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The revolution will be televised – Beuys

27 February, 2010

Joachim Schmid and I were talking about Josef Beuys – Joachim knew him, and remembers the magnetic power he had in life. It’s hard to imagine an artist doing today what he did then. For example, Beuys participated in the German art fair Documenta 6 in 1977, the ‘Media Documenta,’ which featured video art. Somehow, the organizers famously got the German national television station to agree to let certain artists take over the airwaves as part of the fair – Bruce Nauman and Nam June Paik were two of the other artists who participated. But instead of a conventional piece, Beuys told the technicians to leave the cameras on and leave the studio, so Beuys could take over completely. Incredibly, they agreed – and Beuys stood facing the camera, telling the nation he thought the country was going in the wrong direction, and what was really needed was a revolution, to overthrow the government, and completely change the way of doing things. The gift of nine minutes of free national airtime has never been repeated.

I saw the publisher Gerhard Steidl over the weekend too. Gerhard worked for Beuys back in the 70s – one of his jobs was to reproduce Beuys’s art so it could be sold. Beuys would sometimes sketch or scribble on a newspaper or magazine, then take it to Gerhard to make multiple copies, which Beuys would then sign. It was not just an important phase in Beuys’s career and the way multiples are used in the art world, it was also the birth of one of the great publishing forces of our time. Steidl now publishes with hundreds of different artists, and his books are among the crème de la crème of art books made today.

Just for fun, here is part of Beuys’s Documenta 6 speech, shamelessly lifted from another web site. ‘Buddha’ has the double meaning of the god Buddha and Nam June Paik, whose piece preceded his:


Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Children! You have just seen the Buddha. What would that friend of God and humankind, that human being in all his dignity, have to say about art? He would say art should release from itself something so massively hindered by present conditions that art suffers from this obstruction, that humankind suffers from this obstruction, that the entire future of humanity suffers from this obstruction. Would say art should liberate something that would represent a new form of art. Would say this something is the social sculpture, the art-work, art that no longer refers solely to the modern art world, to the artist, but comprehends a notion of art relating to everyone and to very question and problem of the social organism in which people live. Without doubt, such a notion of art would no longer refer exclusively to the specialists within the modern art world but extend to the whole work of humanity. – To refer to the whole work of humanity means to relate to all these fields which a freely made decision shall bring into a form by which they create, by virtue of human strength, a future structure which ought to be based on freedom. For what would art be without the notion of freedom. What would the notion of human creativity signify without the notion of human freedom. Thus, it can only be a matter of developing a notion of culture, a notion of spirituality, that is more comprehensive than the one existing at present.

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