On Joseph Beuys
and Anthroposophy
by David Adams

Selections from "From Queen Bee to Social Sculpture:  The Artistic Alchemy of  Joseph Beuys"

Afterword to Rudolf Steiner's Bees (Hudson, NY: Steinerbooks, 1998) 

            From the 1960s through the '80s the groundbreaking sculptures, drawings, installations, and performance art of German artist Joseph Beuys have frequently been valued as the most significant expression of avant-garde art in post-war Europe.  In his familiar felt hat and air force ammunition vest, Beuys became a cult figure.  Since Beuys’s death in 1986, the interest of art critics and artists in Beuys’s forty years of work has skyrocketed.  Through his own striking but enigmtic artworks as well as his extensive teaching, Beuys influenced two generations of contemporary artists, particularly through his many pupils in Germany.  Beyond the art world, Beuys also played a role in European politics, higher education, environmentalism, and social reform.

            Beuys’s ritualistic “Actions” (performances), his provocative uses of unfamiliar artistic mediums (for example, fat, honey, felt, iron, copper, horns, bones, gelatin, peat, blood, chocolate, conversation), his challenging arrangements of objects and artwork in gallery installations and vitrines, his creative blurring of the boundaries between art and life, his articulate theoretical statements on art and social reform, and his intense, wiry drawings have fascinated and intrigued, but also largely puzzled, the international artworld for more than three decades.  Although Beuys adapted for his work aspects of the 1960s avant garde movements known as process, performance, installation, and conceptual art, he used them in personal and unusual ways to shape creations whose meanings remain elusive.

            Disenchanted with the elitism of what he called the “art-world ghetto,” Beuys saw the end of modernism in art as a transition to an expanded “social art” or “social sculpture” in which everyone could be creative and participate democratically to re-sculpt the body social.  Beuys’s “totalized concept of art” referred to the elemental process of human form-making, whether this occurred in artworks, thoughts, speech, or social interaction.  Beuys’s importance lies not only in his impressively original and influential artworks, but also in his unique and sometimes controversial efforts to bridge the gap between art and contemporary life, without sacrificing the integrity of either.

            What has not generally been realized in existing critical writings is how completely Beuys’s work was penetrated by Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy.  While Beuys sometimes mentioned Steiner more or less in passing, no art critic or historian has yet realized the tremendous extent of Beuys’s reliance on Steiner’s ideas nor appreciated Beuys’s originality in adapting Steiner’s often complex and unfamiliar ideas to his own artwork within a radically shifting context of contemporary art that was quite different from Steiner’s own artistic productions.  In many cases anthroposophical ideas provide the keys that unlock Beuys’s real intentions for particular artistic projects — and no anthroposophical content played a greater role in Beuys’s formative development than these nine lectures on bees.

            Beuys made one of his clearest acknowledgements of Steiner’s influence in a 1971 letter that referred to “Rudolf Steiner, about whom I had to think over and over again since my childhood.  I know that he has left me the mission to sweep away gradually, in my own way, the alienation and distrust people have toward the supersensible.”[1] While a soldier drafted in 1941 at age twenty, Beuys first studied some of Steiner’s books with his childhood friend Fritz Rolf Rothenburg, who died in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1943.  While he was not particularly enthusiastic about the books then, after the war as a student at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf in 1947 he again took up Steiner’s writings and found them more profound and important. 

            Beuys was part of a group of seven students from Ewald Mataré’s sculpture class who were interested in anthroposophy.  They made contact with Max Benirschke, a former pupil of Steiner’s and a leader of anthroposophical activity in Düsseldorf.  Over two years Beuys regularly attended anthroposophical lectures, seminars, and a weekly study group led by Benirschke.  For a few years after this Beuys also regularly visited his former student friend Günther Mancke’s forest cottage at Weissenseifen, where Benirschke also visited in summers, sometimes leading marathon sessions of reading unpublished Steiner lectures from his collection.  In August 1951 Beuys traveled with a group of Weissenseifen friends to Dornach, Switzerland, where he was impressed by performances of Steiner’s mystery plays, an exhibition of Steiner’s sketches of  designs for the ceiling paintings and engraved glass windows of his Goetheanum building, and discussions on architectural design with Goetheanum architectural collaborator Hermann Rantzenberger.  He was somewhat less impressed by many of the anthroposophists he met.

            Although Beuys did eventually join the Anthroposophical Society in 1973, he always held back somewhat from association with orthodox anthroposophy, apparently for two reasons.  The first was his disappointment with what he perceived in many anthroposophists as a something less than genuine attitude and an inconsistent thinking.  The second was his constitutional inability to take up what he saw as a repetitive, clichéd anthroposophical visual art practice.  He was not able to recognize the personal possibility for an independent creativity in that which he once referred to as “the Anthroposophical Museum.”  Yet he did on occasion support Steiner’s ideas about art and said that others should take up the anthroposophical artistic practice based directly on Steiner’s visual art that he felt unable or unwilling to pursue.[2] 

            Beuys soon linked up with others working on Steiner’s idea of a threefold social organism and made the promotion of these ideas a central part of his activity from the mid-1960s onward.  He also incorporated into his work fundamental anthroposophical ideas about the human constitution, cosmic and human evolution, and higher forms of pure thinking, although he didn’t directly acknowledge Steiner as the source of most of these ideas.  Beuys once told author Volker Harlan about his own, independent supersensible experiences and perceptions, the capacity for which he acquired from reading Steiner’s works, and how he found Steiner’s explanations able to adequately explain what he had experienced.[3]   At his death Beuys’s library included more than 120 volumes by Steiner, thirty-some of which were extensively marked with underlinings and marginal drawings.[4]   As his own original contribution, Beuys cited his “totalized,” “anthropological” understanding of art — the ideas that everyone is an artist, that one can be a form-creating artist already in thinking or in speech, that art expanded to life as ”social sculpture” is what is needed in our time, and also that this creative intelligence of the people, this enlarged art, is the real capital of an economy. 

            Yet even here Steiner’s ideas may have influenced Beuys more than Beuys consciously realized or recalled.  Consider the following quotations from Steiner:  “I wanted to show that the realm otherwise dealt with only by the artist in imagination must now become the serious concern of the human race, for the reason that it represents the stage humanity must reach to lay hold upon the supersensible that the brain is incapable of grasping.”  “Genuine art . . . is an affair of the people; genuine art is essentially social in character.”  “. . . a real permeation by social art of our community through [artistic] education would give us a true culture of the will.”  “What we must learn to do is to bring art into our thinking . . . .”  “All real philosophers have been artists in the realm of concepts.”  “The outer expression of intelligence, in this connection, is in the manifold formations of capital.”  “. . . intelligence works in capital as inventiveness in connection with the whole social life.”  While Steiner may not always have intended precisely the same meaning as Beuys, nonetheless the similarities are striking and must have been highly suggestive to Beuys.[5]

            It required someone with Beuys’s unique combination of interest and knowledge in nature, art, spirituality, and anthroposophy to see the potentialities in Steiner’s surprising lectures on bees for a radically new approach to visual art.  Such an encounter also needed to occur at a point in Beuys’s life when he was intensely searching and listening for the signs of a new direction for both his artwork and his life work.

            Since his childhood, Beuys had been an eager student of the natural world.  During his youth in the Lower Rhine village of Kleve, he showed a keen interest, both scientific and romantic, in nature, assembling and displaying collections of specimens and later as a teenager desiring to study natural science.  During his military training as a radio operator in 1940-1941 Beuys was allowed to attend zoology classes at the Reich University of Posen by his military instructor, Heinz Sielmann, a former student of biology and maker of nature films.  Sielmann and Beuys collaborated for a number of years after the war, particularly on the making of Sielmann’s nature films.  But Beuys quickly grew disillusioned with university science’s narrow specialty of interest and after the war turned to a career in art (nonetheless maintaining a small scientific laboratory in a corner of his studio well into the 1950s).

            While Beuys’s early sculptural work was consciously formed within a modernized version of the stylized Romanesque tradition of art, frequently with a Christian content such as  crucifixions or pietàs, he gradually was able to free himself from this more traditional approach.  After a personal crisis in the mid-1950s Beuys emerged with a hunger for a more radical approach to art.  Outwardly, he began participating in the interdisciplinary art performances of the international Fluxus movement in the early 1960s, but inwardly he had already been struggling with new artistic conceptions derived in his own unique fashion from such anthroposophical sources as Steiner’s On the Nature of Bees.  While he supported the Fluxus goal of abolishing the distinction between artistic and nonartistic practices of creativity, he criticized their anti-individualism and their lack of an epistemological theory with a clearly defined social goal.  In Steiner’s work Beuys found both a suitably holistic epistemology and clearly articulated social and spiritual ideals. 

            Beuys once commented that his earliest work, such as his drawings of the late 1940s and early 1950s, often had been spiritually esoteric in content but not yet in form.[6]  He wanted to create art that would reach viewers at more inward levels of experience.  Rather than appeal to a conceptual, verbal dialogue about his art, Beuys tried to establish an “energy dialogue.”  Much of his work attempted to convey forces and energies of the natural and human worlds, often grasped at a prelinguistic level.  “All my actions are based upon concepts of basic human energies in the form of images,” he remarked.[7]

            Beuys saw the animal kingdom as an ally for the evolutionary process of broadening and deepening human awareness.  Not only the bee, but also the horse, stag, elk, coyote, fox, swan, goat, hare, moose, and wasp all appeared in his drawings, performances, and sculptures.  Beuys felt that the essential, higher being of animals gave access to forgotten spiritual energies now needed again by human society, especially when apprehended on a purely perceptual level without predetermined concepts.  “Why do I work with animals to express invisible powers?” he asked rhetorically in 1974.  “You can make these energies very clear if you enter another kingdom that people have forgotten, and where vast powers survive as big personalities.”[8]   “I think the crux of the matter,” he related in 1969, “is that my work is permeated with thoughts that do not originate in the official development of art but in scientific concepts. . . . I tried to do something new for both science and art.  I wanted to widen both areas.”[9]

            It is just in this area that  Steiner’s lectures on bees suggested rich possibilities to Beuys.   One need only consider Steiner’s enunciation in the first lecture that nothing that ”exists somewhere in nature is without certain powers.”  Not only would Steiner’s characterizations of the intimate ecological relationships active in the “household of nature” have appealed to Beuys, but Steiner repeatedly emphasized that we must learn to recognize the spiritual processes at work in nature and that these can provide significant pictures for human life as well.   “Looking at things in a properly natural way,“ he said in the ninth lecture, “we can see in all the processes of nature , symbols and representations of those things that occur in human life.”   As examples, Steiner spoke of the relationship between the beehive and the human head and body, between the selfless wisdom  living in the bee colony and future human social life, between a swarm of bees leaving and returning to the hive and human reincarnation, and between the “hexagonally-acting powers” expressed in the structure of the beehive (and quartz crystals) and those which are active in the upbuilding processes of human blood, muscles, and bone.

            Yet Beuys was not only seeking more spiritually or symbolically meaningful pictures for his art.  In fact, he contrasted the merely “retinal” kind of seeing typical today in both visual art and ordinary life with the ability to apprehend a more complete “force constellation in the field of vision,” including, for example the warmth dimension of colors and the spiritual or even sacramental processes active in material substances.[10] In this connection Steiner’s bee lectures probably suggested to Beuys new approaches to visual art based more on the invisible qualities of substances themselves than on their elements of form or content within a specific artwork.  In the third lecture Steiner also contrasted merely visual experience with effects from warmth, taste, smell, and chemical changes.  He also discussed the spiritual, nearly magical influences that are carried in nature by such substances as honey, bee poison, oxalic acid, and formic acid.  He emphasized the spiritual activity at work behind the outwardly perceived substance.  Beuys began to shape his artworks out of the anthroposophical understanding of the spiritual qualities or activities of substances, plants, and animals in nature — not as symbols of these activities but as direct manifestations of them arranged into meaningful signs.  Beuys’s art questioned the belief that we can adequately understand the inner workings of our world through normal modes of perception.  He was clear that organs of knowing that are quite different from ordinary logical, analytical thinking must be employed to apprehend the forces at work in material substances, capacities of Imagination, Inspiration, and Intuition that he had learned about from Steiner’s work.[11]

            Based on his reading of Steiner, Beuys sought an understanding of the creation of visual form related to the anthroposophical description of the three fundamental human psychological (“soul”) activities of thinking, feeling, and willing.  Or, to indicate a related theme in Steiner, we could say that Beuys looked for a way to apply “mediated polarity” to visual form, that is, two opposite polar tendencies with a central, mediating element between them.  His “Theory of Sculpture,” which was worked out during the 1950s, largely in connection with his fundamental bronze and iron relief sculpture SåFG SåUG (Sunrise—Sunset) begun in 1953 but first exhibited in 1964, was based on a fundamental complex of polarities:  “The  theory is based on the passage from chaotic material to ordered form through sculptural movement:


                                    chaos                                                                           order

                                    undetermined                                                             determined

                                    organic                                    movement                   crystalline

                                    warm                                                                          cold

                                    expansion                                                                   contraction


. . . Really it is the same element repeated in the two different states of contraction and expansion, principles essential to sculpture.”[12]  As Martin Barkhoff has pointed out, the title of this relief sculpture readily recalls the two pairs of sunrise-sunset pastel sketches given by  Steiner as exercises for the training of painters.[13]   Watercolor painting workshops on these and other polarically paired sketches by Steiner were offered to visitors at the Goetheanum conference Beuys attended in 1951.[14]  The reference to contraction and expansion points to the scientific work of Goethe, especially his The Metamorphosis of Plants, which Steiner had clarified and interpreted in several early writings that Beuys had read.[15]

            Beuys’s theory of sculpture was one expression of his wish to found an approach to visual art upon the fundamental processes underlying the formation of matter and form in the world that appears to our senses.  His next task was to find substances that could be used to express the principles of this theory as directly as possible.  His SåFG SåUG sculpture had combined bronze and iron because of the expressive polarity of copper and iron, two materials he often used together thereafter.  For a number of reasons, many of which Beuys could have learned about through anthroposophy, copper represented a flexible, more feminine quality characterized by ready conductivity of heat and electricity, high resonance and luster, and an enlivening affect on fluids.  Among metals, iron represented the opposite pole, with its hard, masculine, earthbound nature.  Both the ancients and Steiner associated copper with Venus and iron with Mars.[16]

            But Beuys looked for a single substance that could express directly both the polar extremes and the artistic movement between them.  Because he felt the institutions and mentality of modern society tended too far toward the cold, ordered, determined pole of this theory, he wanted to emphasize the opposite pole in his artwork.  In particular, he spoke of developing “warmth sculptures,” and he looked for materials that were sensitive to warmth.  We should recall here Steiner’s description of warmth as the border state between the material and spiritual worlds, the closest to the physical world of four types of supersensible “etheric life-forces” (and distinguishable from the purely material “heat”).  Beuys also was attracted to warmth as a fundamental characteristic of the human being, particularly the warmth of will and feeling he felt was needed to balance the coldness of the rational intellect that had become so one-sidedly dominant in western civilization.  Underlying this interest was also Steiner’s depiction of the warmth carried in our blood circulation as the physical basis for the human ego itself.

            Beuys began using beeswax as an artistic material in the 1950s.  He used it to demonstrate his theory of sculpture because it could readily be melted into an amorphous liquid state by warmth — or as a candle become a source of light and warmth — yet could also be cooled and hardened into definite forms,  such as the crystallized geometry of the honeycomb.[17]    He was further attracted to beeswax as a medium because it was produced by the bees ”in an environment that has a certain organic warmth.”  Beuys described these warmth processes of the bees:  “The quality of warmth is there in honey, but also in wax, and also in pollen and nectar, because the bee consumes from the plant the thing that has the greatest possible quality of warmth.  An alchemical process is going on somewhere in the flower, where the actual warmth process primarily develops, where fragrances are created, which disperse, and where nectar forms, which is really the plant’s own honey.”[18]  As Steiner describes in the second lecture of this book, the process of melting and solidifying beeswax closely reflects what happens with a kind of wax in our own bodies and our blood circulation, and Beuys’s theory of sculpture is ultimately a theory of human consciousness and creativity.

            Ultimately, beeswax proved less suitable than fat as an indicator medium for Beuys’s theory of sculpture.  As the source of his use of fat, writers have often cited Beuys’s wartime plane crash in the Crimea in 1943, from which he was rescued and nursed back to health by nomadic Tartars who salved his many wounds with animal fat while he lay mostly unconscious for eight days.  While one cannot ignore the role of such a key life experience, Beuys himself discounted its importance for his use of fat and pointed to the material’s aptness for his Theory of Sculpture.  With his famous Fat Chair of 1963 and innumerable fat corners and fat elements in sculptures, Actions, and installations, Beuys found this new material to be not only a more sensitive reactor to warmth but also a more provocatively expressive material that strongly affected viewers and could lead to opportunities for extended dialogues on the ideas behind his artworks.  Nearly all of Beuys’s seventy-some Actions were followed by group conversations on their meanings, and it became one of Beuys’s goals to approach such conversations as steps toward building the social organism itself as a work of art.

            The other artistic material inspired for Beuys by Steiner’s bee lectures was honey.  Honey not only carried the same warmth character as beeswax, but added other references important for Beuys’s larger artistic mission.  Honey had been considered a sacred substance by the ancients.  The Indians, Egyptians, and Greeks all used it in rituals connected with the transitions between the material and spiritual worlds, with birth and death.  In Norse and Greek mythology honey was the food of the gods.  Beuys himself pointed out many of these associations: 


Honey as such also used to be seen in a mythological context as a spiritual substance, so of course the bee was divine.  There is the Apis cult.  The Apis cult is a very widespread culture, basically a culture of Venus that concerned itself especially with bees.  What mattered was not having honey to eat; it was the whole process that was regarded as important, a link between cosmic and earthly forces that absorbed it all. . . .

            Basically, my sculptures too are a kind of Apis cult.[19]


Of course, Beuys had read in these lectures by Steiner about the ancient Venus cult associated with the beehive, the upbuilding and healing “formative forces of the hexagonal principle” in honey, and the strong relationship between honey, the beehive, and the human being.[20]

            Beuys used honey prominently in two of his most well-known artworks.  The first was his  three-hour 1965 gallery Action for the opening of his art exhibition at Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.[21]   In this strange but curiously compelling performance, Beuys sat on a stool or walked about inside the closed gallery gesturing as he silently explained his artworks to a dead hare he cradled in his arm or let touch the pictures with its paw.  Viewers could watch through an open doorway or a streetside window.  There they saw Beuys speaking to the hare with his head covered in honey and gold leaf, a felt sole tied to his left shoe, an identical iron sole tied to his right shoe, a leg of the stool wrapped in felt, and under the stool a “radio” constructed of modern electronic parts and animal bones connected to an amplifier.  The felt was made of hare’s fur and carried a warming, insulating effect.  In accordance with Steiner’s ideas, it was appropriate that the felt sole was attached to the more inner, receptive left side of Beuys’s body, while the sole made of hard, masculine iron was attached to the more active, outwardly-oriented right side.

            The Action raised questions about the possibilities of adequately explaining art or the world and about what capacities would be necessary for real understanding.  Beuys commented:  “Using honey on my head I am naturally doing something that is concerned with thought.  The human capacity is not to give honey, but to think — to give ideas.  In this way the deathlike character of thought is made living again.  Honey is doubtlessly a living substance.  Human thought can also be living.”[22] Gold is the metal of the sun, and Beuys was also indicating the potential for bringing a sunlike quality into thinking, a Christ-related theme that Steiner also spoke about.[23] The hare, which literally digs into matter, represented the sharpened materialistic thinking of modern science that now needed to be filled by living intuitive thinking.  The fact that the hare was dead, recalls the repeated anthroposophical image of the deathly qualities of modern abstract thought.  Beuys spoke to an externalized part of himself (representative of all human beings), re-enlivening and reintegrating the dead thing that now existed outside himself as “object.”  At the same time, the hare represented a still authentic spiritual power alive in the animal world that human beings have largely forgotten.  In 1962 Beuys had executed a drawing titled Head in hare’s blood, an earlier artistic attempt to create a sign for bringing a living substance (blood) to materialistically hardened thought.  Beuys explained that “everyone consciously or unconsciously recognizes the problem of explaining things, particularly where art and creative work are concerned, or anything that involves a certain mystery or questioning.  The idea of explaining to an animal conveys a sense of the secrecy of the world and of existence that appeals to the imagination. . . . even a dead animal preserves more powers of intuition than some human beings with their stubborn rationality. . . . Imagination, inspiration, intuition, and longing all lead people to sense that these other levels also play a part in understanding”[24]

            A later Beuys project involving honey was his Honey Pump at the Workplace installation in 1977 at the large international art show Documenta 6 in Kassel.  This installation ran for the hundred days of the exhibition (June 24 to October 2) and was presented as part of the introduction of another Beuys initiative, the establishment of the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research.  For this project two ship’s engines, 220 pounds of fat (margarine), and a steel container holding two tons of honey were installed in the stairwell of the Museum Fridericianum and linked through clear plastic tubing to the large curved space where a busy program of discussions, seminars, lectures, films, and demonstrations of the Free International University took place throughout the one hundred days.   During these events the honey was pumped through a network of tubing that circulated above the hall.  Beuys explained his basic idea as follows:  “With Honey Pump I am expressing the principle of the Free International University working in the bloodstream of society.  Flowing in and out of the heart organ — the steel honey container — are the main arteries through which the honey is pumped out of the engine room with a pulsing sound, circulates round the Free University area, and returns to the heart.  The whole thing is only complete with people in the space round which the honey artery flows and where the bee’s head is to be found in the coiled loops of tubing with its two iron feelers.”[25] By associating the warmth quality of the natural substance honey with the warm nature of the blood, Beuys suggested that warmth of feeling and will as well as alert and present egos were needed for the Free University discussions to be successful.

            In this installation Beuys was concerned to have elements which represented the three psychological elements of the human being often described by Steiner in relationship with their physiological bases:  thinking with the nerve-sense system (head), feeling with the rhythmic system (chest), and willing with the metabolic-limb system (abdomen and limbs).[26]  In Honey Pump Beuys represented the head by a long pipe that rose from the stairwell “engine room” up to the skylight roof of the hall and then curved back around toward the ground, as a version of the shepherd’s crook or “Eurasian staff” he had often used in other performances and installations.[27]  “At one place the honey was fixed.  Therefore, I had the impression that there must thus be something like a brain, like a head, where something above damming up the head function takes over, above in the roof of the Documenta.”[28] The honey circulation system with its steel container “heart” represented the human circulation system and related life of feeling — even as Steiner describes an analogy between bees and blood cells or blood circulation in the second lecture on bees.  Finally, there was the 220 pounds of fat placed into continual motion by “two motors, which I had coupled with a large copper cylinder, which continuously moved the fat at high speed; and that was for me the representative of the will, . . .”[29] Of course, this trinity also represented Beuys’s Theory of Sculpture, with the “head” as the form pole, the will as the ”chaotic“ pole, and feeling as the movement element of circulation between these two.  Following Steiner, this psychosomatic threefoldness also was echoed at the spiritual level in three small, empty bronze pots that Beuys had “doubly cleaned” and placed  in a corner in the “engine room” as a sign for those higher spiritual sources of thinking, feeling, and willing that Steiner called Imagination, Inspiration, and Intuition.[30]

            The Free International University program at Documenta 6 dealt with a range of contemporary social themes and issues where radical and creative new thinking was needed to overcome existing problems, including human rights, urban decay, nuclear energy, migrancy, the Third World, violence, Northern Ireland, manipulation by mass communications media, and unemployment.  These topics were discussed in an interdisciplinary way by a changing stream of international politicians, lawyers, economists, trade unionists, journalists, community workers, sociologists, actors, musicians, and artists.   Some of the discussions and presentations were influenced by ideas derived from Steiner’s conceptions of a threefold social organism (which itself could be related to the threefold structures of the human being described above) characterized by three independently functioning social organs:  a free cultural and educational life, a democratic equality of human rights, and a new associative and cooperative economics.  One key idea introduced by Beuys from Steiner’s economic theory involved a dynamic understanding of economics, whereby the healthy, cyclical flow of money (or capital) through society was compared with the circulation of blood in the human body (and, obviously, connected with the circulation imagery of the honey pump as well).

            In this connection Beuys’s Honey Pump pointed to another of his creative uses of Steiner’s lectures on bees, namely, to reference aspects of the structure of the bee colony for a more harmonious human social life, for “social sculpture.“  In the lecture excerpts in the appendix from September 29, 1905, and April 21, 1909 Steiner portrays the group soul of the beehive with its capacity for work-oriented social cooperation as a condition that human beings will only be able to achieve in the distant future.  Beuys once spoke about the bee cult as an

            allusion to socialism, as practiced in the big watchmaking cooperatives of the Republic         of the Bees at La Chaux-de-Fonds.  There you can still see many sculptures of bees on        the walls and foundations, as symbols of socialism.  This does not mean mechanistic                state socialism, but a socialist organism in which all parts function as in a living body.  In           physiological terms this is not hierarchical:  the queen bee’s place lies between head and heart, and the drones become the cells which are constantly renewed.  The whole builds   a unity which has to function perfectly, but in a humane warm way through principles           of cooperation and  brotherhood.[31]


Bakunin, Marx, and Maeterlinck had all drawn similar analogies.  Yet Beuys was clear that a colony of bees differs significantly from human society because it is not composed of independent individuals.  “The bee is one cell in the whole organism, just like a skin cell or a muscle cell or a blood cell.  The best analogy is with the blood cells that swarm through the whole body.”  “Seen that way, my body is also a perfectly functioning state.”[32] Thus, Beuys championed Steiner’s ideal of a social organism that would be threefold in structure like the human being.

            For Beuys, the whole point of Honey Pump was its integration with the human beings participating in the Free International University events.  These discussions on solving social problems, not the elaborate physical apparatus, were the real Honey Pump as far as he was concerned.[33]  By reference to a 1974 postcard ”multiple” artwork as well as a diagram drawn by Beuys during a 1975 interview with Jean-Pierre Van Tieghem, both titled Honey Is Flowing in All Directions, we may conclude that Beuys used honey for the social warmth forces of its origin in the bee colony, forces that he hoped would help dissolve or resolve hardened dualisms in modern humanity’s world view and achieve a “real human implosion” that could renew western civilization and advance human spiritual evolution.  In the interveiw diagram he mentions the dualisms of subject and object, body and spirit, perception and conception.[34] Beuys’s primary purpose was ultimately to stimulate social and spiritual reform, and, in addition to his political endeavors, he turned to innovative contemporary art forms as his means for conveying this message in a way that would reach people more deeply than purely intellectual proposals and, hopefully, motivate them to creatively get involved in changing themselves and their world.  Rather than an attempt to create yet another formal innovation within the ivory tower of avant garde art, this call to reform is the meaning, justification, and potential of his social sculpture and its associated dictum:  Everyone is an artist.  Although he was several times disappointed by attempts at political reform, Beuys never lost faith in art as ”the sole, revolutionary force capable of transforming the earth, humanity, the social order. . . .”[35]


David Adams, Ph.D.

Penn Valley, California, 1998



[1]   Joseph Beuys, trans. Marion Briggs with Martin Barkhoff and Elaine Busby, Joseph Beuys:  His Art and Rudolf Steiner, ed. Marion Briggs (West Hoathly, Art Section:  1995), p. 21; translated from its original publication in Gerd Hatje, ed. Joseph Beuys — Plastische Bilder, 1947-1970 (Stuttgart: 1990).

[2]   See, for example, ibid., p. 11-16 and 21; Joseph Beuys im Gespräch mit Knut Fischer und Walter Smerling (Cologne:  Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Kunst Heute Nr. 1, 1989), p. 52; and Carin Kuoni, ed., Energy Plan for the Western Man: Joseph Beuys in America (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1990), pp. 256-258.

[3]   Volker Harlan, Was Ist Kunst?  Werkstattgespräch mit Beuys (Stuttgart: Urachhaus, 1986), pp. 87-88. (Later published in English translation as What Is Art? Conversation with Joseph Beuys (London: Clairview, 1002).

[4]    A list of these books is given in Volker Harlan, Dieter Koepplin, and Rudolf Velhagen, eds. Joseph Beuys-Tagung Basel 1.—4. Mai 1991  (Basel: Wiese Verlag, 1991), pp. 292-295.

[5]   In consecutive order, the sources of these Steiner quotations are as follows:  Quoted in Otto Palmer, Rudolf Steiner on His Book The Philosophy of Freedom, trans. Marjorie Spock (Spring Valley, New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1975), p. 39 [For alternate translation, see Some Characteristics of Today , trans. unknown (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1943), p. 18]; A Social Basis for Education, trans. unknown (Forest Row:  Steiner Schools Fellowship, 1958/1994), p. 44; ibid., p. 46; Speech and Drama, trans. Mary Adams (London: Anthroposophical Publishing Company, 1960), p. 325; The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity: A Philosophy of Freedom, trans. Rita Stebbing (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1992 [1894]), p. 177; Economics: The World as One Economy, trans. Owen Barfield and T. Gordon-Jones, rev. Christopher Houghton Budd (Canterbury: New Economy Publications, 1993), p. 48; and ibid., p. 73.

[6] See Harlan, Was Ist Kunst?, p. 86.

[7] Götz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz, and Karin Thomas,  Joseph Beuys: Life and Works, trans. Patricia Lech (Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron’s Educational Series, 1979), p. 257.

[8]   Kuoni, ed., Energy Plan, p. 142.

[9] Ibid., p. 90.

[10] See Harlan,Was Ist Kunst?, pp. 21 and 23.

[11]  Ibid., p. 66.

[12] Caroline Tisdale, Joseph Beuys (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1979), p. 44.

[13] See Marie Groddeck, The Seven Training Sketches for the Painter by Rudolf Steiner, trans. Inge Martin (London: Michael Press, 1978); Hilde Boos-Hamburger, The Nine Training Sketches for the Painter (Nature’s Moods) by Rudolf Steiner (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1982); Anon., Rudolf Steiners Malerischer Impuls (Dornach, Switzerland: Philosophisch-Anthroposophischer Verlag am Goetheanum, 1971; and Elisabeth Koch and Gerard Wagner, The Individuality of Colour, trans. Peter Stebbing (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1980).

[14] See Briggs, ed. Joseph Beuys, p. 14.

[15] See in particular Steiner’s Goethean Science (1883), trans. William Lindeman (Spring Valley, New York: Mercury Press, 1988).

[16] In addition to numerous scattered references on the relationships of metals to both the planetary macrocosm and the human microcosm in Steiner’s lectures, it is likely that Beuys would have been familiar with one or both of two anthropsophical secondary works on the metals:  Rudolf Hauschka, The Nature of Substance, trans. Marjorie Spock and Mary T. Richards (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1983); and Wilhelm Pelikan, The Secrets of Metals, trans. Charlotte Lebensart  (Spring Valley: Anthroposophic Press, 1973.

[17] See Adriani, Konnertz, and Thomas, Joseph Beuys, p. 41.

[18] Quoted from an interview with Beuys printed in the December 1975 Rheinische Bienenzeitung, the oldest German beekeeping journal, in Stachelhaus,Joseph Beuys, p. 57.  See also Adriani, Konnertz, Thomas Joseph Beuys, pp. 39-41.  Beuys was disappointed that most beekeepers he met no longer had much feeling for the warmth generated within the beehive; see Harlan, Was Ist Kunst?, p. 22.

[19] Quoted in Stachelhaus, Joseph Beuys, p. 58.

[20] This would include Steiner’s related comments in Man as Symphony of the Creative Word, trans. Judith Compton-Burnett (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1970), pp. 202-203 (also read by Beuys and partially quoted in the appendix excerpt in this book from November 10, 1923) and Steiner’s hint in the fourth lecture about the relationship between the hexagonal beehive cells and quartz crystals with the hemoglobin of human blood , which also has a hexagonal chemical structure.

[21] As Beuys sometimes explained, an Action was just ”a sculpture dissected out into its essential elements.”  (Kuoni, ed., Energy Plan, p. 142).

[22] Adriani, Konnertz, and Thomas, Joseph Beuys, p. 132.

[23] Rudolf Steiner, Karmic Relationships: Esoteric Studies, Volume VI, trans. D.S.O. and E.H.G. (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1971), pp. 13-15.

[24] Tisdale, Joseph Beuys, p. 105.

[25] Ibid., p. 254.

[26] Steiner first announced these relationships in his 1917 book Riddles of the Soul, trans. William Lindeman (Spring Valley, New York:  Mercury Press, 1996), pp. 131-140.  See also an earlier, partial translation by Owen Barfield titled The Case for Anthroposophy (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1970), pp. 69-79.  Steiner elaborated and applied these relationships in many later lectures, perhaps most notably in his 1919 lectures The Foundations of Human Experience, trans. Robert F. Lathe and Nancy Parsons Whittaker (Hudson, New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1996).

[27]  An additional meaning is carried by the Eurasian staff here, again derived from Steiner’s various lectures on human evolution in relationship to eastern and western thinking and spirituality.  Beuys once explained that the staff represented the historical developmental path of humanity from earlier civilizations of the East to the more modern civilizations of the West, reaching a kind of knot or curve with the beginning in our time of a turn back again toward the qualities of the East.  “Today....,” Beuys commented, “I think there is a possibility that the direction of the development may change and that light will come from the West, provided that man develops in a state of full awareness, as I imagine he will.”  Kuoni, ed., Energy Plan, pp. 156-157.

[28] Harlan, Joseph Beuys, p. 55 (my translation).

[29] Ibid. (my translation).

[30] See Riddles of the Soul, pp. 140-143; see also ibid., p. 61.

[31] Tisdale, Joseph Beuys, p. 44.

[32]   Quoted in Stachelhaus, Joseph Beuys, p. 58.

[33] As he relates in Harlan, Joseph Beuys, p. 59.

[34] Joseph Beuys (Brussels and Paris: Galerie Isy Brachot, 1990).

[35] Kuoni, ed., Energy Plan, p. 99.