This past Wednesday, I gave a brief talk on Joseph Beuys, an artist I find endlessly fascinating because of his hugely influential pedagogical ideas that extend far beyond the physical objects he produced. The talk was a part of the Hammer’s Lunchtime Art Talks, little 30 minute curator-led talks that occur every Wednesday at 12:30pm and are quite popular with the many office building employees around Westwood. The talks are mostly made up of both regulars and those who just wander in … two straight-laced graying men come in regularly, a few well-dressed female employees from the Occidental Petroleum office tower above the Hammer, a youngish 30-something guy in a business suit, a few retirees, some foreign tourists. Some students, scruffy and clutching moleskine notebooks to top it off. The audience for my Beuys talk was fairly representative of this group, and I chose to orient the talk around one of Beuys’ best-known multiples, the Noiseless Eraser (Schnellman No. 101).
The object was small, literally an eraser that Beuys had signed and then stamped with the seal of his “Organization for Direct Democracy,” originally produced by New York Blackboard, Inc. It was made of pressed felt, a material Beuys knew well, and was surprisingly multicolored, with lovely bits of colored wool running throughout. One of our registrars pulled it out of the depths of our Grunwald Collection, surprising even herself as the collection is mostly works on paper. Since it was so small, we all gathered around a table in the Grunwald center to look at it, and the looks ran the gamut from surprise to confusion to aggression. One woman shocked me by picking up the eraser and shoving it in her friend’s face, “Hey, get a good look!” she cried, laughing.
I launched into my talk after the eraser was returned safely back to the table. I spoke about Beuys’ view on multiples, his idea that the art object represented mutability rather than permanence, that materiality was tenuous and constantly changing due to chemical processes. He saw multiples as objects of condensation for his ideas, as vehicles for distribution. This explained why he made so many (Noiseless Eraser had 550 editions), and why he dreamed of someday creating multiples in the 10s and 20 thousands. He wanted these objects to reach a wide number of people, but also had enough fascination in the methods of distribution in the art world that he accepted the object might only ever be possessed by the world’s elite collectors. In his own words:
“It’s a sort of prop for the memory, yes, a sort of prop in case something different happens in the future.
I’m interested in the distribution of physical vehicles in the form of editions because I’m interested in spreading ideas.
The objects are only understandable in relations to my ideas. The work I do politically has a different effect on people because such a product exists than it would have if the means of expression were only the written word.
Although these products may not seem suitable for bringing about political change, I think more emanates from them than if the ideas behind them were revealed directly.”
I then connected this object to Beuys’ philosophical ideas about the application of heat as initiating change, whether it be Erotic, metaphorical, or physical heat. He believed that one could achieve symbolic acts of transcendence through these chemical conversions. Felt was a material closely connected to heat for Beuys, and hearkens back to his own origin myth, the famous and controversial story of himself being wrapped in felt and fat by Tartar tribesmen in Crimea after his airplane was shot down in World War II. He also had an elevated understanding of the parameters of art, and saw his role in society as that of a shaman or teacher who could guide society in new directions. These “actions” were a different kind of application of heat, and just as much a part of his art practice as his installations, drawings, or sculptures.
Several of Beuys’ well-known sculptures from the 70s were blackboards covered in his scrawls about reform and political activism, the products left behind from his didactic lectures. He saw the lectures as the creative process through which these works were formed. Many of his central concepts and mottos could be found in this work, like “Capital = Art” and “Everyone is an artist.” This “deep pedagogical impulse” as Ina Blom calls it, separated him from other artists in the avant-garde project like Duchamp and Brecht. Whereas these artists believed that the art object itself was imbued with the ability to shock and transform society, Beuys preferred to supplement this intrinsic power by explicitly teaching lessons of artistic and political changed. For Beuys, seeing an unrealized potential in the world and trying to enact it pedagogically was a very different way of viewing the avant-garde project than the chance-based and passive tactics of Brecht and other Fluxus artists.
There I ended the talk by citing my belief in Beuys ongoing influence on generations of younger pedagogically and socially-oriented artists. “Any questions?” I asked.
Hands shot up immediately, first from one of the straight-laced older guys. He asked me first how much the eraser cost (I didn’t know, turns out it goes for around $600-$1000). He asked me who produced the eraser, then he came out with this: “Beuys is playing a joke on us. Capital=art, he said it himself. He’s not being serious, he’s doing this to play up the market, sell this junk as art and pull one over on us.” His frustration with Beuys was palpable. Before I could answer, though, a young guy with a scruffy beard who looked riled up himself said, “No, I think Beuys is completely serious. He sees these objects as imbued with a spiritual power, the ability to spark thoughts and ideas, to initiate change, to shake us out of our complacency.” A British tourist turned to her friend and asked, “Do you think it’s art, Sheila?” Sheila answered, “I think art is anything that an artist can imbue with meaning. And Beuys imbued this with meaning, so yes, I think it’s art.” Someone else said, “It’s like a party favor, a small reminder of some of his more radical ideas.” The straightlaced guy shook his head angrily.
That was about the extent of the conversation, but it was by far one of the more lively discussions we’d had at a Lunchtime Art Talk in a while. It hit me that Beuys’ eraser had acted as a provocation in precisely the fashion he had intended, and for a moment, the museum had become a dynamic place of learning rather than a cemetery for dead things. In Beuys’ words, it was for a moment, more like “a university, with a special department for objects.” To provoke such situations was, to him, the true pedagogical role of the artist.