The artist Joseph Beuys always seemed to be in Edinburgh, when I was young. Exhibiting at the Richard Demarco Gallery, or discussing art, democracy and socialism with whoever was around.
Born in Germany in 1921, his influence as an artist and an activist during his 64-years of life was so effective that we are, in many respects, all Beuys’s children. Take this as his defintion:
‘...one of the most influential and extraordinary artists of the twentieth century.
Artist, educator, political and social activist, Beuys’s philosophy proposed the healing power and social function of art, in which everyone can participate and benefit…’
Beuys’s best known works are the performance pieces How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), Filz TV (1970) in which Beuys responds to a TV covered with felt, I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), where he shared a room with a coyote for 3 days, and the social sculpture 7,000 Oaks, which he explained to Demarco in 1982 as:
“I think the tree is an element of regeneration which in itself is a concept of time. The oak is especially so because it is a slowly growing tree with a kind of really solid heart wood. It has always been a form of sculpture, a symbol for this planet ever since the Druids, who are called after the oak. Druid means oak. They used their oaks to define their holy places. I can see such a use for the future…. The tree planting enterprise provides a very simple but radical possibility for this when we start with the seven thousand oaks.”
Beuys always dressed the same in his artist’s uniform of Trilby hat and multi-pocketed fishing vest, to keep the focus on his art, as he believed art must work towards a better social order:
Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build ‘A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART’… EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST who – from his state of freedom – the position of freedom that he experiences at first-hand – learns to determine the other positions of the TOTAL ART WORK OF THE FUTURE SOCIAL ORDER. work included.
Political activism was important to Beuys. I recall in 1980, when he presented Jimmy Boyle Days, where he went on hunger strike in protest over convicted killer Jimmy Boyle’s move from Barlinnie’s Special Unit, where Boyle had rehabilitated himself as an artist and sculptor, to Saughton Prison, where he was no longer able to practice his art. Beuys saw little difference between art and activism, and his support for Boyle led to a huge outcry over the place of art in society, that led to the Scottish Arts Council removing its key financial support form the Demarco Gallery.
In 1982, he surprised critics and fans alike with his one and only single, “Sonne statt Reagan”, a disco attack against President Reagan’s stance on nuclear arms. The song’s title, “Sun Not Rain/Reagan”, was a pun on the German word “regen” for rain and Reagan. Some critics thought Beuys had sold out, but they failed to see his humor, and the serious intention behind the disc. Beuys may have been unpredictable, but his work is always life-affirming.