Joseph Beuys is a canonical postwar artist, but was he really as progressive and enlightened as we’ve come to believe, and as he led us to think? A new biography of the artist, written by German-born Swiss author Hans Peter Riegel, kicks up the age-old debate about the separation of the artist and the art by contending that Beuys was actually a dedicated follower of some occultist and racist ideas propagated by philosopher Rudolf Steiner, and that he hung out with quite a few former Nazis. “In Riegel’s view, Beuys was neither a deranged artist nor an innocent genius, but rather a fairly reactionary and dangerous figure,” writes Ulrike Knöfel in Der Spiegel.
The article presents the book’s evidence in a fairly bombastic way, beginning with an introduction that’s bound to raise a skeptical eyebrow. The second paragraph leads off: “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 … ” Well, that’s something of an extreme claim. Unfortunately, this also sets up the indictments that follow to be read as shocking revelations, when in fact they read as interesting, complicated pieces of history that merit a closer look.
To wit, the allegations are: Beuys was a “habitual liar,” twisting the truth on everything from his story about being rescued by Tartar tribesman during WWII to the extent of the Nazi enthusiasm of his hometown and his own role in the war; Beuys was “obsessed with Steiner’s occultism and his racial theories — and with the abstruse ideas of a Germanic soul, a German spirit and a special mission for the German people”; and Beuys had close ties to and worked with a good number of former Nazis, including his patron Karl Ströher, who donated substantially to the Nazi party, and politician Werner Georg Haverbeck, a former member of the SS and head of training for the Hitler Youth movement who continued a career in politics after the fall of the Third Reich.
Beuys isn’t the first artist or thinker with Nazi associations: people have been struggling for decades over what to make of Leni Riefenstahl and Martin Heidegger, whose connections to the party seem much stronger than Beuys’s, and let’s not forget Philip Johnson, who sympathized with Nazism early on, and Salvador Dalí, who faced criticism for embracing Franco’s Fascist regime. Beuys’s associations are just as troubling, and the fact that they’ve rarely, if ever, been explored until now reveals the success of the artist’s own myth making, as well as the art world’s selective political myopia. But what they really point to is the need for further research and exploration rather than any blanket indictment or decanonization of Beuys. It’s especially hard to know how to take some of Riegel’s more bewildering claims — e.g. “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 …” — without reading the book itself.
Mostly clearly, Beuys’s Nazi ties seem to confirm the messiness of WWII and postwar Germany, a long period when the majority of the German population was implicated in the Third Reich in some way. After the war, many former Nazis found their way back into politics quite easily, and it’s not as though just because Hitler was defeated his ideology vanished into thin air. A nationwide political brainwashing takes generations to undo.
All of which isn’t to let Beuys off the hook. The trick is to explore how these more nefarious politics affected and informed — or didn’t — his art, and to reevaluate accordingly. One commenter on Twitter pointed to this Benjamin Buchloh essay about Beuys that begins this process and seems to align with Riegel’s findings. Buchloh writes:
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 …
By Der Spiegel‘s account, Riegel sticks to the man rather than the artwork, which is a fine (and perhaps necessary) place to start. But ideally, after this, a more critical biography will come along to help us better connect the dots.