Joseph Beuys, who died 30 years ago, was unmistakable – both the man and his art. I met him only once - in 1970 - when he was performing and showing work at Richard Demarco’s Strategy: Get Arts at Edinburgh College of Art. Lurching towards me, there was no mistaking the man and his complete shamanic costume: the hat, the boots and the fishing vest.
He said very little but his impact was huge. He was a couple of years younger than my father, who also was a veteran of WWII. Did I see a distant reflection of my father in Beuys? Or, was I looking for such a connection? Looking back it seemed more likely that I was seeking some kind of a blessing – and I got it.
I had arrived a little too late for the Beat Generation but had read about the ‘happenings’ generated by Alan Kaprow and others in the US and I knew about Beuys’ association with Fluxus, which had extended the anarchy of happenings, while doing something very different.
Beuys was the first famous artist I had met. Mysterious yet open; imposing yet approachable: a truly enigmatic act. Maybe it was the act that attracted me.
Andy Warhol was still going the rounds, quietly spoofing the whole idea of the ‘live artist’. But who knew if Andy was the ‘real thing’ or indeed if there was any ‘thing’ there at all. Then along came Beuys. Everything about him was carefully crafted. An act (and I use the word advisedly) with real substance: magical.
Perhaps that special brand of magic explained the attraction. My grandfather (the original 'Phil McLoughlin') had been a music-hall conjuror and ventriloquist – the Great Lockhart. Even as an old man, long retired, he could still captivate people.Even as a boy I knew it was just trickery but that never detracted from my appreciation of the act itself.
Beuys was not the originator of installation and performance art, far less its roots in happenings and conceptualism. He was to become, however, by far its greatest exponent – indeed the key populariser. Alfred North Whitehead famously said that the European philosophical tradition consisted merely of a “series of footnotes to Plato”. In my view almost all contemporary art is indebted to Duchamp’s influence, but the Turner Prize short lists and their inscrutable and oftem childlike ilk – especially the theatrical and the bewildering - are mere footnotes to Beuys.
Through his personal mythology Beuys wove layers of myth and symbolism around and throughout his work. The significance of his choice of felt and fat as key materials may well be that they could muffle and suffocate. If Beuys’ work could speak for itself – rather than only through his voice - it would be impossible to hear what it might be saying.
I never really understood what Beuys was doing, or what works like ‘The Pack’ – which I first saw in Edinburgh – meant. I very much doubt that anyone did - they needed to be told what it was all about. I suspect that everyone – critics included – were simply captivated by the mysterious doings and potential multiple meanings. Beuys cannot be held responsible for all the ‘art’ that has followed him, especially the glut of so-called conceptual works - much of it trivial and juvenile. However, he may have, almost single-handedly, shaped the ‘mystification project’ that now stands in the centre ground of contemporary art: the ‘art’ that is distinguished by its unintelligibility.
Almost 20 years after his death Beuys is still regarded as one of the most influential artists of the late 20th Century. Yet, what his work was really ‘about’ is still disputed. Gene Ray’s edited text - Joseph Beuys: Mapping the legacy - showed just how little agreement exists regarding his ‘legacy’, even among his devotees. Beuys placed mystification and bewilderment at the heart of his work. He needed his audience to struggle to comprehend what was going on so that he – and a cavalcade of art critics or historians – could explain it to them. That clever form of condescension is, perhaps, his most lasting legacy.
It is impossible to separate Beuys the shaman from his work. Without his story (or one of his many autobiographies) his work would be meaningless. Imagine some future inhabitant of Earth discovering a Beuys work in an attic space (aroll of felt, some fat and maybe a sledge or two). Without the context – the gallery, the catalogue and 'learned' reviews by eminent critics – all that would be evident would be some felt, some fat and some snow vehicles.
If the same person was to come across a battered panel, in the same attic, by an anonymous Flemish master she might, at least, stop to wonder at the discovery. That moment of 'awe' is - to my mind - the nub of the artistic experience. To know that we have come across (or encountered) something that (for now) lies beyond our comprehension, but still captivates us, defines the real 'art object'. The cavalcade of critics and learned commentators merely underline the obvious.
The life histories of artists did not get too much attention until Picasso and Gauguin began the cult of artistic celebrity. Van Gogh might be a better example but his fame – and subsequent influence - was wholly unintentional. He just wanted to make art: the events of his life just took over.
Looking back down the history of art, most of the great names remain enigmatic. It does not really matter if Caravaggio was a murderer or if Leonardo was gay, their works speak for themselves. Warhol may have invented the shallow form of celebrity art culture but Beuys became famous by twinning the roles of fabulist and mystic. Like a medieval alchemist Beuys sought to imbue his work with depth and complexity. Not surprising that he was such a devotee of homeopathy.
Beuys was infamous for tinkering with the facts of his life. Like a character from a postmodern novel Beuys blended blend kernels of truth with truckloads of fiction. His most famous fable involved his ‘rescue by Tartars’ and the crucial role played by felt and fat in his recovery from injuries sustained when his bomber plane crashed near the Crimea in 1944. This story has been widely exposed as a marvellous piece of auto mythology – wildly at odds with his less exciting recovery by German commandos and subsequent treatment in a military field hospital. Later, Beuys offered several different versions of this ‘story’, eventually claiming that his version was an ‘interpretive solution’ to his work.
Why did Beuys’ go to such lengths to distort the facts of his wartime life? Was this, as some art historians have argued, a ‘myth of origin’ – the wellspring for Beuys’ subsequent artistic persona? Or was he, as Hans Peter Riegl’s recent biography claims, lying for much more unsavoury reasons? We shall never know.
Most people re-invent themselves in one way or another and are usually loath to explain why – perhaps for the simple reason that they don’t really know. With hindsight Beuys’ personal mythology may have been just a clever strategy (an anticipation of ‘Strategy Get Arts!) to make both him and his work more enigmatic. Certainly, his fable helped to re-birth him; splitting him off from the harsh facts of warfare (bombs and guns), in favour of the timeless organics of felt and fat.
Although usually attributed to Mark Twain, the saying - ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good story’ – is undoubtedly Irish in origin. My ancestors have been manufacturing myth, to great effect, for centuries. Beuys too was fascinated by Ireland and Celtic mythology. Maybe he was an Irishman at heart. The truth may well set us free but myth, however fanciful, makes us appear more interesting.
It has been 45 years since my encounter with Beuys and I remain more than a little enchanted with the man and his myriad myths. Like many historical characters I doubt whether the ‘truth’ – whatever it is – will ever be established. Joseph Beuys was who he said he was: period. The stories were what made him.
If I had got to know him would I have liked him? That is a very good question. Would I have enjoyed the company of Caravaggio, Leonardo, Gauguin or Van Gogh? Who knows? Heroes in art carry the same problems of heroes in other walks of life. As Sheldon Kopp said – “If you have a hero look again: you have diminished yourself in some way”. As a very young man I might have needed someone to look up to. With every year that passed, that need faded. I grew up.
I have lots of reservations about Beuys and his work, but I don’t care in the slightest about his life-story. I find his work interesting but the more I read about it – from historians, critics and Beuys himself – the less interesting it becomes. My approach to a work of art has always been to encounter it and engage with it, in the hope that I might discover some ‘thing’ in the work that I can take for myself. Not-knowing – a kind of purposeful naivety – is the way to make genuine discoveries. This kind of natural science is surely preferable to using a script based on someone else’s discovery.
I fear that the meaning of Beuys’ work is to be found (only) in exhibition catalogues, or critical reviews or a distillation of the countless interviews in which Beuys talked about his work. It is well nigh impossible to follow my art appreciation method lest all that is discovered is felt, more felt, fat and disparate, dusty artefacts.
This is the mystification project writ large. All very good for catalogue, magazine and book sales, but a killer for the kind of purposefully naïve engagement with the art-object that has served us for thousands of years. Art has become part of the entertainment industry and very few people understand why they are laughing.