Joseph Beuys was born in 1921 in Germany and was one of the most important artists of the 20th century. He was very active from the 1950s until his death in 1986. He appears at a time, after the enormous atrocities of the Second World War, when many artists considered as a socially irresponsible attitude the artists’ usual behaviour of working alone in their studios, while there were so many real political issues at play. One of the forms in which this political consciousness manifested itself was the one created by Beuys, with his works that sought to apprehend the spirit of the artist as an energetic force and catalyst for change in society.

His artistic supports were very diverse, ranging from traditional drawings, paintings and sculptures, to process-oriented or time-based “action” art, in which his performances suggested how art can exert a healing effect on both the artist and the audience1. The huge importance of Beuys in the art of the second half of the 20th century is confirmed not only by the impact he had at the time of his exhibitions and actions, but also by the enormous influence he had on artists of great creative force, still working, such as painter Anselm Kiefer, performer Marina Abramovic, architect Souto Moura from Porto, among many others.

The discovery of Beuys, like any other great artist, has to be made through personal contact with the artist’s work, in this case very wide and in multiple supports, and not through third-party comments or expert opinions. For those who like his art and enjoy it, Beuys’ work is great art because it impacts us as individuals, because it has a special meaning for each one and effectively makes everything different in our daily lives, helping us to live, to work and to be in the world. When this happens, art helps change the daily life of every human being and the world. Joseph Beuys believed in this and in the change of the way of thinking of each individual, because his “social sculpture” had a posture that maintained that, if “everyone is an artist” this will transform the society. He said:

“We have to revolutionize human thought”, and “First of all revolutions takes place within man. When man is really a free, creative being who can produce something new and original, he can revolutionize time.”1

Beuys described the creative process in the world, that is, the way we mould and shape our thoughts, words and the world we live in as a “social sculpture“, in a process of creation and change in which “we are all artists”.

This “social sculpture” was not necessarily a physical work of art, but rather the conscious actions of individuals and groups to liberate human creativity and reform their social, economic, and material conditions. Beuys tried to end the boundaries of traditional art forms in order to include human thoughts and actions, and thereby include concerns about the world.

To see more about Joseph Beuys, “what is art?”, “social sculpture” and “we are all artists”, see our post Joseph Beuys and “Creativity in the World”.

From my perspective Beuys’ work is essential to understand the world, the creativity and the limits and interrelations in politics, art and economy, human activities strongly associated with this common world. What do you think about that?

Filipe Novais, Porto, Europe.

1. Goldberg RoseLee, “Performance: live art, 1909 to present”, Ed.2001 (1st ed.1979); pp.96-97. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London.

Image – Joseph Beuys, Beuys at the New School, 1974; and “Joseph Beuys_ I Like America and America Likes Me”, Tate, London.

Note: The trailer for the movie “Joseph Beuys” below is a good introduction to the figure of the artist. There are many documentaries and interviews on the net about this great artist, unfortunately mostly in German not subtitled.

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