Joseph Beuys was a German Fluxus and multimedia artist. His work is known for its extensive use of ideology and social philosophy, which he used as a commentary for Western Culture. He is remembered as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, with an eclectic oeuvre spanning media and time periods. Read more for an in-depth look at his controversial life and career.
Joseph Beuys’ Controversial Backstory
Joseph Beuys was born in May of 1921 in Krefeld, Germany, a small town far to the west of the German capital, Berlin. Born into an era rife with political unrest, the German artist would not know a life free from war until his late twenties. Germany was to struggle through both World War I and World War II in the first two decades of Beuys’ life, not finding peace until the latter half of the 1940s.
Unlike his protegé and fellow controversial artist, Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys was not free of complicity in World War II, during the reign of the Third Reich. In fact, Beuys was a member of the Hitler Youth at age fifteen and volunteered to fly in the Luftwaffe at age twenty. It is from this experience that Beuys crafted the origin story of himself as an artist.
According to Joseph Beuys, his plane crashed in the Crimea (a strip of Ukrainian land, often the subject of territorial battles), where he was discovered by the Tatar tribesmen and nursed back to health. In Beuys’ accounts, the tribesmen healed his body by wrapping his wounds in fat and kept him warm by enveloping Beuys in felt. There he stayed for twelve days until he could be returned to a military hospital to recover.
After his recovery, Joseph Beuys would have a spiritual awakening, leave the Luftwaffe, and start on the path to becoming the conceptual art icon he is today. Of course, so the story goes — except that Beuys’ story is likely untrue. Arguably his first foray into mythicism and artistic performance, the German artist’s tale of his own historic rescue has been debunked as no Tatars were known to be living in the area at the time of Beuys’ crash. Nor was Beuys missing for any period of time after the crash; medical records state that he was transported to the medical facility the same day. Records state that Beuys also remained in military service until the surrender of the Third Reich in May of 1945.
Nevertheless, Joseph Beuys’ mythological telling of his own near-death experience marks the first official foray of the German artist into conceptual art, even verging on performance. From this fictional tale, Beuys would derive most of the allegories and symbols that would become definitive of his art style.
Conceptual Art And Shamanism
Once World War II was over and done with, Joseph Beuys finally began to pursue his long-standing dream of being an artist. A philosopher to the core, Beuys was first and foremost a producer of thought, and from those deep thoughts were to come, almost as afterthoughts, his artworks. He seemed to produce his performance pieces as though they were dreams, nonverbal sequences of strange images that nonetheless communicated universal truths to the viewer.
Because of the haunting nature of his artistic practice, Beuys has received a number of labels as an artist. Among the genres into which Beuys’ art is placed are Fluxus, Happenings, and even Neo-Expressionism, for his disorienting use of space and time as an invocation of memory (much like Beuys’ pupil, Anselm Kiefer). However, after all of these labels, the word that has stuck to the German artist more fiercely than any other must be “shaman.” Between his mythical backstory, his strange treatment of physical space and time, and the almost unsettling manner in which he carried himself from place to place, Beuys was often said to be more like a spiritual guide than an artist.
Of course, this was to some degree as Joseph Beuys intended. After his time in the Luftwaffe, Beuys found it highly urgent to remind humanity of its inherent emotionality. He struggled with the rise of ‘rationality’ as it seemed to be sweeping humanity, and he strived to integrate his everyday existence with the ritualism of his artistic shaman persona.
The German Artist And Performance
Beuys’ performance pieces almost always focused around an audience witnessing the German artist himself completing some action. In one of his most famous (and controversial) art pieces, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, onlookers watched through a small window as Joseph Beuys carried a dead rabbit around an art gallery and whispered explanations for each of the artworks into its rigid ear.
Taking place in 1965, twenty years after the end of the Second World War and the beginning of Beuys’ entrance into the art world, Beuys was himself the German avant-garde. In the U.S.A., Allan Kaprow and other northeastern artists had brought the Happening into the forefront of the American artistic consciousness. However, the genre would take time to spread across the globe, and Beuys was among the earliest German artists to experiment with this new form of non-theatrical performance.
The Happening thrived not, as its name may suggest, on spontaneity per se, but rather on the brief and unexpected nature of their occurrence. A precursor to the still-thriving Fluxus movement, anything that challenged expectations and evaded explanation could be considered a Happening, and their implementations and styles varied greatly. Joseph Beuys would come to develop a performance style over the course of his career that demanded much mental and spiritual work from the viewer, as he describes:
“The problem lies in the word ‘understanding’ and its many levels which cannot be restricted to rational analysis. Imagination, inspiration, and longing all lead people to sense that these other levels also play a part in understanding. This must be the root of reactions to this action, and is why my technique has been to try and seek out the energy points in the human power field, rather than demanding specific knowledge or reactions on the part of the public. I try to bring to light the complexity of creative areas.”
Joseph Beuys And The Coyote
Ten years later, Joseph Beuys would once again stir up both interest and controversy with his most famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) performance art piece ever. Entitled I Like America and America Likes Me, the German artist dedicated himself to living for a week in an American gallery with a live coyote. For three days, he spent eight hours a day alone with the animal (borrowed from a nearby zoo), sharing with it felt blankets and piles of straw and newspapers.
While the felt is an archetypal symbol used by Beuys to represent protection and healing, the coyote was a new choice for Beuys. Staged in the heat of the Vietnam War, the coyote represents the long-standing Native American mythology of the coyote as a trickster spirit and a harbinger of changes to come. Beuys criticized America for its violent actions, both past and present, and some interpret this performance as a challenge to the United States to confront its racist pasts, and to right itself with the indigenous peoples of the land.
Emphasizing communication and patience while interacting with the semi-feral coyote, Joseph Beuys made an argument for America’s need for communication and understanding, rather than fear and reactionary behavior. He was carried in and out of the gallery wrapped in felt, allegedly unwilling to walk upon the grounds of a United States so unjust.
As innovative as Beuys is, this work has received just criticism for being controversial art. Some argue that the work is too reductivist, and others posit that it is offensive and tone-deaf in representing the indigenous peoples of America as a wild animal. Regardless of its still-roiling controversy, I Like America and America Likes Me has remained a Joseph Beuys staple.
Joseph Beuys’ Later Conceptual Art And Death
As Beuys aged, he began to broaden his field of interest even more. He conceptualized creating an open-ended art form that could engage viewers in an ongoing framework of conversation, revolving around spirituality, existence, and politics. While his early works, such as How to Explain… and I Like America… engaged with social structures and philosophical thought in relation to politics, the German artist imagined his work growing larger, less visible — work done in the very framework of thought. He called this style of work “social sculpture,” in which the entirety of society is seen as one massive artwork.
As Joseph Beuys expanded his mindset into the realm of sociology and conceptualism, his conceptual art became more indistinguishable from organized political action. At one point, Beuys was involved in an art performance (entitled the Organization for Direct Democracy) that advised people on how to effectively utilize their vote and hung posters which encouraged German citizens to organize political discussion groups about Marxism and other leftist ideology.
In the 1970s, the political discussion centered itself around environmentalism. Around the globe, the poor human treatment of the planet was reaching the forefront of many political conversations, with books like Silent Spring gaining record amounts of traction among the American people. In response to this ecological unrest, Joseph Beuys debuted an art piece entitled 7000 Oaks. In this piece, Beuys deposited seven thousand concrete pillars in front of the Reichstag in Berlin. When a patron purchased one of these representative concrete pillars, Beuys would plant an oak tree.
Joseph Beuys completed these and many other “social sculptures” as he reached the end of his life. By the time he died of heart failure in 1986, he had collaborated with such major figures in the art world as Andy Warhol and Nam June Paik, participated in the Documenta exhibition series, and seen his own retrospective in the Guggenheim.