suffering

The Artwork of Strangers by Chris Hall

Jean MIchele Basquiat, Acque Pericolose, (1981)

There is the quote by I do not remember whom... "The most personal is the most universal." The things we wish we could share with others close to us, the stuff that tends to scare people away, when expressed in a slower "media" that people can approach in their own time, without the "burden" of necessitating a response, this is the stuff that resonates. A stranger can look into an artwork of a stranger more comfortably, perhaps, because without a relationship to the artist, the artwork can only function in one direction: as a mirror.  True art comes from a lonely place.

Art and Suffering by Chris Hall

Pablo Picasso, Woman with Bangs, (1902)

It is too easy to become jaded, numb, cynical, and mean. The world gives us ample opportunity, for damn sure. Nights full of tears, years of continued disappointments. And even when you taste success, love, friendship . . . nothing lasts forever. Sometimes you want to scream into the night, shake the stars for all they promised you. That is alright. But then when the morning comes, that is when the real struggle begins. You cannot give up hope, you cannot succumb to the easy temptation to become jaded, numb, cynical, and mean. I make dark cynical art sometimes, and that is fine for its honesty and catharsis - it serves a purpose, screaming into the night - but the best art might still be the triumphant art, the art that seeks the light of the Sun and the Moon and attempts to make peace with the stars, the art that explores and transcends the human condition, the beauty of being human. It is a worthy pursuit, anyways.


I am weary of the trap many seem to succumb to, that is fetishizing one's suffering, romanticizing it as an integral part of artistic production.  Of course many in the art world today mock this notion to the point of denying that there is a connection between mental anguish and art at all - but there is sad documented truth in the cliché, that creative types do disproportionately suffer more mental health issues than those in the general population.  But to attribute suffering as the root cause for art production, or the greatness of a work of art, even, is a fallacy I no longer support.  I once accepted this idea, and it helped me get up in the morning and paint, but it got me nowhere and brought no peace.  It is possible to heal, to seek help, and still be a great artist.  The source of great art is the artist, not the suffering.

 

Words of Encouragement by Chris Hall

Photo by Bob Mullen.

Photo by Bob Mullen.

“Artists are fiery, they do not weep!” - Ludwig van Beethoven

"What is to give light must endure burning" — Viktor E. Frankl


Life can be hard for artists, especially artists with an uncompromising vision.  But just remember who you are.  You are a force of nature, an artist!  Unlike others, you had the strength, the balls to pursue your artistic vision, irregardless of what other people think.  Many people wish they had your life, but they were cowards, and they followed other pursuits.  You dared to live, dared to fail!  Remember the poem “Self-Pity” by D.H. Lawrence:  

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

You are that wild thing.  You are that rare bird who delights in singing songs in the dead of winter.  Keep making art, no matter what happens.  Art is your weapon against death in life.  Always remember why you make art.  As Nietzsche says, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Finally, take comfort in Charles Bukowski's poem, “The Laughing Heart”:

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you. 

Now get up, and get back to making more art!

Why I Believe in God by Chris Hall

Paul Gauguin,  The Yellow Christ , 1889.

Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ, 1889.

“Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense.  It is like the religious search for God.” - Gerhard Richter.

“Art is not a substitute religion: it is a religion (in the true sense of the word: 'binding back', 'binding' to the unknowable, transcending reason, transcendent being).  But the church is no longer adequate as a means of affording experience of the transcendental, and of making religion real – and so art has been transformed from a means into the sole provider of religion: which means religion itself.” - Gerhard Richter.

For most of my life I can honestly say that I have experienced more bad than good.  My life has been marked by suffering in such a way that if I am ever fortunate to finally meet with some success, I fear I may never be able to enjoy it.  Often times it seems to me that my life ledger is grossly out of balance.  In such circumstances, how does one carry on?  Who do we hold accountable for disastrous fate?  Even Van Gogh threw in the towel eventually and clocked out of this mortal coil.  I think I carry on out of some kind of animalistic urge, akin to what Schopenhauer describes as “The Will.”  It is a stubborn kind of thing, and it has prevented me from doing harm to myself in my weaker moments.  At times like this, when I am at my worst, when it feels as if all my inner being is on fire and stuck in a perpetual, howling scream, I suddenly I remember why I believe in God.  Only someone with total omnipotence and omnipresence would have the dedicated time and strength to commit to making my entire life one living Hell.  This is why I say, believe in God, but do not trust.

“...Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition.” - Graham Greene.  

“Art is the highest form of hope.” - Gerhard Richter.

But there is another reason why I believe in God.  I trace it back to my youth and the old romantic in me.  It is buried deep, and sometimes I have to dig for it, but I know that a more benevolent God can be found in Nature and in Art.  Perhaps the blame for my sufferings can be placed, as Saint Augustine suggests, squarely in the hands of mankind.  Perhaps the blame for my sufferings can be placed on the electric chemistry of my brain.  John Milton tells us in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”  This is true, to an extent, but this does not account for the undeniable amount of bad fortune that has has been my lot, only my reception of it.  I have many questions about life, suffering, and the fate of mankind.  Reading, writing, making art are my attempts at trying to find answers to these questions, though I confess I have, for the most part, come up empty handed.  Many of my questions remain unanswered.  At least the process is cathartic, and has, at times, given me peace.  Perhaps the process of making art is God's mercy.  Perhaps God is trying to redeem us through Art.

Paul Gauguin,  Self-Portrait With The Yellow Christ , 1890.

Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait With The Yellow Christ, 1890.

“Now there are no priests or philosophers left, artists are the most important people in the world.”   Gerhard Richter.

Considering some of Richter's other comments on the connection between religion and art, namely that art is a religion, I think it might be safe to say that in the quote above, Richter is suggesting that artists could, and perhaps should, take on the role of both priest and philosopher.  In the West at least, I feel that there has been a growing doubt in the power of organized religion to solve our modern woes, and a growing doubt that an omnipotent, omnipresent, and benevolent God may exist at all.  If these people are like myself, they may have questions that they would like answered, or at least would like the solace that can only be found in beauty.  Artists, then, can take up the role left behind by priests and philosophers.  I think this might be a noble calling, maybe even more noble than using art as a political prop, but certainly more noble than using art as an entertainment tool, or an advertisement for a product.

Quotes On Art and Suffering by Chris Hall

Edvard Munch,  Starry Night , 1893

Edvard Munch, Starry Night, 1893

I have written some about what I think about art and suffering.  Here is a collection of thoughts by other people on the subject:  

What is the ‘raison d’etre; what is the explanation of the seemingly insane drive of man to be a painter and poet if it is not an act of defiance against man’s fall and an assertion that he return to the Adam of the Garden of Eden.  Barnett Newman

Make a child a painting and he’ll be happy for a day.  Teach a child to paint and he’ll be miserable for a lifetime.  Christopher Willard

I paint in order not to cry.  Paul Klee

 If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.  Yayoi Kusama

All great art comes from a sense of outrage.  Glenn Close

Painting is a source of endless pleasure, but also of great anguish.  Balthus

For me, painting is a way to forget life.  It is a cry in the night, a strangled laugh.  George Rouault

You never paint what you see or think you see.  You paint with a thousand vibrations the blow that has struck you:  how can you be struck and not cry out in anger?  Nicholas de Stael

Sometimes I find myself making love to my own misfortune.  Norma O. Abrego

One swallows something, is poisoned by it and eliminates the toxic.  A painter paints to unload himself of feelings and visions. Pablo Picasso 

For the creator himself to be the child new-born he must be willing to be the mother and endure the mother's pain.  Friedrich Nietzsche

On Art and Suffering by Chris Hall

Edvard Munch,  Despair , 1894

Edvard Munch, Despair, 1894

In the eyes of art history, Munch’s best work came out of his suffering.  His work after 1910 is generally regarded as weaker than and not as expressive as his earlier work from the 1890's and 1900's.  Is suffering necessary in order to make good work?  Many artists believe this, perhaps because suffering is all they have known, and we artists insist on our wounds (and the world isn’t friendly to artists and the expression of emotions).  I once believed that good work could only come out of suffering, too, but I refuse to believe completely in it anymore.  As someone who has experienced mental illness in the form of major depression and anxiety, I understand this notion to a great degree.  But there is nothing romantic about depression and anxiety.  Looking back, maybe my suffering gave me some clarity, insight, and empathy after the fact, but while being depressed, or in the throes of an anxiety attack, it is impossible to make art.  It is a torture to want to keep on living, let alone hold a paint brush.  I don’t know exactly how other artists work, what makes them tick, what makes them produce art.  Speaking for myself, it is important for me to be happy while having a little bit of an edge and some sensitivity.  I remember being on lithium for a short time, years ago, and how I could not produce any artwork because I felt emotionally numb, so maybe there is some truth to the necessity of suffering.  Maybe a little suffering is good for the soul, but only a little.

Why is contemporary art wary of art as catharsis and the expression of human emotion?  Why is it afraid of color?  In today’s rationally minded art world, perhaps they are afraid of that which is unquantifiable.  They are afraid to look into themselves and recognize that they, too, are feeling creatures, with darkness, anxiety, potential sadness, or worse.  No, if there are to be any emotions in today’s rationally minded society, it can only be emotions that are useful and can be exploited, bright, cheery, happy emotion.  Everything else must be quietly swept under the rug.  While in grad school I was surprised to learn that some of my more emotional and cathartic work would be received not with empathy, but with disbelief that anything of this kind of expression could be genuine.  There is no longer any respect for expressions of suffering.  All one has to do is look at the many parodies, products, and memes out there today of Munch’s The Scream to understand this.  One of the pictures below is of artist Takashi Murakami mocking The Scream.  He should know better.  Clearly he has no respect or empathy for Munch or his work.  Munch must be rolling in his grave.

Munch isn’t the only one to suffer posthumous humiliation.  There are endless parodies, products, and memes concerning Van Gogh’s ear as well.

Early Influence: Edvard Munch by Chris Hall

Edvard Munch was a Norwegian painter and printmaker born December 12, 1863.  The themes of much of his work include love, anxiety, infidelity, sexual humiliation, and separation in life and death.  His work is viewed as an exemplar of the fin-de-siècle anxiety and apocalyptic attitudes of the time as they show not physical reality, but psychological reality.  

Munch believed himself born into a cursed family.  Munch’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, and his sister Sophie died of the same in 1877.  Munch himself was often ill and spent a lot of time away from school.  Supported by his father, who was a medical officer in the military, the Munch family grew up poor, and they frequently moved from one small apartment to another.  Mental illness also ran in the family.  Another of Munch’s sisters was diagnosed at a young age, and Munch would later spend 8 months in a hospital in 1908.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Munch needed art to help explain suffering.  Munch would write, “In my art I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself.”  Munch’s choice to be an artist was not supported by his father or his community, who frowned upon his bohemian and non-traditional ways.  Munch began by painting in a more Impressionist style, and based on his talent his secured a scholarship in France, where he would see the work of Gauguin and Van Gogh.  Both became very influential on his work. His new work showed signs of what would be later called Expressionism.  His stated goal was "the study of the soul, that is to say the study of my own self.”  At first Munch sold very little, but managed to make a little money by charging entrance fees to people who just wanted to see his controversial paintings.  He was also a little loath to part with his work, which he called “his children,” because he viewed his whole body of work to be a single expression.  In order to make sales he began transcribing his work into wood-block prints and lithographs.

In 1893 Munch painted The Scream, generally thought to represent the universal anxiety of modern man.  Concerning the genesis of the work Munch would write:  

"I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature."

He later described the personal anguish behind the painting, "for several years I was almost mad… You know my picture, 'The Scream?' I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again."

Munch met with some success, particularly in Berlin with his Frieze of Life exhibition in 1902.  Of this time in his life Munch would write in his journal, "After twenty years of struggle and misery forces of good finally come to my aid in Germany—and a bright door opens up for me."  Life seemed to be finally going well for Munch, and he even almost married the wealthy and “liberated” Tulla Larsen, but Munch’s self-destructive and erratic behavior caught up with him and he began to spiral out of control.  There were heavy drinking, fights with other artists, and even an accidental shooting that lead to Munch losing the use of his middle finger on this left hand.  

In the autumn of 1908, Munch began to hallucinate and hear voices.  His anxiety and depression, compounded by heavy drinking, finally forced him to enter a hospital under the care of Dr. Daniel Jacobson, who prescribed for him a new form of electroshock therapy.  He stayed in the hospital for 8 months before being released.  Meanwhile, Munch’s work was beginning to be appreciated abroad.  He had a show in the United States and even conservative Norway started to warm to his work.  Munch could finally return to Oslo and support his remaining family.  As shown in his 1909 painting The Sun, Munch’s Dark Night of the Soul was over.  

After his stay in the hospital, many felt Munch’s work changed.  Art history would show that much of his great work was behind him.  World War I saw Munch’s loyalties divided.  He loved France, but many of his friends were German.  He nearly died in the Spanish Influenza pandemic, but would survive to make more art for two more decades.  In the 1930’s Hitler’s Germany declared Munch’s art to be degenerate, and removed his work (82 of his paintings) from all their museums.  His German patrons, many Jewish, lost their fortunes and some their lives when the Nazis came to power.  Fortunately for Munch, he began to find new patrons in Norway.  Most of Munch’s work would avoid the flames and would be sold back to Norway.  

In 1940, the Germans invaded Norway and the Nazi party took over the government. Munch was 76 years old.  Norway’s Nazi puppet government offered Munch the figurehead position of its Honorary Board of Norwegian Artists. Munch refused and the Board was dropped.  With nearly an entire collection of his art in the second floor of his house, Munch lived in fear of a Nazi confiscation.  Munch died near Oslo in January of 1944.  He was 80.  Munch bequeathed his estate and all the paintings, prints, and drawings in his possession to the city of Oslo, who would erect a museum for him in 1963.  In a strange twist of fate, the Nazis in Norway hijacked Munch’s corpse, and instead of a simple burial in a family plot, Munch was given a state funeral with gigantic Nazi insignia and flags, giving the people of Oslo the impression that Munch was a Nazi sympathizer, which he clearly was not. 

Edvard Munch was very influential on my own work as a young artist and student.  I would honor his approach to painting as path toward self-examination and discovery.  I was not interested in physical realism, but psychological realism.  I would even emulate his style, using his sinuous, radiating line work and his apocalyptic color in some of my paintings.  Although Munch informed much of my early work, I would like to think I have grown away from making work based solely on my own reality.  I still create artwork for my own self-discovery, but I also want to be critical of my times as well.  Hopefully this new work will fare better than Munch’s work after 1909.  

Frida Kahlo by Chris Hall

I was born a bitch. I was born a painter.  Frida Kahlo


I’ve always found inspiration in Frida Kahlo’s art and life and have admired for her work for its raw, uncompromising vision.  She had many an opportunity to give in to life’s cruelty, but she continued to fight for what she believed in, and became her own hero.  Kahlo was born in Mexico City on July 6th, 1907.  In later life Kahlo would give her actual birth date as July 7th, 1910, to correlate with the beginning of the Mexican Revolution.  Her mother would usher Kahlo and her sisters into the house as gunfire would echo in the streets.  Through out her life she would champion indigenous Mexican culture and revolutionary political ideals, both of which she references in her artwork.  

On September 17th, 1925, young Kahlo was riding in a bus which collided with a trolley car.  She suffered serious injuries as a result of the accident, including a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder.  In addition to all of this, her body was pieced by an iron handrail, which would leave her unable to bear children.  Through out the remainder of her life she would be in extreme pain and would require a total of 35 operations.  Because of the accident, she was often confined to a hospital or bedridden for months at a time.  Recovering from her injuries isolated her from other people.  This isolation was the genesis of Kahlo’s art practice, which would include 55 self portraits.  Of the self-portraits Kahlo would say, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

Kahlo was influenced by indigenous Mexican culture, which is apparent in her use of bright colors, dramatic symbolism, and primitive aesthetic.  She admired the work of muralist Diego Rivera.  In 1927 Kahlo approached Rivera seeking advice and confirmation of her own work.  Rivera recognized her talent and the two began a relationship which culminated with their marriage in 1929.  Their marriage was volatile from the start.  Both Kahlo and Rivera were known for their irritable temperaments, which was only complicated by their both having numerous extramarital affairs.  Diego would have affairs with other women, including Kahlo’s younger sister, Christina.  Kahlo would have affairs with both men and women, including Soviet exile Leon Trotsky, artist Isamu Noguchi, and actress and activist Josephine Baker.  The two would divorce in 1939, but would later remarry again in 1940, although their second marriage would be just as troubled as the first.

In 1938 Kahlo was courted by Andre Breton for the Surrealist movement.  Breton would describe her art as a “ribbon around a bomb.”  She would reject the Surrealist label because she believed her work reflected more of her reality than her dreams.  Of the Surrealists she would say, “They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore . . . I’d rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris.”  

Kahlo died on July 13, 1954 at the age of 47.  The official cause of death was given as a pulmonary embolism, but some suspect that she died from an overdose which may or may not have been accidental.  In his autobiography, Diego Rivera would write that the day Kahlo died was the most the most tragic day of his life, adding that he realized too late that the most wonderful part of his life was loving her.

Anselm Kiefer by Chris Hall

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Art is difficult, it’s not entertainment.  Anselm Kiefer  

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.  Theodor Adorno


Born just a few months before the end of World War II in 1945, Kiefer grew up among the ash and ruins of postwar Germany.  Kiefer’s work directly addresses Adorno’s statement, that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and questions how beauty and culture can continue to have any meaning.  Kiefer also wants to understand how the Nazis leveraged art and culture into killing.  In this respect, Kiefer’s body of work is primarily reflective of the new German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung.  Invented in the late 1950’s, Vergangenheitsbewältigung translates roughly as “struggle to come to terms with the past.”  Kiefer believes that one can not progress into the future until the past has been properly dealt with.  Although much of his early work addresses issues specific to Germany, his output in more recent years has expanded into more universal concerns.

Anselm Kiefer began making work in 1969 and would become a student of Joseph Beuys.  Kiefer’s first opus, his Occupations, had him traveling around to different sites in Europe, sometimes in his father’s Army uniform, and then having himself photographed giving the Nazi salute.  It may seem a bit shocking, but there is a moral heart to Kiefer’s work.  Kiefer wants to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust remain fresh in collective memory.

Some of Kiefer's Occupations. Click to enlarge the images.

In his paintings and sculpture, Kiefer reexamines German history, mythology, and culture, everything from Wagner operas, German Romanticism, the poetry of Holocaust survivor Paul Celan, the architecture of Albert Speer, and the Third Reich, but he also references theology, occult symbolism, alchemy, mysticism, and the Kabbalah.   The weighty subject matter is often mirrored in the physicality of the works itself, which are often large scale and monumental.  Epic in size and scope, Kiefer’s work become visions of the apocalyptic sublime.  His paintings are mixed media endeavors, dense and heavy with impasto paint mixed with straw, dried flowers and plants, lead, sand, broken glass, ash, clay, shellac, gold leaf, copper wire, rusted metal, broken ceramics, woodcuts, charred photographs, and wood.  Kiefer uses a variety of application and reduction techniques, including a blowtorch.  

Some of Kiefer's early work.  Click to enlarge the image.

In the 1990’s Kiefer’s focus grew from focusing on Germany’s role in civilization to the fate of art and culture in general.  He began to explore universal myths of existence about the trauma experienced by all societies, from inevitable destruction to continued renewal and rebirth.  By examining the past, Kiefer seeks personal, national, and universal healing and absolution of collective guilt.  In 1999 the Japan Art Association awarded Kiefer the Praemium Imperiale for this lifetime achievements.  The explanatory statement reads:  

Kiefer worked with the conviction that art could heal a traumatized nation and a vexed, divided world . . . Only a few contemporary artists have such a pronounced sense of art's duty to engage the past and the ethical questions of the present, and are in the position to express the possibility of the absolution of guilt through human effort.

Some of Kiefer's later work.  Click to enlarge the image.

Kiefer is known for keeping giant studio complexes which he turns into site specific monuments with his painting and sculpture.  Most recently Kiefer purchased the decommissioned Mulheim-Karlich nuclear reactor plant.  In 2010 Kiefer’s studio in Barjac, France was the subject of a documentary called Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.  The 35 hectare studio complex was built in the ruins of an abandoned silk factory.  You can watch the documentary on Youtube.  Here is a trailer for the film.

I first saw Anselm Kiefer's work sometime during the early or mid 1990's, either at the Cincinnati Art Museum or Atlanta's High Museum of Art.  I have always been attracted to his willingness to tackle the big subjects, life, death, and the possibility of re-birth as well as his use of mixed media and his painterly technique.  I also agree with Kiefer's stance on anti-art, that is he bemoans it, but acknowledges it's right to exist.  For these reasons I am happy to call Anselm Kiefer both an influence and an ally.

The Great Mystery by Chris Hall

The older I get, the more comfortable I've become with the mystery.  I used to rage inside like Ahab, out to destroy the symbols of our suffering.  Not so much anymore.  I still ponder and ask the unanswerable questions, such as why mankind is inflicted such unrelenting and undeserved misery and sorrow, but I don’t torture myself over it anymore.  There are some things that we are not meant to figure out.  We have to get over it, we have to get comfortable with ambiguity, else we’ll destroy ourselves.

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

A Dark Humor by Chris Hall

Sometime during my undergraduate days, one of my professors criticized someone in my class for making “funny” paintings (he was always good at rattling cages and making people cry).  He said that the first word in painting is PAIN, and that he would not have any of that fantasy clown shit in his class. I laughed inwardly, because I happened to agree with him; this was in my younger, more angstier days. Now, however, I have reevaluated my position somewhat.  I think there just might be a place for comedy in art.

The world, in such a condition as it is, is in need of all the humor it can get.  In fact a sense of humor is all that keeps many people, including myself, sane.  I tend to cling to any joy, laughter, or beauty I can find.  Humor to me is my way of assimilating and recuperating from pain, of which there is plenty.  I understand that a lot of comedy comes from pain.  Not many people know this.  It was no surprise to me, for example, that such an outwardly happy and comedic an individual as Robin Williams recently committed suicide, God rest his soul.

In my art, my humor tends to be dark.  It is my way of inverting the pain into something more palatable (to me anyways).  The results are usually grotesque, abject, and ridiculous.  Some people find it surprising that I don’t paint flowers anymore, instead opting for gross out, violent, and sex heavy humor.  So be it.  I don’t think I can ever adequately explain it to them if they are that far removed.  Some things for some people are beyond understanding.  For the time being, I am content knowing that I found my own way transmuting humor from pain.  

Christopher Hall,  Born To Paint , 2002

Christopher Hall, Born To Paint, 2002