Cleves and Tartars Sven Lütticken on H. P. Riegel’s new biography of Joseph Beuys

92-lutticken-1 “Lohengrin’s Arrival in Brabant”, from: Illustrierte Literaturgeschichte, Leipzig 1880

A new biography on Joseph Beuys has already been widely discussed by the art world and in the feuilleton sections of newspapers: H. P. Riegel investigates the artist’s ties to National Socialist Germany, his highly problematic views on German history, and the self-mythologization that pervades his statements.

Does this mean that Beuys’s practice should be rejected altogether? In a work so closely linked to the artist’s persona, often read through his own autobiographical interpretation of materials and motifs, we can barely separate the artist’s work form his ideology. What could Beuys still represent today for critical discourse? Sven Lütticken reflects on a difficult reception.

No other major postwar artist has a reception quite as catastrophic as that of Joseph Beuys. While hardcore “Beuysians” continue to produce hagiographic discourse, critical voices reject the artist’s mysticism, symbolism, and sociopolitical nebulousness out of hand. In 1980, Benjamin Buchloh’s “Twilight of the Idol” was a much-needed corrective to the rhetorical fog produced by Beuys and his acolytes, but it also had the unfortunate side effect of discouraging critical engagement with – as opposed to complete rejection of – his practice.

A pièce de résistance of Buchloh’s “Twilight” essay was his attack on the “Tartar myth”. A more extensive and detailed debunking can now be found in a new German-language biography written by H. P. Riegel, who has previously penned the life story of Jörg Immendorff. [1] Beuys, of course, had a penchant for automythologization that must be corrected by any serious biography. The artist’s “Lebenslauf Werklauf” contains a series of seemingly grotesque entries; for much of his biography, Riegel provides a kind of running critique of “Lebenslauf Werklauf”, uncovering facts that Beuys’s mythopoesis distorts or glosses over. Even the location of Beuys’s birth was subject to mystification: The artist was not actually born in Kleve (Cleves), but in another town in the Niederrhein (Lower Rhine) region, Krefeld. In retrospect, his place of birth had to be Kleve, which came to play a central role in his mythology because of its association with the legendary swan-knight Lohengrin and with Beuys’s formative childhood experiences.

Riegel does a good job of reconstructing Kleve under Nazi rule, and Beuys’s life as a pupil and member of the Hitler Youth. The outbreak of World War II was experienced by Beuys as a großer Krach, an outburst of social energy that could free the teenager from the Todeszone of his petit-bourgeois home. This was an all too common response among members of Beuys’s generation; what is truly staggering is that even in hindsight, decades afterward, Beuys would apply the term “death zone” to his family home rather than to the war zones he experienced – or indeed the camps.

In contrast to his family home, Beuys had fond memories of his school, claiming that it had a “greater autonomy” vis-à-vis the state than schools would have in postwar Germany – even though it was led by a Nazi and its Jewish pupils disappeared. About the Hitler Youth, Beuys claimed that the members were “not manipulated,” and felt “free and independent.” This may be an accurate description of their feelings at the time, but Beuys never seemed inclined to problematize this subjective experience.

Going to war without a high-school diploma (the Abitur), Beuys wanted to become a fighter pilot but had to settle for the position of rear gunner. Riegel’s narrative quickly proceeds to Beuys’s period in Crimea in 1944 – the rather more literal death zone that became the basis of the “Tartarenlegende” (“Tartar Legend”). Riegel dismantles this legend methodically. If there was any doubt left, it should now be clear once and for all that Beuys’s use of felt and fat cannot be traced back to him being rescued with such materials by “tartar nomads.”

In the later parts of the book Riegel makes much of the discrepancy between Beuys’s seemingly progressive actions and his continuing contact with old war comrades and his patronage by former Nazis. It is indeed curious, to say the least, to see him move in murky nationalist-anthroposophical circles; to attend meetings of war veterans (which tended to suffuse nostalgia for the “good old days”); and to found the Organisation für direkte Demokratie durch Volksabstimmung in 1971 with an old Nazi. It is truly disturbing to read that for him the war had represented “life,” that for him his participation in it had been morally right and a “rational decision,” and that the Third Reich had been less bad than postwar society because “Hitler had only incinerated bodies,” not crushed people’s souls. How thoughtful of him.

These would not appear to be the deeds and words of an artist engaged in a profound project of mourning over the Holocaust, which is Gene Ray’s argument in his important essay “Joseph Beuys and the After-Auschwitz Sublime.” [2] Riegl’s ewig gestriger Beuys and Ray’s sensitive mourner hardly seem compatible, yet Beuys’s staggering series of myths, lies, and offensive remarks can also be seen as so many symptoms of historical trauma – symptoms that, while offensive, can be so ridiculously obvious and betray such obtuseness on the artist’s part that it is hard to keep a straight face. Somewhat flippantly, one might say that Beuys had a kind of Nazi Tourette’s. Examples could be multiplied at will. In his dismal song “Sonne statt Reagan”, the former Hitler Youth member and World War II soldier accuses Reagan of fighting for the Endsieg; and in another bizarre relapse into Wilhelmine colonialism and Nazi dreams of conquest, he inscribed a book with the phrase Heute habe ich die deutsche Sprache zur Sprache Afrikas gemacht (“Today I made the German language the language of Africa”). [3]

Beuys became a student at the Academy in Düsseldorf in 1946, and while Ewald Mataré’s classes were of crucial importance for him, much of his life continued to revolve around Kleve and the provincial Lower Rhine. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Riegel’s account is his discussion of the extent to which anthroposophy – with which Beuys became seriously involved during his time in the Mataré class – determined the artist’s ideological agenda and practice, down to the minutiae of his vocabulary. Beuys’s statements on creativity, evolution, the social organism, direct democracy, the economy, and the social work of art are so much Steinerian patter. This is hardly news, and Riegel somewhat oversells the point, but the amount of detail he provides is useful.

Riegel reconstructs the crucial phases of Beuys’s postwar career, including his appropriation of and self-insertion into Fluxus after meeting Nam June Paik in 1961; Beuys latched onto the Cagean neo-avantgarde to transform himself from a highly provincial artist from the Lower Rhine into a major contemporary player. Riegel also discusses his similar attempt to hijack the student movement and the APO (extra-parliamentary opposition) of the late 1960s with the Deutsche Studentenpartei (German Student Party); the continuous conflicts at the Academy in Düsseldorf; and the founding of the Green Party, which originally included a right-wing faction around August Haussleitner and Herbert Gruhl, with whom Beuys was close.

Riegel appears to suggest that the artist’s contradictions undermine the whole Beuysian edifice, but these contradictions need to be rethought in terms of tensions that produced his practice in the first place. Biographical debunking is an important moment, but biographical reductionism needs to be countered. Regardless of one’s assessment of his analysis, Gene Ray’s warning against continuing the Beuys-approved blurring of art and life, or rather of the approved myth of Beuys’s life with the work, is as important as ever. One of the more compelling and productive recent analyses of a work by Beuys was Max Rosenberg’s essay on “Wirtschaftwerte”, in which the piece is set against Maciunas’s “One Year” and, compared to that work, interpreted in terms of refusal of the autobiographical. [4] What does it mean to analyze and interpret Beuys today, beyond the mirroring operations of hagiography and debunking? What does it mean to perform Beuys today – interlectually, theoretically, artistically?

92-lutticken-2 Christoph Schlingensief, “Kaprow City – Eine begehbare Installation”, Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin, 2006

In a critical reflection on Beuys written almost 20 years after “Twilight of the Idol”, for Gene Ray’s 1998 symposium and 2001 book “Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy”, Benjamin Buchloh argues that Beuys defined performativity not in terms of a discursive system in which spectators could also be participants, but in pseudo-shamanistic terms: The artist as charismatic star performer. This type of auratic performance also had consequences for the objects made or left behind by Beuys. In Fluxus, as Buchloh argues, “The object acquires the condition of the lucid interactive model in which participant and producer are equals.” [5] Hierarchy and mysticism are abolished. Even while participating in Fluxus, Beuys regressed to mythical forms of experience, reverses the liberation of art from ritual and cult.

Looking at the varying interpretations of his practice, Buchloh asks if a late-twentieth-century artist can meaningfully and productively engage with both ecology and the Holocaust, as well as Nordic mythology and other weighty motifs and issues. And if so, then doesn’t the work of Robert Morris or Richard Serra appear to be “about very little”? Like Marcel Broodthaers, Buchloh rejects Beuys’s Wagnerian, voluntarist reach for totality, his disregard of specificity and reflexivity; “one of the many virtues that had been attributed to Beuys is to have escaped from the specificity of the reflection on the discursive modes of art.” [6] But even if post-Minimalism and Institutional Critique negate Beuys’s Wagnerian striving for totality and disregard for specificity and reflexivity, the antagonism works both ways: Beuys functions as the bad conscience of an embedded neo-avantgarde whose reflexive engagement with its institutions is at times indistinguishable from Stockholm Syndrome. To insist on the constellation of Morris and Beuys is also to keep Morris’s work problematic and productive. We may privilege Jaques Offenbach and Broodthaers over Richard Wagner and Beuys, but both sides of the equation are needed to fully think through the structural antinomies of cultural practice in various stages of capitalism.

Furthermore, there is danger in overemphasizing the “closed” nature of Beuys’s aesthetic. Like his most devout followers, at times his critics also appear to believe that Beuys’s statements on the mythico-symbolic and autobiographical meanings of his materials and motifs are the final word. Fortunately, there are signs of a more productive approach emerging – as in the case of Max Rosenberg’s aforementioned take on “Wirtschaftswerte” or Sabeth Buchmann’s reading of “La Rivoluzione siamo noi”, that prime example of auratic Beuys performance, whose dialectic between star performer and fictitious community (“we”) Buchmann unpacks.[7]_

Works like these are anchored in a problematic Weltbild, but such readings show that Beuys’s practice, as a materialization of his ideology, can also be transformative. Something happens in the moment of materialization and articulation, and that something is potentially a loss of control for Beuys. Pieces like “Wirtschaftswerte” or “Honigpumpe am Arbeitsplatz” need to be seen both in conjunction with Beuys’s theories of society, the economy, and evolution; and as being irreducible to them. This is not to suggest, of course, that the work can be whitewashed and separated neatly from the problematic persona; the blurring of the borders between the two was after all one of Beuys’s crucial strategies, and the work stretches out across a myriad of public appearances that double as performances, as well as numerous minor editions and relics.

Today Beuys is everywhere: Two of the most significant neo-Beuysian (or post-Beuysian) practices are no doubt Thomas Hirschhorn’s and Christoph Schlingensief’s. The latter’s own version of the expanded notion of art, for instance, insistently employed Beuysian tropes and motifs – founding an anti-party as well as a “Church of Fear”; using ritualistic and religious elements, including Norse mythology; and radicalizing the “Zeige Deine Wunde” during a number of projects made during his terminal illness. Schlingensief unmoored such elements from the Beuysian Weltbild and set free their potential as agents of transformation and indeed of secularization. In fact, in his staging of “Parsifal” in Bayreuth, Schlingensief used the Beuysian motif of the hare to disenchant Wagner (and to piss off the Wagnerians). In this, Schlingensief’s version of Beuys is the polar opposite of AA Bronson’s. An artist closer to Beuys’s generation, Bronson is currently reviving the most irksome Beuys of all in his mythico-ritualistic show “The Temptation of AA Bronson” at Witte de With – Louwrien Wijers’s New Age take on Beuys as a shaman who needs to be engaged in vacuous summit meetings with the Dalai Lama and other spiritual greats. [8] Some may still wonder what we have done to deserve Beuys, but the point is that we get the Beuys we deserve.

H.P. Riegel, Beuys. Die Biographie, Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 2013.


[1]H. P. Riegel, Beuys, Die Biographie, Berlin 2013. Riegel briefly mentions Buchloh as part of a parade of critical voices (p. 307), but does not discuss his critique in depth.
[2]Gene Ray, “Joseph Beuys and the After-Auschwitz Sublime”, in: Ray (ed.), Joseph Beuys. Mapping the Legacy, New York 2001, pp. 55–74.
[3]Joseph Beuys, Die Beste Stadt für Blinde, 1981. For this edition, Beuys wrote over the cover of Jürg Federspiel’s book “Die beste Stadt für Blinde”, which contains a section on the artist.
[4]Max Rosenberg, “Ganz langsam durch die Mauer. Joseph Beuys’ Ökonomie der Transformation”, in: Texte zur Kunst, 85, 2012, pp. 71–81.
[5]Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Reconsidering Joseph Beuys. Once Again”, in: Ray, Joseph Beuys. Mapping the Legacy, op. cit., pp. 75–90.
[7]Sabeth Buchmann, “Leben als Allegorie. Zu ‘La Rivoluzione siamo noi’ von Joseph Beuys”, in: Texte zur Kunst, 79, 2010, pp. 88–101.
[8]A vitrine in Bronson’s show contains Wijers’s photocopied publication “His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet trifft Prof. Joseph Beuys. Bonn, 27. Oktober 1982”.