What I’ve learned from Joseph Beuys

Matthias Gruendler

I need to start with a confession. When I studied arts in Cologne, I didn’t have a good word to say about the professor with the felt hat at the Academy in Duesseldorf.  Joseph Beuys represented the opposite of all I valued about arts.  I was a bit of a purist. And, after all, there is an age-old rivalry between the two neighbouring cities Dusseldorf and Cologne and their art schools.

While I was studying art and painting full-time, I began to notice, that increasingly, whenever I visited a museum or gallery, I started to classify, measure and assess how the pieces on display compared with what I was generating. I couldn’t really enjoy and ‘be’ with art for art’s sake. It had come to signify ‘work’. My original moments of inspiration started to dissipate.

When I entered the world of more conventional ‘business’ I was reminded again and again of Beuys’ quote: ‘Everybody is an artist’. I had decided to escape from an environment in which art was typically supported, invested in and promoted by the elite.  It was positioned as access to a sort of temple of mystery and transcendence built both by and for those with education and money. Beuys’ statements, installations and performances stirred anger and discussion about the value of art and the role of an artist.  It challenged the entire commercial construct of the art market.

I’m immensely grateful I had that formative experience and a good 15 years of painting 

full-time to allow the impact of Beuys to grow quietly like a little plant.  My appreciation for what he stood for really began when I got a ‘real job’ at age 30. First to make ends meet. Then, because I really enjoyed seeing, learning and developing a career in the business world with the mindset of a painter. (Needless to say, I ran a studio and painted at the same time).

What I have come to realize is that we have a choice. Either to see what we produce as the mundane stuff we have to escape from through art – or to see the apparently mundane as a form of art.  More joy and meaning can be discovered when we pay more respect and attention to everything we come across.

In childhood we train our brains to spot the new and the different. As we become older, we typically become more structured and accustomed to repetitive routine.  We stop registering the delight that can be found in ‘the ordinary’.  The trend of ‘mindful’ living offers ways to see things with fresh eyes again.  When we make time to pause and stop a mind in hyperdrive, we can begin to value the ordinary in much the same way as the exceptional. From this perspective, a walk to the office, a conversation with a stranger or a friend, doing the washing-up, or sweeping a floor can become a meaningful activity.  In fact, it can be very much like listening to a beautiful piece of music or standing in front of the Mona Lisa for the first time. I am not talking about reducing exceptional art to the dust of the mundane. What I am suggesting is that we look at the mundane with a greater level of awareness.  It might not refine your sense of aesthetics or appreciation for the arts – but it might just help you to live a happier life.

Joseph Beuys was a shaman, jester, activist, visionary and teacher who blurred the boundaries between art and life. It has taken me over 30 years to truly accept what he taught me personally. Beuys made a case for the belief that everything we feel, hear, taste, touch, sense, see and do holds a key to wonder and magic.

By tuning into the mindset of an artist we can better respect the act of creation whatever the profession or role.  A deposition in court, a party with friends or the random doodle during a phone call are unique forms of creation. They represent pieces of reality that have not been there before and will never repeat in quite the same way.

Do they really represent art? Well, that’s the big existential question: What is art?
For me, art is a choice – both for the observer and the artist. Art is created by the mindful, often loving attention given to an object or activity either during its creation or when witnessed / experienced.  Without this form of attention, Bach, Mozart and Mahler become background noise; Goethe and Shakespeare shrink into acts of entertainment and paintings by Raphael, Matisse or Van Gogh are reduced to pieces of colourful decoration.

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