The funniest show in town is currently at the Tate Modern: Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments. It's also the most enlightening, if you want a glimpse into the current art world. Beuys is hugely influential, "one of the most important German artists of the 20th Century", "an iconic figure whose vision changed the cultural landscape of the late twentieth century". A founding father of the conceptual art movement, he was "highly influential in shifting the emphasis from what an artist makes to his personality, activities and opinions...". I'm quoting from the exhibition catalogue. The whole catalogue is something of a classic, but let's just take a few examples.
The first room you come to (Room 1, as it happens) contains Fonds VII/2, consisting of eight piles of felt, each topped with a sheet of copper.
The towers of felt create a powerful sense of architectural space. Their imposing presence is partly due to their scale, and partly to the contrast between the fibrous dark brown felt and the gleaming copper.
You could get a much more powerful sense of architectural space if you wandered around outside the gallery. The gallery itself for that matter, a converted power station, emanates a powerful sense of architectural space. For an experience not dissimilar to the effect of Room 1, but more impressive, I'd recommend a visit to a warehouse.
Room 2 contains an old wardrobe, a wooden bed frame, and one or two others pieces of detritus. Some have writing scribbled on them in chalk. It's called I Want to See My Mountains.
It is one of his most directly autobiographical works, bringing together furniture from his early life.... The objects, positioned on copper sheets (a conductor of energy), are all associated with Beuys's [shouldn't that be Beuys' without the last 's'?] personal development.
The title derives from the last words of the nineteenth Italian painter Giovanni Segantini who, while dying in Switzerland, demanded to be brought closer to the window to see the mountains. Beuys once said that a mountain 'taken as inner psychology...represents a high pitch of consciousness... And when I make an environment called voglio vedere le mie montagne [I want to see My Mountains] I mean an inner archetype of the idea of mountain: the mountains of the self.'
This metaphor, linking Beuys's inner growth to the exploration of a vast landscape, is developed throughout the installation. A series of chalk inscriptions make explicit connections between the intimate personal space of the room and features of the natural world. The wardrobe is marked 'Vadrec(t)', a Celtic word for glacier. The packing case is marked 'Felsen', or cliff. The bed is 'Walun' - valley. A wooden box, containing (unseen) a human bone and a piece of bog oak, is 'Sciora' - a mountain chain in Switzerland. The word 'Cime', or peaks, is written on the back of the mirror. 'Denken' or 'Thinking', written on the butt of a hunting rifle, has been seen as Beuys's ironic dismissal of abstract thought.
This is all very well, and if a man wishes to inscribe pieces of his furniture with chalk then I believe he should be allowed to do so, but why on earth is this of interest to anyone but Joseph Beuys?
Room 3 contains Tram Stop, another autobiographical work (notice a theme here?), consisting of a stretch of tram line and some large cylindrical lumps of iron.
Every day, while waiting for the tram to go to school, he would sit on a local monument consisting of four seventeenth-century shell cases arranged around an upright cannon whose mouth was shaped like a dragon's head....
It's not as though the pieces are placed with any aesthetic criteria, like stones in a Zen garden. Nor are they intrinsically attractive or interesting. It is, we are informed, a monument to peace, made from the discarded weapons of war. Clever, eh? The ideas - the artist's ideas - are what counts, remember, not the bits and pieces of stuff that are laid out in front of us.
And so it goes. By now it's clear that what we have here is a man with a quite stupendous ego. Consider Beuys' best known work, I Like America and America Likes Me.
Beuys's most famous action took place in May 1974, when he spent three days in a room with a coyote. After flying into New York, he was swathed in felt and loaded into an ambulance, then driven to the gallery where the Action took place, without having once touched American soil. As Beuys later explained: "I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote." The title of the work is filled with irony [See, he doesn't like America - that's irony for you]. Beuys opposed American military actions in Vietnam, and his work as an artist was a challenge to the hegemony of American art.
Beuys's felt blankets, walking stick and gloves became sculptural props throughout the Action. In addition, fifty new copies of the Wall Street Journal were introduced each day, which the coyote acknowledged by urinating on them. Beuys regularly performed the same series of actions with his eyes continuously fixed on the coyote. At other times he would rest or gather the felt around him to suggest the figure of a shepherd with his crook. The coyote's behaviour shifted throughout the three days, becoming cautious, detached, aggressive and sometimes companionable. At the end of the Action, Beuys was again wrapped in felt and returned to the airport.
For Native Americans, the coyote had been a powerful god, with the power to move between the physical and spiritual world. After the coming of European settlers, it was seen as merely a pest, to be exterminated. Beuys saw the debasement of the coyote as a symbol of the damage done by white men to the American continent and its native cultures. His action was an attempt to heal some of those wounds. "You could say that a reckoning has to be made with the coyote, and only then can this trauma be lifted", he said.
Detect just a touch of megalomania there? And note the determination not to see anything of America during this "attempt to heal some of those wounds", not to let any reality intrude on the fantasy of a native paradise corrupted by Europeans.
The theme of a shamanistic contact with native people occurs again in The Pack, the work pictured on the Tate Modern page linked to above, consisting of an old VW camper van pulling a load of sledges.
This strongly autobiographical work [!] refers directly to Beuys's plane crash over the Crimea during the Second World War. He often described being rescued by a band of Tartars who coated his body with fat and wrapped him in felt. Whether real or mythical, the story shows the symbolic importance of these materials in Beuys's mind. It also suggests a fable of death and rebirth in which Beuys is purged, perhaps of his wartime guilt, and brought back to life by a nomadic people.
"Whether real or mythical....". In other words, there's a strong suspicion that he made the whole thing up. But remember, as an artist he's above these petty concerns. What matters is the myth.
He was also ecologically engaged, as we find with his masterpiece The End of the Twentieth Century:
This sculpture developed out of Bueys's environmental concerns, particularly his work 7000 oaks, which he began in 1982 in Kassel, Germany. For this urban greening project, Beuys proposed planting 7000 oak trees to generate an 'ecological awakening' for mankind, as part of his mission to initiate environmental and social change through art.
What does this piece consist of? Does it even matter, given that it's the artist's personality and opinions which are important, rather than the work of art? Well, it's a room with some blocks of basalt scattered around.
Into each of the slabs, Beuys bored a conical hole to create a metaphorical 'wound'. He then 'treated' it by smoothing and lining the hollow with insulating clay and felt, before re-inserting the plug of stone. These plugged cavities imply the potential for healing, suggesting the possibility of renewal and regeneration at the end of a violent and destructive century.
It's undeniably amusing to see patrons peering intently at Sweeping Up, a glass case containing rubbish, together with the broom used to sweep up that rubbish, for all the world as though they were studying a portrait by Rembrandt. Had they never seen rubbish before? Admittedly this wasn't just an ordinary sweeping-up: this was an Action, such as only artists can perform:
Following the left-wing May Day parade in Berlin, Beuys and two students used a bright red broom to sweep up all the rubbish in Karl-Marx-Platz. This gesture of making a clean start reflected Beuys's dissatisfaction with the dogmas of Marxism, as much as with Western Capitalism.
I couldn't help noticing though that I was the only one chuckling. This art business is terribly serious.
You can see why Beuys has been so influential. By "shifting the emphasis from what an artist makes to his personality, activities and opinions", he liberated artists from the tiresome business of having to produce worthwhile works of art. They're artists! Whatever they do, by definition, is a work of art!
But this whole charade has a familiar ring. The dubious legitimisation through contact with the ancient wisdom of primitive people, whereby the hero is reborn; the over-arching self-obsession and megalomania; the glorification of the hero's childhood; the contempt for 'bourgeois' notions of truth; the charisma; the emphasis on the Great Teacher; the followers who take the master at his own evaluation and proclaim his genius. This is a cult. Indeed the only way I can imagine anyone deriving anything from this exhibition - apart, that is, from bafflement or wry amusement - is by temporarily joining the cult, and viewing each exhibit as the manifestation of a man above others, a man whose every gesture, every scribble, every little aside, is worthy of endless analysis to tease out the nuggets of truth hidden within. Like the teachings of Madame Blavatsky, or the writings of Chairman Mao, to initiates these are holy works, left behind by one of humanity's teachers. The exhibition is effectively an exhortation to join the cult: the cult of Beuys in particular, and the cult of the artist in general.
If you think I'm exaggerating about this, check out some of the events associated with this exhibition. There was a symposium in February on Joseph Beuys, Teacher - "It is impossible to separate the art of Joseph Beuys from his teaching.... This symposium explores how teaching was as much a medium of Beuys's art as drawing or sculpture." Coming up in April there's a discussion on Joseph Beuys and Christianity - "Beuys's concern with transcending materialism found expression in an eclectic and personal religious iconography, drawing on pantheism, Norse, and Celtic myths and other spiritual sources. The links to Christianity are especially strong." Then there are a series of Social Sculpture Research Seminars - "Shelley Sacks, interdisciplinary artist and Director of the Social Sculpture Research Unit [at Oxford Brookes University], worked with Joseph Beuys for many years. She is joined by a number of German and UK practitioners in these unique research seminars. By enabling a closer understanding of Beuys's work and contemporary social sculpture projects, participants will have the opportunity to consider a range of expanded art practices committed to facilitating a democratic and ecologically sustainable world." ["Social Sculpture" is a piece of Beuysian jargon: "He formulated a theory of 'social sculpture', exploring ways in which the creative impulse that shaped a work of art could also influence the world in which we live."]
If Beuys has, as claimed, shifted the emphasis "from what an artist makes to his personality, activities and opinions" then we have a recipe for precisely this: the cult of the artist. I always though it was a tired commonplace about the art gallery replacing the church in our secular age, but perhaps there's more to it than I'd realised.