Arts & Culture

Is democracy merry?

6 min read

Joseph Beuys, George Maciunas, and Fluxus interrogate modernity

An enlarged news photo, flaunting its rough pattern of halftone dots, shows a man in jeans, a military overcoat, and a fedora striding toward the camera. Judging by his wide grin he seems to be enjoying himself hugely, but his downcast eyes convey that it is a private enjoyment, not shared by the uniformed police who stand stiffly on either side. Across the photo, in a black scrawl, are the words “Demokratie ist lustig” – “democracy is merry.”

The man is the German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), and the photo records the moment in 1972 when he was escorted from the Art Academy of Düsseldorf after being dismissed from his faculty position for opening his classes to anyone who wanted to attend. It was Beuys himself who transformed the news photo into a work of art, simply by designating it as such.

“Demokratie ist lustig” is one of nearly 200 works in a new exhibition at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, “Multiple Strategies: Beuys, Maciunas, Fluxus.” The exhibition, organized by Jacob Proctor, the Ruth V.S. Lauer Curatorial Assistant, draws on the Busch-Reisinger’s Willy and Charlotte Reber Collection of Beuys multiples and the Fogg Art Museum’s Barbara and Peter Moore Fluxus Collection.

As Proctor describes it, the question that underlies these varied and provocative works is “how to bring art and life together, to erase the difference between them? Beuys and the Fluxus group were concerned with making the artist a relevant and productive member of society, rather than someone who creates rarified objects for aesthetic contemplation.”

One important method these artists used to achieve their revolutionary goals was the creation of multiples, iterations of a particular concept that had the look of a manufactured commodity rather than a handcrafted product of the studio.

Beuys could take the notion of multiples to humorous extremes. One of his works is a voting slip from the 1980 Bundestag election, in which Beuys himself ran, marked by his inimitable scrawl in a way that mocks the tradition of the signed limited edition etching or engraving: “Number 60 of 12,374,314.” Other works consist of actual commercial products, most of them somberly packaged East German foodstuffs, to which Beuys signed his name, adding the phrase “one unit of economic value.”

While many of his works seem comical and even trivial, the intention behind them was serious in the extreme. Beuys played multiple roles during his career — teacher, political activist, healer, shaman — but in each case there was a sincere, if naïve, desire to redeem society. A follower of Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and founder of anthroposophy, Beuys was one of the founders of the Green Party and often used his position as a well-known artist to organize public discussions of important social, political, and environmental issues.

Beuys’ contemporary, the Lithuanian-born George Maciunas, and the loosely organized group of artists who presented their works under the name Fluxus pursued a parallel agenda of transforming society through the power of art, although their efforts are often marked by irony and absurdity.

Many of their works, offered for sale at modest prices at the Fluxshop on New York’s Canal Street, took the form of deranged gadgets or kits, lunatic games without rules or discernable patterns, and leaflets with paradoxical instructions and exhortations. Many of these works invite the viewer to participate. Maciunas’ “Burglary Fluxkit” is a plastic box containing an assortment of rusted keys. Viewers of Yoko Ono’s “A Box of Smile” open the lid to find a small mirror reflecting their own (hopefully) smiling face.

Animating much of this art was an incendiary critique of the art of the past and of elitist art in general. Ben Vautier’s “Total Art Match Box” asks the viewer to use the enclosed matches to burn down all museums and art libraries, then “keep last match for this match.” A printed card by Robert Watts contains a brief poem:

of all art
is art too
please tear
this up

Sharing the counterculture’s hostility to tradition and authority, its tendency toward radical pronouncements and anarchic demonstrations, Beuys and the Fluxus artists became adept at using the media to bring attention to their agenda, however perplexing their intentions might have been to the uninitiated.

In “Fluxmanifesto” Maciunas asserted: “To establish artist’s nonprofessional, nonparasitic, nonelite status in society, he must demonstrate own dispensibility, he must demonstrate self-sufficiency of the audience, he must demonstrate that anything can substitute art and anyone can do it. Therefore, this substitute art-amusement must be simple, amusing, concerned with insignificances, have no commodity or institutional value. It must be unlimited, obtainable by all and eventually produced by all.”

Maciunas and the Fluxus artists’ effort to dethrone art from its elite status and Beuys’ campaign to transform the most ordinary of objects and actions into art may have ultimately failed, and yet these artists did have a profound impact on how artists see their role, an impact that is felt to this day. Many of today’s performance artists, installation artists, and others pushing the boundaries of what art can be, clearly owe a debt to Beuys, Maciunas, and Fluxus.

“This is the moment when art shifts from being about objects to being about experiences,” Proctor said.

It may also be a moment that bears re-examination, Proctor believes, something he hopes the current exhibition will accomplish. This is particularly true of Beuys, a self-mythologizing and polarizing figure whose supporters and detractors both tend toward extremes.

“One of my objectives is to encourage critics to start treating Beuys like other artists,” said Proctor, “to separate the work from the biography. Beuys has been treated monolithically, either with adulation or debunking. I think it’s time to look at his works more critically. Some of them are more successful than others. It’s time to bring him into comparison with his peers.”

‘Multiple Strategies: Beuys, Maciunas, Fluxus’ stages a dialogue between the work of German artist Joseph Beuys and that of the loose international collective known as Fluxus, and, in particular, its principal organizer George Maciunas. At the Busch-Reisinger Museum through June 10.