segunda-feira, 21 de maio de 2012

Joseph Beuys: Everydayness, Allegory and the Avant-garde: Some Reflections on the Work of Joseph Beuys by Peter Bürger

The aporias of either-or

Unrestricted quotation, allegory without reference, the independence of the signifier and the dissolution of art into a completely aestheticized everydayness: all these attempts to define the nature of the post-modern have one thing in common. They all assert the levelling down of oppositions which had remained valid ones for the modern age. This process must not be confused with the dialectical one known as 'sublation' ('Aufhebung'): the oppositions here are not 'sublated' in a third term but are rather eliminated as such in so far as one of the two terms in question drops out altogether.
If a quotation no longer makes a specifically determinate reference to the work from which it has been taken but rather by virtue of vague allusion to the themes or techniques of another author or even epoch actually determines an image or text in its entirety, then the opposition between text and quotation disappears. The image is a quotation - but it no longer quotes anything determinate, for in order to do so it would have to construct a context against which that which is quoted could stand out in relief.
The appeal to allegory, which does not link the individual elements of a work symbolically according to an organic principle but in accordance with the principle of 'meaning', became important for the aesthetics of modernity because it enabled the artist to escape the confines of idealist aesthetics which had forced us to conceive of form and content in art according to the metaphysical schema of subject and object. But when under the sign of post-modernist thought the meaning which connects the parts is not merely loosened but actually revoked, then all that remains of allegory is a heap of fragments and unconnected signs. And when the signifier is no longer tied to the signified, then reference is replaced by movement through an infinite chain of signifiers. When, finally, art is dissolved into an aestheticized everyday world, art can no longer be perceived as a specific domain at all.

In so far as the kind of post-modernist discourse outlined here still makes any theoretical claims, it is susceptible to an immanent critique. We expect a theory to be able to explain the conditions of its own possibility either systematically or historically. Post-modernist discourse is not in a position to do so. There is a drawing by the Italian artist Clemente which depicts two figures running past one another in opposite directions, each of them holding on to one of the sides of a ring that bears the inscription 'symbolon'. Just as this programmatic drawing, which asserts the fragmentation of the sign, can only be understood as long as we suppose a semiotic system that remains intact, so too all post-modernist talk about the indepen¬dence of the signifier does indeed employ a semiotic system that recognizes the opposition of signifier and signified. Post-modernist discourse is not only unable to identify the position from which it speaks, it demonstrates precisely its own impossibility. (1)

One might expect that any discourse the groundlessness of which has been exposed by immanent critique is thereby already disposed of. But this is not the case. In fact the fascination with post-modernist discourse persists. It must therefore draw its compelling power from sources other than internal consistency. In this connection it is tempting to think of the catastrophic aura that hangs over the world-historical horizon of the present age. Where the very survival of human life is put in question, the category of meaning also becomes questionable. Certainly this is not sufficient by itself to explain the collapse of our system of signs but it lets us glimpse the experiential context of a mode of thought which in the face of the, unthinkable is no longer prepared to bow to the force of rational argument.

Reflections of this kind can render two aspects of the problem intelligible: on the one hand the fascination which such thinking exercises upon us, on the other hand the great lack of understanding; which prevails between the post-modernist thinkers and their critics, The conclusions which can be drawn from this situation touch upon; the limits of the kind of thought which views everything within the fixed perspective of catastrophe. After we have admitted the debilitation of rational argument produced by the historical situation, we will have to return to such argument once again because it seems to offer us the only means of clarifying our situation.


If we attempt to grasp post-modernist thought not as a stringent theory but as the expression of an epochal predicament, then it has to be taken seriously as such. This does not mean that we must accept it in all the abundance of its very different forms. On the contrary we can take up quite different positions with respect to these various forms:

1. Certainly the simplest is the happy hedonism of 'anything goes'. Particularly in the aesthetic field this is a view strongly suggested by the prevailing state of affairs. The coexistence of so many different artistic movements will then appear as a legitimate expression of pluralism, from which anyone can draw what suits their purposes, and the confusion of quotations from the most diverse contexts combined in a single work as an ironic playing with tradition.


2. Anyone who suspects such a simple endorsement of the post-modern predicament in which all variety is treated as equivalent and spread out before us in a single dimension, can find a more subtle form of endorsement with a Nietzschean gesture that affirms a radical rupture. Anyone taking this line can criticize the false riches of post-modern multiplicity initially in order then to reach a position of non-participation through a (fictive) leap out of their own time, a position which would allow them to take positive possession of what was criticized before. What formerly presented itself as a purely arbitrary choice now becomes the product of an act on the part of the subject, an act of 'neutralization'. (2)


3. If on the other hand we understand the post-modern situation as one in which the multiplicity of historical models that are indiscriminately appropriated for our purposes merely obscures the lack of work valid for our own age (in other words as a situation of historicism and eclecticism), then we cannot avoid enquiring after a standard, something which strict modernism found in the concept of advanced material. And here there are two paths we can take: either we pursue the question whether even in the post-modern age advanced artistic material in Adorno's sense can still be identified (cf. Kilb's contribution to this problem), or we attempt to understand the causes which have led to an uncertainty concerning aesthetic standards, if not to their disappearance altogether (cf. the contributions of Berman and Feher).(3) Both these paths are viable but they are not without certain risks of their own.


The danger inherent in the first approach lies in reproducing Adorno's decisionism. If it is true that the artistic developments of the 1970s and 1980s have rendered his position untenable and furthermore have opened our eyes to everything that Adorno was driven to exclude from the domain of valid works of art in order to hold fast to his rigorous concept of modernism, then we have to ask whether it is desirable to try and renew this concept.
Furthermore we should bear in mind that the concept of advanced artistic material presupposes a logic of material development which can certainly be verified for particular artistic domains in narrowly defined periods (as in the development of cubism prior to 1914 for example) but which cannot be regarded as possessing a uniform character, even during the periods of classical modernism (Kandinsky and the cubists do not follow the same logic of the material, not to mention the surrealists).

Of course the way in which Kilb opposes his 'one thing only goes' to the 'anything goes' approach is impressive: the play of empty allegorical references. But it seems to me that this does not really help us to get a conceptual grasp upon the very different types of authentic artistic achievement in the present, neither Peter Weiss's Ästhetik des Widerstands, nor the work/non-work of Joseph Beuys, for example, and this despite the fact that the latter does pursue specifically allegorical intentions. Whereas a systematic critique of post-modernist discourse seeks to identify its contradictions, a historically oriented critique enquires into its origins. In relation to the realm of aesthetic products the question becomes the following: how have we come to give up that separation established in modernity between the work of art as the centre of interest on the one side and the everyday world and trivial art on the other, and along with that the strict modernist concept of form, in favour of an uninhibited eclecticism and a tendency towards ubiqui¬tous quotation?

If criticism seeks a guilty party in this process, it will be able to discover it in the historical avant-garde movements of the past. For these movements in fact attempted to eliminate the distinction between art and the practice of everyday life and to loosen up the relationship with trivial art and indeed also succeeded in putting in question the rigorous modernist concept of form (through the idea of écriture automatique, for example). Nevertheless, the assignment of guilt attempted in this connection by Berman remains a questionable undertaking. The universal aestheticization of American everyday life which he describes so convincingly more probably results from the imperatives of capitalist commodity production, or more precisely from the compulsion to perpetuate a consumer stimulus, than from the (however misdirected) project of a particular artistic group. Is not Berman here adopting a conservative model of cultural criticism which 'transposes the unpleasant costs resulting from a more or less successful process of capitalist modernization to modern culture itself [in this case the avant-garde movement]?'(4)

Now Berman is not alone in this critique of the avant-garde, formulated as it is under the impact of post-modernism. Ferenc Fehér's argumentation also tends in this direction, (5) and Jürgen Habermas, who decisively rejects the aesthetic anti-modernism of Daniel Bell, also clearly takes up a position against the avant-garde movements. Habermas perceives serious dangers for society in the avant-garde's attempt to 'de-differentiate' the different cultural spheres.

For Habermas the differentiation of the spheres of science, morality and art in fact represents a historical progress and he suspects the attempt to question this differentiation of powers as a regressive wish. However, it can hardly be denied that the insulation which obtains between the individual cultural spheres is one serious problem in our culture. The uncoupling of politics from morality certainly represented a progressive development in the time of Hobbes but it becomes very probematic in an age when the technical potential for destruction has grown to such a degree that all human life can be wiped off the face of the earth. (6) And similar considerations apply to the uncoupling of science from morality as well.

It is precisely the success of science (in the field of genetic engineering, for example) which now makes it imperative for us to bring science back once again into a productive relationship with morality. As far as art is concerned, the pursuit of what one could call the obstinate autonomy of the aesthetic simultaneously represents both an advance and a loss of those dimensions which only become available to art if it ventures out of the secure domain of the aesthetic that has been allotted to it.

These remarks are intended to suggest that we should not simply account the aforementioned separation of domains as a case of historical progress. It is not merely reconnecting the results obtained by a culture of 'experts' back to the life-world that represents a major cultural problem for our society but also and above all the separation of the spheres as such. And it is a merit of the avant-garde movements to have exposed this problem, quite independently of the question whether the solutions they proposed have actually proved feasible or not.

It is perhaps here that we encounter the limits of an approach that tries to impose upon us a dichotomous schema of either-or. Thus either the separation of cultural domains represents historical progress, in which case it is to be accepted and the consequent problems dealt with as they arise (like that of 'reconnecting' with the life-world, for example); or it represents an evil, in which case we must strive to eliminate it and face up to the regressive consequences of this project. Either we accept art as an autonomous institution, in which case any attempt to go beyond this situation must be denounced as a false transcendence; or we adopt the avant-garde position, in which case we must in all consequence also propose the abolition of museums and theatres. Either we cling to the possibility of aesthetic evaluation, in which case we affirm the concept of advanced material even against our better historical judgement; or we accept the free utilization of any material and thus renounce all attempts to evaluate the aesthetic object.

As formulated here, these dichotomies might seem to suggest a decision in favour of the first alternative in each case. But since we have already seen that this option is burdened with specific problems of its own, we should ask ourselves whether the formulation of these alternatives in terms of an either-or decision might not be the very problem. Not merely because on closer examination we recognize that the 'or' position offered to us is such an unattractive alternative that it cannot possibly be accepted but because the dichotomous schema might not in fact do justice to the facts themselves.



Instead of trying to isolate the avant-garde impulse, we should ask ourselves whether it might contain a potential which could still be developed, if art is to be more than an institution that compensates for problems arising from the process of social modernization. Without that diabolical element in the avant-garde impulse towards the transcendence of art as an institution the art of the post-modern age might well rapidly degenerate into a kind of salon art without the salon. Theory is unable to produce by itself an answer to the question whether there is a third position that could release us from the compulsive logic of either-or (which in truth compels us to opt for the 'either'). Theory can recognize what has come to pass historically but cannot lay down what shall be.

Consequently I shall conclude the theoretical discussion here and turn instead to an analysis of certain aspects of the work of Joseph Beuys, a prototypical representative of the avant-garde artist in the period after the end of the historical avant-garde movement. But I would not like the following analysis to be misinterpreted simply as an exposition of a theoretical problem which could equally well be presented with reference to some other artist. Beuys cannot be regarded as a test case and that is precisely what makes him relevant for theoretical reflection. The internal break in my argument recognizes the heteronomy of theory. If the latter understands anything, it can only do so by reference to the things themselves.


The transgressor

No one can doubt that Beuys belongs in the tradition of the historical avant-garde movement. He has stressed as much himself in the speech he delivered on receiving the Lehmbruck prize. There he tells us that he is concerned with 'a basic idea for the renewal of the social whole, one which leads in the direction of social sculpture'. (7) He takes up the Utopian project of the historical avant-garde which was once formulated by Breton as the creation of a world which men could finally live in ('un monde enfin habitable'). But Beuys also knows that the avant-garde movement was unable to realize this project and that he too will not be able to realize it. All that remains is to 'pass on the flame'. (8)

I have spoken about the failure of the historical avant-garde movement myself in my Theory of the Avant-garde. And if one compares the project with what became of it, this talk of failure is certainly apposite. But such a judgement itself remains caught within the logic of the either-or. If we leave this logic behind, it seems questionable whether a Utopian project can ever fail since it is so intimately connected with that hope that can never be disappointed, according to the dictum of Ernst Bloch. We can also express this idea in another way: failure is the mode in which the avant-garde artist reaffirms the Utopian quality of the project, a project that would always be transformed into something else if it were to be realized.


Dadaism and early surrealism were sustained by the hope that the hidden potential for creativity and imagination could be released simply by destroying art as an autonomous institution separated from the practice of real life. Hence that assault upon institutional art the shrill vehemence of which will never be equalled again. Now there is hardly a trace of all this in Beuys. It is certainly true that he distances himself from the concept of the artist, 'which is just what I do not wish to be.' (9) But this distancing gesture lacks the polemical edge which characterized the dadaist declarations. Whereas Raoul Hausmann spits at Goethe, Beuys can actually appeal to him as a writer who entertained a concept of science different from the dominant one of his time and as a man who pursued both art and science in exactly the same spirit. Instead of a direct attack upon art as an institution, what we see here is a movement which leads us away from art without completely abandoning it in the process.

'I actually have nothing to do with art - and this is the only possibility which permits us to do something for art.' (10) This paradoxical formulation captures a situation in which artistic achievement becomes dependent upon the capacity of the artist to transgress the institutional limits of art. Since what we have accustomed ourselves to calling the failure of the historical avant-garde movement the original impulse to transcend art has been transformed: it now knows that it is dependent upon what it rejects.

In fact Beuys wishes to produce a change in our attitudes, to establish a new relationship towards our own senses and the materials with which they come into contact, as well as towards the realm of thought and that which transcends the sensuous. But since the era of aestheticism the idea of transforming our modes of perception has become an empty cliche devoid of any experiential significance. Consequently, Beuys can no longer pursue his aims within the institutional context of art. On the other hand he cannot simply abandon the latter if he does not wish to repeat the avant-garde assault upon it. So it is that he becomes a transgressor who simultaneously transposes the borderlines that he constantly violates now from this direction and now from that. When one of his conversation partners tentatively described his drawings as 'a particular kind of exploration', Beuys agreed but immediately went on to add: 'Nevertheless I have not let myself lose sight of art altogether. Art as such is what I wanted to achieve. We have not yet achieved it.' (11) The paradox that we still have no art ('for it does not yet exist') only makes sense if we presuppose a concept of art quite different from the traditional one, a new 'totalized' concept of art as Beuys describes it. 'All human questions can only be questions of shaping and that is what I mean by the totalised concept of art. The concept refers to the possibility that everyone can in principle be a creative being as well as to questions concerning society as a whole.' (12)

Beuys has a peculiar way of using concepts which we could describe as a kind of semantic displacement. He certainly employs traditional terms but he transposes the semantic core of these concepts by bringing them into close proximity with a number of quite different ones which he also displaces in turn. Thus he transposes the concept of art by bringing it into a close relationship with that of science, but he differentiates the latter from the currently prevailing concept of science and defines it without regard to any methodological features. On another occasion the concept of art is transposed into an all-encompassing idea of 'shaping' which is not, on the other hand, supposed to exhaust the content of the concept. For, as a counterpart to this extension of meaning, Beuys still clings to the idea of a specifically artistic form of activity and speaks of 'social sculpture' in this connection.
It is quite pointless to accuse Beuys of being logically inconsistent in his use of language here. On the contrary we must understand these inconsistencies as an appropriate expression of the fact that Beuys is working from an impossible position - one that is located neither inside nor outside of art as an institution but on a borderline that he constantly negates at the same time.


Material allegory

Beuys introduced two new materials into the domain of plastic art: fat and felt. His employment of these materials goes back to a traumatic experience of his own but their significance is not exhausted by the allusion they make to that experience. In 1943 Beuys's fighter plane crashed in the Crimea. After lying unconscious in the snow for days, he was found by Tartars who rubbed him with fat and wrapped him up in felt so that he was gradually able to recover his body heat. These two substances henceforth remained connected in his mind with the idea of rebirth from death by freezing through the heat-producing power of fat and the insulating capacities of felt. To this extent the substances in question form part of a personal mythology.
The decisive thing, however, is that Beuys does not stop here but goes on to develop a theory of material substance arising out of his quasi-mythical experience. In this theory the felt functions as an insulator and protective covering but also as a material that permits the penetration of external influences as well. The grey colour is intended to evoke in the onlooker the whole wealth of the normal colour spectrum through a kind of reversal effect. And finally the sound-absorbent qualities of felt represent silence. (13) Thus a whole dialectic of meaning is ascribed to the material (at once insulating element from and connecting element with the outside world, at once colourlessness and wealth of colour), a meaning which is then further realized in the artist's 'actions'.


What interests Beuys about fat is the different states of the substance as a whole: more or less solid when cold, more fluid under the influence of heat. It thus becomes a privileged object for demonstrating his theory of sculpture which distinguishes between chaotic (warm) states and organized (cold) states:

My initial intention in using fat was to stimulate discussion. The flexibility of the material appealed to me particularly in its reactions to temperature changes. This flexibility is psychologically effective - people instinctively feel it relates to inner processes and feelings. The discussion I wanted was about the potential of sculpture and culture, what they mean, what language is about, what human production and creativity are about. So I took an extreme position in sculpture, and a material that was very basic to life and not associated with art. (14)

Beuys creates a sort of alphabet for himself out of the materials. It is one which does not consist of phonemes but of complex concepts. We can certainly reidentify the meaning that he ascribes to the sensuous materials but this meaning does not arise inevitably from the immediate sensuous impression itself. Thus a piece of work like the Fat Corner, which was to be seen in the exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, did not merely consist in the perceptible object itself, namely the fat smeared into the corner of the room, but also in the self-interpretation and commentary contained in the catalogue and finally in the photograph which almost alienates the plastic object into a two-dimensional form. The onlooker simultaneously becomes a reader who is encouraged to perceive a projected complex of meaning, in this case the opposition between the strict organizing principle of the right angles in the corner of the room and the semi-fluid fat which announces the mutability of 'social sculpture'.

But the viewer is also exposed to quite different impressions: the stains on the wall, the rancid and slightly repellent smell of the melting fat which has long since lost the original triangular shape caught in the photograph. The associations produced in the onlooker by these impressions point in a quite different direction from the conceptual interpretation laid down by Beuys himself. Similar considerations also apply to his works in felt. The piles consisting of one hundred square pieces of felt covered by a copper sheet signify a heat-battery for Beuys: 'These felt piles [ . . . ] are aggregates, and the copper sheets are conductors.' (15) The association produced in the onlooker by the work is more likely to be that of some bleak warehouse in which every object is just the same as any other. The allegorical meaning which Beuys has ascribed to the materials is overlaid with others arising out of the immediate act of perception.

The return of symbolic form

How far these different levels of meaning can diverge from one another can be seen from Beuys's 'action' entitled How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. Beuys is sitting on a stool with its single leg wound about with felt; he has poured honey over his head; he has attached an iron sole to this right foot while his left foot rests upon an equally large felt sole; in his lap he cradles a dead hare; his right hand is raised in a confessional gesture; a number of drawings can be made out on the wall behind him. This stage of the action is all captured in a photograph by Ute Kolphaus. (16) The polemical content of the scene is quickly grasped by the onlooker: even a dead animal has a greater understanding of art than most people do (while the action takes place the gallery doors are closed and Beuys can only be seen from outside through the windows).

The scene owes its pathos not least to the sight of the head covered in honey. Beuys connects this image with a clearly defined allegorical meaning: the head is the organ of rational-thought which has ossified into deathly rigidity. By pouring the living substance of honey over his head, Beuys suggests that thought too can be a living thing, can become a different kind of thinking.17 The scenic allegory presents us with that very semantic displacement which we already encountered in his public utterances.

So much for the intended meaning of the scene. But someone who looks at the photograph sees something quite different: a head that appears disfigured by the blistering wounds of war and whose blank gaze contradicts the peculiar vitality of the hand. The stool leg entwined with felt, the vaguely perceptible switch of an electric appliance and the shoe wrapped up (in wire?) beside it evoke associations of bondage and torture. The emotive power of the image does not reflect the allegorical intention of the performer of the action, but rather cuts across it. Beuys certainly says something to us here but what he says is not the same as what he meant to say.

What is the significance of this discrepancy between the allegorical self-interpretation of the artist and the symbolically interpreted visual experience of the onlooker? It would certainly be a mistake to play off one of these levels of meaning at the expense of the other. We cannot simply repudiate the allegory constructed by the artist as a quantité négligeable for it belongs to the work just as much as the emblematic subscriptio belonged to baroque art. Nor should we simply regard the meaning produced by the onlooker through the sensuous encounter with the object as a purely subjective contribution, especially since this interpretation is more likely to meet with intersubjective agreement than that proposed by the artist.

We shall have to move back and forth between these levels of meaning which produce an extremely complex structure. If we must consider the allegorical self-interpretation of the artist as something which belongs to Beuys's works (and this seems to me to be beyond question), then we can learn precisely from these works that the subjectively projected meaning cannot be maintained. This does not imply that this meaning simply disappears. Once publically enunciated or formulated in a catalogue the meaning is already present but it remains only loosely connected with the object. What we actually experience here is the simultaneous constitution and disintegration of allegory. We recognize the allegorical projection of the artist but we immediately abandon it because it does not coincide with what we see.


The phenomenon we have described here must not be confused with the multiple levels of significance ordinarily encountered in works of art. In that case we certainly discover different meanings but they are all located on the same plane as it were. But here that is precisely not the case. Beuys imposes a clearly defined allegorical meaning on to his materials which we can certainly recognize intellectually but this meaning is not strictly bound to what we sensuously perceive. Consequently the object perceived enters into a symbolic sphere of meaning for us in which it is not grasped as a sign for something else but rather as identical with its meaning (however unclear the latter may be).

Benjamin's rehabilitation of the concept of allegory has played such an important role in contemporary aesthetic theory because with this concept the two sides of what we call form, namely the sensuous perceptible moment and the intellectual meaning (object and subject), are not fused into a unity but are preserved in their difference from one another. Thus allegory appears as a model that allows us to transcend the metaphysical presuppositions of idealist aesthetics and to turn the bifurcation which dominates our actual existence into a constitutive experiential principle of art.

If our observations about Beuys's work are well founded we come up against a limit here in the attempt to subject the domain of art to the characteristically modern principle of rationality (in the sociological sense). In so far as allegory preserves the distinction between the sensuously given and the meaning as independent terms and attempts to establish an unambiguous relation between them, then in its very structure it represents a model which corresponds to the principle of rationality. For both of them rest upon the separation of subject and object. The symbol, on the other hand, in which the sensuous moment cannot be separated from what it means, remains bound up with a metaphysical concept of form which is modelled on the idealist idea of the subject-object. Now if it turns out that we cannot help also reading Beuys's allegories as symbols, then it would seem that a certain metaphysical model still shapes our aesthetic experience. It is perfectly true that we can lay bare the metaphysical basis of this aesthetic experience through critical reflection but we cannot simply avoid it in our actual dealings with art.


From this vantage point I would now like to return to the problem of post-modernity as formulated above. Most critics are agreed in describing this situation as a Babel of quotation and a confusion of styles. The positions which we can take up towards this state of affairs (either the happy eclecticism of 'anything goes' or the decisionistic assertion of one advanced material) are both equally unsatisfactory. In saying this we have not solved the problem of evaluation (and to that extent we must agree with Kilb). What can our analysis of. Beuys's work contribute to a solution here? In the first place it should teach theory a certain modesty. With respect both to production and experiential reception theory remains heteronomous.

It can help to conceptualize the aesthetic as its exists (and that is not an inconsiderable achievement) but it cannot on its own resources establish criteria. When theory attempts to do so, it constantly runs the risk of disgracing itself in front of the works which it simply obscures because its would-be illumination misses them altogether. We cannot leap ahead theoretically and claim that allegory realizes itself in the distintegration of projected meaning and thus gives rise to symbolic meaning out of itself for example. Even after the event we should not attempt to erect this particular structure as a criterion of contemporary art. Beuys is a unique case. Nevertheless, we should be permitted to compare and contrast the paintings of Die Neuen Wilden with his works.

For this reveals the problems in such an unproblematic return to panel painting, to joyful colourism and secure line. In comparison with the broken unsure line of Beuys's drawings, in which technical facility gives way to a more tentative jotting, much contemporary painting makes a rather external effect. The success such painting achieves is not unlike that of Makart.
These remarks are simply intended to show that evaluation is possible even without a firm theoretical framework which decrees what the most advanced level of artistic material is. Only when theory becomes modest enough to admit its heteronomy will it be able to practice that 'immersion in the matter at hand' which Adorno claimed for himself but certainly did not always succeed in realizing.


In his famous essay of 1919, 'La Crise de l'Esprit', Valéry describes the epoch before the First World War as an Alexandrine chaos of styles, allusions and borrowings:

Dans tel livre de cette époque - et non des plus médiocres - on trouve, sans aucun effort: - une influence des ballets russes, - un peu du style sombre de Pascal, beaucoup d'impressions du type Goncourt, - quelque chose de Nietzsche, - quelque chose de Rimbaud, - certains effets dus à la fréquentation des peintres, et parfois le ton des publications scientifiques, - le tout parfumé d'un je ne sais quoi de britannique difficile à doser! (18)

This description astonishes us. For at least in the field of the visual and the plastic arts the decade immediately preceding the First World War appears to us as the heroic epoch of modernist art. Fauvism, cubism, the Blue Rider - these decisive innovations in twentieth-century painting all arose in this period. But nothing of all this appears before the theorist's gaze, which seems dazzled by a mirror that has shattered into a thousand splinters. If such important contemporary phenomena could escape a thinker of such sensitivity and perspicacity as Valéry, then we cannot reject out of hand the possibility that something similar could happen to us. Perhaps we cannot see the epochal art of our own time, dazzled by the colourful ambitious canvasses of the New Fauves.

Even Berman's fear that the universal aestheticization of everyday life could finally lead to a situation in which there would no longer be anything outside art and the latter would therefore disappear can be allayed by considering the case of Beuys. Certainly Beuys did abandon himself to the media. Even those at the greatest remove from the world of avant-garde art still recognized the man with the felt hat and had an instant judgement to pass on him if required. Yet his works remained esoteric, inaccessible even to those who attempted to follow the self-commentaries of the artist. If popularity and esotericism can be so intimately connected with one another in this way, we may well suppose that art will remain capable of effecting a distancing movement in which it opposes itself to the everyday world as its other. The manner in which Beuys both adopts and revokes the avant-garde project of transcending art, operating from an increasingly indistinct borderline between art and non-art, shows how the practice of the artist already finds itself in advance of the legitimate fears of the theoretician. While we anxiously try and formulate the question, the answer has long since been found but we simply do not see it. It required the death of Joseph Beuys before we could finally see it so clearly.




Notes

1. This is also true for Jean Baudrillard's claim that the opposition between essence and appearance has disappeared in favour of the universalization of the 'simulacrum' (L'Echange symbolique et la mort (Paris, 1976)). Cf. ch.
2: 'L'Ordre des Simulacres'. Baudrillard's thought itself presupposes precisely that level which is not appearance and whose abolition he asserts.
2. Cf. H. Böhringer, 'Postmodernität [...]', in his Begriffsfelder. Von der Philosophie zur Kunst (Berlin, 1985), pp. 55-61, esp. p. 60.
3. The remarks in parentheses refer to A. Kilb, Die Allegorische Phantasie [...], F. Feher, Der Pyrrhussieg der Kunst im Kampf um ihre Befreiung [...] , R. A. Berman, Konsumgesellschaft. Das Erbe der Avantgarde und die falsche Aufhebung der ästhetischen Autonomie, in: Postmoderne: Alltag, Allegorie und Avantgarde, eds. C. and P. Bürger (Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft 648, Frankfurt 1987). An English version of Berman's essay is available in his book Modern Culture and Critical Theory (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1989), pp. 42-53.
4. Cf. Jürgen Habermas, 'Die Moderne - ein unvollendetes Projekt', in his Kleine Politischen Schriften I-PV (Frankfurt, 1981), p. 450.
5. Cf. Ferenc Feher, 'What is beyond art. On the theories of postmodernity', Thesis Eleven, no. 5/6 (1982), pp. 5-19. In this connection we should also mention Rüdiger Bubner who in an essay entitled 'Moderne Ersatzfunktionen des Ästhetischen' attacks among other things the avant-garde notion that creativity is a capacity innate in all human beings, who in most cases are merely prevented from developing it by the force of circumstances (cf. the beginning of André Breton's Premier Manifeste du surréalisme). Bubner writes: 'Celebrated artists, whose outstanding achievements are rewarded with prizes, assure us that we are all born artists, even if we do not all meet with similar success.' The allusion to Joseph Beuys is obvious. (In Merkur, no. 444 (Feb. 1986), pp. 91-107, here p. 95.)
6. U. K. Preuss recognizes the distinction between legality and morality as a fundamental and irreversible one as far as the modern constitutional state is concerned. But he too feels forced to consider the necessity for a 'reintegration of politics and morality' in view of the quite new world-historical situation which has made the idea of war unthinkable (Politische Verantwortung und Bürgerloyalität [. . . ] (Frankfurt, 1984), p. 38 and p. 211. Cf. also pp. 22ff).
7. J. Beuys, Dank an Wilhelm Lehmbruck, printed in taz, 27 Jan. 1986, p. 2.
8. Ibid.
9. J. Beuys, Zeichnungen [...], exhibition in the National Gallery of Berlin (Munich, 1979), p. 31.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid., p. 35.
12. Quoted in Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk I... J, exhibition in the Kunsthaus of Zurich (Aarau/Frankfurt, 1983), p. 424.
13. Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys (The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 1979), p. 120.
14. Ibid., p. 72.
15. Ibid., p. 162.
16. Ibid., p. 102
17. Ibid., p. 105.
18. Paul Valéry, Œuvres vol. 1, ed. J. Hytier (Bibl. de la Pléiade, Paris, 1957), p. 992.


In: The Decline of Modernism. Cambridge: Polity Press 1992, pp. 147-161.

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