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‘Object into Action and Action into Object’: Joseph Beuys and the Political Work of Social Sculpture

  • Author(s): Gyorody, Andrea
  • Advisor(s): Baker, George
  • et al.
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This dissertation examines the political turn, circa 1967, in the work of German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), and his concurrent development of the concept of “social sculpture,” which avowed that everyday actions imbued with creativity could re-shape society. Between 1967 and 1986, Beuys established several political action groups and a free university, lectured widely across Europe and the United States, and campaigned for public office. He also produced a wide-ranging oeuvre of objects, performances, and installations that concretized the rhetoric of his larger projects, while having their purview broadened in turn. This dissertation focuses on Beuys’s political organizations, multiples, and the installation 7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks) in order to characterize how social sculpture manifested in his work and how it diverged from his stated motives. In contrast to the prevailing understanding of Beuys’s work as guided by a totalizing ideology and shamanistic self-mythology, this project demonstrates that Beuys’s work was rife with contradiction, ambivalence, tension, doubt, and surprising openness and heterogeneity, all of which was brought to bear on his relationship with the Nazi past.

Chapter 1 traces the origins of Beuys’s aesthetic ideology, which was informed by contemporaneous neo-avant-garde practices (notably Fluxus), Dada, nineteenth-century Romantic thought, the writings of Rudolf Steiner, and fascist rhetoric. It goes on to analyze Beuys’s importation of political forms into artistic contexts under the banner of social sculpture and the impact of his continued creation of art objects alongside dialogic work. Chapter 2 turns to Beuys’s production of multiples, arguing that the political work performed by the nascent medium was its staging of tensions between reproducibility and aura, repetition and difference, singularity and plurality, and, finally, individual and community—competing values with implications for Beuys’s construction of authorship and authority. Chapter 3 presents a close study of the 1982-87 project 7000 Oaks, installed for documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany. Excavating the project’s iconography and historical contexts exposes ambiguity and multiplicity of meaning, as well as social sculpture’s dual backwards-looking and utopian aspirations, levels of complexity illuminated most effectively by successive generations of documenta artists.

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This item is under embargo until September 18, 2019.