Joseph Beuys performing his piece "Felt TV" (photo by Lothar Wolleh, via Wikipedia)

Joseph Beuys performing his piece “Felt TV” (photo by Lothar Wolleh, via Wikipedia)

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's "Homogenous Infiltration for Piano" (1966) (via Wikipedia)

Beuys’s “Homogenous Infiltration for Piano” (1966) (via Wikipedia)

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.

h/t @magdasawon

Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

15 replies on “The Nazi Ties of Joseph Beuys”

  1. Is this new info? I mean, maybe it’s the depth of it that’s new? Because seems like I’ve heard this speculation before. Same as with Cocteau, Pound, Eliot. Oh yeah, and even Gertrude Stein gets heat as being a Nazi collaborator by supporting the Vichy regime. Think she supported Franco too, as did a bunch of artists, at least in the beginning of him. Anyway, not to say that it shouldn’t be questioned or whatever but more to your point of it being a complicated history.

  2. Nothing of this is new, it just needed its time to trickle into Germany’s mainstream media. John F. Moffitt’s 1988 book “Occultism in Avant-Garde Art: The Case of Joseph Beuys”, published by UMi Research Press, provides an excellent analysis of Beuys’ indebtedness to Rudolf Steiner – and, through this, a sometimes sobering breakdown of the often rather simplistic symbolism of materials in Beuys’ sculptural and performative work.

    Even for German readers, information on Beuys’ involvement in the splinter party AUD (“Aktionsgemeinschaft Unabhängiger Deutscher” – “Community Action of Independent Germans”) has been available everywhere, including the German Wikipedia article on Beuys. AUD ended up as one of the founding organizations of the German Green Party, but was set up in 1965 as the successor of a number extreme right-wing and neofascist parties. This information, too, is just one click away from the German Wikipedia article on Beuys.

    1. Sounds like it’s more widespread in the German media/for German readers than for English-speakers.

  3. It is almost funny that the non-nazi western world is worrying about and judging what dead artists did a half-century or more ago at the same time it has conducted its own atrocious wars in Central America, the Middle East, etc, displacing and killing countless people, at the same time IMF and World Bank loan programs have caused an immense number of deaths in Africa, at the same time “austerity” is ruining the lives of millions (Germany in particular having just taken the main role in the looting of Cyprus), etc etc. And at the same time that supposedly “clean” artists have been selling works to the 1% for record prices. I’m sure psychoanalysis etc has a term for this.

    1. I don’t see how the two are really related. I’m not excusing the American government’s behavior in starting atrocious wars, but: a) there’s a lot more dissent in this country than there was in, oh, I don’t know, Nazi Germany, and b) we can learn about and study Beuys and be concerned about our own actions at the same time. The two aren’t exclusive. In fact, I think studying history (aka Beuys) is part of figuring out how to act in the present.

      1. Jillian, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t discuss Beuys or Heidegger or … any figure out of the past. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t learn from where they went wrong. And I’m not suggesting that life in the US is as bad as life in Nazi Germany (I’m Jewish and had family whose lives were … well you can guess). What I’m *trying* (perhaps not clearly enough) to get at is the apparent glee which accompanies the discovery of someone’s Nazi past seems disproportionate and unhealthy to me, as if it is some sort of smokescreen to distract from … well, I basically don’t need to repeat what I wrote about an inch above. What I’d like to see would be some articles about where the money that supports the art market from say 1980-present comes from. I believe that would be much more useful when it comes to figuring out how we should live in the present (I did not find the glee that worries me in this article, by the way, but I have found it over and over in contemporary discussions of Heidegger, Cioran, etc)

        1. I agree. I especially like the point you raise about the top 1% of the art world. How will history judge its practices and where all the money came from? We don’t question enough the complacency in our own time, despite the lessons of the past. Personally, I believe we should weigh and consider both, but it comes down to whether you believe the Nazis were exceptional or if you believe in the “banality of evil.” I choose to favor the latter, because it doesn’t let us off the hook for the considerable suffering, killing, looting, and abuse of our own time.

        2. Thanks for clarifying, John. I definitely get what you’re saying, and I think you’re right—we do tend to avoid looking as critically at the present/recent past as we do the past that’s farther away. In part, I think that’s inevitable—we’ll never have the clarity with which to view ourselves now. But you’re right that it can’t hurt to try, and that we should. (I definitely tried to avoid that glee, which I found in the Der Spiegel article, and which really bothered me.)

  4. Beuys was a bit nutty. All of his work was highly subjective. I don’t know where connecting the dots would get us. Ultimately I believe people would like connect the dots between his artworks, statements and lectures and a Nazi past. Anything else would seem kind of boring. SInce his work was nutty and subjective, that connection isn’t going to happen. So who cares.

  5. it is slander to refer to the ideas of Rudolf Steiner as racist. Waldorf Education, Biodynamic agriculture, Eurythmy, Anthroposophical Medicine, the Christian Community, all living movements for truth, beauty, and goodness in today’s world, are indebted to Steiner’s inspiration. There is more research to be done, Jillian, before condemning the world of a man’s ideas to categories of racism.

    1. Hi Andrew,
      I did some background reading about Steiner before writing this because I didn’t know much about him or his theories. It doesn’t sound to me like all of his ideas are racist, and I don’t think I worded it to imply as much. That’s also why I included a link on his name—for people to click through and read about him themselves. That said, I will add a “some” to that phrase to make it clearer.

  6. Emile Nolde, your number one Nazi sympathizer, who was apparently rejected by the Nazi party itself because he was a degenerate artist… I wonder if Beuys was rejected by the Nazi party and is a another reason why there isn’t solid information about Beuys’ political position. Also is this the same Rudolf Steiner that all the schools are named after? I didn’t realize he was racist, and as far as I know the schools were modled after liberal thinkers… please explain

    1. Interesting theory about Beuys…I wonder if more concrete stuff will come out in time. As for Steiner, this seems like a super thorny and controversial topic that I haven’t had time to research as fully as I’d like yet. But for some starting reading (and I haven’t completely vetted these, so feel free to share reactions): // // It seem pretty clear that Steiner held and taught some racist beliefs, but the question is whether they actually inform any teaching that happens at those schools today.

      1. I thought Bueys Nazi past was well known and part of his creation myth. -The Stuka pilot who was shot down during the invasion of the Soviet Union. Rescued from the flaming wreckage by Tartar tribesmen who nursed him back to health. In the process of being nurtured by these noble savages ,he saw the evil of his ways and his soul was redeemed . To atone for the sins of his past, he decided to carry his message of the evils of Nazi Germany and his conceptual art as a means of redemption for the sins of Nazi Germany for those who participated . If this sounds like bad plagiarism of Catholic ritual and a Post Modern Wagner opera , it is. It can be debated as to whether or not Post War Germany needed the myth of the Good Nazi but many certainly responded .

        As recently as April there was a controversy over the scheduled performance of Hitler’s favorite Opera -Rienzi by Wagner (about a working class Prince who saves the people ) at Berlin’s opera house the Duetche Oper which was designed by Goebels . Rienzi was performed April 21st to co-incide with the 100th anversary of the Duetche Oper’s and birthday of Hitler (April 20th )Hitler would open his rallies with passages from Rienzi , the original manuscript was found by Hitler’s body in the bunker after his suicide . The question is not why the Duetche Oper performed Rienzi on April 21st or whether Bueys was a Nazi, but why Germany seems to still be entralled and enchanted by Nazism ?

Comments are closed.