German artist Joseph Beuys’s work appears unfathomable: his entire oeuvre engaged drawing, sculpture, performance, pedagogy, and political activism. Art critics and art historians have admitted the difficulty of placing this enigmatic artist within the modern or postmodern lineages of significant postwar artists. In the foreword to Joseph Beuys: The Reader, Arthur Danto argues that Beuys (1921–86), like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, is one of the artists who one must turn to in order to understand contemporary art. Danto believes, however, that unlike Duchamp and Warhol, who are frequently discussed and shown, Beuys has faded from contemporary awareness. This is both true and not true.
Beuys is famously remembered for two things: the theoretical hypothesis of “social sculpture,” and the statement “everybody is an artist.” A close consideration of the relationship between these two concepts reveals Beuys’s program for art and his historically motivated vision for society. Both concepts have influenced participatory, socially engaged, and relational art today and provide a vehicle for unraveling their historical significance, even if they claim to detach themselves from Beuys’s historical moment. Perhaps of even more significance, then, is what aspects of Beuys work seem to have — somewhat suspiciously — faded.
Danto suggests that perhaps the fading interest in Beuys lies in the fact that both the subject of Beuys’s art and his own personal myth are bound up in World War II and the period of German reconstruction. It is possible that the fading of Beuys is due to the inability to digest and resolve the problems his work raised in the aftermath of World War II. Our historical moment, almost five decades later, inherits that history and those desires, even if a certain metaphysical strain of postmodernist thinkers have incessantly argued that such a moment has irretrievably passed. The analysis of the influence of Beuys on contemporary artists, specifically those engaged in relational aesthetics, in this essay is to argue and demonstrate that the moment has not passed, but changed. The difference in our historical moment is that we are less conscious of — and less interested in — the social conditions that produced and re-produces the political disillusionment and aesthetic desires and needs that emerged after WWII. Continue reading