Joseph Beuys and the Languages of Art


by Debbie Vance

This morning I read “Final Ascent: Joseph Beuys and the Languages of Art” by Thomas Micchelli on HyperAllergic (a forum on art and culture) and was struck by the idea of language within visual art. In the case of Beuys, the language is both literal, as he often incorporates handwritten words into his pieces, and figurative, as his art form is a language in and of itself, which expresses both cultural truths as he understands them as well as their philosophical underpinnings.

The exhibition Joseph Beuys: Process 1971-1985, curated by Kara L. Rooney is currently on display at the Rooster Gallery in the Lower East Side of Manhatten–hence this essay–and the essay explains how Beuys was influenced by the writings of the Austrian spiritualist Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). “Steiner was the founder of anthroposophy, which he described in a lecture delivered in 1916 as a ‘spiritual science’ that seeks ‘ways and means of penetrating into the sphere of the spiritual, a domain which cannot be perceived with outer physical senses, nor apprehended with the intellect which is bound to the brain.'” Beuys’ art, then, grew to become an embodiment of this anthroposophy, as it uses imagination and creativity to explore essential truths and ideas without any direct depiction of such, believing that art can cultivate the type of thinking necessary to understand reality–or this spiritual aspect of reality–more fully.

[Joseph Beuys’] clusters of words, diagrams and images create a mirror, not of the ascension of consciousness toward enlightenment, but of the density of reality twinned with the mind’s inability to penetrate it.

The opacity of Beuys’ language, leaving his message seen but not heard, unintentionally underscores the futility of human endeavor, which we can take as a different kind of circularity, the kind that goes nowhere.

It’s interesting to me, as a writer, this idea that the human mind cannot truly penetrate reality, that we can only observe and interact with it, trying always to grasp it in some fundamental, revelatory way and, often, failing to do so. Though to be honest, I do think we–as artists, creators, humans–do a fair job of pinning down a bit of the world in any given moment, small though that moment may be, and there is a certain degree of understanding that comes with the mere process of attempting to do so.

…But enough philosophical pondering for one Tuesday morning. I’ll leave you with this: To show, and not to tell, is the responsibility of both visual artists and writers alike, whatever your underlying philosophy of art.

You can read the full HyperAllergic essay here, and more on anthroposophy here. (Good luck.)

joseph beuys, compilation of drawings


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