The Artist Birthday Series

Joseph Beuys


Beuys manifested his social philosophical ideas in abolishing entry requirements to his Düsseldorf class. Throughout the late 1960s this renegade policy caused great institutional friction, which came to a head in October 1972 when Beuys was dismissed from his post. That year he found 142 applicants who had not been accepted that he wished to enroll under his teaching. 16 of them agreed and he then occupied the offices of the academy to gain a hearing about their admission. They were admitted by the school, but the relationship between Beuys and the school were irreconcilable. The dismissal, which Beuys refused to accept, produced a wave of protests from students, artists and critics. Although now bereft of an institutional position, Beuys continued an intense schedule of public lectures and discussions, as well as becoming increasingly active in German politics. Despite this dismissal, on the academy’s  campus, the walking path along the Rhine was named after Beuys. Later in life, Beuys became a visiting professor at various institutions (1980–1985).

Beuys attempted to apply philosophical concepts to his pedagogical practice. “The most important discussion is epistemological in character,” stated Beuys, demonstrating his desire for continuous intellectual exchange. Beuys’ Aktion piece, “How To Explain Pictures To A Dead Hare,” exemplifies a performance that is especially relevant to the pedagogical field because it deals with “the difficulty of explaining things”. The artist spent three hours explaining his art to a dead hare with his head covered with honey and gold leaf.

dead hare beuys
“How To Explain Pictures To A Dead Hare,” performance by Joseph Beuys, 1965

During an Artform interview with Willoughby Sharp in 1969, Beuys added to his famous statement – “teaching is my greatest work of art” – that “the rest is the waste product, a demonstration. If you want to express yourself you must present something tangible. But after awhile this has only the function of a historic document. Objects aren’t very important any more. I want to get to the origin of matter, to the thought behind it.” Beuys saw his role of an artist as a teacher or shaman, who could guide society in a new direction.

Beuys had adopted shamanism not only as his presentation mode of his art but also in his own life. Although the artist as a shaman has been a trend in modern art (Picasso, Gauguin), Beuys is unusual in that respect as he integrated “his art and his life into the shaman role.” Beuys believed that humanity, with its turn on rationality, was trying to eliminate “emotions” and thus eliminate a major source of energy and creativity in every individual. He described how we must seek out and energize our spirituality and link it to our thinking powers so that “our vision of the world must be extended to encompass all the invisible energies with which we have lost contact.”

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1 thought on “Joseph Beuys

  1. […] Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) was a German Fluxus artist, one of the first to organize “happenings” through performance art, who also worked as a sculptor, installation artist, graphic artist, art theorist, and pedagogue. The concepts of humanism, social philosophy and anthroposophy were central to his work and life. He developed his own “extended definition of art,” seeing the artist not as a craftsman but instead as fulfilling the role of modern shaman. Though not a common household name, Beuys is considered by many scholars of art history, as one of the most influential artists of the second half of the twentieth century. […]

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