Joseph Beuys and beyond: Art, Ecology and Immateriality

by Raphael Zimmerman

My argument is that the subject matter of the work of artists such as the late German artist Joseph Beuys is 'immateriality' which he presents as possible solution for the conflicts caused by binary oppositions in modern society. Beuys believed that the dictat of dualism needed to be broken not only for the sake of humanity but the whole of ecology per se. Having finally arrived at an impasse produced by our deeply ingrained habit of binary oppositions which originates as Beuys and others argue from the initial polarisation of reality into "I" and "other" expanding outward all the way to binaries such as "humanity" versus "nature", or "mind" versus "matter" etc.
-In short he problematized our philosophical and conceptual reliance on binary oppositions and regarded them as one of the main causes for experienced tensions and conflicts. In fact he saw our world view depending on, or being constructed by and held in place by these tensions and stresses. These permanent conflicts and confrontations have to be held in check or prevented by a constant and precarious balancing requiering effort and vigilance.

There is a relationship between contemporary art, ecology and his proposed horizon of 'immateriality'. Beuys discovered through his own research particular historical connections between German Romanticism and the latest advances in Ecophilosophy as well as Western research into esotheric Buddhist philosophy concerning in particular the originally vedic concept of "Shunyata" which has been translated from ancient Sanscrit as 'Emptiness' in the West.

It is important here to declare that in his art Joseph Beuys emphasised the spiritual significance of specific materials which for him often became the actulal material art objects themselves (artefacts/symbols) through a simple act of artistic decision and declaration.Yet Beuys always saw himself implicitly as well as explicitly critiquing materialism. His was the quest for an unmediated mode of communication (of post material values) and an attempt to create a space for experience-reflection outside of Materialism's existing assumptions and traditional structures of habituated thought patterns.
Traditionally, within Western thought, the concept of immateriality or emptiness has been associated with the spiritual, or transcendental dimensions still tied to our dualistic understandings, opposing "the world" so to speak. This old binary view has long been used in many guises such as "spirit versus matter", or "body and soul", even "humanity versus nature" etc..
I argue that Joseph Beuys tried to form a bridge between these trajectories which for so long have been seen as an almost natural and therefore irefutable binary opposition (-being aware that these terms, and our language itlself, is dependent on the very binary tension of conflict for their actual meaning and existence).

I feel that even in contemporary art and philosophy these binary trends prevail on the whole and that they repeatedly show up as habitual dualistic notions. Likewise in some quarters of ecophilosophy this is still the case despite having been the subject of some exceptional explorations by many practitioners such as Beuys for example who intended to conciously bridge and reconcile spurious oppositions as he saw them. The "immanence" emphasised particularly by some ecologists concerned with allowing the natural world a voice in human culture through incorporating natural materials and phenomena into the production of new works of art for example. Joseph Beuys' "!000 Oaks for Kassel"-project in which Beuys initiated and paid for the planting of 1000 oak trees with a 2 meter tall basalt stone beside each tree in order to show growth, and time, and in order to make visible the different energie potentials defined as dynamic and static etc.. Others include the contemporary British artist Andy Goldsworthy who plants hedges and makes ice sculptures and other spontaneous assemblages in natural settings using only found objects in the immediate vicinity, or the Melbourne artist Harry Nankin with his "Wave-project" where photographic paper was used directly in a breaking wave illuminated by a flash in order to try and record the voice of the nonhuman other. On the other hand, transcendence as argued by some art theortitians involves going as far as abandoning the idea of the art object altogether in favour of non-material modes of communication which could be as varied as creative visualisation, intention/intuition experiments, or some ritualistic art (eg contemporary Melbourne artist Dominico de Clario's public performances of all night ritualistic singing in a certain place at a certain time and for a certain purpose as well as some more recent performance based works by Australian artist Mike Parr and others).

All of these divergent and potentially contradictory tendencies have a pre-history particularly in German Idealist philosophies and Romantic art. Hegel is the obvious example to cite with his "Thesis of the "end of art"" which said that the materiality of the art object alone can no longer be regarded as the adequate medium for expressing spiritual and intellectual understanding. While Schelling regarded the art object as the very embodiment of unity (bridge) of spirit and matter, or mind and nature.

Thus the philosophical conundrum of the 'real' versus the 'ideal' has a history. In the romantic era for example one tendency privileged immanence and had a definite ecological orientation, while the other privileged transcendence and had a somewhat spiritual orientation. In French post structuralist thought the highest achievement to date is the concept of 'aporia' which describes an occilation between the two polarities and is regarded as a negative or non solution because of its aspect of undecidability. In Ecophilosophy binary opposition is attempted to be bridged by reconstructing the terms themselves that rely on semantic dualism by simply extending the horizon of understanding which will makes reconciliation and incorporation (reunification) possible. This strategy is similar to the one used by many artists in the visual and conceptual arts including Joseph Beuys and Duchamp etc..

Joseph Beuys was active as a public artist from 1958 to 1986 the year of his death. Perhaps one of Beuys' greatest achievements as an artist of the 20th century was his ability to open up this aforementioned space of possibility for a certain mode of thinking which we are encouraged to practice for ourselves. New kinds of expanded understandings are always made possible by artists and thinkers and in the case of Beuys for me it is his idea of 'immateriality', or 'emptiness' elswhere described as 'infinite possibility' which Beuys clearly demonstrated through the seemless unity of his life, actions, and material manifestations. As mentioned, Beuys has a particular connection to early German Romanticism as there are a lot of similarities and parallel approaches between Beuys and the artistic, philosophical, and scientific sentiments in Germany around 1800. The vocabulary Beuys uses in expressing his art is developed as a continuity from the Romantic era. This continuity however is often still being misread as reactionary through a modernist, linear, and one dimensional idea of progress. Beuys tried to show us how to look at things via other modes of comprehension such as through opening up to myth (in the field of language) and ritual (in the field of action). According to recent research, ritual and myth are the repetition and actualisation of ancient acts which are done in order to keep up (continue) the necessary primordial order of things perceived in nature and society by ritually affirming and mythologically re-newing them. Through consciously referring way back in order to proceed way forward Beuys at once seemed the most conservative as well as the most radical and a unique figure even amongst his fellow artists. Beuys made it his business to know of ancient wisdoms and it's practices. He did not mind to be considered the "Shaman" artist of modern times for he himself constantly tried to reconnect with ancient modes of being still accessible to us today. Beuys, like so many of our modern elders, knew that we in the industrialised societies needed to rediscover and develop again our own spiritual connections necessary for a greater balance and harmony. He perceived this aspect of our cultural life to be in crisis ever since we committed to rationality and science over intuition and spiritual pursuits.

In the context of aesthetic discourse and theory of art in his own time Beuys made many important and liberating contributions. For him works of art could never be anything but a record or a kind of bookkeeping entry, in other words the works represented for him the mere accounts (for posterity) of a vital process gone through:
"Therefore these (artistic) products are mere files, documents, or excretions of an awareness process gone through;- just like I believe all kinds of products are the excretions of thoughts."
Thus for Beuys historical art works are at their best building blocks that can be used in certain constructions. He was convinced however that they by themselves could never become part of any structure without us, the perceiver, being actively involved as intermediaries in the process. For Beuys artistic production does not have eternal value but is rather a building material and as such merely part of some overarching process taking place:

Beuys broke the spell of the aesthetic art discourse of the 20th century that ruled artistic production for many decades with his need to communicate (manifest) the underlying idea of his own understanding and motivation for creating "Social Sculpture" in the most immediate and direct form possible to him. In order to show the 'immaterial' or 'emptiness' aspect of art he applied pure materiality together with his highly developed understanding of matter by using very specific non traditional art materials to communicate his intention and need of synthesising conflicting oppositions.

In his acute desire for direct and immediate communication Beuys explored the qualities of matter and materiality itself rather then language, semiology or metaphor in order to lay bare the ability of physical matterials or so called real and natural phenomena to communicate an intention or conciousness in a more undiluted and immediate way than words or even their rethoric application can. What he was searching for was direct access to the intuition. Beuys regarded intuition as the most important and encompassing aspect of the known mind and for Beuys rationality was merely a part of that intuition. He was a pioneer in discovering new artistic expression that might allow artists of the future to be active interlocers with their audiences without the need for any artistic objects (physical presence) or materials ( such as conventional reality concepts). He was able finally to formulate this achievement in a more concrete activation/activity model in which he likened intention to be like the 4th dimension of our traditional understanding of reality. This extended conception however made him wary of any traditional and habitually conditioned interpretations of his art since for him all that could be there was at best a representation, a statement, or something similar to a book keeping record rather than what was really going on which for him had to do with the "underlying idea as well as the reasons for doing it".(motivation)(2) Thus words of interpretation are yet some further steps removed from the initial intention which according to Beuys first crystallises into an idea (...feelings/thoughts/ words/ concepts), then into an action (artwork), which in turn may evoke a similar process (activation) in others who are viewing and experiencing (or interpreting) the work. For Beuys words of interpretation are therefore best said with this understanding in mind and should use parallel ideas to express a personal feeling which in itself, just like any expression, will be superseded in time. Beuys was aware that the rational mind involved in our day to day communication is not the only avenue of perception or dialogue. He never minded that people claimed that they had not a clue what he was doing or what he was about. He claimed that few still or yet again conciously understood the kind of "pictures" he was trying to create and that most peoples' perceptive organs had sadly atrophied. For him any connection one could have with a work is not through rational analysis but through a sense or intuition of the underlying direction to which any subject, object or physical matter merely point. Beuys, as Karren Tisdall explains, was inspired by Iganatius of Loyolas' treaty on states of grace achieved through mind practices and meditation. This exploration opened up the possibility for Beuys to think about the path through the rational mind to higher states of consciousness which he termed Intuition. His formulae condensed into: "Intuition is the higher form of reason". Since rationality is a thinking in quantities which in turn leads to rational realisations that mark its own border and highest achievements possible, Intuition can extend this border through a qualitative thinking which leads to sensitive areas not usually reachable via the rational mind. Thus Beuys was not against the rational analytical tendencies of science per se but actually incorporated them fully into his own model. To make things accessible Beuys advises his critics that any presented "Beuys objects" should mainly be analysed in connection with "Beuys' ideas". This necessity to engage with his ideas firstly and at least as much as with any of his so called art objects is seen as a provocation not just in itself but as a push toward a therapeutic process.

"People need provocation because they have hardened. They need to be engaged and maybe even enraged. I have done that with a lot of my sculptures. To provoke is to call forth." (3)

This engagement or interest according to Beuys can lead to love. And the so called object of interest or (in its intensified state) love is Immateriality which Beuys on some levels or to some audiences expressed simply as: "The idea behind it" and which Beuys saw as the basis or the ground that his entire activity was based on. These so called activities or artworks, together with his own life and ambitions were all bundled together under his own over arching term "Social Sculpture"; -a term that marks his deepest and all encompassing intention of achieving a socially expanded view as well as a new understanding of what art is and can do. Whether the dialogue connection between "activator" (underlying idea) and "activated" (intuition of perceiver) takes place is obviously dependent on the intuitive abilities and sensibilities of both the transmitter as well as the recipient. However one way of approaching Beuys' work as many of his researchers so far have been doing is the way Beuys himself suggested initially: namely that via his own "system" as understood and interpreted contemporaneously. However this form of work and system oriented interpretation is too close to the artist as person and precludes almost entirely any critical stance which at least in Beuys' own words is desirable and helpful.
Methodologically the first and obvious approach to any work of art might be the traditional academic method of looking at Beuys' own sources, namely the German Romantic era to a large degree, and the linage its particular thought patterns in turn are part of. As advised by Beuys himself:

"In order for me to make connections it is necessary to go as far back as possible, to go radically back in time. The other good point of contact would be German Idealism, where a similar conception to mine can be found. One can find it with Novalis, and with the entire circle around Goethe as well as with Lorenz Ocken for example, and with Carl Gustav Carus, or Caspar David Friedrich, as well as with Schelling and Hegel etc."

It is telling that Beuys sees himself more as the keeper of the flame than as radical avantgardist. He says about his own intentions:

"I do not claim to be original, but it is important for me that these things become reality now -and I mean all the way into political behaviours."

Beuys always saw himself as the practitioner artist, and not as a theoretician, or philosopher etc.. In his attempt to realise his intentions he arrived at a new kind of quality of picture (description/metaphor) as well as a deeper understanding of materiality itself. In his expanded understanding of art Beuys attempted to reunite binary oppositions which for Beuys seemed to be the basis of the mechanical, industrialised, as well as digital age. Historically speaking he saw this reflected in numerous obvious manifestations such as the split of science and culture. Beuys regarded his life and his works as a search for synthesis of the many excluding opposites constituting the modern world. Dualism has been a fact of life for many centuries and Beuys agrees that it may well have been helpfull in simplifying (rationalising) the complexity of the world by seeking to explain all phenomena in terms of two distinct and irreducible opposites. Beuys however claimed that art should never be seen less than a mediation between all of those extreme and excluding poles which can always be semiologicaly reduced further to some "grander" dualisms such as spirit (mind) versus matter, god and evil, or I and other, etc.

Beuys tried to illustrate his understanding of polarity and its possible unification with a pictorial and schematic model that uses three constant components which are like interchangeable variables in a mathematical formula. This model makes the necessity of synthesis (= art's function) obvious. The assumption that such a synthesis would be possible is based on Beuys' conviction that for example electricity, warmth, and energy in their differentiated qualities represent the basic powers or forces contained in all life (inc. humans). In his model the mediating qualities between the primordial powers or active principles (such as energy and warmth) manifest in other fields as the elements of creativity and social behaviour (compassion toward all living beings and things existent) or love. Beuys openly admits that he adopted this conception of reality from Buddhism and incorporated it into his own universal structure (model) which he can utilise on different levels and in different fields. It is one of the main conceptions that Beuys uses as the basis and method as well as for the intended effect of his expanded idea of art which he termed: "Social Sculpture".

For Beuys the elemental formulations which made up his model were and I quote: .

["The basic model of the actions with fat, felt and copper is the depiction of three important positions: firstly the chaotic, indiscriminately active energy which is flowing equally into all directions simultaneously and which acts as a point of origin, then the element of motion {direction} and then the element of form {material}."]

In order to represent and to communicate this basic model Beuys made use of highly specific materials such as fat, felt, copper, as well as bees wax, iron, earth and others. With each new work the usefulness and effectiveness of any material to be used was thorougly researched, tested and expanded. These 'experiments' as Beuys liked to call all his public actions or exhibited art objects produced new realisations in the form of new definitions (words/language) and with that came new conceptions (thinking patterns) acting retrospectively on the work (model) itself. Thus the creative process (dialogue) as Beuys understood it was shown to be working and 'forming' as is implied in the German words used to describe the function of works of art being 'wirkend' and 'bildend'.
Thus Beuys understood the model (or concept) as a reduction (= art work) conducive to further understandings and communications, -resulting in further concept creations (expansion). Beuys uses this model quite consciously on all levels of pictorial representation as well as actions and activations (creations) in his expanded field of Social Sculpture.

"I have never rejected any flow {direction} but I have always tried to research which forming principle is revealing itself there. It is a basic component of my Formation Theory that disparate elements make up form or Sculpture, namely polar forces together with a mediating element...."

Some works as they appear

"Fond I" (1957) is a large glass jar filled with conserved pears prepared by Beuys' mother.
"Double Fond" (1954) are two long cast iron shapes with a lightning conductor attached to one of them leading to a metal plate lying on the ground. "Fond II" (1968) consists of a row of nine stacks of felt (containing 100 rectangular pieces) each one metre high with a covering plate made of copper. This is usually exhibited together with "Stelle" (1967) which is an assemblage of the same size copperplate resting on pieces of felt put under three corners. Onto one of the felt pieces is joined a flat, cornered piece of fat. Fat is also rubbed onto the surface of the copper as well as the felt pieces which have partly absorbed it.

Some initial explanations

In "Fond I" we have a system of conservation. The title of this series "Fond", or basis (ground) bespeaks the first or underlying principles which are put in question here. On a more obvious level "Fond I" is a kind of battery or energy source in that it stores energy (or love) expended by Beuys' mother which in turn can generate energy (or love) at a time of need.
In "Double Fond" we are shown the principles of the lightning rod in a schematic model . A lightning rod works on the basis that lightning always choses the best conducting path. Because of its density copper is one of the best conductors (besides silver) for electricity as well as warmth ( which is a lower form of the same phenomenon). Here the electrical discharge in form of lightning is conducted via the copper lead over the lump of cast iron to the ground plate. This is possible because the electrical and warmth conductivity of iron is only 1/5th to 1/8th that of copper. The load that discharges from the sky is attracted by the copper rod and channelled into the ground. The iron block represents an energy potential which is only activated with effort as opposed to the dynamic power of lightning.

In "Fond III" The battery invented by Volta in 1799 was in the form of a column of zinc plates and copper plates with pieces of felt separating them. Furthermore the action of stacking in Fond III can give the visual impression of stored energy. This so called accumulator is then topped with copper which gives the impression of the energy meeting with a highly conductible material. The massed assemblage of nine full stacks in a row makes it like a "Kraftwerk"-situation where one source is switched to the next and so on synagetically increasing the energy generated. If we proceed to "Stelle" we can see the addition of the material fat to the picture. In helps to demonstrate felt's ability to absorb matter and to store it. Fat on the other hand has the ability to penetrate its environment while in a warm state. Copper with its ability to conduct mediates between different states (materials).

Beuys and science

Beuys has been fascinated by science from early on in his life and yet he came down on the side of art when after the war he had to decide which direction his life was to take. This decision however was not a rejection of science or the Naturwissenschaften per se but a conscious attempt to recombine these two by now completely disparate elements of human endeavour which had come about by favouring the analytical method to the virtual exclusion of spiritual or philosophical conceptions resulting in present day High Materialism.

Recovering from a severe and lengthy mental breakdown after the Second World War Beuys had eventually reached his own understanding of Naturwissenschaft and succeeded in his chosen role as public artist to formulate questions and acknowledgments of basic universal problems faced by individuals and society. He tried to demonstrate these together with his own ideas for solutions and personal transformations via the example of his own life and work. On the question of polarity of art and science in western cultures he proposed to integrate both disciplines under the banner of his expanded understanding of creativity known as "Social Sculpture". Immateriality or emptiness as the term is used here stands for the condition or basis (first principle) that makes such "Social Sculpture" or synthesis possible.
Information of purely scientific or physical nature as gleaned from Beuys' works used in the "Fonds" series need to be further examined in this Beuysian context. The mentioned works could all be read as energy sources and are all concerned with the location of energy sources and fields of power for the utilisation of energy in order to produce warmth, for example.

["The idea of warmth goes much further-it isn't just about physical warmth. If I had meant just that I could have used infra red lights more effectively. What I meant was a different sort of warmth, namely spiritual warmth, or evolutionary warmth, or a beginning of evolution."]

The aim of Beuys for these apparatuses is obviously not the real energy such as electricity or heat but as he himself explains: ""the energetic/spiritual aspect of energy is more important to me than other aspects."] The works are not only characterised by their apparent electrical subject matter but also by their common title of "Fond" which means basis, ground, foundation, or first principle. What Beuys means by these titels is made particularly clear by the row of nine large felt stacks of "Fond III" for it makes visible and palpable the stored (dynamic) energy in any mass as a basis or ground from which activity can originate with the help of mediation or conduction as it is called in physics. The substance so to speak that Beuys makes available for creative and self transformative activity is understood by him to be a kind of spiritual energy, or evolutionary warmth.

Beuys often skilfully uses technical, or non spiritual fields in which to express his model. This of course has the effect that he also expands the scientific positivistic mental patterns in order for them to remain useful and relevant. For Beuys material forms which the scientific positivistic thinking declares as its exclusive realm of activity only exist because of Immateriality or emptiness and all existing phenomena are therefore based on and are part of this principle and it is life itself, or life energy that seeks self expression physically:

["Spiritualty, personality, humanness, soulfulness, perceptivity, or thinking in general uses physicality in order to express, or to communicate."]

This quote by Beuys could well be interpreted to mean that physically manifest energy does merely represent in a metaphorical way the spiritual, mental, or 'love' energy as one would see in an essentialist's universe. This however would be a complete misreading of Beuys as a dualist. Beuys is more correctly interpreted as a monist for whom physical matter is not the metaphorical or symbolic representation of higher invisible forces describing spirit or 'love' but is coterminous with it . The point here is not that the material objects 'translate' or represent immaterial phenomena but that they are 'emptiness' or 'non form' embodied; ie neither matter nor spirit come first hierarchically speaking,-they are always indivisibly one and the same simulatanously.

Beuys hints that what was needed eventually was to extend our understanding gradually in an attempt to do away with the division of inner and outer phenomena, or to put it differently the division between the "visible" and "invisible" Dasein, the disolution of and need for binary opposition.

F.J. van der Grinten his biographer admits it is not easy to engage with Beuys which to him seems always an active process requiring energy as well as warmth. We have to bring to the work (any work for that matter) a certain condition or conditioning in order for the work to be active and transformative. It is up to each of us to accept the responsibility for supplying energy and warmth in order for anything or any thought pattern to be effective to the point of being transformative. It is exactly in this way that each of us is primordially and ultimately the artist Beuys activated us to be with his famous statement: "Everyone is an artist." For Beuys the suggested concepts and inherent intentions in any work need to be meeting with the right conditions (audience). and nourished by the imagination concepts or even words themselves became a kind of phenomena or matter.

Beuys uses the example of bread given during Catholic Mass after it has been transubstantiated into the body of Christ by means of a communal ritual. For him it is clearly the phenomena of Immateriality or emptiness that makes transubstantiations possible and effective. Through his evolutionary model Beuys is aware that the principle of evolution or arising is open and dynamic and that there are dynamic and fluid relations "such as occur during mental activity and only much later does it reach a level were it crystallises into dimensions of fixed and rigid forms that materialise".
In order to inspire a diminishing (melting) of any rigid or set traditional ideas of this physical universe of ours Beuys suggested that what was needed was first of all some kind of generally open, alive, and fluid substance which for him shows its aliveness through having the characteristic of some kind of warmth. However as mentioned above Beuys does not mean merely physical warmth but social warmth or even sacramental warmth. For him this was not some speculation or abstraction but a workable material in the (re)discovered dimension of 'emptiness". In the Beuysian model this new kind of substance (or awareness of) 'emptiness' has the function or dynamic effect that energy or warmth have in his various demonstration models (art works). It can be traced back to having its basis in participation , that is by being a constituent mediator (via the concious awareness of the 'emptiness' conception of transcendental dimensions as well as imminent material realms arising simultaneously).

© 2000 - 2019 Raphael Zimmerman