Letter to Joseph Beuys
Updated: Oct 21, 2019
Bavaria, 8 July 2019 / Berlin, 26 September 2019
With few claims on her time and none on her soul, she turns back outside,
into the woods, the green negation of all careers.
Richard Powers, The Overstory (2019, p. 162)
Dear Joseph Beuys,
I am sitting at a desk in front of an open door leading to a balcony. It’s on the third floor of a family home in Bavaria. In front of the house runs a stream. I can hear it. Along the stream grow trees: ash, hazel, maple, hawthorn, elder, and some other species I cannot discern. It is midsummer, so their leaves fill up my view. On the desk lies a book: The Overstory, by Richard Powers. A novel. Like the woods, novels can be a negation of all careers. They draw you in and as you read, time passes without noticing. So much information absorbed with so little effort! An experience very much unlike reading an academic paper. Unlike real work. Or is it? I am here on a visit between worlds. I just moved all my belongings from Oxford, where I lived for seven years, to my brother’s garage in the Netherlands, and now I am waiting to bring them to my new flat in Berlin next month. A change of scene that invites reflections on what lies behind and what might come. A space to think about purpose and direction.
Breathing in the oxygen breathed out by those trees, I make an attempt to write about a flame, which has been on my mind for a while. It’s a metaphorical flame, mentioned by you in your last public speech upon receiving the Lehmbruck prize. Dank an Wilhelm Lehmbruck – Thanking Wilhelm Lehmbruck – was the title of your address to a packed room, only days before your death in 1986. You were and still are somewhat of a celebrity, famous for coining the term ‘social sculpture’ – the idea that every human being can become a creative co-shaper of society. In the video, the recording of which allows me to hear your voice and see your gestures and expression as you were holding your speech four years before I was born, I see you standing in front of an eager audience. You are a master of performance, one who knows how to hold people’s attention. You tell a story from your life, about how an encounter with Lehmbruck’s sculptures changed the path you had already set for yourself. How it turned you away from science, towards art, where, you say, the real possibilities for shaping the future lie. You appear strong, embodying that person people need to look up to. Then there are moments when it seems as though you retract, leaving a dramatic pause, throwing people back onto themselves, keeping them in suspension. It is a perfect set-up for the appeal you want to make: “Schütze die Flamme!” – “Protect the flame!”.
The flame is a powerful image. You knew that.
Prometheus risked the fury of the gods to steal fire for the people in a hollowed-out fennel stalk. Civilisation as we know it now would have been unthinkable without it. We depend upon it for our survival. Our reverence for the flame and all it provides us with – light, warmth, safety – goes so deep, that it has become a poignant metaphor. The fact that, untamed, it can also turn into a force of destruction only contributes to its symbolic power. In some cultures, the flame stands for life itself. Once extinguished, you are dead. It is also associated with passion, hope, inspiration, feelings, and transformation. Pretty much everything that gives gist to life. No wonder it features in songs, stories, and rituals, from ancient to contemporary.
The first time I watched your final speech on YouTube was some years ago. I had just enrolled for a Master’s in Social Sculpture in Oxford and was very excited about this turn of events in my life. Finally, I had found a community of practice enquiring into what you called an expanded concept of art: the idea that everything we do, even every thought we think, can be done in an artful manner, and that if we were to develop the creative capacities to do so, the world would become a better place. I was profoundly touched by your words, because they communicated a message of hope. It was a message I wanted to hear, because it validated the path I had just chosen. The way you spoke about the flame made it stand for not giving up on humanity, on the possibility of freedom, and on the ideal of a democratic society shaped as a work of art, where everyone could fulfil their potential and make a meaningful contribution. I wanted to do all of that. Not giving up but finding ways forward was my purpose. That was how your flame became entangled with my career.
I fully dedicated myself to working with the idea of social sculpture for about seven years. My interest was to make it accessible to as many people as possible. Already during the Master’s, I started assisting Prof Shelley Sacks, who had studied with you and founded the Social Sculpture Research Unit at Oxford Brookes University. After graduating, I stayed on and worked on several projects initiated by Sacks. One of those was the further development of the University of the Trees: Lab for New Knowledge and an Eco-Social Future. Sacks had spoken about the idea of an alternative university for many years. Following on from your initiative to establish a Free International University, she now wanted to create a version of her own. A platform for the pedagogies and practices she had developed as a result of wondering how your social sculpture ideas could be put into practice. A home for the people who considered themselves part of the ‘field of social sculpture’. A place where others, in time, would be able to contribute and share their own further developments. For a while we operated as a small team: Sacks leading, my partner and myself working alongside her, and a handful of other people coming in and out to help and act as dialogue partners. Based on our own notes of Sacks’ lectures, we started to create some written materials. Drafted contents for a website. We founded a social enterprise, with the three of us as directors. Offered some trainings and workshops. People were excited. It seemed like we shared the purpose of growing a community of practice and creating a hub of inspiration for those wanting to work towards an ecologically viable and humane future. Not without difficulties caused by time limitations and differences in character, but it seemed like we could get through them over and over again. The flame was shining brightly. Until, bit by bit, I was overcome with the feeling that things were stagnating. The publication of the envisioned working materials and books was postponed. The website just wouldn’t get finished, even though many people had been yearning for it for years. The community wasn’t growing as envisioned. Simultaneously to new people coming in, it was steadily discarding of members fallen from grace for dubious reasons all along. This is hard to say, since I was part of that community for such a long time myself, turning a blind eye to such dynamics like many others. But I can’t help feeling as though under the flag of a pedagogy of liberation, part of what was going on was a pedagogy of oppression. A growing awareness of these discrepancies eventually made me decide to leave.
The flame in your message is about the belief that another world is possible. Protecting that is easier said than done. We live in precarious times, and there are plenty of reasons to despair about the course humanity is taking, as it seems to lead straight to our own destruction through growing inequality and climate change. Yet, there are plenty who try to do what they can to avert catastrophe and work towards alternative and more sustainable scenarios. Referring to your notion of social sculpture, I call them artists of society, and I’ve attempted to be one of them. Because your flame became entangled with my career, I know a bit about the challenge involved in keeping it alive.
When things go well, when a project takes off, when people are supportive, or when you manage to secure funding, the flame of possibility is burning vigorously. But these are momentary achievements. It is also not difficult to keep and even grow good faith when you have an engaging conversation, encounter a soul mate, read an interesting book, participate in a stimulating training, or listen to a teacher (like yourself) who tells you exactly what you need to hear. You feel energetic, inspired, full of ideas and confidence – for a bit, perhaps until the high wears off. If you are part of a group, community, or collective, you might be able to keep it up for longer than if you are just by yourself. It seems paradoxical that the experiences of hope and enlivenment that we need so badly to keep us going can be like a drug that only provides temporary solace, after which we are thrown back onto ourselves. That what seems to be our flame burning strongly and safely could be a sign that we are losing our mind in excitement, or worse, unfounded idealism. Can we protect ourselves from such self-deception?
Apart from the challenge of knowing whether you can actually trust what appears to be your inner flame burning, it is more difficult to figure out how to keep it fuelled when things go awry. When the wrong person becomes president, when your funding gets cut, when your collaborators let you down, when people don’t seem to get what you’re on about, when you have to earn your living in a job that absorbs all your time and creative energy, when you have anxious dreams and wake up in the morning exhausted, or when you feel alone. Or when you start doubting the basic premises of your work and community. But these situations can change, right? As little as one conversation with another person or a new idea can spark hope again and rekindle your confidence in the possibility of a possibility. The question is: how to sustain that flame on the long term, so that it can’t be blown out by the next bit of wind? Also: what would be the consequences of letting it go out? Would you die whilst still being alive, ending up like a zombie?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. I just know that I have to keep on asking over and over again. Previous experiences can only prepare you for the future to a limited extent. School doesn’t really do the job, either. From a pragmatic point of view, I don’t really want to give up. Because I know how horrible it feels when I get close, and I can’t bear the prospect of a miserable life. I can see why people turn to self-deception of various kinds – or should one rather call it reality-creation? But I am also not prepared to give in to illusion, when there is still a chance that I could do something that matters. Maybe it is precisely that desire, to do something that matters, that deserves closer attention. Perhaps, greater equanimity and tenacity may be achieved by reflecting on one’s expectations and one’s appreciation for the mattering one can do. By practicing modesty, acknowledging that ideals can be like signposts for personal use, showing a direction that seems of interest and worth the effort in the moment, no more or less than that. It seems like they become dangerous when one starts thinking of them as absolute truths or even destiny.
My issue with your use of the image of the flame is that because it is such a poignant symbol, it turns those standing up to protect it into heroes. The fact that you emphasise that the flame shall be passed on to everybody, making one person no less than the other, doesn’t really help. The fact that you make it sound like a spiritual evolution, like a story with a set direction, makes it even worse. The Nazis also thought they were up to a greater good when they marched with their torches. I do not doubt your intentions, but the damage has already been done. Another grand narrative has been told.
I think that if we aren’t to throw out your baby with the bath water, we need to reconsider how we tell our stories of hope. That applies to the story of social sculpture as much as to other theories of change. There is no point in making something sound grander than it is. Yes, your audience will be enchanted and clap for minutes in a row. But what happens when they go home? Will you have helped them on their way to freedom, or have you made them dependent on your energy to feed them when they go weak and insecure again? Have you enabled or have you betrayed them? Or did they let themselves be seduced by you, because you sounded so convincing? Or, did you perhaps tell the truth after all?
Dear social sculpture teachers, despite my misgivings you have been a great inspiration to me. I try to take care of that flame of faith in the possibility of a possibility as good as I can. Please bear with me as I struggle to reconcile some of your words with some of your actions.
[Ivan] Annelinde Kirchgaesser
BeuysKanal (2013) Joseph Beuys - "Dank an Wilhelm Lehmbruck" (Letzte Rede). 10 August. Available at: https://youtu.be/oNqgNz8biM8 (Accessed: 16 October 2019).
Powers, R. (2018) The Overstory. London: Vintage.
Social Sculpture Research Unit (2012) Home. Available at: http://www.social-sculpture.org (Accessed: 16 October 2019)
University of the Trees: Lab for New Knowledge and an Eco-Social Future (2019) Latest News. Available at: https://universityofthetrees.org (Accessed: 16 October 2019)