In 1961, conceptual artist Joseph Beuys was appointed professor of “monumental sculpture” at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in Germany, where he taught generations of students (including notable artists Anatol Herzfeld, Katharina Sieverding, Jörg Immendorff, Blinky Palermo, Peter Angermann, Elias Maria Reti, Walter Dahn, Johannes Stüttgen, Sigmar Polke and Friederike Weske) to live, love, and learn artfully.
As part of his teaching methodology, Beuys came up with the concept of “social sculpture” (see: Everybody is an Artist). His school of thought combined pragmatic pedagogy with civic-minded aesthetics, resulting in an important theory and social practice that unites the fields of fine art and education.
Social sculpture is a concept with rhizomatic roots, meaning that it consistently evolves and expands due to the application of intrinsic and developed knowledge. It relates to the progressive educational zeitgeist of the early twentieth century, notably, John Dewey and Viktor Lowenfeld’s pedagogical theories of experiential art and their belief that every human being has artistic abilities. Social sculpture also exemplifies the constructivist notion of Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. Both Piaget and Vygotsky were influential on the progression of education because their philosophy led to insightful understandings of childhood development. The popular phrase ‘nature versus nurture,’ describes the differences in both phychologist’s theories. While both psychologists asserted that learning is an ongoing process, Piaget posited that children learn through interacting with the environment (nature), while Vygotsky asserted that learning is taught through social and cultural interactions (nurture). The contemporary educational model combines the theories of nature and nurture, realizing that they work in tandem.
Nature and nurture is ingrained in Beuys’ belief that every act of consciousness can be an artistic process and that everyone can be an artist if they embrace the habits of mind related to artistic thinking, creating and reflecting (see: Educating Through Art). These habits of mind are both lessons we learn through our own experiential explorations, as well as via the mentorship of artists or art educators. A social sculptor is anyone who creates an artistic structure within their community utilizing social interactions, collaboration and physical objects or environments.
The performativity of social sculpture is intrinsically connected to the educational sphere because educators facilitate these kinds of critical and creative experiences in their classrooms. Beuys’ theories on art education are in line with the contemporary practices of art educators in K-12 and higher education settings. Art education stimulates the entire process of learning, which means that it functions as a catalyst for humanizing and scaffolding learning across the curriculum. Outside of the classroom, art serves as a framework for understanding and communicating our lived experiences. Beuys’ made it clear that art is more than just an academic or aesthetic discipline. Most importantly, art is a living entity because it reflects, emulates and embodies human nature. This idea and practice enabled Beuys to skirt the lines between the artworld and the world at large.
In his 1965 performance called How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, Beuys visualized and expressively put forward his philosophy of teaching and learning. The performance was held on the occasion of the opening for his solo exhibition at the Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf, a highly regarded event that drew a crowd. Beuys began the piece by shutting the gallery doors, effectively ushering and locking eager gallery visitors outside onto the street. Onlookers would have to rely on the gallery’s large ground floor windows to observe the enigmatic artist at work within the space. Beuys emerged with his head completely covered in a layer of honey and gold leaf and a dead hare in his arms. He whispered into the taxidermied animal’s ear as he walked around his solo show, pantimining the act of giving a gallery tour or lecture on his work. This lasted for three hours, afterwards Beuys perched himself upon a stool in the entrance area, hare in arm and back towards the audience as they were allowed to stream back into the exhibition space.
There are several aesthetically significant elements in the piece: honey, gold leaf and of course, the hare. These are representative of the manifestation of the explorations, discoveries and insights that necessitate critical, empathetic, and creative thinking and resist systemic rigidity. Beuys explained that: “For me the Hare is a symbol of incarnation, which the hare really enacts-something a human can only do in imagination. It burrows, building itself a home in the earth. Thus it incarnates itself in the earth: that alone is important. So it seems to me. Honey on my head of course has to do with thought. While humans do not have the ability to produce honey, they do have the ability to think, to produce ideas. Therefore the stale and morbid nature of thought is once again made living. Honey is an undoubtedly living substance-human thoughts can also become alive. On the other hand intellectualizing can be deadly to thought: one can talk one’s mind to death in politics or in academia” (quoted in Harlan, Rappmann, and Schata, 1984, 92).
The honey is also a reference to the occultist, social theorist and reformer, Rudolf Steiner, who gave a renowned 1923 lecture on the social structure of bees, where he compared the bee’s hive life to human civilization. Steiner equated the natural function of bees to an ideal human society: “All that is living, when it is rightly combined, works rightly together. When one stands before a hive of bees one should say quite solemnly to oneself: ‘By way of the bee-hive the whole Cosmos enters man and makes him strong and able’” (Steiner, 1923).
Steiner’s combination of scientific and spiritual thinking led to the formation of a pedagogical model known as Waldorf education. The key tenet among Steiner’s principles that shaped this framework was the idea of human entity being threefold being of spirit, soul and body. During three phases of development: early childhood, middle childhood and adolescence; intellectual, emotional, and haptic learning is strengthened through experiences observing and imitating nature and applying imaginative responses to all of life’s endeavors.
Beuys was inspired by Steiner’s spiritual and scientific teachings and his association with beehives as being a testament of a utopia and holistic social transformation that can be achieved through acts of individual and collective creativity and self-determination.
Through the symbolic gestures in How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, Beuys was alluding to the complexities of the learning process and the creative intuition used by teachers to scaffold students’ learning while providing open-ended moments for them to realize their own innovative potential and civic duty under the auspices of creative and soulful activities. While education is a key component of our humanity which can help us to profoundly connect with one another and the natural world, Beuys was critical of the commodification and standardization of learning; an issue he specified was occurring in academic environments and via political policies impacting access to educational opportunities (although he did not single out any particular pedagogical or political examples).
Beuys asserted that “The problem lies in the word ‘understanding’ and its many levels, which cannot be restricted to rational analysis. Imagination, inspiration, and longing all lead people to sense that these other levels also play a part in understanding. This must be the root of reactions to this action, and is why my technique has been to try and seek out the energy points in the human power field, rather than demanding specific knowledge or reactions on the part of the public. I try to bring to light the complexity of creative areas” (quoted in Lumer and Oppenheim, 2019, 49).
Beuys was a proponent of student-centered learning and eschewed academic approaches to art education in his own curriculum at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. The idea of social sculpture is pedagogical at its core, while also signifying a means to be an artist and make art without solely relying on materials and aesthetic traditions. It involves the construction of knowledge through creative processes that reject formalism and pedantry in both an artistic and instructional nature. Professor of art education Carl-Peter Buschkühle (2021) explains that: “Beuys was firmly convinced that art could be pedagogically effective in moving thought outside of the reductive framework of rationalism. He intended to do more than widen the epistemological and aesthetic purview of art to engage with the rationalist frameworks of science, technology, and economics, as has been done from Romanticism onward. Beuys expanded the field of art pedagogy by, on the one hand, emphasizing its contemporary relevance via intellectual history, and on the other, projecting that it could prove healing for the future.”
Working and blurring the lines between being a conceptual artist and educator, Beuys advocated for human beings to make beneficial contributions to society through art. Like Dewey and Lowenfeld, he understood art’s potential to transform society and enable active aesthetic participation from both trained artists and those without any prior formal artistic background. The idea of social sculpture democratizes art and makes it accessible and relational to wide and diverse individuals and communities.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Buschkühle, Carl-Peter. “Beuys and Artistic Education.” Beuys On/Off, 14 April 2021. https://beuysonoff.com/free-international-university/education/beuys-and-artistic-education/
Harlan, Volker, Rappmann, Rainer, and Schata, Peter. 1984. Soziale Plastik: Materialien zu Joseph Beuys. Krefeld: Achberger Verlag. p. 92.
Lumer, Ludovica and Oppenheim, Lois. 2019. For Want of Ambiguity: Order and Chaos in Art, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience, London: Bloomsbury Academic. p. 49.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1923. Nine Lectures on Bees.