Beuys’ Concept of Social Sculpture and Relational Art Practices Today

“Best of Chicago Art Magazine” re-post. Originally appeared in Chicago Art Criticism on 2/28/10

Laurie Rojas

German artist Joseph Beuys’s work appears unfathomable: his entire oeuvre engaged drawing, sculpture, performance, pedagogy, and political activism. Art critics and art historians have admitted the difficulty of placing this enigmatic artist within the modern or postmodern lineages of significant postwar artists. In the foreword to Joseph Beuys: The Reader, Arthur Danto argues that Beuys (1921–86), like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, is one of the artists who one must turn to in order to understand contemporary art. Danto believes, however, that unlike Duchamp and Warhol, who are frequently discussed and shown, Beuys has faded from contemporary awareness. This is both true and not true.

Beuys is famously remembered for two things: the theoretical hypothesis of “social sculpture,” and the statement “everybody is an artist.” A close consideration of the relationship between these two concepts reveals Beuys’s program for art and his historically motivated vision for society. Both concepts have influenced participatory, socially engaged, and relational art today and provide a vehicle for unraveling their historical significance, even if they claim to detach themselves from Beuys’s historical moment. Perhaps of even more significance, then, is what aspects of Beuys work seem to have–somewhat suspiciously–faded.

Danto suggests that perhaps the fading interest in Beuys lies in the fact that both the subject of Beuys’s art and his own personal myth are bound up in World War II and the period of German reconstruction. It is possible that the fading of Beuys is due to the inability to digest and resolve the problems his work raised in the aftermath of World War II. Our historical moment, almost five decades later, inherits that history and those desires, even if a certain metaphysical strain of postmodernist thinkers have incessantly argued that such a moment has irretrievably passed. The analysis of the influence of Beuys on contemporary artists, specifically those engaged in relational aesthetics, in this essay is to argue and demonstrate that the moment has not passed, but changed. The difference in our historical moment is that we are less conscious of—and less interested in–the social conditions that produced and re-produces the political disillusionment and aesthetic desires and needs that emerged after WWII.

According to Danto, the ideological context–the German mentality of the 1960s–is inseparable from the work, and a necessary component for its emergence and understanding. In that case, the question for critically engaging Beuys’ work rests on whether he was was part of an effective, critical neo-avant-garde or something else—as art historian Benjamin Buchloh attempts to do (to be addressed in part II).

In the present, a decade dominated by the discourse on relational aesthetics and socially engaged art practices, Beuys theory of social sculpture, and his relationship to Fluxus in Düsseldorf, places him within the early experiments in this camp. This approach to Beuys is illustrated by the inclusion of Beuys in Claire Bishop’s Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art, but also, in Francesco Bonami’s “The Legacy of a Myth Maker.

Written for Tate Etc magazine, in the event of Tate Modern’s 2005 exhibition, Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments, Bonami’s “The Legacy of a Myth Maker,” expounds on how contemporary artists have both borrowed and developed from Beuys’ approach. Bonami’s principal claim: “Today, a wide number of artists, working in a variety of ways, have inherited – if that is possible – aspects of the Beuys sensibility, though in each case for very different ends.” One of the contemporary artists that take Beuys as a major source of influence is Thomas Hirschorn. Bonami explains:

“Thomas Hirschhorn’s work often has a social agenda with a political undertone. His 2002 Bataille Monument at Documenta 11, the international exhibition in Kassel, saw residents of a German suburb build, install and invigilate a series of eight makeshift shacks, including a library with a topography of Bataille’s work, a television studio and a snack bar. Like many of his team-based projects, the emphasis was on social investigation, leading an audience beyond that of the gallery-attending public to find out about art for themselves, using Hirschhorn’s ideas as a framework. [Hirschorn] has said that his approach to the political within his work is ‘a tool by which to experience the time in which I am living.’ There are echoes of his predecessor’s practice, but Beuys favoured the tactics of loud, visible campaigning and protestation, hoping to attract a type of following normally enjoyed by influential political leaders. Hirschhorn’s preferred modus operandi is explicitly as an artist: rather than promote himself, he promotes the work. As he said recently: ‘I am an artist, not a social worker.'”

Hirschorn wants to be an artist, not a social worker, because, it can be argued, art ought to be doing something else: what exactly? It is not clear in Hirschorn’s statement. Art ought, however, to be different than social work: social work aims at ameliorating the degraded and worsening social conditions. Art, if it is to distinguish itself from social work—from political practice–ought to raise the tension between society and art, and it can only do that by creating a critical distance to society, instead of attempting to ameliorate a problem it cannot resolve. Hirschorn argues that art ought to raise the awareness that things are not as they ought to be. But, what is to be said of art that comes all-too-close to social work?

Turner prize-winning artist, Jeremy Deller’s traveling project, It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq, is a pivotal example of art that comes all-too-close to social work. Deller’s work, like Hirschorn’s falls under the expansive rubric of socially engaging, participatory art; it has been contextualized by Bourriaud as relational aesthetics: “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.”

As this author’s previous post argues, It Is What It Is boasts Deller’s name, but his participation is absent, or as present as any curator (although curators increasingly take on the celebrity status enjoyed by most blue chip artists). The artist has created a forum for conversation in an art space that might otherwise not be possible. The work’s success or failure lies not only in the eyes of the beholder, but in the physical actions, interaction, and engagement of those occupying the space. But, when any kind of participation is the goal, does even passive observance make the work successful? There is no way of critiquing Deller’s piece within the discourse of relational aesthetics, because it supposedly achieves what it set out to do.

A critique, however, is necessary. Deller’s emphasis on conversation for its own sake places his work in the same aesthetic realm as the tv show The View. It appears as if both are setting the stage for a conversation that is not happening elsewhere, but what they do is rehearse and reconfirm already established ideas. What is art for if nothing changes after the experience? The difference between art-as-object and art-as-conversation lies in the kind of recognition it demands of the viewer, the beholder, even if it is the artist as the first viewer. Beuys’s Bureau of Direct Democracy (BDD) produces a similar situation as Deller’s It Is What It Is, but with a few key distinctions.

Bishop’s Participation, includes two texts on Beuys. The first, “A Report on a Day’s Proceeding at the Bureau for Direct Democracy,” which describes a single day in Beuys’s 100 days live installation at Documenta 5 (1972). The report is “a detailed account of the type of relational encounters generated by Beuys activist approach.” As the introduction to “the report” states, Beuys concept of social sculpture remains an important reference for contemporary artists such as Hirschorn. In an interview with Buchloh, Hirschorn admitted that what he liked tremedously about Beuys’s work was more than his social engagement, but “the fact that he revolutionized the concept of sculpture by introducing materials…that had never been used before.” Bishop’s inclusion places him within a narrative of socially collaborative, participatory, dialogical, and relational art—that originated in the 60s with Fluxus and Happenings, and saw a revival in the 90s with Hirschorn and Deller.

During the “Proceedings at the Bureau” Beuys presence—along with his unapologetic and confrontational attitude—makes the piece more powerful than Deller’s open-ended installation left in the hands of invited guests. Deller’s piece raises the question, Why does art take such a form today, or why do the artists feel increasingly compelled to distance themselves from the work? And, Beuys’s piece raises a rather different question: How is it that antagonism makes the piece more powerful?

Beuys proposes—and defends—a multitude of political initiatives in BDD; he challenges the status quo of social reality. Beuys, in proposing that the conversation at the BDD was only a means—not the ends—of art, is rather different than Deller’s art-as-conversation. Deller’s piece at the MCA seems to offer a solution to a political problem through conversation. But, the problem is not the lack of conversation, it is the lack of a body politic that has the ability to mobilize for progressive social transformation that makes the war in Iraq possible, for example. For Deller—and Hirschorn—creating a situation that provokes the conversation is sufficient. Deller’s overall detachment and ambivalence indicates the worsened—and regressed—conditions necessary for political transformation. Beuys’s work does not escape the abyss of weakened political possibilities either, however, Beuys at least believed social change was possible, whereas Deller is ambivalent on whether it is even desirable.

The second inclusion in Bishop’s collection, “I Am Searching For Field Character” (1973) is to be considered Beuys most concise statement on social sculpture. Beuys’s manifesto begins as follows:

“Only on condition of a radical widening of definition will it be possible for art and activities related to art to provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system to build a SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART.”

This statement demonstrates that Beuys’s intentions go beyond the realm of art, and amplifies the task historically given to art: that of society as a work of art, and that of a desire for total social transformation.

His concept of social sculpture fashions everything into art and proposes that everything should be approached creatively: a sort of Gesampkunstwerk, an art that not only discredits the totality but becomes it, and supposedly overcomes it in the process of transforming it. This is only possible when all humans consider themselves as artists, as creators of this total artwork, as architects of society:

“This most modern art discipline – Social Sculpture/ Social Architecture,” continues Beuys, “will only reach fruition when every living person becomes a creator, a sculptor, or architect of the social organism. Only then would the insistence on participation of the action art of FLUXUS and Happening be fulfilled; only then would democracy be fully realized.

EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST who – from his state of freedom – the position of freedom that he experience at firsthand – learns to determine the other positions in the TOTAL ARTWORK OF THE FUTURE SOCIAL ORDER.”

What was only implicit in the “the report” is made explicit in this statement: Beuys aspires to make art and artists the means by which social change–the end goal—is possible. Beuys’s so-called “activist” approach demonstrates he is more concerned with social change (politics) than with the transformation of art (aesthetics), as illustrated with his two last sentences:



Beuys’s utopic mission, “to build a social organism as a work of art,” and to transform art into the “only evolutionary-revolutionary power” has a historical context, that of post-WII Germany. His political impulse is grounded both in the failed evolutionary-revolutionary power of the previous Internationals—and Leftist politics–to dismantle the “repressive effects of a senile social system,” but also in the possibilities for social transformation they represent. The solution–the only option–for Beuys is thus to call for democratic socialism and a fifth International.

The First International, aka the International Workingmen’s Association, founded in 1864 by Marx and Engels (among others) was envisioned as “a central medium of communication and co-operation between workingmen’s societies existing in different countries and aiming at the same end: namely, the protection, advancement, and complete emancipation of the working classes.” The Second International was founded in 1889, after the death of Marx–with the majority of steering power coming from the French and German Social Democratic Parties–lasted until 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. The Third International, also knows as the Commitern, founded in 1919 by Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, was an attempt to reunify the international worker’s and socialist parties who had reverted to nationalist positions during World War I: the most urgent task being the realization of worldwide socialist revolution.

The possibilities for social transformation were dually shattered by World War II and the dismantling of the Third International by Joseph Stalin in 1943. The Third International was to be housed in Tatlin’s never completed Monument to the Third International. Tatlin’s Monument is perceived as the culmination of his first Counter-Reliefs, and spatial experiments, which began in 1913. The 400 metre-high glass and steel structure was understood as a towering symbol of modernity and also as the prototype for many of the architectural projects commissioned by the Bolsheviks, the leaders of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Was the Monument to be a 20th century Tennis Court Oath, or a Death of Marat?

The founding of the Fourth International, an initiative undertaken by Leon Trostky and his followers (who had been expelled from the Soviet Union) occurred in France in 1938. The Fourth–and final–International was largely an anti-Stalinist international organization of workers dedicated to socialist revolution. Trotsky and the majority of his followers were assassinated before the end of WWII. The idea of the founding of the Fifth International in which Beuys closes his statement is undoubtedly motivated by the loss of a political force that would be able to wield social transformation.

Beuys maintained a utopic–but not impossible–vision that believed society as a whole could be reorganized. It is this radical utopian vision of potentiality–transferred from the realm of political practice onto the realm of artistic practices–that has become a point of departure for many contemporary artists. The aspect of Beuys’s practice that still resonates for contemporary artists is not this international, totalizing art-politic. Rather, it is the rhetoric of participation and democracy, so often linked to relational aesthetics. In other words, one can find relational aspects in Beuy’s work, especially when approached through the dominant discourse on contemporary art; but the motivations for what has come to be understood as the socially engaging quality of his work are grounded in utopian desires from a historical moment filled with trauma. The rise of fascism to power and the spread of barbarism all over Europe by WWII was accompanied—if not directly a by-product of—by the inability of the Left to organize an international socialist revolution, the collapse of revolutionary marxism, and the project of emancipation.

As Thiery DeDuve proposes in Kant After Duchamp, now that the project of emancipation has been taken off the table, and art can no longer critically function to accompany or anticipate it, “is artistic activity able to maintain a critical function if it is cut off from the emancipation?”

In his foreword to Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Borriaud indirectly responds to this question: “overwhelming majority of critics and philosophers are reluctant to come to grips with contemporary practices… remain essentially unreadable, their originality and their relevance cannot be perceived by the resolved and unresolved problems of previous generations.” Furthermore, “The oh-so-painful fact that certain issues are no longer being raised, and it is, by extension, important to identify those that are being raised these days by artists.” Bourriaud’s statement intends to deflect any historically grounded aesthetic critique, and instead justifies relational art practices as completely detached from certain, perhaps namely avant-garde concerns, as trying to do something entirely new with art. There is undeniably a turn, a paradigm shift that occurs, but they are inarguably responding to the art post-1945 era, if only to counter-identify with it.

The overwhelming amount of dialogical and relational art being made today is being justified, first and foremost by its own theorists, like Bourriaud,, but also its practitioners, too many to name here, as totally breaking away from art practices prior to the 1960s. Bourriaud, although not explicitly, seems to agree with Danto’s claim about the “End of Art,” albeit being a claim about the end of a particular art practice, because it seems, as Hal Foster argues, the aesthetic has eclipsed. But, the idea of the end of art, of the eclipse of the aesthetic, of object-image oriented art, is attached to a historical moment, a historical eclipse, that of the project of emancipation.

The response to “politicize” art through socially engaged, participatory art, is a response to political helplessness masked as social hopefulness. Without the context of a revolutionary political movement, “utopic” artistic endeavors have lost all critical distance and leverage against society. Relational aesthetics demonstrate the precarious position (often self-imposed) of contemporary art when it considers itself a platform for social engagement in a time when even the idea of utopia no longer represents a different totality. Instead, utopia is merely a temporary way station to declare our hope that things could be better. The significance of Beuys work for contemporary artists, his place in the interstice of modern and postmodern artistic practices, exposes the deep-rooted and well-hidden conditions for these practices, and why there are certain issues no longer being raised.