a hopeful art practice – learning from Joseph Beuys

In a work which examines our understandings of “time”, the philosopher Elizabeth Grosz identifies two tendencies in how politics works through time. The first is what politics is often imagined to be. It is in the rational mode – politics as administration and the effort to implement plans, based on principles. The second tendency falls outside of the way that we normally imagine politics to happen. It is in the intuitive mode – the experimental leap into the unknown.

This idea comes very close to Rebeccca Solnit’s insight that the grounds for hope in radical politics has to do with unknown futures, and the “spaciousness of uncertainty” (see my previous post). Elizabeth Grosz’s work takes us in a small step towards art, because she points out that the intuitive mode of politics is also the space for the “experimentation with the unrepeatable and the singular”. That is, it is a creative space of invention and fabrication which opens the door to new practices and new relations. This creative space in politics, understood as a leap into the unknown, is where we can find kinship and crossover between politics and art.

Grosz says:

The most radical and deeply directed projects […] involve a welcoming of the unsettling of previous categories, identities, and strategies, challenging the limits of present divisions and conjunctions, and revelling in the uncontainability and unpredictability of the future.

(Grosz, 2004, p261)

Her words feel like a good description of the work engaged in by the sculptor Joseph Beuys, an artist who was very deliberately working from the boundary between art and politics.

In billboards created as part of his city-scale action art work “7000 Eichen, a board with the image of a mature tree proclaims “Eine Idee schlägt Wurzeln”, which can be translated as “an idea takes root”. For Beuys, thinking is an act, and to change ideas is to change the world. He was very clear that the work of an artist (his work as an artist), had everything to do with politics, in the sense of creating change in the world. And he also considered that ideas themselves were available to him as art materials.

In 1981, Beuys made a proposal for ‘documenta 7′ in Kassel, Germany:

to plant seven thousand oaks in Kassel, seven thousand trees. And to mark every tree with a little stone, so that everybody after three, two, five or six hundred years can still see that in 1982 there was an activity.

Beuys and Kuoni, 1993, p.185

The trees were planted throughout the city of Kassel over a five year period, each paired with a roughly cut basalt marker-stone . Beuys emphasises the long view, and a sense of possibility, of hope:

We are marking a beginning. A tree is being planted, a stone next to it leaves a mark. In our times, in which we are trying to reanimate the lifelines of nature, which are endangered by the inhumanity of our economy, people have started to turn the direction.

Der Feldweg, 2017

The stones are durable and relatively unchanging. The ‘mark’ that they leave recalls a point in time and a sense of possibility; they are markers of presence and action. Remaining unchanged, they function as mnemonic devices, that is, as objects that hold the memory of a turning point.

According to Rebecca Solnit’s work on hope, ‘7000 Eichen’ is a hopeful action. It imagines another possible world; it takes risks and it takes action. The artist has intentionally entered the stream of time, to mark and to contribute to a turn of direction. The work concerns future time, and because oaks and other hardwood trees live for centuries, the artwork clearly “states” from its inception that its timescale will grow and spread into a long future, spanning many human generations. Beuys had described a tree as “an element of regeneration which is in itself a concept of time”. Part of the work in his project involved the establishment a non-profit corporation to maintain and support the action over time.

In Beuys’s call, which I quoted above, for the “reanimation of the lifelines of nature”, we can find the suggestion that there has been a disconnection from that on which our lives depend. Two things stand out: the first is that Beuys felt his work to be of the highest importance (life and death); and the second is that he had an underlying hope – that recovery is at least possible.

Joseph Beuys’s vision was that artists can undertake the work of healing and repair in the world. He appointed himself as shaman, a holistic healer who would take action to give the radical treatment needed in order to bring things back into proper alignment. Beuys’s diagnosis of our social illness, set out in his ‘documenta 7’ artist statement, was that our underlying problem is that our ideas are inadequate:

Let us examine our concepts according to which we have shaped the conditions in the East and West. Let us reflect whether these concepts have benefitted our social organism and its interactions with the natural order, whether they have led to the appearance of a healthy existence or whether they have made humanity sick, inflicted wounds on it, brought disaster over it, and are putting today its survival in jeopardy.

I will come back in another post to Beuys’s critique of concepts underlying the global political, social and economic realities that are putting survival in jeopardy, and to his proposed alternatives. For the time being, it is enough to notice that his “radical treatment” began with provocation. Beuys began the project with no guarantees that he would be able to see it through to its end. He had, however, done something artful, risky and full of commitment at the outset, by purchasing seven thousand large stones in advance, and piling them up in Kassel’s Friedrichsplatz. Here we see him taking risks, and see in physical form the work of unsettling and challenging which is described by Elizabeth Grosz in the quote above.

The huge pile of stones provoked (and dismayed) citizens, drawing attention to the questions at hand and stimulating conversation and debate. It also helped him to leverage the financial commitment to fund the project. Beuys’s associate Johannes Stüttgen comments that

provocation is movement. Provocation is producing chaos in the state of affairs… and they were the means which Beuys employed in a masterly way. In so far, provocation was an artist device of the ‘action art’ in general, but especially with Beuys who confronted art with reality. And reality felt provoked by it.

Der Feldweg, 2017

Sources & resources for further research and reading:

Rebecca Solnit: Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Edinburgh: Cannongate Books, 2016.

Elizabeth Grosz: The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution and the Untimely. Australia : Allen & Unwin, 2004

Beuys, J. and Kuoni, C. : Joseph Beuys in America : energy plan for the Western man : writings by and interviews with the artist. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993

Der Feldweg (2017) Joseph Beuys 7000 Oaks / Documentation.

Stiftung 7000 Eichen : 7000 Eichen : Stadtverwaldung statt Stadtverwaltung. Ein Kunstprojekt in Kassel.

Documenta und Museum Fridericianum (undated) Documenta; Retrospective; 7.

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