|Offset poster for US lecture-series Energy |
Plan for the Western Man (1974) by
Joseph Beuys, organised by Ronald
Feldman Gallery, New York. Courtesy
Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York
The first thought that struck me was that the ontology of his work is completely different from that of a digital(ised) work. A digital work exists in as many copies as there are people who are viewing it at the same time and it is constantly renewed onscreen. Beuys, on the other hand, made unique works, often using unique objects. While it is true that he also created over 500 multiples – something which we also discussed – these often draw upon the material properties of the objects and materials used, so even his non-unique works depend for their functioning upon the handling of one particular copy. When you put his work online, you lose a whole range of meanings.
In response to the question about the digital age, one of the organisers suggested that Beuys, with his love of discussions and his didacticism, would certainly have embraced the social media and the internet as a worldwide communicative platform. Given the broad range of media he worked in and his willingness to try his hand at new media such as performance and installation art, I have no doubt that he is right. However, it is speculative as well: “What would Beuys have done if he had been alive today?” The question about his relevance in the digital age certainly implies a question about the present, but I don’t think it means having to imagine the artist’s live presence in the present. As I understand it, it is about his work as we have it today and the way in which it employs media.
My own answer was a quote by Beuys from a Public Dialogue at the New School in New York on 11 January 1974. Beuys was there to explain his Theory of Sculpture – the idea of social sculpture – and the very first question was: “Have you ever thought of using holography as a medium?”. This got a laugh from the audience, but Beuys was unfazed. After having asked some additional questions, he said: “This science [holography] could have similar interests to my interests, to look for the whole, if you say ‘holo’ from the Greek ‘holos’, meaning the whole”. Did he counter humour with humour? Possibly – but the way kept referring to holography throughout the rest of the dialogue has a bearing on the question about the digital as well.
Back to the New School. After the initial discussion of holography petered out, people in the audience started complaining about the lack of seats and the noise. People were queuing up outside, but because of fire regulations it was not allowed to sit in the aisles, and people talking in the back rows prevented others from hearing what was being said. Addressing one of the disgruntled visitors, Beuys said: “But first you have to ask yourself whether your intervention is productive for the whole. What you did just now [complaining that a discussion could not be truly public if there weren’t enough seats] was a kind of critique, yes. And I’m saying, is critique the only method to find a solution for the questions we all have in the society?”. Beuys clearly does not think that critique alone is enough to create solutions. What it takes is people taking responsibility for the holos, the whole; people making contributions that are “productive” for the whole.
After a lot more heckling and wrangling, holography came up a third time, now in connection with Beuys’ aesthetics. Asked how he would describe his new aesthetic, Beuys answered: “I describe it radically: I say aesthetics = human being. That is a radical formula. I set the idea of aesthetics directly in the context of human existence, and then I have the whole problem in the hand, then I have not a special problem, I have a ‘holography’”. To Beuys, holography was more than a medium but less than simply everything. It was more than just a way of writing things and less than everything that can be written. It was “human existence and all the problems it entails”, more specifically human existence as a matter of aesthetics, of sensory and emotional values.
This relates directly to Beuys’s doubts about criticism as a useful way of finding solutions. His arguments throughout the Dialogue suggest that he prefers responsibility to critique, productivity to reactivity, the sensual and emotional to the analytical. In focus is not a particular understanding, but a way of being in the world. Being in the world certainly means something different in the digital era, but I doubt whether the digital as a medium would have any impact on the way Beuys wanted his work to be understood. Holography was brought up as a specific medium, but Beuys turned it into one aspect of human existence. Extrapolating from there, the digital, which is also a means, becomes something we all know from experience, something to take responsibility for, part of a “problem” – a more positive way of saying it would be “condition” – that we are a part of and that we can solve – change – by taking responsibility.