My Issues with the Canonization of Joseph Beuys

Graduate school is great because you get to tailor all of your coursework to your research topic. Obviously, environmental art jazzes me up, and I thought a good starting place for my research was with Joseph Beuys.

For those of you who aren’t aware, Beuys (1921-1986) was a German artist who was interested in a pedagogical approach to art making. He believed that everyone was an artist, and that any human activity was representative of creativity and could be considered art. As a teacher and public speaker Beuys spread this message of social sculpture to Europe and America.
Beyond his teaching, he was an also activist. Beuys helped found two political parties in Germany that attempted to advocate for students and the environment—causes that Beuys was partial towards due to his position as a professor and his lifelong interest in ecology.

Some of his works of art toed the line between art and activism as well. Primarily, 7000 Oaks. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, 7000 Oaks revitalized the landscape surrounding Kassel, Germany, that inspired a global tree planting endeavor.

Beuys facade situates him as a pioneer of the eco-revolution and is further bolstered by his myth of creation. One of the most well known stories surrounding Beuys is the legendary rescue by the Tartars after his plane was shot down over Crimea. Beuys was a fighter pilot for the Luftwaffe (yep, the Nazi Air Force) when he was allegedly shot down and rescued. This myth has been disproven by countless journalists and art critics, but was important to the formation of his personal ideology. In Beuys’ story the Tartar’s saved his life by wrapping him in animal fat and felt to raise his body temperature and fight off hypothermia. Hence the importance of felt and fat in Beuys’ oeuvre.

Just to recap here:

1) Beuys fought for the Nazis in World War II

2) Beuys crafted his legendary creation myth on the backs of Europeans that he claimed superiority

Hopefully, this clears up some of my major complaints about Beuys. But if not, keep reading.

Although the canon is highly problematic, it is one of the main ways that art history is taught and influences the art market. And Joseph Beuys is situated in the canon of highly regarded Western artists. Critics and historians fawn over his extended definition of art and his combination of art and activism.
While Beuys does deserve praise for being a pioneer of the radical eco-art movement, we must remember that he was a Nazi and the connotations surrounding his ideology and public persona is riddled with ideas popularized during the Third Reich.

Beuys recognized the universal power of German culture, and he believed that the cultural superiority of the Germans was manifested through their language. The German language came to power due to the unique environment that the Germans lived, according to Beuys. So, if the German language was all powerful and it is derived from the unique German landscape we have a rationale behind Beuys’ obsession with environmental preservation.

I believe that Beuys was simply manifesting ideas associated with Hitler’s regime rather than through a deep connection with the land. Beuys’ belief in the land containing mystical powers of language and culture formation claims superiority of ethnic Germans. While maybe just racist in nature, this message brought forth by Beuys again seeps with Nazi ideologies, in my opinion.
Scholars like Donald Kuspit disagree with me. They believe that Beuys’ work is rooted in healing from the war, and recovering from the traumas it caused Beuys and the Germans as a whole. Kuspit suggests that the war period was complicated for Germans causing them to make decisions that they otherwise wouldn’t have. Kuspit suggests that Beuys would have likely made different decisions regarding Nazi affiliation had the world not been so complex. And, plus he spent the rest of his life creating art representing the traumas and his sorrows from the war, according to Kuspit.

But that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a Nazi apologist.

If we’re not going to dismantle the canon we should at least recognize that problematic tendencies of the artists that we include in it.

Was Joseph Beuys a Nazi?

Yes, remember how I said he fought for the Nazi Air Force.

Should Nazi artists be included in the canon? Yes. But it is our duty as art historians to be upfront with the total history of the artists—including their affiliations that may be hard to talk about or make the artist into a villain.

But should we instead dismiss the canon entirely and teach art history as holistically as possible? Should we include artists who are doing culturally important works regardless of their critical praise by the likes of Clement Greenberg et al.?

Also yes. But louder.

Andrea Gyorody, “The Medium and the Message: Art and Politics in the Work of Joseph Beuys,” The Sixties 7 no. 2 (2014): 120-126. Donald Kuspit, “Between Showman and Shaman,” in Joseph Beuys: Diverging Critiques, ed. David Thistlewood (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995), 30-39.