01 August 2013

One Hundred Years of Nosebleeds

The prior post – sarcasm, yes – was prompted by a pair of pieces I came across in Der Spiegel in recent weeks; both contributed by the same author, both concerning the life of Joseph Beuys. One of them, the more recent of the two, deals with the veracity of a central episode in the artist’s life – the story of Beuys being shot down over the Crimea as a pilot during WWII. The other being about a biography of the artist recently published in German, which alleges that the artist had a number of long-lasting Nazi associations throughout his life and career.

The first item merely offers documented evidence of what many have said for decades – that the incident with the Tartars in the Crimea was largely a fabrication. The second is difficult to assess, since the book in question is only available in German, and hasn’t circulated widely enough to be corroborated or disputed.

Still, each strikes at the heart of the Beuys legacy. The first effectively nullifies a core component in Beuys’s self-constructed mythos, a formative incident from his life from which he derived many key aspects (i.e., iconography, materials) for a significant portion of his artwork. The second, if true, would of course prove much more damning. Partly for reasons that go without saying, which require no explanation. But a lot of it has to do with Beuy’s legacy as a whole – his public persona and his place in West German society at a particular time in its political and cultural history. Particularly in those years following the notorious punch-up at the Fluxus event in Aachen, as Beuys became a more public figure and more politically engaged, adopting the persona of a self-proclaimed shaman – a “healer” who offered as his gospel he transformative power of art and creativity as a sort of therapeutic balm that would help heal the lingering traumas and psychic wounds of postwar German society.

Beuys has long had his skeptics and detractors. Chiefly among them has been German art historian and critic Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, who – in response to the Guggenheim hosting a retrospective of Beuys's work – published a couple of famous takedowns of the artist in the pages of Artforum and October back in 1980. Buchloh (among others at the time) suspected Beuys of revising and ellishingem his own personal history; which, he felt, posed troubled (if not unconscionable) implications in the context of postwar Germany's inability to properly confront or come to terms with its own recent history. Having introduced his essay with an epigraph from Nietzsche's The Case of Wagner, Buchloh argues at one point:

"In the work and the public myth of Beuys the new German spirit of the postwar period finds its new identity by pardoning and reconciling itself prematurely with its own reminiscences of a responsibility for one of the most cruel and devastating forms of collective political madness that history has known. As much as Richard Wagner's work anticipated and celebrated those collective regressions into Germanic mythology and Teutonic stupor in the realm of music, before they became the actual reality and the nightmare that set out to destroy Europe..., it would be possible to see in Beuys' work the absurd aftermath of that nightmare, a grotesque coda acted out by a perfidious trickster. Speculators in Beuys' work did well: he was bound to become a national hero of the first order, having installed and restored that sense of a – however deranged – national self and historic identity."

At another point in the same essay, Buchloh addresses the matter of iconography and meaning-production in Beuys's work, and the way they hinge so overwhelmingly on a hermetically self-referential symbology, with Buchloh theorizing that the autobiographic and cosmological elements in Beuys’s output mainly serve as a diversionary tactic employed by the artists as a strategy for distancing his own work – by way of their formal and material similarities – from those of his Postminimalist contemporaries (e.g., Morris, Andre, Serra).

As far as other matters of legacy are concerned, there’s no debating the highly iconic and influential status of Joseph Beuys in the artworld of the past five decades. He cast a long shadow throughout the American performance art community of the 1980s, and his work continues to serve as a primary inspirational figure for artists such as Marina Abramović, Thomas Hirschhorn, Matthew and others. And likewise, there’s no arguing that a great many of Beuys’s works – the objects, especially – possess a stiking physical and formal presence; a presence that that impresses itself on the viewer whether that viewer even (or especially) in those cases that the viewer hasn’t familiarized themselves with the accompanying biographical account or the explanatory wall text posted nearby.

Which perhaps brings us the matter of how meaning is produced or derived from an artwork. In the case of Beuys, I always found that knowing more about the artist only tended to complicate the matter of viewing the art, tended to crowd too many other considerations out of the process. What’s more, I felt that the work – in the context of the Beuys mythos and legacy – suffered from a serious case of (as some would call it) overcoding. And as such, overcoded through the use of sign systems that are individually esoteric and esoteric in character -- a closed set of mythic elements in which all strains of metaphor, metonymy, and allegory run on an inverted principle – pointing away from "universals" or commonality, steering instead into domains of the minutiae and deep subjectivity.

I first encountered Barney’s work back around 1996-7, the first three installments of the Cremaster Cycle. Most of it coming by way of art critic Jerry Saltz, who at the time was quite fascinated with Barney and had just written the first feature-length article on the artist for a major publication. After viewing the debut of Cremaster 5, he asked the class what we thought of it. My response was that a viewer couldn’t help but be impressed with the elaborate and ambitiously-conceived nature of Barney’s films, but beyond that things got pretty murky. The only comparison I could reach for Joseph Beuys, in that it was work that was intricately constructed around an abstruse system of iconography, one that required its own glossary, “and if you aren’t equipped with the glossary before the viewing, you’re lost. Beyond that, all it amounts to is a episodic orchestration of quasi-surreal imagery” I didn’t surprise me to later learn that Barney cited Joseph Beuys as a primary artistic influence. And as Barney’s work hasn’t changed in any significant way over the years, neither has my feelings about it.

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...Versus a Lifetime of Bedwetting

Continuing with another theme from prior, recent posts: It appears that it's still open season on the cultural icon of Walt Disney. This time in the form of the latest offering by veteran performance artist Paul McCarthy, with his WS (re, White Snow) multimedia extravaganza at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. The core of which involves lots of libidinal cavortings between Snow White and the dwarves, with the figure of Walt Disney presiding over from the periphery like some sort of lascivious impresario. In a quick-response writeup at BOMBBLOG, contributor Forrest Muelrath can't help but wonder:

"The sex makes parsing meaning from this show difficult. It is easy to find a 'statement' in a pornographic act performed publicly — something about it being self-expression and free from the confines religion or conservative culture. ...In this instance of an excessively successful male artist performing/masturbating in the Park Avenue Armory, sex receives little opposition and there are no laws for the work to challenge. McCarthy further confuses the issue of sex by stating that the on-set house was modeled after the house he grew up in and that Snow White is reminiscent of his mother, but anyone who doesn't see this as a cheap attempt to add interest with tenuous psychoanalysis might as well skip the show and consider the psychological makeup of characters from internet porn."

But of course. Chalk it up to the traumas and fixations of a certain generation, and the cynically cathartic (and very Oedipal) exorcisms that such culturally-engendered pathologies produce by way of pushback; much of which takes the form of various sexual and scatological excesses in the case of "transgressive" artists of McCarthy's pedigree. I touched on this same topic a while back when writing about a particular species of performance art that came about in the 1970s, a sort that involved a lot of foodstuffs and hinged on common themes of consumption, excretion, and chronic infantilism. (So much so that it became a tired, silly cliché by the following decade rolled around.) Ultimately, it seems like a sustained cathartic exercise undertaken by those who came of age in the repressive-yet-affluent era of postwar American society. Hence, the repeated flogging of Disney.

Curious thing I noticed about the McCarthy piece, though — that it seems to have generated out of a series of preparatory drawings that were exhibited at Hauser & Wirth about 4-5 years ago. Some of the sketches, it appears, feature Snow White and the dwarves engaging in various sex acts. Which for me brought something else to mind, made me wonder if McCarthy hadn't taken the idea from a bit of pop-culture minutea I vaguely remembered hearing about years ago. I seem to recall hearing about a veteran illustrator or comics artist of note who'd at one point in his career done a series of pornographic versions of various "classic" comic and animated characters. A little googling turns up that the artist in question was Wally Wood, former EC comic artist, one of the founders of MAD Magazine, and previously associated with a number of historic titles in the comics canon. Apparently he had done a limited number of "Tijuana bible"-styled comics in the final years of his life (before committing suicide), one which — as I recalled — did indeed a porno treatment of Snow White. As I said: The fixations of a certain generation. The reverberative residue of a "loss of innocence" trauma endlessly projected backward onto the source of the same? So it often seems.

Anyway, I believe that finally wraps it up for Walt Disney. Had I known it was going to snowball into a recurrent topic on this blog, I might've skipped writing about that Mathias Poledna piece in the first place.


Lutz Eitel said...

This is great, thanks. I'm always a bit baffled when the thought of a "hermetically self-referential symbology" in Beuys comes up. His two trademark materials would have had distinct connotations. Felt in German is Filz, which figuratively means the stifling web of bureaucracy with shades of corruption. Fat sitting on a chair offers a pretty obvious reading in the age of the Wirtschaftswunder. Also it smells bad. Beuys took these materials which made up society to build a preposterous personal myth. So I think in the beginning it was something different, and after that, Buchloh himself seems to hint, Beuys was somewhat surprised how literally the myth was taken, and he sure ran with it.

Greyhoos said...

And thank you, Lutz. I was actually hoping you might pop up with something, figuring that anything you could add to this that would prove incisive. The felt/filz semantic pun is something I've never encountered, and something that isn't likely to turn up in the usual English-langauage lit on the topic. Much moreso for:

> how literally the myth was taken, and he sure ran with it.

...Which suggests something far more nuanced that what I usually encounter. Most lit/crit on this side of the Atlantic just takes the myth/persona matter as a given, and works from there as a starting point. Even the small degree of skeptical or dismissive things that occasionally turn up take it as an either/or premise.

Lutz Eitel said...

The more I think about it, the stranger it seems that the myth was not primarily read as some sort of (intentional or compulsive) comment on how everybody made up their story after the war. But I guess one just didn't consider questioning that then, as everybody of course kept sticking to their own stories, many of which were more or less openly known to be untrue. It's also why I suspect that the facts in the second Spiegel article you link to (if correct) would not have meant then what they seem to mean now, but anyway, Beuys' own ideology amid all the insufferable esoterics was about pluralism, individuation, direct democracy, and would have a decidedly lower fascism factor than, say, the sci-fi flick euthanasia chique of the Marina Abramovic Institute ...

Greyhoos said...

"Heh" to that last remark. And interesting observations about Beuys, which I have to agree with.

> comment on how everybody made up their story

I think that's the implied basis for Buchloh's attacks on Beuys, although not stated so explicitly, and not taken in that same direction. All of which culminates in Beuy's political activity -- transitioning from being an art instructor to a type of quasi-political organizer, flirting with a type of radical or alternative politics in the latter half of the '60s (the German Student Party, helping found the Green Party). The irony being -- although I suspect it doesn't doesn't need saying -- that that same political climate of protest & etc would find its most extreme manifestation in the activities of the Red Army Faction/Baader-Meinhof group. (After all, who was the target of their notorious kidnapping & killing, if not a former SS member-turned-successful-postwar-industrialist?)

Historians are – or were for a time – prone to reach for the cliché “Hitler’s Children” when referring to that postwar generation in Germany. Whatever problems (which are many) there may be with that lumpen label, it does touch on one major character of the 1960s – that a lot of young Germans looked at the older generation with suspicion and disgust, arguing (correctly) that efforts at postwar de-Nazification had been only piecemeal and were never fully undertaken in earnest. And of course Buchloh was of that same generation, which is most likely why he had long harbored a distaste for the artist. (Same could be said of Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson, who – while not being German – joined in with Buchloh in the October critique of the Guggenheim exhibition.)

But I’m intrigued by your idea: That if these allegations about Beuys were proven true, it would make the whole matter of his self-reinvention an apt historical metaphor.

And regarding your earlier point about the felt/Filz pun: I’ve always detected a bit of wry playfulness and humor in some of Beuy’s work. Which is a quality that I think is often missing in the work of those later artists who claimed him as a key influence.

Greyhoos said...

And what I was partly getting at with the prior comment:

Take Beuy’s lectures as a example – which some have claimed were nothing more than mystical and quasi-political nonsense, not to be regarded as lectures so much, but as a component of extended life-as-art-as-life public art performance of “Joseph Beuys.” Which begs the question of the nature of Beuy’s political engagement – was it in earnest, or all just another aspect of that same project? If the latter, then that’s deeply problematic (given the grave and tumultuous politics of the time).

Lutz Eitel said...

I see no reason to doubt the veracity of Beuys' political engagement, it looks like a natural outgrowth of his previous strange (and very inspiring) behavior as an academic teacher. Also a lot seemed possible when the Greens made it into the parliament, these were very heady times politically and much appeared possible both to the good and bad, direct democracy was a very common catchphrase.

I still think this aspect is overrated in Beuys' work. Artists and intellectuals then (unlike now) were sort of actively offered the role of public figures, and I'd say in German art life-as-art-as-life didn't mean much compared to Kaprow (or even Warhol). It was something Vostell shouted out a lot: Life is art and art is life, and to him, like to most artist I guess, it certainly was, but the work is more interventions, small surreal actions with life as the stage etc. I'd say that was more about redefining your audience, getting out of the whole morality discussion which clung to art (and which "Everyone's an Artist"-Beuys opposed in a completely different way). The dry nonsense of the lectures is also easier to understand if you look at the form of discourse intellectual public figures were into then: they extemporized the most beautifully structured sentences (almost nobody can do than anymore) full of self-important cultural-historical or socio-philosophical banalities posed as ultimate truths. Nothing outlandish about him there (and in tv panels there's a strong sense of insecurity about him, as if he didn't feel sure about being accepted by his peers, but then there's a strong sense of insecurity about his performances, too, it's what I most enjoy).

Ok, we haven't even mentioned social sculpture yet, but on the whole I'm for separating artist and public figure a little more (like we do with Grass and Böll and whomnot) ... then his legacy seems safe to me. I really hate his drawings, though :-)

Greyhoos said...

> there's a strong sense of insecurity about him,

Very interesting -- no, that's not something I've ever heard or read about him. But of course you have the advantage of being -- as they say -- "closer to the source," by dent of having access to much more of the German-language documentation/scholarship on the matter. Beuys has always had a rather small but cultish following here in the U.S.. Much of the information about him that's appeared in English tends to be selectively filtered, offering a much more simplified and partial account of his life and work. Which tends to make the matter of dealing with his mythology very much an all-or-nothing proposition.

> separating artist and public figure a little more

Or separating artist from his work, for that matter. Which is the decision I found myself having to make early on. Because the more attention I gave to the figure of Beuys himself (and the connection -- as offered -- between his iconography and biography), I found it only ended up frustrating the matter of assessing the work -- only made things murkier. (And as a perhaps a bad & inappropriate musical analogy: I have the same problem with Mark E. Smith. Yes, the early Fall records are all among my favorites. But of course Mark E Smith is still with us, as tenacious and mouthy as ever. All of which can be amusing, but I find that paying it too much mind only ended up siphoning from what I like about those early Fall recordings. [And I can think of a number of authors with whom something similar applies.])

> we haven't even mentioned social sculpture yet,

Heh, well...neither of the Spiegel articles says much of anything about his work, either, do they?

Lutz Eitel said...

oh wait, the sense of insecurity was purely subjective from watching youtube clips of old german tv shows ...

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