One of the most important figures in post-war German art, Joseph Beuys pushed the boundaries of sculpture to encapsulate every aspect of human existence. He once said, “I say aesthetics = human being. That is a radical formula. I set the idea of aesthetics directly in the context of human existence.” With his rakish fedora and intense, almost transparent eyes, he brought to mind a French matinee idol, an impression that’s accentuated by the lush black-and-white photography of Beuys, director Andres Veiel’s hagiographic documentary about the artist. Via talking heads, archival footage, and the artist’s own words, the film tries to communicate and elaborate on Beuys’s utopian ideas about the relationship between art and society, a task that ultimately proves to be beyond Veiel’s abilities.
Beuys posited that all normal, everyday situations are a form of art. But his idea that art must be radically and absolutely democratized is dubious because of the underlying supposition that all art is equally worthy. If everything is art and all art has equal value, then why should anyone pay attention to Beuys and his work in particular? This fundamental criticism, which has been made against Beuys by art critics and scholars for decades, isn’t addressed in the film, which sets out solely to glorify the artist, never honestly wrestling with any of the provocative questions raised by his work.
Beuys was also a populist in his political outlook, calling for “revolution” against the “enemy.” But the film never explains what this revolution would entail or who in particular the enemy is. Beuys doesn’t move beyond this vague political jargon, satisfied that such empty slogans are synonymous with political action. Beuys did join the Green Party in his later years, but Veiel fails to show him addressing the party’s positions in any meaningful way. In fact, while attempting to illuminate Beuys’s practical commitment to his philosophical ideas, the discussion of the artist’s time in the party ends up inadvertently revealing the impracticality of his utopian political ideals.
Veiel is most successful in capturing Beuys as the enfant terrible of the German art scene. The highlight of the documentary is the archival footage, in particular clips from such famous performance pieces as “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” and “I Like America and America Likes Me.” The juxtaposition of art with wild animals both living and dead in these works capture what made Beuys’s art so exciting and dangerous in his time.
The film’s most egregious omission is its failure to seriously address Beuys voluntarily joining the Hitler Youth and serving with the Luftwaffe. The issue of Beuys being an average Nazi before and during WWII is completely ignored. There’s no examination of his active participation in the Nazi war machine or his failure to acknowledge Germany’s role in the Holocaust throughout his career. Instead, the film glorifies the wounds he received after a crash during an air raid, without mentioning the victims of that or any other of the many raids he carried out during the war. Also, the documentary allows Beuys’s version of the crash, where he speaks of being rescued by a group of Crimean Tatars, to go unquestioned, even though existing historical documents (not mentioned in the film) do not substantiate this claim.
This is just one of many examples of the film’s idolatry of the man and his work and its complete dearth of critical analysis. This panegyric comes full circle in in the final act, where the film mentions in passing that there were a significant number of unreformed Nazis in the Green Party under Beuys’s leadership, a fact that Veiel deems unworthy of further exploration.