet many of his contemporaries misunderstood him.

Joseph Beuys (Copyright: zeroonefilm/Stiftung Musem Schloss Moyland/E. Puls/K. Lamberty)
Many contemporaries misunderstood the freethinkerImage: zeroonefilm/Stiftung Musem Schloss Moyland/E. Puls/K. Lamberty

The film sheds light on a human being who was one thing more than anything: a freethinker whose ideas knew no bounds. Such freethinking overwhelmed many people back in his day: not just the bourgeoisie and politicians, but also artists and critics.

Yet the essence of Beuys' thinking can be seen in the renewed political activism of 2017. "His statement 'Everyone is an artist' did not mean to imply that everyone is a sculptor or designer," noted director Andres Veiel. "It meant that everyone can contribute to the big picture, can be creator of a grander design."

Beuys demanded that people not delegate politics to "a caste that is elected every four years."  "It's a follow-up that, now in 2017, comes at the exactly right point in time," Veiel stressed.