Beuys - an "enchanter" appears

Mihai Olos and Joseph Beuys at the University of Giessen

Image:      Liviuolos / CC BY-SA (                                                                                  

As previously mentioned, Beuys had decided that when he returned to Kleve after WWII he would not choose science as a career because he felt it leads to extreme specialisation. Now he was also concerned with how the world seemed to be turning to an overwhelming one-sided concentration on rationality and positivism i.e. the insistence that the only mode of knowledge must be based on natural phenomena, their properties and relations as verified by the empirical sciences, and that, for example, theological and metaphysical explanations are untenable.

Beuys was interested, and believed in, the value of other sources of knowledge. He was a spiritual person who took a great interest in Christianity, especially in the form espoused by Rudolf Steiner. A great deal of Christ’s time was dedicated to healing the sick, and Beuys believed that much in society was currently sick and needed healing. He emphasised the therapeutic, healing value of his art. Indeed his theory of sculpture can be seen as a healing process where cold, rigid, crystalline forms benefit from the warmth that causes movement towards a more lively, chaotic state. Beuys, who was (mythically) saved and healed by the fat used by tartars, went on to use fat as a healing material. Not only had Beuys survived his plane crash, but he had also survived his serious bout of deep depression. Such serious misfortunes, followed by miraculous recoveries, are seen by many people as signs of the ability of the person to heal themselves - and to be able to heal others. They are one of the characteristics of a shaman. Beuys had thus demonstrated this ability and wanted to use it to heal society. It is perhaps no coincidence that he had, quite early on in his art, created drawings and paintings that included the word shaman in their title e.g. “Trance in the House of the Shaman” (in 1961) and “Houses of the Shaman” (in 1965).

In Adriani et al “Joseph Beuys Life and Works” Beuys describes the effects of the war and his depressive period in terms akin to a shaman’s initiation: “Certainly incidents from war produced an after-effect on me, but something also had to die. I believe this phase was one of the most important for me in that I had to fully reorganize myself constitutionally; I had for too long a time dragged a body around with me. The initial stage was a totally exhausted state, which quickly turned into an orderly phase of renewal. The things inside me had to be totally transplanted; a physical change had to take place in me. Illnesses are almost always spiritual crisis in life, in which old experiences and phases of thought are cast off in order to permit positive changes.

Certainly many men never experience this phase of reorganisation, but when one comes through it, much of what was previously unclear or only vague acquires a totally plausible direction. Such a crisis is a sign that either there has been a loss of direction or that too many directions have been approached. It is a decisive challenge; much has to be settled and one must take new directions toward new experiences. This was the stage I began systematic work on certain basic principles.” (pgs 56/7).

In a 1979 interview with Caroline Tisdall, Beuys made an even more direct reference:

“For me it was a time when I realized the part an artist can play in indicating the traumas of a time and initiating a healing process. That relates to medicine, or what people call alchemy or shamanism….” (Tisdall, Joseph Beuys pg 21).

According to Cornelia Lauf, Beuys, in order to implement his idea, as well as a host of supporting notions encompassing cultural and political concepts, crafted a charismatic artistic persona that infused his work with mystical overtones which led him to be called "shaman" and "messianic" in the popular press. This, of course, is something that drew attention to him and to his classes at the Academy and clearly set him apart from other teachers. He later said:

"In places like universities, where everyone talks too rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear."

At about this time i.e. in the mid 1960s, tensions were rising  in Germany, and in the world too. For example, after the United States started bombing North Vietnam in 1965 in the so-called Operation Rolling Thunder, the Vietnam War protests started in earnest . There were many anti-war marches and other protests, notably those organized by the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). This was an organization that “was one of the principal representations of the New Left. Disdaining permanent leaders, hierarchical relationships and parliamentary procedure, the founders conceived of the organization as a broad exercise in ‘participatory democracy” (   

The above video is from just a couple of years later in 1967. Image: Creative Commons Attribution licence (reuse allowed)

The SDS may well have had an influence on Beuys and his students. I say this since it was also under SDS’s impulse that by the autumn of 1965 “there were several ‘free universities’ in operation (something similar to which Beuys aspired to later): " In Berkeley, SDS reopened the New School offering 'Marx and Freud,' 'A Radical Approach to Science,' 'Agencies of Social Change and the New Movements'; in Gainesville, a Free University of Florida was established, and even incorporated; in New York, a Free University was begun in Greenwich Village, offering no fewer than forty-four courses ('Marxist Approaches to the Avant-garde Arts,' 'Ethics and Revolution,' 'Life in Mainland China Today"); and in Chicago, something called simply ‘The School’ began with ten courses ('Neighbourhood Organization and Nonviolence,' 'Purposes of Revolution')." By the end of 1966 there were perhaps fifteen. (source: wikipedia as above).

It was also in 1966 that John Lennon, having left the Beatles, was singing ‘Give Peace a Chance’.

Closer to home for Beuys, protestors were strongly opposed to the way Germany had handled its Nazi past. The Nuremberg trials had taken place in 1945/6 before an International Military Tribunal. The first Auschwitz trials had taken place in Kraków in 1947 again using international law (with the legal definition of crimes against humanity) - the trials being conducted under the auspicies of the Polish authorities (the Supreme National Tribunal). In 1963, however, the ‘second Auschwitz trials’ took place in Frankfurt, and conducted according to German criminal law. The trial attracted much publicity in Germany. As Tony Paterson writes in The Independent, 28th Feb, 2016:

 “22 Nazi SS henchmen faced justice for the first time in Germany [I think he means under German law]. Surviving film footage reveals how controversial the trial was. Inside the court the police saluted the accused as former “comrades”. Only six of the accused were given life sentences. Twelve others were given terms of up to 14 years. The trials nevertheless obliged a reluctant German public to face up to the horrors of the Holocaust and accept that the perpetrators lived in their midst…..The rest of Germany’s track record is less impressive. Some 120,000 investigations into Nazi war crimes after 1945 resulted in just 560 convictions. The shockingly low conviction rate was largely due to the fact that judges insisted on eyewitness evidence to prosecute.” (my emphasis). 

The post-war generation of Germans demanded that the German history be critically appraised. It wanted to see society transformed.

And among the key factors under the microscope were the old models of authority that still remained in place in Germany.

Continued in next column

Joseph Beuys in the foyer of the art academy during a ring discussion with students                         Image: CC BY-SA 3.0

With so much going on in the world it was inevitable that these concerns would filter into the students’ thinking at the Academy and discussing such issues with students would chime with Beuys’ desire to take art outside of the traditional system of teaching art and to bring it into all areas of life. After all, he rejected outright the idea that he should teach only sculpture  and in 1966  Beuys institutionalised his ‘ring discussions’ where he and his students discussed a whole range of topics including, for example, addressing political, philosophical, educational and societal issues. The dissatisfaction highlighted in these discussions almost inevitably led to open protests both in and outside of the Academy and most with the encouragement of Beuys.

Indeed Nick Thomas writes in ‘Protest Movements in 1960s West Germany pg 16/17 that: “Common issues such as the Vietnam War, university reform, race relations, police violence, democratic representation, norms of behaviour, and attitudes to authority ran throughout the protest campaigns of every country in the West. These protests were carried out mainly by the young and usually took the form of matches, sit-ins, sit-downs, and mass meetings, often with the intention of provoking a response from those in authority. Although their political character and outlooks differed, they were usually informed to a greater or lesser extent by some variant of the New Left critique of Western capitalism that distanced itself equally from Soviet totalitarianism”.

Petra Richter claims that it was during these ring discussions that Beuys also took the opportunity to discuss the social system as a whole, basing it on his own art concept and Rudolf Steiner’s ‘Threefold Social Order’. And it was also here that Beuys would explain his ‘Theory of Sculpture’, the starting point of which he described as a constellation of three basic driving forces: the ‘chaotic energies’, a ‘crystalline principle of form’ and a ‘communicating principle of movement’.

The topicality of the themes discussed in Beuys’s class attracted not only other students of the Art Academy – such as Sigmar Polke, for example – but also visitors from outside, with the result that Beuys’s class soon became a ‘Podium and Action Centre of the Extended Art Concept’. These discursive, introspective discussions were altogether in keeping with Beuys’s concept of the parallelism of theory and practice. (Richter)

While some of Beuys’ students enjoyed the open discourse of the Ring discussions, others, including two of his more well-known students, Blinky Palermo and Jörg Immendorf, disapproved of the classroom disorder, anarchic characteristics, eventually rejecting his methods and philosophies altogether. (Nonetheless Beuys did support Immendorf and female co-student Chris Reinicke’s ‘Lidl Academy’ - which they attempted to establish as an independent academy in the Düsseldorf Academy. This was to be place where, among other things, any form of hierarchy or instructive differentiation between master and student had to be avoided. Such activities eventually led to police intervention and temporary closure of the Düsseldorf Academy in 1969).

More and more of Beuys’ time was spent in discussion and conversation, now regarding this as art. He would maintain that speaking and thinking are sculptural processes. In an interview with Georg Jappé, appearing in Studio International 182, no. 936 (September 1971) pg 67 and quoted in Petra Richter’s thesis Beuys says: “..I always urge students not only to think but to project their thinking further. It has to be realized that thinking is a sculpture in itself— and that you get a really fantastic sculpture when you speak. This has a good effect on their use of language; students simply must learn to speak. It's vital that mankind should slowly learn to speak, come out of its dumbness; and this applies above all to the man in the street. They must learn to see that they fundamentally know an enormous amount, and that official education just doesn't make it possible for them to clarify their feelings and thoughts into words...Speaking is certainly a sculpture, because it's based on an organ, and therefore on a sculptural object. ...But then I go on to call for a stronger physical entity than speech. There is a physical reality in the sound waves, which I can detect by physical means, through motion. But I want this to extend itself to the arm, the physical organs; so I take a material and model something and slap it on the table. It doesn't have to be perfect.” (quoted from Richter, my emphasis)


Gisland Nabakowski was a member of Beuys’ class from 1966 until 1970, later becoming co-editor of ‘Flash Art’ and editor-in-chief of ‘Kunst heute’ (Art Today) in Milan. In “Brennpunkt Dusseldorf 1962 – 1987” she gives an interesting account of what it was like to be a student of Beuys during that period and comments on his teaching methods. She recalls how, on wanting to join his class, and having seen her portfolio of drawings, he visited other classrooms to see her sculptures. He looked very attentively for signs of individuality compared with work that had been produced by following the usual prescribed methods of teachers.

Brennpunkt - the book produced for the exhibition which took place at Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf

Right up until the time when he allowed many more students to attend his class he would visit every day, holding long intensive discussions and asking many questions. In what are described as ‘correction’ periods he was always friendly, preferring to be at the same level as his students. He didn’t have favourites and his calm handling and almost daily appeal to each student’s individuality was appreciated.

In those early days Beuys did not have a star or cult status. He didn’t look down on others. “If you came to him with a problem or with money worries, he could be spontaneous, generous and helpful”. Over the years he developed many international friendships and students were allowed to participate in these, since he believed it was stimulating and helpful and Beuys invited many of these friends to his classes.

Nabakowski, however, became disturbed by a kind of discipleship that later emerged among some students; and although Beuys said he was against this, she felt he actually practised it in respect to his own admiration for Rudolf Steiner, whilst at the same time trying hard to dissuade his own students from following in his footsteps.

She felt that Beuys realised that artists needed more than just talent – they needed a kind of ruthlessness to succeed, although she quotes Beuys’ students Blinky Palermo and Hans Rogella as examples who were talented yet soft-hearted.

In Nabakowski’s view although Beuys was helpful he did not act like the father figure who, had a student come to him hoping to hear him say: listen, take care of yourself, how are you? or: what’s wrong? and then expecting him to follow this up with: I’ll look into this for you; that’s not what she experienced. “As a teacher, he was not a father” she states and then concludes somewhat tangentially that if being a teacher meant being a father, Beuys was not a teacher.

She suggests that Beuys’ attitude of acting at the same level as his students (i.e. as one of them) was reckless to the extent that he turned the teacher-student relationship upside down, hence removing the ground from under their feet. Beuys, who frequently sought to heal society’s wounds, thus failed as a teacher who helped to heal his students’ problems.