History of Trauma in Environmental Art: German Romanticism

Joseph Beuys, 7,000 Oaks: City Forestation Instead of Administration, 1982, basalt stones, oak trees.

Beuys notably falls within the tradition of German Romantics because he emphasized “the artistic voice as the central source of cultural authenticity.” He also privileged speech and action over other forms of communication, which presented the German culture as an “oral nature-based tradition disturbed by the intrusions of modernity.”

Beuys’ work aligns similarly with Arthur Schopenhauer, a German Romantic philosopher, who was interested in the universal spirit of the world and the connections between the spirit and its physical manifestations into art. Steiner and Anthropososphists were, as well, interested in ideas put forth by the German Romantics. Steiner went as far as designing a Goetheanum in Dornoch, Switzerland, which was the center for the Anthroposophical movement. Like Steiner and the Anthropososphists, the German Romantics wanted to synthesize art, politics, and science and find a balance between the rational and the supernatural.

Goethe was of particular inspiration to Beuys. Beuys was drawn to Goethe’s idea of observation that focused on the consciousness of the object and one’s direct experience with objects especially in terms of nature. Goethe believed in making sense of nature in a holistic way valuing the subjective viewpoint of the individual and noted the spiritual knowledge that manifested throughout all living beings on the planet. Primarily known as a literary writer, Goethe also wrote on the science of plants and colors that focused on close observation of the natural world. Beuys explored Goethe’s ideas around the consciousness of living beings in 7,000 Oaks. As noted, the area around Kassel, Germany, was destroyed during World War II. The ecological damage was paramount, but through 7,000 Oaks Beuys was able to revitalize the landscape and ensure that spiritual knowledge of the land was not lost forever. Through replanting these trees, Beuys did more than simply restore a barren landscape. According to Beuys, “the intention of such a tree-planting event is to point up the transformation of all of life, of society, and the whole ecological system.” Through close observation of the land he recognized that the spirit of the land was damaged and repaired this damage through planting 7,000 trees and commemorated this task with permanent plaques. Goethe and Beuys valued the land as a living being and through projects such as 7,000 Oaks Beuys was able to heal the land in terms exemplified by Goethe.

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