Modern Art and Spirituality: Beuys

Artists: Spirituals or Portfolio Managers

Mark C. Taylor’s [1] Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy starts by juxtaposing the four artists mentioned in the title subsection with Hirst, Murakami, and Koons. Art has come under the sway of market forces which inflates its value. At the same time, chasing dollar value deflates art’s critique of rampant consumerism. Even if one pretends irony is the aim of Hirst, Murakami, and Koons such irony is absorbed into the market. In the end, they are more portfolio managers than creators.

Beuys, Barney, Turrell, and Goldsworthy are, however, different. These four artists represent the spiritual of art. The irony of spirituality is how it lives in subtracted value, the hidden, the negative. If artistry is a work of love infatuated with the secret, then the work of Beuys, Barney, Turrell, and Goldsworthy live in a different galaxy from their stock brokering counterparts’ pornography. Indeed, as German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han [2] puts it:

Love without something hidden to sight is pornography. And without a gap in knowledge, thinking degenerates into calculation.

Beuys the Shaman

We’ll get to the artists on both sides of Taylor’s aisle in due time. For now, our focus is the enigmatic Joseph Beuys. One of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, the German described himself as a shaman. He often worked with materials like honey, felt, fat, and animals. These materials had spiritual significance. Now, Beuys did not pretend himself a pre-modern shaman. Instead, inspired by Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy of Anthroposophy, he imagined waking individuals’ inner spiritual world through his art. His performance art embodies his mission best.

Fluxus Fame

Here, I will focus on the piece which brought Beuys his fame; his performance at the Fluxus Festival of New Art, Technical College Aachen, 20 July 1964. Here is Peter Chametzky’s recounting of the event [3]:

In 1964 Beuys participated in the Fluxus group’s Festival of New Art, organized at Aachen University by Valdis Abolins and Tomás Schmit. Fully titled Actions/Agit-Pop/De-Collage/Happening/Event/Antiart/L’Autrisme/Art Total/Reflexus, this event coincided with the twentieth anniversary of the July 20, 1944, attempt on Hitler’s life by officers of the conservative, nationalist conspiracy that hoped to stop him from leading the country further into ruin. One participant in the Festival of New Art, Bazon Brock, played Goebbels’s 1943 speech at the Berlin Sportpalast over the public address system—the speech in which the propaganda minister, after Germany’s defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad, had exhorted the audience to die in what was an increasingly hopeless cause, with the hectoring phrase: “Do you want total war?” Brock himself stood on his head and exhorted the audience: “Do you want total life?” Meanwhile Beuys melted fat, specifically Rama-brand margarine, on hot plates in cases.

Incited by the radical artists’ provocations, right-wing students stormed the stage, and Beuys was punched but continued with the performance. Heinrich Riebesehl photographed Beuys, bleeding from the nose, holding his sculpted Crucifix Scene in his left hand and his right arm aloft in an incantatory gesture that alluded both to blessing and to the Hitler salute.


Although one could ask many questions about this incident, I wondered why right-wing students stormed the stage. Maybe it was because Beuys and Brock mocked Goebbels or their right-wing cause? Or were the students enraged by the curious juxtaposition of the everyday wrapped over the traumatic Second World War? I think they may have been disgusted because of the tension and traumas Beuys’ butter brand of spirituality illuminate.

The bodiless partial-object of Goebbels’ voice juxtaposed with Beuys’ frying fat. For Beuys, fat had spiritual meaning.  It’s impossible to miss fat’s reference to the tragic concentration camps; one byproduct of the killing machine was fat turned into soap. [4] The juxtaposition of the “total life” (the absolute passive ordinary) and “total war” (full genocide) meet in butter. Even in the mundane everyday tensions art lives. As Beuys often said, “everyone is an artist”, meaning everyone should live their life as an artwork. Beuys’ art remains ethereal, egalitarian, and earthy while retaining a mystical subtraction. Beuys’ bloody face shows such a spirituality runs deeper than either dull full-blown materialism or cheap spiritualistic nonsense. What idiot would want to manage or monetize such a monstrous portfolio?

[1]M. Taylor C., Refiguring the Spiritual, Columbia University Press, 21/2/2012
[2]B.-C. Han, The Transparency Society, Stanford University Press, 19/8/2015
[3]P. Chametzky, Objects as History in Twentieth-Century German Art, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA 2010
[4]A. Leitch, Joseph Beuys: Shaman of Fat, in Fat: Culture and Materiality, Bloomsbury Academic, London 2014, pp. 289–369