Monday, 20 May 2013

Joseph Beuys: Book Accuses Beuys of Close Ties to Nazis

From Der Spiegel, May 17 2013
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For decades, Joseph Beuys has been exalted as a heroic icon of postwar avant-garde German art. But a new biography accuses him of having been a serial liar who never completely emancipated himself from the views of Nazism and a bizarre cult.

Joseph Beuys spent his entire life dying, his widow once said. In January 1986, his heart did in fact stop beating. Urns with his ashes were committed to the depths of the North Sea. Since then, he has been regularly resurrected -- as a myth, a heroic figure, a saint of contemporary art history and an innovator, even on the political scene. During the nearly 30 years since his death, he has become larger than life and, ultimately, sacrosanct: a German icon.
Beuys, born in 1921 in the western German town of Krefeld, is viewed by many as the only genuine avant-gardist of the postwar era because he was a provocateur, someone who irreversibly shattered the limits of what was customary. He created a new type of art with honey pumps and wedges of fat, made works out of rust, tree bark and clumps of earth, and created a world of images in brown and gray. What's more, he staged performances in which he conversed with hares or dissected their corpses with knives, events in which he smashed a piano to bits or rolled himself up in felt to become a living mummy. Beuys was the Düsseldorf professor of art who, in the wake of his many protests and subsequent summary dismissal, had to be escorted by police from the academy.
Everyone had an opinion on Beuys. It was thanks to him that people started talking about art in the 1970s -- although they were usually simply outraged. He planted 7,000 oak trees in the western German town of Kassel, which was one of several controversial art projects that divided the entire country, and he made use of every opportunity to intensify rejection of himself and his work. For example, Beuys maintained that the Berlin Wall was too low, writing that it would have better proportions with an extra five centimeters (two inches) in height. Today, that sounds funny.
At the time, people ridiculed him and his work, but the sound of their laughter inevitably also echoed their fears of nonconformity. Those who like him admired him for precisely this reason.

Uncovering the Man Behind the Myth

The author of a new Beuys biography, Hans Peter Riegel, has set out to uncover the man behind the myth. In Riegel's view, Beuys was neither a deranged artist nor an innocent genius, but rather a fairly reactionary and dangerous figure.
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Translated from the German by Paul Cohen


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3 comments:

  1. Hmmm... Well it would be a stretch to say that Beuys has anything to do with boring Neofolk no matter who his friends were. I'd have to say I'd rather see his work than whatever kitschy garbage the Third Reich deemed art.

    Makes me wonder about Anselm Kiefer whose work was often about the Holocaust, yet in an early series of photographs he was seen giving a nazi salute.

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  2. I'm not quite convinced where linking to this bio of Beuys stands in relation to exposing neo-fascists. Linking to it infers you think there's some validity in Riegel's claims, or at least how Der Spiegel chooses to editorialise them. But have any of us read this book? I haven't and haven't met anyone yet who has.

    That for me is the problem with this article. I can find these same accusations being repeated on English language websites, none with any references beyond this Spiegel article. So it gains a sort of internet traction, but not on the basis of further or more substantial evidence.

    For example, the collector Karl Stroher. Der Spiegel writes:

    "Not much is known about Ströher's activities during the Hitler years. At the meeting in Zurich, Beuys biographer Riegel opened an envelope and pulled out a copy of a court decision from 1949 that declared Ströher to be a Belasteter (or "offender," the second-most damning category of Nazi sympathizer according to the classification system used by denazification tribunals at the time) and sentenced him to 10 months in prison. The entrepreneur had donated large amounts of money to the Nazi Party and benefited from defense contracts awarded to his companies."

    Describing Stroher as an "offender" without any context about the denazification process or the court's reasoning behind that decision really doesn't mean much. The family business (Wella) produced hair products. How large is a large amount for that time? How much did the Nazis shake down capitalists for them to stay in business? So a German capitalist paid money to the Nazis in order to maintain market share and gain financial profit? Gasp! Come on. What else do capitalists do?

    Moreover, what does Stroher do post-45? Known for collecting and exhibiting modern art, including a fair bit of Beuys. It's a rich man's game after all. Not known for singing the Horst Wessel Lied.

    That you can connect Beuys to people who had some connection to Nazis is not in the least surprising. It's post-war Germany after all and it's populated with Germans who lived through that period. What this article doesn't seem to have is any form of smoking gun that proves Beuys himself was in any sense a Nazi or indeed sympathiser. Until us non-German readers get to see the actual text, it seems too much like a posthumous show trial by inference.

    I was looking around for a decent transcript of the 1985 Munich speech mentioned in the article. I couldn't find one, but as this interesting piece "Joseph Beuys and the After-Auschwitz Sublime" is worth a read and I think a far better account of Beuys' relation to Nazi history and atrocities:

    http://faculty.winthrop.edu/stockk/contemporary%20art/Ray%20Beuys.pdf

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  3. I largely agree with you. I would add only that articles are posted here because they may be of interest and relevant to the theme of the blog - fascist presence in culture - not because the admins of the blog agree with the article. On reflection, though, I think this particular article should have been presaged with some comments along the lines above.

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Please at least use a pseudonym so it's possible to follow your argument if you make multiple posts