Studying Joseph Beuys’ philosophy requires more than just reading him. After all, he was – above all – an artist. He was also a teacher and a philosopher, but I think that for Beuys it was “just” a way of being artist. He once said: “To be a teacher is my greatest work of art.” All this has to do with the concepts of the enlarged understanding of art (there are several ways to translate der erweiterte Kunstbegriff) and social sculpture (soziale Plastik). I reckon that partly because of making everything as art Beuys didn’t have to build his theories and visions on preceding authorities. Admittedly still, he did use and develop the thoughts of Goethe and Rudolf Steiner and also referred to Schiller especially when speaking about freedom.
However, it seems impossible to get a grasp of Beuys’ ideas by only reading him, and this is why I’m using arts-based research methods to study his thinking. To do that, I visited the museum of contemporary art (Hamburger Bahnhof) in Berlin where they have one wing of the building to exhibit their permanent collection of Beuys’ works. I had seen most of the pieces earlier so I was pretty much aware of what I was going to see. This time, however, I decided to spent two or three days in the museum just with the few Beuys’ works. I ended up spending two days there: after the second day it felt like I wasn’t going to get anything more out of those works, so why waste time.
Because I had visited the collection earlier I had a hermeneutic pre-understanding of what I was going to go through with the collection – and also a presupposition of what works might be the most meaningful for me and my process of understanding Beuys. Also, as a part of my pre-understanding was a fresh idea of approaching the works while keeping in mind Bergson’s laughter. Just a few days before my journey it had occurred to me that there seems to be some resonance between what Bergson says about laughter and how Beuys describes art in his theory of sculpture. Furthermore, one essential part of my pre-understanding was the concept of ‘spiritual materiality’ by Klaus Ottman. These aspects constructed my horizon of pre-understanding against what I reflected the feelings and thoughts that my encounter with the collection elicited. Through this reflection I ended up choosing three Beuys’ works to be more thoroughly studied after the first day. The second day I spent with these three works trying to create a phenomenological dialogue with them; in other words, I tried to face – or maybe confront! – the three works through my ‘new organs of perception’ (a Goethean term for using one’s imagination as a tool for perception and understanding).
The pictures on this page are of those three works: Doppelfond (Double Fond) from 1954, Unschlitt (Tallow) from 1977 and Das Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts (The End of the 20th Century) from 1983. At the current point of my research these three pieces will serve as the main source for my arts-based dialogue with Beuys. They all represent different perspectives for me: in Doppelfond the emphasis is on the spiritual materiality; Unschlitt resonates with Bergson’s definition (and task) of comedy; and Das Ende… bears the idea of the potential of a free creative individual (‘True Capital’ as I call it) as well as the notion of un-anthropocentric timespan. For me, Das Ende… is an extremely strong expression of the idea of social sculpture; a holistic view to the undeniable interconnectedness between a human and the world. As an artwork in a museum it is a frozen (or maybe a crystalline) picture of this relationship and as such it is in itself dead, but it creates life as it is a provoker for thoughts. In that sense it is a sculpture that creates sculpture; for thought is sculpture, as Beuys said.