The power of art. On the 100th birthday of Joseph Beuys – Part 2

Hermann Achenbach (LOGON) interviewed the author and filmmaker Rüdiger Sünner from Berlin.- Do we need a new look at Joseph Beuys, one of the most important artistic personalities of the 20th century?

The power of art. On the 100th birthday of Joseph Beuys – Part 2

(To part 1)

I like America and America likes me

H. A.: The New York production “I like America and America likes me” in 1974, in which Joseph Beuys spends a few days in a locked room with a coyote named Little John and communicates with him, is a homage to the sacred animal of many indigenous peoples and to the “natives” of North America. How do you interpret this poignant encounter between the European artist and the origin of America? Is there not a close connection to the ancient America of the First Nations and at the same time a strong distance to the current America (of immigrated Europeans and migrants)?

R. S.: Today, many have forgotten what was done to the indigenous population of America by the white conquerors: for example, the murder of a million bison that were their livelihood, the theft of their land, the forced missionisation of their children, the deliberate infection with diseases that the Indians did not yet know and from which they died. All of this resonates underground, and when the coyote pees on the Wall Street paper, arguably a symbol of predatory capitalism in the US, it is a subtle act of revenge for that. But the coyote also represents an animistic worldview that was closely connected to nature and animals. In American Westerns, coyotes are often shot as troublemakers and alleged pests. Beuys approaches them tenderly and cooperatively, also a healing action against wounds of imperialism, colonialism, capitalism and the destruction of nature.

H. A.: Joseph Beuys is concerned with revealing something new and elementary in art. He likes to fall back on very old myths: the megalithic culture, the Celts, indigenous peoples, antiquity. But he also postulates: the mysteries take place in the main station!

How is that to be understood? Are there no more mysteries and secrets? Does true knowledge only take place in the individual in an esoteric way – from the hidden something is drawn into consciousness, into matter? And the revelation –the work of art – speaks to the beholder? Is this the mystery that can take place everywhere and in every human being?

A sense of mystery in everyday life

R. S.: One should not underestimate a main railway station, because a lot of human and thus also spiritual things actually take place here: Farewells, separations, reunions, loneliness, people and technology colliding, the most diverse cultures meeting, etc. A place of fierce emotions and also secrets, because strangers meet strangers whose depths and shallows can only be guessed at. Beuys wants us to sharpen our sense for the mysterious in our normal everyday life, which makes him not a “myth uncle” but an absolutely contemporary artist.

H. A.: Now one could claim, since the hidden, the esoteric in the exoteric is documented by the artist, that not only is every human being an artist, but he is also a spiritual being who has very significant experiences here on earth (in the material world). Is the spiritual-mental increasing qualitatively and determining the development of humanity?

R. S.: For me, “everyone is an artist” also means: “everyone is a spiritual being”, because they draw on the three great miracles that Beuys invokes again and again: inspiration, imagination and intuition, that is, on creative forces that perhaps reach into transcendent spheres and that we must integrate more strongly. The Greeks spoke of the “muses” and “genii” that inspire the artist, as of gods and Beuys would agree to this.

H. A.: Celtic and Nordic myths are connected. The misuse of these myths was omnipresent in the 20th century. Is that the reason why Beuys is called a nationalist by certain writers and journalists?

R. S.: He is called that for various reasons, all of which are thrown together without looking closely. Beuys had little to do with the Teutons and his art would certainly have been defamed as “degenerate art” in the Third Reich. However, he did cooperate for some time on a political level with former Nazis (e.g. August Haußleiter, Werner Haverbeck) who, however, were not pursuing explicitly “völkisch” (nationalist) goals at the time, but rather ecological ones. The relations with these men, with whom other renowned German politicians also associated at the time (e.g. Petra Kelly, Gustav Heinemann, Egon Bahr), still need to be examined more closely. For today’s press, a “debt of contact” is often enough, that is, the fact that Beuys met with them at all. In the course of the anniversary celebrations for Beuys’ 100th birthday, academic symposia are to examine this topic more thoroughly, which I think is the right thing to do.

Search for knowledge

H. A.: Anyone who has experienced the “Block-Beuys” – a seven-room installation by the artist – In the Landesmuseum Darmstadt should be immediately cured of such abstruse prejudices. Is the freedom of art under attack today? Or is it just a lack of understanding? Is art losing its power?

R. S.: Art has long since lost its power, it’s just the icing on the cake of a fun and performance society or an overpriced object and financial investment on the art markets. But the unwieldiness of Beuys’ art, if it were brought more into focus, could once again function as a sting and make us realise that art is not for entertainment, but a form of deep search for knowledge.

H. A.: The Celts had already “invented” the threefold structure of the social organism. If Rudolf Steiner had been understood in the early 20th century, nationalism would not have become so strong in society and the horror would not have taken place in the form it did.

What is your opinion of the “Auschwitz” showcase, which plays a central, very touching role in the “Block-Beuys”?

R. S.: Beuys is sometimes cleverer in his objects than in his words; the Auschwitz showcase is a good example of this. He took part in a competition with a design for an Auschwitz memorial in 1958, which shows how deeply he was affected by the Holocaust. The Auschwitz showcase in Darmstadt reflects this as well, since it is a collage of violence and horror: there are electric shocks, torture, dirt, cold, loneliness, illness, death, madness, and on a plate there is a crucified man made of plasticine, which makes one think of the sentence by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, according to which Jesus Christ himself hung on the gallows in Auschwitz. In some interviews, however, Beuys has, in my opinion, drawn inappropriate comparisons between Auschwitz and our time: today, Auschwitz lives on in a different and perhaps even worse form, because “souls are being burned”, etc.

These inappropriate comparisons, however, are strangely not mentioned in critical reporting, perhaps because they are too unknown. Even the much-praised documentary film “Beuys” by Andres Veiel left all this out altogether. I devoted a whole chapter to this topic in my book. Beuys is not “ethnic” or “German-national” – as the press sometimes writes – his works of art certainly aren’t, you won’t find a single racist or anti-Semitic statement from him.

„The axe for the frozen sea within us“

H. A.: I have the feeling that art is increasingly becoming the only way to communicate truth. Language is no longer able to be authentic. Art still speaks a clear language. Should it be stripped of its last secret? Perhaps that is just as well!

R. S.: Art is an enormous organ of perception because it can open our thinking, feeling and seeing, sometimes painfully. Unlike religious faith, it cannot be used ideologically because it eludes unambiguous attributions; it is not suitable for dogma, doctrine or a political programme. That is why I think it is wrong to understand Beuys primarily as a “political artist”, as is often done today – in the absence of an aesthetic sensorium. Kafka once defined art as “the axe for the frozen sea within us”. Beuys wants something similar, and this can then also lead to a critique of social systems. But first the radical impulse must come from the work of art, otherwise everything remains just ingratiation to the spirit of the times and empty programming.

H. A.: Thank you very much for this interview, Mr Sünner.

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Date: April 26, 2021
Author: Hermann Achenbach (Germany)
Photo: Suenner Beuys

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