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Beuys's Lesson in Belgrade

This story starts with a photograph of the young Marina Abramović sitting beside Joseph Beuys, smoking a cigarette. The year was 1974, and Beuys was in Belgrade to participate in April Encounters.

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Jovana Stokic

Jovana Stokic is a Belgrade-born, New York-based art historian and curator. She holds a PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. Her dissertation, The... Read more »
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Beuys's Lesson in Belgrade

This story starts with a photograph of the young Marina Abramović sitting beside Joseph Beuys, smoking a cigarette. The year was 1974, and Beuys was in Belgrade to participate in April Encounters.

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This story starts with a photograph of the young Marina Abramović sitting beside Joseph Beuys, smoking a cigarette. The year was 1974, and Beuys was in Belgrade to participate in April Encounters.

L11 marina social life with joseph beuys 1974 belgrade skc p cankovic nebojsa photo 6
Marina Abramović with Joseph Beuys at SKC in Belgrade, 1974. Photo: Nebojša Čanković. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

This story starts with a photograph of the young Marina Abramović sitting beside Joseph Beuys, smoking a cigarette. The year was 1974, and Beuys was in Belgrade to participate in April Encounters.1 Held annually at the Student Cultural Center (SKC), the Encounters gave local emerging artists the opportunity to exhibit and perform as equals with their established international colleagues. Abramović had met Beuys in Edinburgh the year before and in Belgrade she made sure to spend as much time with him as she could.2

Beuys was in the audience at SKC when Abramović performed Rhythm 5. For this piece, she constructed a five-pointed star from wood and soaked it in 100 liters of gasoline. After setting the star on fire, she walked around it, cutting her hair and toenails and throwing them into the flames. Then she lay down on the ground in the center of the burning structure. Legend has it that Beuys saved her from the flames when she lost consciousness. This version of the performance’s unfolding presents it as a veritable rite of passage for Abramović.3 It is a seductive narrative: a young female artist saved by an authority figure and symbolic father, Beuys.

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Marina Abramović. Rhythm 5. Students Cultural Center, Belgrade. 1974. Performance. Photo: Nebojša Čanković. Copyright Marina Abramović. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

Abramović was born in Belgrade into a family of the Communist elite, or nomenklatura. She started her artistic career in the late 1960s in her native city, where she was at the center of the major art networks. What kind of father figure could Beuys have been to her? What specific lesson did she take away from her encounter with him?

The previous year, Beuys had summarized his views on art as follows: “Only on condition of a radical widening of definitions will it be possible for art and activities related to art to provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power.”4 What is this evolutionary-revolutionary power if not the will to power? Is it equivalent to the Yugoslav Marxist philosophers’ notion of a socialist transformation of the soul? In Belgrade Beuys spoke about evolutionary-revolutionary power with unbounded, self-proclaimed authority. Much challenged in art-historical writings since then, his authority should be re-examined closely.

Student Cultural Center (SKC)

In his comprehensive account of the founding, in 1971, of SKC as a unique cultural institution in a specific political climate, Yugoslav art historian Ješa Denegri describes the 1970s as the era that gave rise to “the new art, new artistic practice, the dematerialization of the art object, post-objective art, the art of behavior, and new-media art—a big rupture that stemmed from the art of rejection from the end of 1960s.”5 The SKC was established by the government as a contemporary stage for the affirmation of all relevant innovations in art. However, its relation to the ideological context of Tito’s Yugoslavia has been problematized; it has been suggested that the SKC was conceived for the purpose of redirecting the revolutionary energy of the younger generation and winning over its members to the ruling ideology.6

Photo mar 11  11 05 59
The building of Student Cultural Center in Belgrade in 2013. Photo: Magdalena Moskalewicz

Abramović’s biographer notes that the SKC occupied a kitschy pseudo-castle that had once served as the social club of Tito’s secret police and that it had government ministries as neighbors.7 (The building’s pre-Communist origins are also worth noting: the structure was built under the monarchy in 1908 to house the Yugoslav king’s Officers’ Club.) Three years after the student protests of 1968, the building was given over to students in what has been seen as a tactical move on Tito’s part. His motives have been interpreted along the lines of “Let the students speak out, but keep them safely contained within the building.” Denegri refutes such oversimplification by presenting only the bare facts: the SKC was founded in a climate of opposition to the rebellious spirit of 1968. The new role of art, as agreed upon by artists, theorists, and the government alike, was to de-alienate labor and bring imagination to power. Yet even through these facts, the sinister specter of Yugoslavia’s particular brand of socialist ideology can be detected.

Distancing itself from direct Soviet influence after 1948, the Yugoslav government had imposed a form of self-managing socialism upon the country. The ideological cynicism of the central party reached a kind of apogee when it claimed to be the prime enemy of orthodox socialism. Self-managed socialism was initially supported by the Praxis school of Yugoslav Marxist philosophers. A 1969 text by Rudi Supek, then co-editor of the Praxis journal, reveals how closely the Praxis school hewed to official party lines.8 In it, he wrote that various positivist variants of Marxism, especially those developed during Stalinist rule, had proven ineffectual because they lacked the dialectical dimension that is fundamental to the socialist revolution. This dialectical dimension, he said, is the humanistic and anthropological basis of Marxism—the “social soul” of the socialist transformation of society—that alone can explain the complex dialectic of class struggle and thus build the socialist community and Communist personalities.9 The de-alienation that would result from self-managing socialism was seen as guaranteeing the much-desired emancipation of the masses. “Yes,” its proponents seemed to think, “everyone is an artist, but the masses could not actualize their potential during the 1960s, when they were oppressed.” Self-managing socialism purportedly offered them a unique opportunity for self-determination.

Based on the utopian outlook described above, one can only agree with Denegri that the SKC should be regarded neither through a romanticizing lens that shows it as a beacon of artistic freedom nor from a cynical perspective that reduces it to an instrument of the state. The SKC was many-faceted, as was the upshot of Beuys’s visit to Belgrade in 1974.

1974 04 19  iii as josef bojs 01 06
Students Cultural Center, Belgrade: 3rd April Meeting (3rd Yugoslav competition for work in the field of expanded media): Joseph Beuys Speaks, lecture delivered on April 19, 1974. Simultaneous translation by Blanka Kraus. Photo: Nebojša Čanković. Courtesy of SKC, Belgrade.

April 1974

Beuys came to Belgrade as a moral authority, an unconventional thinker calling for a new social and economic system. No one understood precisely what kind of system that should be, but it was generally assumed that the system Beuys advocated was better than the existing one.10 He had insisted early on in his writings that self-determination is a crucial factor, together with participation in the cultural sphere, in impelling the individual toward freedom.

Denegri claims that Beuys’s Belgrade visit was not only spectacular but also emblematic insofar as it advanced the programmatic politics of those who subscribed to his expanded concept of art. Beuys’s lecture at the April Encounters came to be regarded as something of a manifesto. At its center was the premise that everyone can be an artist and that art can effect social change. According to Denegri’s firsthand account, Beuys gave the short version of his signature talk, which was grounded in sociological, philosophical, and artistic questions.11 He drew symbols on a blackboard to help explain his thesis, identifying art and creativity as the means by which human existence reaches maximum individualization in relation to surrounding social and political structures. Insisting on the interconnectedness of man and art, he emphasized the importance of creating dialogue through art.

The premises of Beuys’s spiritual formation are possible to understand, but if oversimplified, they can be misconstrued. This, according to Denegri, is what happened at Beuys’s talk in Belgrade. After the artist’s presentation, the discussion with the audience became unhinged from the his specific spiritual coordinates.12 Yet, since Beuys claimed dialogue to be the single most important component of his work, the discussion was relevant, because the goal of engendering dialogue had been achieved. Art interested Beuys only to the degree that it allowed for dialogue. As Thierry de Duve has aptly pointed out, Beuys possessed an unrivaled pedagogical joy.13

1974 04 19  iii as josef bojs 01 05
Student Cultural Center, Belgrade: 3rd April Meeting (3rd Yugoslav competition for work in the field of expanded media): Joseph Beuys Speaks, lecture delivered on April 19, 1974. Simultaneous translation by Blanka Kraus. Photo: Nebojša Čanković. Courtesy of SKC, Belgrade.

One may speculate about how Beuys’s call for the "victory of socialist warmth and self-determination over materialist greed and alienation” resonated in a socialist country, and whether and how that call reverberated with the most seductive concept of Titoist Yugoslavia: worker self-management. In fact, the Yugoslav socio-economic principle of autogestion, when applied to the individual, has much in common with Beuys’s concept of self-determination. Beuys based his concept on the pillars of freedom, democracy, and socialism. Each of these principles, he said, depends on the other two in order to be meaningful: “Self-determination is something very concrete, something very spiritual. . . . In philosophical terms, human liberty is the basic question of art.”14

Calling Beuys a “charlatan economist,” De Duve has asserted that the creative component of self-determination is to culture as the power of labor is to political economy.15 In 1973, Beuys wrote:

Only on condition of a radical widening of definitions will it be possible for art and activities related to art [to] provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build ‘A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART’ . . . . EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST who—from his state of freedom—the position of freedom that he experiences at firsthand—learns to determine the other positions of the TOTAL ART WORK OF THE FUTURE SOCIAL ORDER.16

According to the dogma of the Yugoslav worker’s self-management system, the power of labor would be truly liberated within the system. Furthermore, according to this ideology, creativity would be unleashed as true vitality. In other words, the subject’s will to power would be realized through participation in the praxis of the new utopia: socialist Yugoslavia.

1974 04 19  iii as josef bojs 02 11
Students Cultural Center, Belgrade: 3rd April Meeting (3rd Yugoslav competition for work in the field of expanded media): Joseph Beuys Speaks, lecture delivered on April 19, 1974. Simultaneous translation by Blanka Kraus. Photo: Nebojša Čanković. Courtesy of SKC, Belgrade.

It has been argued that Beuys descends from the tradition of German idealism that can be traced from Goethe and Novalis to Rudolf Steiner.17 Beuys apotheosizes art with a totalizing insistence that can be read as an expression of the artist’s self-determination. Consequently, an emanation of a romantic psychological self-assessment is a vital force in the artist’s subject-building—his final conquest, i.e., his will to power. Jan Verwoert has pointed out major flaws in Beuys’s self-becoming:

On the one hand, he gambled on everything that traditionally secured the value, claim to validity, and hence authority of art and artists, while on the other hand he assumed the traditional patriarchal position of the messianic proclaimer of ultimate truths. What does have a significant bearing on the politics of Beuys’ overall practice is his adoption of a speaking position that is inextricably bound to the articulation of certain ideas precisely because this position is traditionally justified by these ideas: the position of the messianic speaker whose mythical authority is justified and authenticated by the invocation of the idea of primordial healing powers. The use of the concept of healing is thus synonymous with the creation of an unquestioned—and, by virtue of its superior justification, also unquestionable—position of power.18

In this text, I am not interested in uncritically resurrecting the fundamental transcendental-ontological principle of the will to power. The metaphysical self-becoming of the will to power has closed in a cosmic circle as one hears the voice of Hegel singing the dialectically self-mediating totality, but I resist this siren-call. Instead, I propose to employ this very ontic concept playfully, in the sense of a vital self-assertion that could possibly be reinterpreted within the coordinates of art history in the construction of the particular artistic subject (the artist as subject).

1974 04 19  iii as josef bojs 02 25
Student Cultural Center, Belgrade: 3rd April Meeting (3rd Yugoslav competition for work in the field of expanded media): Joseph Beuys Speaks, lecture delivered on April 19, 1974. Simultaneous translation by Blanka Kraus. Photo: Nebojša Čanković. Courtesy of SKC, Belgrade.

A key concept in Nietzsche’s philosophy, the will to power encapsulates in a general sense the main driving force in humans: achievement, ambition, and the striving to reach the highest possible position in life. More specifically, my understanding of the will to power comes from Slavoj Žižek’s interpretation of the will as a counter-movement to the psychoanalytical notion of the drive. According to Žižek’s reading of Freud, the drive is no less focused than the will, but it always has an object to which it returns repeatedly and around which it circulates.19 The will is free of the object in whose orbit it revolves. Žižek explains:

Thus, we could even say that the will is a counter-movement to the drive, an attempt to re-inscribe the ‘asubjectal’ drive into the economy of the Ego as the agency of control and domination. In the standard description of alienation and re-appropriation, the subject loses itself in its otherness in order to re-appropriate its alienated substantial content; the drive is, at its most fundamental, this gesture of loss itself, not as externally imposed, but as ‘willed’ by the subject.20

The concept of the will understood within these parameters opens itself up to be employed in the analysis of the formation of artistic subjectivity, a phenomenon usually approached from a metaphysical perspective. I wish to examine this dynamic in the light of the political ideologies of the Yugoslav art scene as they played out during the 1974 April Encounters at the SKC.

When Abramović met Beuys

It is certain that Beuys was a supremely charismatic performer and had an influence on Abramović. Benjamin Buchloch has argued that Beuys invoked mythical forms of experience, reversing the liberation of art from ritual and cult.21 Certain strategies that he used to this end in his public appearances can be identified in Abramović’s work. In order to address the way Beuys problematized the notion of authority, I would like to zoom in on an earlier performance, Der Chef (The Boss), from 1964, in which Beuys lay for eight hours wrapped from head to foot in felt blankets, with a dead hare laid out at either end. Occasionally the artist would vocalize unintelligibly. This is how Jan Verwoert describes it:

The length of the performance was specified to equal the duration of an ordinary workday, and over the course of eight hours from 4 p.m. to midnight he performed the job of embodying authority. He appeared, rolled up in a felt blanket, in one of the exhibition spaces of the Galerie René Block in Berlin. The space could be looked into, but not entered, from the adjoining room. Hidden inside the blanket, Beuys could not be seen, only heard. He had a microphone with him, and at irregular intervals would make inarticulate sounds that were amplified via a PA system.22

Verwoert offers a compelling analysis of Der Chef, comparing Beuys’s relationship with his audience—apparently near but physically inaccessible, though rendered immediately present via the media—to the relationship of political leaders (e.g., Hitler) with their audiences. An essential difference, of course, is that Beuys signals the absurdity of his role through his supine position and suffocatingly enveloped form, images hardly associated with “auratic” figures. Verwoert notes that “Beuys simultaneously constructed and dismantled an aura of authority,” and this is where I would situate the artist’s particular will to power. As Verwoert concludes, the performance gives “no answers. But it articulates the unresolved crux of a question that deeply concerns both art and politics: by virtue of what authority is it possible to embody a voice in the public and for the public?”

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Marina Abramović performing Joseph Beuys, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. 1965. Performance. 7 Easy Pieces, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2005. Photo: Attilio Maranzano. Copyright Marina Abramović, Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

American Endings

Days after leaving Belgrade, Beuys performed for the first and last time in the U.S. For three days in May 1974, he lived with a coyote in a small room of the newly opened René Block Gallery at 409 West Broadway in SoHo, creating the work I Like America, and America Likes Me.23

I believe that biographical reductionism frequently found in the literature on Beuys and Abramović needs to be countered by showing that hagiography and debunking are operations that do not illuminate complex artistic subjectivities. Five years ago I wrote, “It could be said that Abramović has never left the Balkans; she managed to enter its other, spiritual side that allows transformation to occur. Abramović has powerfully adapted this modernist utopian belief in transformation through art into an individualized enterprise.”24 Today, I would like to problematize further her transformational enterprise.

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Marina Abramović. Freeing the Memory. Performance. Galerie Dacić, Tübingen, Germany, 1975. Copyright Marina Abramović, Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

In her 1976 performance Freeing the Memory, Abramović reeled off all the Serbo-Croatian words she could remember. Seated on a chair with her head tilted back, she free-associated. By reciting all the words stored in her memory, she tried to free herself from her native language. After an hour and a half, she seemed to have succeeded. The well of words had dried up and the performance was over. I was reminded once again of Žižek’s explanation of the drive when “the subject loses itself in its otherness in order to re-appropriate its alienated substantial content; the drive is, at its most fundamental, this gesture of loss itself, not as externally imposed, but as ‘willed’ by the subject.”25 In my view, Freeing the Memory was an enactment of this loss par excellence, willed by the subject who was guided by the irresistible, inexhaustible, innate will to power.

By trying to retrace the narratives of the encounter between Beuys and his Belgrade audience in 1974, I have tried to raise issues of artistic agency (which I have interpreted through the construct of the will to power) and artistic mentorship vis-à-vis notions of power and influence that transcend the center-margin binary. I would like to conclude this account by asking questions about the nature of the lesson imparted by Beuys in Belgrade. Is his lesson alive only because it was absorbed by an artist willing to interpret it in a way that suits the contemporary art world’s radically different, neoliberal, late-capitalist environment? How accurately does Abramović’s work reflect the message as it was intended in 1974? It is interesting to view the aftermath of Beuys’s lesson as something other than an obvious dissolution of his utopian social engagement. Is it possible to locate it within a “happy” American ending? The way it has been translated by another artist’s individual enterprise is the lesson I hope to shed light on. This very interrogation leads to another art (hi)story: the one about Abramović in America.

L11 marina social life with joseph beuys 1974 belgrade skc p cankovic nebojsa photo 6
Marina Abramović with Joseph Beuys at SKC, Belgrade, 1974. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

This essay is based on a presentation given at MoMA on January 29, 2013 during the session "New Perspectives on Yugoslav Art" organized by C-MAP Central and Eastern Europe group.

1.

James Westcott, When Marina Abramović Dies: A Biography (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 2010), p. 67.

2.

Ibid.

3.

Westcott sets the record straight in When Marina Abramović Dies (p. 67) by quoting the artists who actually did carry Abramović to safety.

4.

Joseph Beuys, “I am Searching for Field Character,” trans. Caroline Tisdall, in Art into Society, Society into Art: Seven German Artists (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1974), p. 48.

5.

Ješa Denegri, Studentski Kulturni Centar kao umetnicka scena (Belgrade: SKC 2002), p. 9. Translation Jovana Stokić.

6.

See Prelom Kolektiv’s documentation of the exhibition The Case of Students' Cultural Centre in the 1970s, www.prelomkolektiv.org/eng/PPYUart.htm

7.

Westcott, When Marina Abramovic Dies, p. 49.

8.

Rudi Supek Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/supek/index.htm Translation Jovana Stokić.

9.

This “soulful” social transformation relied on the system of workers’ self-management that was introduced at the height of the Cold War. Titoist Yugoslavia advocated a socialist version of autogestion, unlike the Eastern Bloc countries, which adopted central planning and state ownership of industry. There was low unemployment and a steadily increasing level of education among Yugoslav workers, and the country's neutrality and leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement made it possible for Yugoslav companies to export to both Western and Eastern markets. Living standards and a life expectancy of about 72 years were roughly equivalent to those in the less prosperous Western capitalist countries. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workers%27_self-management

10.

Ulrike Knöfell, “Beuys Biography: Book Accuses Artist of Close Ties to Nazis,” Der Spiegel, http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/new-joseph-beuys-biography-discloses-ties-to-nazis-a-900509.html (accessed April 7, 2014). See also “Cleves and Tartars, Sven Lütticken on H. P. Riegel’s New Biography of Joseph Beuys,” Texte zur Kunst, no. 92, (December 2013), http://www.textezurkunst.de/92/cleves-and-tartars/

11.

Denegri, SKC Student Cultural Center, p. 9.

12.

Ibid.

13.

Thierry de Duve, “Joseph Beuys and the German Past, Tentatively,” Seventh Annual Kirk Varnedoe Lecture, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, October 22, 2013.

14.

Joseph Beuys, Joseph Beuys’ Public Dialogue, the artist’s first major public discussion in the U.S., took place at the New School for Social Research, New York, January 11, 1974. Black and white video, 2 hours 15 secs. Willoughby Sharp, producer; Andy Mann, camera.

15.

De Duve, “Joseph Beuys, or The Last of the Proletarians," October, no. 45 (Summer 1988), p. 46.

16.

Beuys, “I am Searching,” p. 48.

17.

See the inspired reading of Beuys’s critical reception by Thierry de Duve, “Joseph Beuys, or The Last of the Proletarians," October, no. 45 (Summer 1988), pp. 46–62; and Jan Verwoert’s essay on the significance of Beuys’s practice beyond his self-imposed discursive framework: “The Boss: On the Unresolved Question of Authority in Joseph Beuys’ Oeuvre and Public Image,” E-flux Journal, 12/2008, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-boss-on-the-unresolved-question-of-authority-in-joseph-beuys’-oeuvre-and-public-image/

18.

Verwoert, ibid.

19.

Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, (London and New York: Verso, 2012), p. 497.

20.

Ibid.

21.

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Reconsidering Joseph Beuys. Once Again,” in Joseph Beuys. Mapping the Legacy, ed. Gene Ray (D.A.P./Ringling Museum, 2001), pp. 75–90.

22.

Verwoert, op. cit.

23.

David Levi Strauss, Between Dog and Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (New York: Autonomedia, 1999), p.36.

24.

Jovana Stokic, "Leaving the Balkans, Entering the Other Side" in Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, ed. Klaus Biesenbach (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2010), p. 27.

25.

Žižek, Less Than Nothing, op. cit., p. 549.

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