Social Sculpture Beyond Beuys

by Michael Howard

 

“Beuys also always pursued art within the context of Steiner’s ideas on the Threefold Social Organism, which he promoted tirelessly through both his artistic and political activities. ‘In the future it will be unimaginable that a conscious person could work solely within culture, like a painter who would make lots of paintings without paying attention to what happens in the democratic structures and the economic activities. . . .The new art is concerned with the needs of everyone to create things, not only art....’”32 

 This was part of Beuys's radically broadened concept of art itself, his compassionate version of postmodernism as "social sculpture." He began to speak of an "ecological Gesamtkunstwerk," to be created through the democratic participation of all citizens in reconstructing "a social organism as a work of art."33  His solution to the riddle of the work of art is the end of modernism and the development of a new concept of art as social art, where every person recognizes him/herself as a creative being with powers of thinking, feeling, and willing – as well as their more highly developed forms – and participates in the reshaping of the world out of the free, self-conscious ego.”

 

from Introduction to Beuys’ Art  by David Adams

 

The idea that everyone is an artist, that every person, in every deed is a social sculptor is very powerful. Its power lies in the fact that it is a living imagination of our human potential and future evolution.

 

Joseph Beuys must be fully credited for his gift to bring this archetypal vision into mainstream culture in a manner that has captured the imagination of many people. The recognition that Joseph Beuys rightly deserves for his contribution is not diminished when we see that the idea and practice of social sculpture cannot remain always and solely identified with Beuys and the particular way he spoke about and practiced it. Issac Newton and Thomas Jefferson made vital contributions to natural science and democracy but the advancement of science and democracy cannot be attributed to any one person, such as Newton or Jefferson, but to many individuals over centuries. Similarly, Beuys’ lasting contribution lies not in his being the sole proponent and elucidator of social sculpture, but in his making a significant beginning which many others will build upon and develop further over the coming centuries.

 

Thus it is with the highest respect and gratitude for what Beuys set in motion that I raise what I perceive to be a serious omission in the understanding and practice of social sculpture as it is generally understood and practiced under the influence and example of Joseph Beuys.

 

Simply put, we must take into account the difference between saying, “every person is an artist” as compared with, “every person is an artist in potential.” Likewise, we must discern the implications of saying, “every person, in every situation is a social sculptor” compared to, “every person, in every situation has the potential to be a social sculptor.”

 

          Many people are awakening to the reality that every person, in every situation has an effect on the world and, in that sense, shapes the social, economic and ecological world as a whole. The problem is that our effect on the world can be bad or good. If we allow for the fact that there are both good and bad artists who make good and bad works of art then we could say that there are good and bad social sculptors who make good and bad social sculptures. But what have we gained by the concept of social sculpture if every one, good or bad, is a social and ecological artist, and every deed, good or bad, is a social and ecological sculpture?

 

We could try to describe the difference between a good and bad social sculpture, a good and bad social sculptor. But the prospect of such an assessment strikes me, as I imagine it does others, as daunting and distasteful. However, I would feel equally dissatisfied with merely turning away from any form of discernment. At the very least, it seems both possible and desirable to clarify what we mean by the terms: artist, social artist and social art, or social sculptor and social sculpture. This can be done in such a manner that their positive connotations are implicit.

 

          Some people are born with artistic capacities but even they must work to develop and refine those god-given gifts. Perhaps some people are born social sculptors but how do they develop themselves beyond their natural gifts? For the idea and the practice of social sculpture to become widespread, we must not gloss over but take an active interest in the fact that most people are neither born artists nor born social artists. Most people not only do not think of themselves as artistic, they are wary, if not fearful, of engaging in an artistic activity.

 

          For the cultivation of social sculpture to be more than a cultural fad or a short-lived stream of contemporary art, we must start from the premise that the artist and social sculptor in each person must be awakened and developed in a disciplined and sustained manner. We can ask: Are there ways to awaken and develop the artist in more people? Are there comparable ways to develop the social sculptor in more people?

 

          This is not the place to elaborate the details of a curriculum for schooling the artist and social sculptor in more people. However, I will offer a few indications in order to reinforce the thesis I wish to emphasize here, namely, that the practice of social sculpture must be grounded in a methodical schooling of the faculties and capacities of the social sculptor. I would also mention that the need to develop the potential of each individual to be a social and ecological sculptor offers a new perspective and impetus for the vital role of the arts in education.

 

          I see the following directions as necessary elements for fostering social sculpture:

 

a)    There is an urgent need to show that the challenges we face in our individual affairs, as well as in our communal and global affairs, cannot be understood and resolved solely through our scientific and technological capacities, but that they require equally the eyes and inner faculties of the artist.

For example, the very title of Al Gore’s book, The Earth in Balance, and much he elucidates in its contents, demonstrate the many ways that the natural forces and kingdoms of the earth are out of balance, and that they originate in large part in the imbalances of the human soul and spirit.  To restore balance, harmony and wholeness to the earth is an art, the ecological art. The ecological art depends on the social art, which in turn depends on what can be called the art of spirit self, the art of self-metamorphosis.

 

b)    What is meant by social sculpture—and what is not meant—needs to be elaborated so that more people, including artists, can better understand how their artistic capacities might be directed towards social and ecological affairs, from the simplest to the more complex.

 

c)  The most crucial element is for artists to dedicate themselves to do the inner and outer research regarding the nature of artistic faculties and capacities in general and social and ecological sculpture in particular. The crucial point is to focus on the inner faculties of perception, thinking, feeling and creative willing of the artist and social sculptor and not simply on outer techniques and methods.

Very briefly, to develop the capacity to live into and feel the non-physical or soul/spiritual qualities of color, form, music, speech, movement and all the other senses, is crucial  because it is a path for schooling empathy. Empathy is the capacity to live into the reality, usually, of another person--their thoughts, feelings and aspirations--as if they were our own. I believe empathy and thus the schooling of empathy to a much higher degree than is usually imagined possible, is the cornerstone of the social art. From this empathetic capacity comes the capacity to perceive imbalance, disharmony and disunity that is the prerequisite for being able to create balance, harmony and wholeness. Similarly, if we can see how empathy can be cultivated not only in regards to other people but also with all living creatures and natural forces, then empathy becomes the foundation for the ecological art.

      

 

          I offer the above perspectives as mere starting points in hopes that they stimulate further thoughts and dialogue regarding our understanding of social sculpture and how practically we can serve its furtherance.