Personal Reflections on 4th Conference on Arts-Based and Artistic Research

On June 28-30 we spent three fruitful days in Helsinki at Aalto University, giving our talks, seeing some interesting presentations, participating in great conversations and enjoying the atmosphere. The organizers had done a marvelous job in putting the conference together, and they still did a great job in keeping it all together! There were practically no technical problems, delays or whatsoever issues.

I managed to gain quite a good amount of comments and questions for my presentation (here’s the presentation text attached in .pdf). Most of those weren’t so much about what I presented (my arts-based research as a process) but about my research subject, Joseph Beuys’s social sculpture. As some of the comments/questions revealed I hadn’t been clear enough about some elementary issues of that, I thought I might as well reflect those here, also to clarify to myself what I should remember to mention or explicate whenever I talk about my research subject.

Social Society?

One listener caught me on this one, and I’m glad he did. This originates from lingual difference: in Finnish there are two different words for sculpture, “kuvanveisto” for an act of sculpting, and “veistos” for the sculptural object. So when I asserted that social sculpture is a pedagogical metaphor where sculpture stands for society, I was thinking it in Finnish. To a native English speaker it sounded like I was saying something about social society, which of course doesn’t make any sense at all. But what I meant was: social sculpture (action) is a pedagogical metaphor, and in this context a sculpture (object) is a metaphor for society. Anyhow, I have started to hesitate if this interpretation is accurate enough. Maybe it would be more accurate to consider social sculpture as a philosophical (existential) attitude.

Academy of (R)evolution?

One commentator was confused by my “Academy of (R)evolution”  insisting it is a conceptual paradox. I agreed, but after giving it another thought I’m not so sure anymore. The argument was that Ao(R) builds a conceptual enclosure, which is impossible for revolution. But I don’t think it is. We shouldn’t confuse revolution with anarchy. Anarchy is about total freedom, revolution isn’t. Revolution is about change, and the Academy of (R)evolution is calling for new ((r)evolutionary) insights in an educational sense: there is an ethical goal of “healing” the world – or at least our relationship to it.

Modernist discourse?

There was also a question about how this fits into our Art-Eco Project and the EcoJustice framework, since the modernist discourse is so strongly present in Beuys’s thinking.
Well, first of all, Beuys was living in a modernist era, so it is not surprising that he is bound to that discourse. It is a matter of interpretation, given that context, how modernist we regard his actions and aims to be. Considering the total framework he built through his actions, artworks and talks, it becomes quite obvious he was not supporting the modernist occidental way of life. Beuys did have a holistic worldview, even though his relation to nature and especially to animals appears somewhat problematic from the EcoJustice point of view.
Secondly, in this presentation, my focus wasn’t on fitting Beuys’s thoughts into EcoJustice framework. I was trying to describe how I use arts-based research in my process and, in addition to that, propose some insights about the element of freedom that I had gained through this process, and how this has lead me into thinking about the question of space in the context of sculpture and, furthermore, what does that spatial notion implicate in terms of social sculpture.
Thirdly, I wasn’t talking about my philosophy or Art-Eco philosophy, but presenting Beuys’s thoughts that are my research subject. It would be rather odd to insist that we shouldn’t study anything outside of the EcoJustice framework – or couldn’t talk about philosophies that exist outside of it. So I reckon this difference is something I have to be more explicit about in the future.

Getting rid of materials?

I was asked if towards the end of his career Beuys was more and more aiming to give up using materials and aiming for sculpting without materials.
I hesitated, because this is a view that is not explicitly presented in any text materials I have gone through so far. After giving it a second thought, my answer is: Well, yes and no. Beuys confessed having lost his interest in making visually interesting or aesthetically pleasing art, but that happened already in 1969, quite soon after his breaking through into the wider knowledge. And as far as I know, he wasn’t trying to give up making sculptures of material kind: take a look at for instance “Tallow” (1977) or “The End of the 20th Century” (1983). So he did continue making material sculptures throughout his career but, as he told in 1980, the materials he used carried specific meanings that related to his Theory of Sculpture. Beuys wanted everyone to become an artist in a sense that we would mold our thoughts (and through that the society), and that is of course sculpting without material. Also, it is worth mentioning that the reason for his first visit to US in 1974 was his commission to present nothing at the René Block Gallery. Instead, he travelled around the country giving public lectures.
So my final answer (at this point) would be that Beuys worked with sculptures of both material and immaterial kinds throughout his career, his main interest being in molding the thoughts (in teaching, that is).

Contemporary social sculpture?

Finally, there was this question that I just wasn’t able to comprehend at all, so I couldn’t give a satisfactory answer to it. Afterwards I was talking about this with Raisa, and I gradually understood the question, so here’s my answer to it.
Why don’t I refer to any contemporary artists practicing social sculpture?
My initial response was that because I am not studying them. And I’m still sticking to this as a part of my answer. I am not studying the forms of social sculpture has taken in the practices of contemporary artists, because that would be a very, very narrow point of view. My understanding is that social sculpture doesn’t have to have anything to do with professional artists. It does not mean an artist led practice/action that aims to benefit the community, because in the core of social sculpture there is the enlarged understanding of art and the slogan “Every human being is an artist“. We can either agree or disagree to the slogan, but we can not have (a Beuysian kind of) social sculpture without it.
So, focusing on artist led practices of social sculpture would be like focusing on french fries when studying potatoes. They are potatoes, but of a very processed kind. It is true that “7000 Oaks” (1982) is an example of an artist initiated social sculpture, but it should be considered only as a tangible explanation of the immaterial concept.
I assert that in a Beuysian sense social sculpture is something we all are capable of, without having any professional artists involved at any phase. If a trahsman is putting his best effort in collecting our garbage because he regards it as contributing to the community, he is doing social sculpture. So, if contemporary artists are calling their practice social sculpture, it is fine, but social sculpture is most certainly not limited to that, and since I am not studying the implications social sculpture has within the field of contemporary art, it would make no sense to pay much attention to that. It would be even misleading, making people perhaps think that a professional artist is required for social sculpture. And again, I am studying Beuys’s philosophy, not the contemporary interpretations of it.

For anyone interested in social sculpture I highly recommend reading “Joseph Beuys in America: Energy Plan for the Western Man” (1990), a compilation by Carin Kuoni. My interpretations on social sculpture here are mostly drawn from the chapters “Introduction” (1979), “I am searching for a field character” (1973), Interview with Willoughby Sharp (1969) and Interview with Kate Horsefield (1980). Also “Joseph Beuys: Life and Works” (1979) by Adriani, Konnertz & Thomas is an excellent source of information.

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Jussi Mäkelä
Jussi Mäkelä

Jussi Mäkelä (b. 1973) is a researcher, an artist and a teacher. His master’s thesis in education (University of Tampere 2002) was about Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy. After graduating as a teacher Mäkelä started to focus more on art and art education, ending up doing an arts-based hermeneutical research as a master’s thesis in art education (Aalto University 2010). Mäkelä is interested in arts-based phenomenological research as a method of understanding the complex relationship between an individual and the surrounding world. In his PhD project Mäkelä is applying Joseph Beuys’ social sculpture to the perspectives of perception, freedom and capital through which he is scrutinizing the human-world relationship. The main questions in his research deal with the fundamental responsibility of a free creative human being. Mäkelä’s arts-based oeuvre is built on various artistic techniques including making sculptures of felt, beeswax, copper and wood, acrylic paintings and small conceptual compositions.

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Jussi Mäkelä