politics

That's My Jesus! by Chris Hall

"Buddy Christ" from the movie  Dogma  (1999).

"Buddy Christ" from the movie Dogma (1999).

“Art is the pure realization of religious feeling, capacity for faith, longing for God. […] The ability to believe is our outstanding quality, and only art adequately translates it into reality. But when we assuage our need for faith with an ideology we court disaster.” Gerhard Richter.

Today I am going to take a little side trip, away from Art, to write about religion and spirituality.  After 166 postings in this blog I have not once deviated from the subject of Art, so I think I can be forgiven in this one instance.

As explained in my previous post, I consider myself more spiritual than religious.  I don't get much out of one size fits all organized religious institutions.  The answers to my questions can not be found before a pulpit one hour on a Sunday morning.  Too much blood has been shed in the name of organized religion.  I can accept a certain amount of hypocrisy within myself and my life, but too often organized religion has too much hypocrisy even for me.  Instead I have long been in the process of developing my own spiritual path.  My self-created religion draws from a variety of sources: nature, art, literature, poetry, music, philosophy, and a variety of religious and mystical traditions.  Those traditions include Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Shamanism, Alchemy, Gnosticism, and yes . . . Christianity.

Christianity is where I started, my religious mother's milk.  It is the skeletal structure with which I base all my moral and spiritual beliefs.  I believe Christian is not something you are, rather it is something one should aspire to become.  You may ask yourself, how can a lefty weirdo pervert such as myself, reconcile their proclivities with Christian doctrine?  It is easy for me, actually. Jesus welcomed outsiders into his party; he rolled with a band of misfits back in the day. Jesus was not exactly, how should I say it, bourgeois?  Jesus was also a man of flesh, a human being with feelings and emotions.  Many would have Jesus be an unapproachable holy marble man, or a neutered Ken doll.  But Jesus was human.  He had his doubts and fears, he experienced pain, and he was even susceptible to anger.  Wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that he also had a libido?  Even Jesus had a penis.  And what about his politics?  Jesus stayed out of politics.  Perhaps he would be the first to champion the separation of Church and State.  Jesus did not want to overthrow Rome; his message of compassion and forgiveness transcended the politics of his time.  Nevertheless, politics can learn from Jesus' example.  Reading The Bible, you might be surprised to learn that Jesus was the first Communist.  This is irrefutable.  Jesus, his disciples, and the first Christians all pooled their wealth together (Judas was the treasurer) and redistributed it equally and as needed.  No one went hungry in the first Christian Church.

When I read The Bible from beginning to end a few years ago, I was a little shocked by all that was left out in Sunday School.  It is full of fucked up angry God injustices (particularly in the Old Testament, where genocide, rape, slavery, human sacrifice, and the murder of children is both commanded and condoned), but if you have a dark sense of humor, you can get through the sanctioned violence and bloodshed without being completely turned off.  In the end it seemed to me that the good stuff in The Bible outweighed the bad, maybe not in quantity, but certainly in weight and worth.  The Bible is a fountain of inspiration and solace for those who may have a spiritual bent to them, and even for non-believers as well.  The story of Moses and Jonah, finding the strength to stand up to power, are particularly enlightening, and the books of Job and Ecclesiastes pose difficult questions on the nature of suffering.  The life of Jesus in the four Gospels of the New Testament are also of great value if you are looking for life lessons on how to live.  Jesus' parables are often like Zen koans and are a pleasure to read.  If you read nothing else of The Bible, read that at least.

Sometimes my friends are absent minded around me or just assume that because I have leftist leanings that I am anti-Christian.  I brush off their insults usually without correcting them, being too much of a gentleman to point out their small mistake.  Politicians who do hateful things in the name of Christianity are not much of a help, of course.  But at least Pope Francis is beginning to change many people's perceptions of what it means to be a Christian, and I am thankful for that.

Artwork Expiration Date by Chris Hall

“Beautiful works survive sans virtue.  Virtuous works sans beauty do not.”  Dave Hickey - The Invisible Dragon.

Contemporary art practice has come to accept art created with an expiration date – art not meant to last forever – especially when it addresses philosophical inquiries such as the nature of mutability and time.  Though I've come to respect those who make art which purposefully investigates ideas of temporality, I'm not quite prepared for that in my own practice.  I'd rather my art live forever, if possible.  I do not have kids.  My artworks are my children, my legacy.  But what about the art that is more timely than timeless?  What about the art that addresses more contemporary concerns?  I agree with Hickey in that when an artwork that has outlived its political usefulness, when an artwork's message is no longer relevant, if the art isn't beautiful, if it doesn't make use of aesthetics – that artwork will have a shelf-life; it will slowly fade from memory.  Beauty keeps a work alive once it's political impact is blunted.

If I am going to sacrifice aesthetics in my art in the name of serving some political agenda or some other “virtuous” cause, I've got to be damn sure that the cause is worth the sacrifice.  I have yet to find that cause.  And besides, it has yet to be proven by anyone that a “virtuous” art is made more effective by jettisoning aesthetics.  I fact, I firmly believe the opposite – that art is more effective, its message better communicated, when it uses aesthetics.  I see no clear reason to abandon beauty.  Artists who criticize the use of aesthetics and beauty in art may even be doing so in order to cover for their own lack of talent.  It is the barbarian's argument – the whole “I can not read, therefore all books should be burned” argument.

In the end, though, my pondering on the merits and flaws of whether a “virtuous” art is made more effective with or without the use of beauty is inconsequential, considering that so much of contemporary art, especially the art without beauty, is often sarcastic, nihilist, and generally without “virtue.”  Perhaps it is fitting that such art is temporary and fated to be forgotten.  

Politics are timely, but temporary.  Beauty is timeless and eternal.

Jackson Pollock and the CIA by Chris Hall

Jackson Pollock's  No. 5  (detail), 1948 and Fyodor Savvich Shurpin's   Morning of Our Motherland  (detail), 1946-48.

Jackson Pollock's No. 5 (detail), 1948 and Fyodor Savvich Shurpin's  Morning of Our Motherland (detail), 1946-48.

In 1958 and 1959, Jackson Pollock's paintings toured Basel, Milan, Madrid, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and London as part of the 81 work exhibition The New American Painting, featuring the work of many of his Abstract Expressionist peers.  The exhibit was sponsored by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a front organization for the CIA.  It was not the first time, or the last, that CIA spooks would use Abstract Expressionist work as propaganda, dropping the A-Bomb, the Aesthetic-Bomb, on unsuspecting Communists of the Eastern Bloc.  

Pollock's work, and that of his peers, was raw, wild, powerful stuff.  Abstract Expressionism didn't just break the rules, it seemed completely ruleless, especially when compared with the art coming out of the Soviet Union, which favored Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism can best be described as staid, true depictions of wholesome farmers and productive workers, politically tinged art bordering on gross propaganda.  Pollock's work, and that of the Abstract Expressionists, is a highly individualistic, rough and tumble mode of expression blasted onto canvases as large as open fields of amber waves of grain.  Compared with the confines of Socialist Realism, Pollock's work feels absolutely liberated; it screams freedom.  And the CIA thought it was American as hell.  America!  Fuck yeah!

For years it was rumored that the CIA had covertly sponsored Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists, but it wasn't until just recently, when former CIA spook Donald Jameson stepped out of the shadows and broke silence, that the full extent of their involvement in making Abstract Expressionist art a weapon of the Cold War has been revealed.   At first, it would seem the connection between the CIA and Abstract Expressionist art would be improbable.  At the time, the 1950's and 1960's, many Americans despised Modern Art, and many of the artists themselves were ex-communists, barely acceptable in the era of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare.  This isn't supposed to be the kind of art to receive backing from the U.S. Government.  And that was the consensus when  the State Department initially made open attempts to support the new American art.  In 1947 the State Department organized and paid for a touring international exhibition entitled Advancing American Art, with the goal being to rebut Soviet suggestions that America was a cultural wasteland.  The show was controversial at home, prompting President Harry Truman to remark, “If that's art, then I'm a Hottentot,” and one bitter congressman to declared, “I am just a dumb American who pays taxes for this kind of trash.”  The tour of Advancing American Art had to be canceled.  The State Department now faced a dilemma.  The government's philistinism, along with Joseph McCarthy's hysterical denunciations of anything avant-garde or unorthodox, was deeply embarrassing.  It betrayed the idea that America was a sophisticated and culturally rich democracy, and it also prevented the consolidation of cultural supremacy, which began shifting away from Paris to New York City in the 1930's, due to emigration of artists fleeing Europe during the Second World War.  To resolve this dilemma, the CIA was brought in. 

Their secretive nature aside, the CIA, at the time, was the perfect choice to carry out the clandestine art project.  The newly formed agency, born out of the OSS in 1947, was staffed with Ivy League graduates and connoisseurs of Modern Art.  Compared with the Cold War hyperbolics of  Joseph McCarthy and J Edgar Hoover's conservative FBI, the CIA was a haven of liberalism.  If anyone was prepared to secretly champion a bunch of hard drinking ex-Communists, it was the CIA.  The CIA set to work at influencing culture as soon as it was set up in 1947.  Dismayed at the appeal Communism still had on Western artists and intellectuals, the CIA formed the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence over 800 newspapers, magazines, and public information organizations.  Next, the CIA set up the International Organizations Division, directed by Tom Braden.  The International Organizations Division subsidized the animated version of George Orwell's Animal Farm, and sponsored tours of American Jazz artists, opera productions, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  They had agents in the film industry, publishing houses, and even had writers working with Fodor's Travel Guides.  It was seem almost inevitable, then, that the CIA would begin promoting the anarchic Modern Art movement, Abstract Expressionism.

“Regarding Abstract Expressionism, I'd love to be able to say that the CIA invented it just to see what happens in New York and downtown SoHo tomorrow!  But I think that what we did really was to recognize the difference.  It was recognized that Abstract Expressionism was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylized and more rigid and confined than it was.  And that relationship was exploited in some of the exhibitions. . .  In a way our understanding was helped because Moscow in those days was very vicious in its denunciation of any kind of non-conformity to its own very rigid patterns.  And so one could quite adequately and accurately reason that anything they criticized that much and that heavy- handedly was worth support one way or another.”  Donald Jameson, quoted in Frances Stonor Saunders' article, “Modern Art was a CIA Weapon” for The Independent, October 22 1995.

To pursue its underground interest in American leftist avant-garde art, the CIA had to be sure that its patronage could not be discovered.  They conducted “Long Leash” operations, working two, sometimes three steps removed, influencing culture from a distance.  The central office for the CIA campaign to sponsor Abstract Expressionism was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a fake foundation and clearing house for the CIA's black budget for the arts.  At its height, the Congress for Cultural Freedom had offices in 35 countries and published more than two dozen magazines.  These magazines would be staffed with critics favorable to Abstract Expressionism.  Using the Congress of Cultural Freedom as a front, the CIA funneled millions of dollars, secretly sponsoring a variety of artists, and no one, not even the artists, would be any wiser.   

"We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists, to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement, without any rigid barriers as to what you must write, and what you must say, and what you must do, and what you must paint, which was what was going on in the Soviet Union. I think it was the most important division that the agency had, and I think that it played an enormous role in the Cold War."  Tom Braden (head of the CIA's International Organizations Division), quoted in Frances Stonor Saunders' article, “Modern Art was a CIA Weapon” for The Independent, October 22 1995.

Would Abstract Expressionism have been the dominant art movement of the post-war years without this patronage?  Yes, I still think so.  There is something essential about the movement that really tapped into the zeitgeist of the time (and, I would argue, still has some relevance today).  Equally, it would be wrong to suggest that when you look at an Abstract Expressionist painting, you are being duped by the CIA.  Pollock's work may have been used as propaganda, but it is decidedly not propaganda.  Everything we have learned about the movement still holds true, the spiritual depth, the myth-making, etc.  It just seems that now the movement had an unusual secret patron in the CIA.  If the CIA had any lasting effect on Art history, however, it might be that their programing to champion Abstract Expressionists (the first generation of which were known as the New York School) helped consolidate the intellectual and economic center of the art world in New York City, after it had shifted from Paris following the Second World War, but even this is up for debate.

Today, those critical of Abstract Expressionism say that because the movement was so essentially apolitical, that it allowed the work to be easily co-opted and used by the government, against the intent of the artists.  Yes, I agree that a more figurative and politically transparent work would not have been so easily used, but I challenge the idea that art must always be in the service of radical politics.  Making politically motivated art is a good thing (so long as it doesn't become so rigid and confined as the Socialist Realist art of the Eastern Bloc), but it is also important to realize that there are some things, some subjects, that in their proper time and place, trump politics.  This is proven today by the surviving strength of Abstract Expressionist work, even as the politics of the Cold War that surrounded its creation, has vanished.  The world needs spiritual nourishment equally as much as it needs political art motivations.  

Beware of Artists by Chris Hall

Diego Rivera,  El Arsenal , 1928

Diego Rivera, El Arsenal, 1928

”Beware of artists. They mix with all classes of society and therefore the most dangerous."  Queen Victoria.

Why are artists traditionally regarded as radicals?  Here is my theory.  The vast majority of artists are members of the underclass, often just barely scraping by.  In order to make a decent living, they have to petition the wealthy (the only people with a disposable income) for their table scraps.  Artists, therefore, occupy two different worlds; they live humbly while being in contact with wealthy elite, living in the lap of luxury.  Isn't it, then, quite natural that bitter notions might develop?  Too often we see that the world puts more value into the art than the welfare of the artist who produced it.  

Outrage by Chris Hall

Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963.

Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963.

"Anger is an energy."  John Lydon.

Forcing yourself to be happy, to always look at the bright side of life, while living in the midst of social and economic injustice is the mentality of the slave.  Outrage, when deserved, is healthy, proper, and fitting.  I will never choose to purposefully put blinders over my eyes, or let life's indignities steam-roll over me.  I will always fight for justice, for what is right.  And you, too, have every right to be outraged.  Expressions of outrage are healthy for society.  It is how things get changed in this word.  If no one speaks up, the status quo will continue.  

I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King, when he said, "Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted."  As artists, we often see injustice before others, because of our sensitivity and also the fact that the world can be outright hostile and prejudiced toward us.  It is our duty to speak up, to defend ourselves and others.  

Sometimes I think I thrive on being pissed off – (though I do worry that it might someday consume me), but most of the time I have to find strength to tell truth to power and to do what is right.  I do not like conflict, argument, or fighting.  It is not in my nature.  I am all too susceptible to outrage and anger, but it is not my preferred state of mind.  But someone has got to speak up, to do what is right.  And if others more adept will not do it, then I must. 

John Heartfield Versus Hitler by Chris Hall

John Heartfield's  Adolf Hitler the Superman Swallows Gold and Shits Tin , 1932.

John Heartfield's Adolf Hitler the Superman Swallows Gold and Shits Tin, 1932.

Born Helmut Herzfeld on 19 June, 1891, he anglicized his name to John Heartfield to protest the growing anti-British sentiment and rampant German nationalism during the First World War.  Heartfield was a pioneer in the use of art as a political weapon in the 1920's and 1930's particularly against the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.  

Heartfield was a photomontage artist.  Heartfield would create his photomontages by cutting and pasting parts from several photographs (either ones he took himself, commissioned, or found), and then re-photographed the result to produce a single seamless image.  

Heartfield was declared unfit for duty during the First World War by feigning mental illness.  In 1917 he founded Berlin Club Dada, which quickly became the most politically engaged Dada chapter in the movement.  In 1918 Heartfield joined the German Communist Party.  During the 1920's , Heartfield came to conclusion that the only art worth producing was to be of a political nature, and he destroyed all of his earlier work.  

Together with fellow artist George Grosz, Heartfield founded the satirical magazine Die Pleite (The Bankrupt).  Heartfield also produced images for the daily paper Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), and the weekly paper Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ, Worker's Illustrated Newspaper).  AIZ was particularly supportive of Heartfield's work, publishing some 230 of his images, with more than half of them appearing on the front or back cover.  

Heartfield's work was also reproduced on many dust jackets for books, including Upton Sinclair's The Millennium, and on the many political posters that plastered the streets of Berlin at the time.  Heartfield also designed and built theatrical sets for Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht.

John Heartfield lived in Berlin until April 1933, when the Nazis took power.  On Good Friday, the SS broke into his apartment, and Heartfield escaped by jumping from his balcony.  He fled Germany by walking over the Sudeten Mountains into Czechoslovakia, where he continued making work denouncing the Nazis.  In 1938, he was forced to flee the Nazis again, during the occupation of Czechoslovakia, this time taking refuge in London, England.  

Following the war, Heartfield settled in East Berlin, East Germany.  He was looking for his Communist paradise, but did not find it.  Instead, the Stasi (East German Secret Police) treated Heartfield with suspicion, due to his lengthy stay in London and the fact that his dentist was being investigated for “collaboration.” Heartfield could not find work as an artist, was denied admission into the Academy of Arts, and was denied health benefits.  Eventually, with the assistance of Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Heym, he was finally accepted into the East German art community.  Heartfield produced some art warning of the threat of nuclear war, but he was never as prolific as he was during the 1920's and 1930's.  

Some Notes on Dada and Anti-Art

Dada and anti-art are often thought to be the same thing, and while they are thickly entwined, they are really two different things.  Dada was an art movement in the early 20th century, anti-art is an art process and product used and found in many different art movements, up to our present day post-modern art production.

Dada was born with the outbreak of the First World War.  For many of the artists, particularly in Berlin, Dada was a protest against the war, and against the bourgeois, nationalist, and colonialist interests responsible for it.  Dada was viewed as a revolt against cultural and intellectual conformity in art and society at large.  `

While some artists interpreted Dada as a celebration of meaninglessness and nihilism (Duchamp and his anti-art), many, like John Heartfield, used Dada to promote political change.  Dada does not mean an abandoning of all culture and aesthetics, only traditional culture and aesthetics.  If traditional art and culture was meant to appeal to our sensibilities, Dada was intended to offend.  But offensive art can be a useful tool to reshape our cultural landscape.  Anti-art, however, rejects even usefulness.

Anti-art rejects everything and abandons all aesthetic considerations.  Anti-art practitioners believe that bourgeois and capitalist “reason' and “logic” is the root cause of society's ills, and so they champion nihilist attitudes, embrace chaos, chance, and irrationality, destroying all culture and civilization in the process.  Dada nihilist artist Tristan Tzara once said, “I am against systems; the most acceptable system is on principle to have none.”  

Nihilism, at best, is a sign of resignation, apathy, or giving up.  At worst it is a barbarian's approach, wantonly destroying all aesthetic and cultural view points in its path.  I believe a lot things need to be dismantled and destroyed, but not everything.  Nihilists are usually poor students of history.  I believe there is much to be mined from the past, things that can guide us in terms of what we can reuse and reinterpret, but also things that we can avoid.  Nihilists usually have tunnel vision as well, and fail to see that some things in our present culture are also worth saving.  Instead of being selective and focusing on the small problems, individually, they would rather burn down the whole house and start from the beginning. 

Dada has always been a love/hate affair for me, as so many of its practitioners were nihilist anti-artists, like Duchamp.  I can not support the nihilist position nor can I support the production of anti-art.  I do not believe that everything is meaningless.  I have not lost my ideals and believe with hard work and cooperation, there is a small chance that we might just be able to make the world a better place.

John Heartfield was a Dada artist, but not an anti-artist.  He believed in something and had ideals, something he thought so highly of that he risked his life defying Hitler for it.  Marcel Duchamp the anti-artist did not.  John Heartfield, while he may have abandoned traditional aesthetics, he did not abandon aesthetics completely.  This is why Heartfield's art could so effectively carry his strong anti-Nazi message, why his work was deemed worth saving and not thrown away like a makeshift protest sign constructed out of poster-board and magic-marker, and why we are able to appreciate his work in museums today.

Forgiving Art for the Sins of the Artist by Chris Hall

Humility is not a virtue propitious to the artist.  It is often pride, emulation, advarice, malice – all the odious qualities – which drive a man to complete, elaborate, refine, destroy his work until he has made something that gratifies his pride and envy and greed.  And in so doing he enriches the world more than the generous or good, though he may lose his soul in the process.  That is the paradox of artistic achievement.  Evelyn Waugh

. . . Lord God, grant me the grace to compose a few beautiful verses which will prove to me that I am not the lowliest of men and that I am not inferior to those I despise.
Charles Baudelaire

It says nothing against the ripeness of a spirit that it has a few worms. 
Friedrich Nietzsche

Georg Baselitz, The Brucke Chorus, 1983


Richard Strauss, Leni Riefenstahl, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Richard Wagner, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot.  Can we forgive their fascist leanings and/or anti-semantic beliefs?  And what about a living artist such as Georg Baselitz, can we forgive his sexist remarks?  We don’t have to, but we can forgive their art.

I believe that art has some unique, autonomous value, some capacity or capability that trumps temporal concerns and supports ideals that have a timeless aspect.  In other words, art is greater than the artist.  Some critics, however, desiring a balance to the equation between art and artist, are upset by the idea that an artist can be a bad person, yet can also  produce great art; they would prefer it if the artist who is a bad person would also produce art that looks bad, or at least that it be tainted.  As for myself, if I could not separate the artwork from the life of the artist, I would at least try to reconcile the two.  

Politics, for better or worse, are a part of art.  While I believe a work of art can be judged according to the apparent politics of the work, you can also judge it for its aesthetic values as well. The value judgment of the entire work, then, does not hinge on either its politics or aesthetic considerations, but both.   . . . and if the politics are absent, then we can judge the work solely on aesthetics alone, independent of whatever beliefs or sins the artist may have committed in their personal life.  Just because an artist is a bad person, this does not necessarily mean that the work of said artist will also be bad.  

Too often, with de-constructionalist theory witch-hunts, we condemn works of art when we instead should condemn the lives of the artists.  In our contemporary world where both the critics and artists often conflate notions of art and life, it is sometimes difficult to image that they are indeed two different spheres.  

We can forgive the art for the sins of the artist.  

Recovering Beuys: Artist, Activist, Shaman, Teacher by Chris Hall

Zeige Deine Wunde - Show your wound.  Joseph Beuys

And when I say: “Show it! Show the wound that we have inflicted upon ourselves during the course of our development”, it is because the only way to progress and become aware of it is to show it.  Joseph Beuys  

Image from I like America and America Likes Me, 1974

The Origin Myth

Joseph Beuys remains a controversial figure to this day, nearly 30 years since his death.  Despite being on the vanguard of conceptual and performance art, the hard-core Post-modernists don’t want him because of his enigmatic myth making and his refusal to give up and become a pessimist and skeptic.  Beuys was in line with the artist as hero rhetoric of his Modernist predecessors and since Post-modernists like Benjamin Buchloh won’t claim him, I think I will take him for one of my own team.

As a young man Beuys was fascinated by animals and studied medicine.  But soon afterwards the Second World War broke out and in 1941 Beuys volunteered for the Luftwaffe where he trained as a radio operator and gunner for the Ju-87 Stuka dive-bomber.  But on 16 March, 1944, at the age of 22, something significant would happen that would alter the course of his life forever.  While flying a mission over the Crimea he was shot out of the sky, the plane crashing into the snow.  The pilot was instantly killed, but somehow Beuys survived.  According to Beuys, he was pulled unconscious from the wreckage by a group of nomadic Tatars, who then warmed his frozen body and cared for his wounds by wrapping him in animal fat and felt blankets.  The Tartars took him in as one of their own until Beuys was well enough to make his way back to German field hospital.  Later, returning home, Beuys fell into a deep depression.  It was in this state that Beuys begin to feel himself transformed.  He found help through making art in the form of drawings which at this time he produced in the thousands, and he began his fascination with Shamanism and healing.  Drawing would later remain a big part of his practice and teaching philosophy, even as his own work grew more conceptual and he began to make performance art.   

It is for certain that Beuys did crash in the Crimea, that is in the record, but as for the rest, his Shamanic initiation with the Tatars and the transformation through depression, that can not be substantiated.  It has led some skeptics such as Buchloh to believe that Beuys made the whole thing up in order to create a legend or myth about himself.  However, I am inclined to believe Beuys story, as I, too, have gone through a bit of a transformation myself when I was 19, when I had my first black, howling, soul shattering depression and my own Shamanic initiation dream.  But irregardless of whether it all happened as Beuys described it or not, the story still informs his art, and the subsequent art is more important than the origin story.

After recovering from his wounds and depression, Beuys saw that Germany, too, was sick and wounded, and was also in need of healing.  Beuys viewed his art as a healing tool, and viewed himself as an artist, healer, and teacher.  He sought to bring mystical truths to the people and genuinely sought to make the world a better place through art, politics, and education.  

Beuys the Activist, Beuys the Educator:  a Misunderstanding of Intent.

As a political activist he was one of the founding members of Germany’s environmentalist Green Party.  Beuys would also run for a seat in Parliament, unsuccessfully.  Beuys’ merger of politics and aesthetics, plus his messianic myth making character, lead some people to distrust him and become skeptical of his intentions.  Despite Beuys democratic rhetoric, some viewed him as a totalitarian in disguise, reminiscent of Hitler.

To make people free is the aim of art.  Therefore art for me is the science of freedom.  Joseph Beuys  

Even today Beuys remains a controversial figure.  In a recent biography, Hans Peter Riegel writes, “Beuys was one of the first members of Germany’s environmentalist Green Party, and he spoke a great deal about democracy. Ultimately, however, the artist strove for a totalitarian society …” This assertion is made only because of Beuys willingness to be vocal about his politics through his art, and his supposed, tenuous connections with former Nazis (while this is in character for the messianic Beuys, to heal the wounded sinner, I might also argue that everyone among his peers would have been guilty, at least by association, in Post War Germany; to say otherwise would be completely naive).

Photograph from a performance at the Technical College Aachen, in 1964.  The performance was part of a festival of new art coinciding with the 20th anniversary of an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.  The performance was interrupted by a group of students, one of whom attacked Beuys, punching him in the face. 

As an educator he taught at the university, where he was very popular with is students, but when the university fired him because of his unorthodox teachings, he founded his own university.   Despite being a conceptualist and a practitioner of performance art, Beuys was deeply invested in the power of aesthetics and would require that his students take drawing classes.  Beuys was often outspoken about his criticism of Duchamp for removing aesthetics from art.  Unfortunately for Beuys, who was politically active, the connection between aesthetics and politics was one of the major defining characteristics of Fascism.  This, of course, led many people to distrust him and misunderstand his intentions.

The esthetic conservatism of Beuys is logically complemented by his politically retrograde, not to say reactionary, attitudes. Both are inscribed into a seemingly progressive and radical humanitarian program of esthetic and social evolution. The abstract universality of Beuys’ vision has its equivalent in the privatistic and deepy subjective nature of his actual work. Any attempt on his side to join the two aspects results in curious sectarianism. The roots of Beuys’ dilemma lie in the misconception that politics could become a matter of esthetics …  Benjamin Buchloh  

So when I appear as a kind of shamanistic figure, or allude to it, I do it to stress my belief in other priorities and the need to come up with a completely different plan for working with substances. For instance, in places like universities, where everyone speaks so rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear.  Joseph Beuys

To be a teacher is my greatest work of art.  The rest is a waste product, a demonstration.
Joseph Beuys

Beuys the Artist, Beuys the Healer:  Two Significant Performances

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965.  

It was made “when he was almost entirely unknown. Visitors could view Beuys through a window, where they found him sitting and cradling a dead hare in his arms. The artist’s face was covered in the symbolic substances of honey and gold leaf, and his boot was weighed down with an iron slab. He mumbled barely audible noises into the ear of the inert animal, as well as explanations of his drawings hanging behind them. This action, both strangely hilarious and moving, puts us in mind of the impossibility of teaching, the skepticism of listeners, indeed the deaf ears of most of those we ask to listen. It speaks to the difficulty of making one’s work known in the world and the possibility of an unexpected transcendence of these limits.”  (Italicize mine, from Outsiders:  The Art of Joseph Beuys by Tim Segar for Potash Hill).  

I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974. 


For this performance Beuys flew to New York City and was taken to a room in a gallery on West Broadway. He “was transported by ambulance, lying on a stretcher and wrapped in felt. For three days, the artist shared the room with a wild coyote. Some of the time he stood leaning on a shepherd’s staff, swathed in his felt blanket. Other times he lay on a bed of straw and watched the coyote. The coyote watched him, circled him, and shredded his blanket to pieces. The artist did things like striking a large triangle, drawing lines on the floor, and other mysterious gestures . . . After three days, the coyote had grown quite tolerant of Beuys. The artist hugged him and returned to the airport in an ambulance, leaving without having set foot on American soil . . . A bit of context to remember is that the Vietnam War was in its last year when this piece was made, President Nixon was on the verge of resigning the presidency, and the international community had been looking askance at the United States for quite some time . . . In both works, Beuys is acting on our behalf both humorously—mocking our attempts to interact with the world—and shamanically—conjuring hidden languages with which to cross the boundaries of death, species, language, and cultural divides.”  (From Outsiders:  The Art of Joseph Beuys by Tim Segar for Potash Hill).  

Coda:


This is what Beuys tries to do: only through showing the wound – the pain and suffering caused by the past – and through repeatedly reliving these traumatic events can some form of coping take place and can one leave the past behind. Beuys pushes where it hurts and shows in which ways one can cope with a problematic past.  From Joseph Beuys and the German Trauma by Lisa VanHaeren.

Beuys fought against skepticism and doubt.  Through his art he sought to do well by both people and the environment, healing the rift between mankind and nature (in 1982 with the help of volunteers he planted 7,000 Oak trees in Kassel, Germany).  And yet many of his critics remained skeptical, if not suspicious of his work.  His ardor and artistic and political idealism tended to turn off and frighten people.  Beuys critics fall into two camps:  one group, represented by critic Stefan Germer, believed that art did not have the power to initiate political change; they were filled with skepticism and doubt, and viewed Beuys as a deluded fool.  The other group, represented  by critics such as Benjamin Buchloh, believed (in light of Fascism) that art and politics were a dangerous combination, and that aesthetics should not serve as a vehicle to effect political change; Buchloh and others were suspicious of Beuys and sought out ulterior motives in his politics.  Despite the harsh criticism, Beuys did not give up, he continued his work; he truly believed in his mission and in the power of art to change things for the better.  Beuys’ artistic altruism, his generosity, his dedication to his mission as an artist, his championing of artistic and political idealism, and most of all, his refusal to give up, these are all worthy and admirable qualities.  There should be more artists like Joseph Beuys.  

Drawings by Joseph Beuys

The Middle-Class Artist by Chris Hall

In a 2002 article for New Statesman, former London ICA chairman Ivan Massow described modern concept art as "pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat" and "the product of over-indulged, middle-class [...], bloated egos who patronize real people with fake understanding.”

While all that, arguably, might be true, I would like to focus on one word he included there . . . middle-class.  I don’t know exactly what Massow meant by including middle-class, but I will tell you what questions it raises for me.

Could it be that the reason why a lot of what passes for fine art these days seems so apolitical is because it is the product of a middle-class mentality that has no motivation for change?  Often times an arts education is a luxury.  I was fortunate enough to have supporting parents who allowed me to follow my dreams (or my folly, depending on your point of view) and so I took out massive loans and worked my way through school to finance my education; I took a chance that I hope will one day pay off for me.  But at the risk of sounding classist, I do sometimes wonder about my more financially secure peers.  Do they have any sympathies at all for the working-class?  Can they ever relate or truly understand to what it is like to have to struggle financially?  What is their motivation to create any artwork that challenges societal and political norms when they themselves work from a place of privilege?  While I don’t think it is fair to assume that a struggling artist has a monopoly on making socially valid art, I do think that these are valid questions.

Perhaps, since the middle-class in America is rapidly shrinking, more revolutionary art of substance will be made.  

Eugene Delacroix,  Liberty Leading the People , 1830

Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830

Radicalization by Chris Hall

I never wanted to be radical.  I wanted to be middle of the road Average Joe.  But the world made me this way.  I don’t like it.  Partisan politics has a way of making a person ugly.  Rather, I would have liked to make an art all people can get into, something more sympathetic to the human condition.  

Governments come and go, but the human condition, emotions, life and death, these struggles are eternal.  

But there is this thing called injustice, and I and many others have suffered duly from it.  You can only suffer so much before you become radicalized.  I love my country, but I hate my government, which has transformed itself into a plutocracy.  There are other problems, too:  sexism, racism, homophobia, moral hypocrisies . . . I refuse to stand by on the sidelines any longer when I feel that I can effect some kind of change.  

Frida Kahlo,  Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick , 1956

Frida Kahlo, Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick, 1956

  

The Politics of a Flower by Chris Hall

I’ve written a lot lately of the intersection of politics, philosophy, and art.  I am a little tired of it.  

A flower by nature is not political or philosophical, it just is.  It exists only to be beautiful.  I like that.  

So it must be with art and artists.  I try to use theory only to justify and support my work after the fact, not to determine its course or control its creation.  I believe most artists are the same way:  art before theory and not theory before art.  

If you are a caring and decent human being with a sense of social justice, the art and the message will come naturally, no need to force it.

Just be, just create.  That might be enough for now.  The rest will come later.

“Aesthetics is to artists as ornithology is to birds.”  Barnett Newman

Christopher Hall, Blue Splendor, 2001