Print Essay

Joseph Beuys: The Original Cultural Engineer by Katie Baron

10 March 2014

Fine artists, as per the job description, have always had a special knack for bothering the status quo, but few more so perhaps than the conceptual artist Joseph Beuys – a standout 20th-century radical whose artworks, visual aesthetic and socio-political manifesto (namely a titanic belief in the power of art as a tool for social reformation) continue to be hungrily embraced by contemporary creatives almost 20 years after his death.

Growing up in the tumultuous world of post-WWI Twenties Nazi Germany, Beuys was well attuned to sounds of social conflict and extremist ideology from an early age, but a fascination with natural science and the work of German sculptor and former scientific illustrator Wilhelm Lehmbruck turned systems into sculpture.

So far so coherent, but then the story becomes a little stranger via one (tall) tale from which the self-made mythology of the man, and a hefty portion of his lifelong artistic output, is sprung. Aged 20, in 1941, Beuys enrolled in the Luftwaffe. During a military manoeuvre in 1944, he crashed on the Crimean front, subsequently claiming to have been rescued by a nomadic Tatar tribesman who healed him by wrapping his injured body in animal fat and felt.

It was a signature fib with extraordinary legs, a blurring of fact and fiction with which he recast himself as a kind of neo-shaman, touting the value of fantasy and symbolism in cahoots with the cold hard truth. For Beuys believed his role was to steward society into a new utopian direction – a direction only possible should society itself embrace the premise of art, and all its fantastical possibilities, as a revolutionary force in which everyone must participate. ‘Every man is an artist,’ he repeatedly asserted, assuming that every man also exercises a level of imagination, and would work together.

Following his military service, as both an artist and teacher – a role he later described as ‘my greatest work of art. The rest is the waste product, a demonstration’Beuys sought an epic spiritual restructure. Appropriating the Wagnerian term Gesamtkunstwerk (literally: total work of art; in this instance, the concept of society as one giant work of art) he proposed a process of ‘social sculpture’, in which rationality (aka truth) be dialled down in order to activate fresh possibilities.

Should there be any doubt about the stock he placed in the power of the lie, which he directly reprised for an art festival in 1964 with a fabricated CV titled Lebenslauf/Werklauf  (Life Course/Work Course), it’s notable that many of his later artworks incorporated the talismanic grey felt in some form. The Pack (1969) consists of 24 wooden sleds attached to the back of a Volkswagen bus, each equipped with a survival-style consignment of rolled-up felt, leather belt, fat, rope and flashlight. While the felt falls directly from the limbo land of Beuys’ story, it’s also an ode to communal teamwork. In the performance piece I like America and America Likes Me (1974), Beuys shared a room with a wild coyote for three days while wrapped in a thick grey blanket of felt, while another of his most famous works, Homogeneous Infiltration for Piano (1966), involves a grand piano immersed entirely in felt with a red cross stitched on to the side. The grand metaphorical take-away appears to be that there’s a dangerously thin line between the potential for action and the more likely possibility of staying silent.

Most visible of all, or at least the one to capture a pop-culture imagination, is his Felt Suit (1970) – part of a series of multiples conceived as a snub to the one-off obsessed elitist art market he felt was limiting art’s wider potential. The felt, he said, spelled spiritual warmth. Versions of it continue to surface in major fashion collections, alongside regular references to Beuys’ own appearance, particularly his penchant for a fedora.

Of course, Beuys wasn’t alone in his desire to take art to a wider audience. The global coterie of artists, architects, composers and designers with whom he developed the Fluxus movement of the Sixties are seminal to his story. The group, an artistically diverse melting pot using multimedia that included Yoko Ono, La Monte Young, Georges Brecht, George Maciunas and Nam June Paik (widely considered the originator of video art), shared artworks as a disavowal of the traditional art world: anti-art for a budding generation of consumer-creators.

If the idea of conceptual art and pop philosophy ploughing a route to social revolution seems outmoded, then it’s worth a swift look back at last month’s Festival of Imagination at Selfridges department store in London. An absence of felt withstanding, the Imaginarium in the basement alone, designed by Rem Koolhaus no less, is surely enough to prove that Beuys and his belief that art could save the world continues to rumble on.


Katie Baron is a London-based journalist, author and consultant who writes for publications including VOLT, Luxure and Hole & Corner. She is also a senior editor at creative  intelligence agency Stylus.

  • Joseph Beuys sets up an installation of his artwork ©Keystone/Corbis