Nothing to do with Art
Jacopo Crivelli Visconti
On October 10, 1972, after the intervention of the German police, Joseph Beuys and his students were removed from the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. They had occupied its administrative offices to protest against the university’s policy of limiting access to courses at the Fine Arts Academy. The first stage of Beuys’ academic career, which began in 1963 and was marked by numerous conflicts with the faculty, ended on the following day when he was dismissed from the Kunstakademie. Beuys appears calm and satisfied in the photo that captured the instant when he and the students vacated the office under the policemen’s gaze. He is smiling. Later, he would write on the photo, in his own unmistakable handwriting: Demokratie ist lustig [Democracy is fun].
Beuys died on January 23, 1986. Exactly thirty years later, after an occupation of almost two months, the last students who had rallied against the restructuring plan of the state education network throughout the state of São Paulo vacated the schools after the state government agreed to suspend its plans. If the coincidence of the dates may seem casual, or even irrelevant, the fact remains that Beuys’ lesson, the way in which he knew how to merge artistic production with an impelling need to act in the realm of social transformation, continues to be current and urgent. Starting with Joseph Beuys, the expanded field of sculpture and, metonymically, of art includes practices and interventions that seek to act exactly in the heart of social relations. His famous statement that “every man is an artist” aimed to encourage creativity in all areas of human activity. But it is evident that, by extending the condition of artist to everyone, it also became an act of democratization. Within the context of these reflections, it is extremely symptomatic that one of his most famous pictures shows him exactly in the process of walking, more precisely striding in the direction of the camera, or that of the viewer. Juxtaposed over the image, the words “la rivoluzione siamo noi” [we are the revolution] emphasize equality, almost the communion between artists and the rest of society, and sum up the indissoluble relationship between revolution and walking, something that the term “movement” itself makes amply evident in the highly symbolic crossing of its various definitions.
Democracy, at least the version of it that was presented to us in recent months in Brazil, is not exactly fun. And, despite the victory at the recent COP21 (which a growing number of environmentalists considers to be pyrrhic), long term ecological awareness is still far from prevailing over immediate economic considerations. In another demonstration of how Beuys was ahead of his time back in the early 1970s when environmental activism was considered almost an eccentricity, he began collaborating with Lucrezia de Domizio on a long term project in the fields of Bolognano, in the region of Abruzzo in Italy. The project revolved around conversations, social and political discussions and the agricultural activity carried out with the local farmers. The results would include drawings, videos, sculpture and diagrams on the blackboards used in the meetings. In 1983, the project was incorporated into the activities of the Free International University and called F.I.U.: Difesa della natura [F.I.U.: Defense of nature]. In 1980, as evidence of the essentially political character of his engagement in the ecological issue, Beuys was already one of the founders of the German Green Party, on whose ticket he would run for the European Parliament. Along with these activities, he also began at the 1982 Documenta in Kassel what would become one of this last and most ambitious projects, completed only in 1987, one year after his death. 7000 Eichen [7000 Oaks] consisted of planting 7,000 oak trees in various points of Kassel, each one accompanied by a basalt stele. The project was later repeated in various streets and squares around the world.
What makes Beuys’ compelling, pragmatic and objective actions in the social, political and ecological fields even more interesting is their apparent contradiction with the quasi-messianic traits of his well-known biography and with the emphasis that he always placed on the mystical component of his work. His preference for living materials, such as honey or fat, among others; the methodical construction of an almost mythical character; the blind belief in the thaumaturgic power of art; the analogy of the figure of the artist with that of the shaman; everything contributed to the creation of a romantic and idealistic artist, more of an alchemist than a revolutionary. If it is true that his passage from output that was more connected to the object to a preference for social actions is linked to the development of the concept of “social sculpture” that became a central theme in his poetics throughout the 1970s, Beuys’ great lesson resides in his ability to merge the two extremes, building a narrative comprised of numerous layers, some more allusive and symbolic, and others more explicit and immediately understandable. And understandable, it must be stressed, first of all to the masses, which the artist addressed in his engagement in political struggles and by producing most of his work in very high volume editions or by releasing records and even videos, such as the curious Sonne Statt Reagan, from 1982, where he pleaded for “the sun instead of Reagan”. One of his last multiples, the small Capri – Batterie [Capri Battery] of 1985, symbolizes the indissoluble merging of the pragmatic and the mystical/alchemist sides in his work. The intensely yellow lemon of the island of Capri, which represented for Beuys the warm and life-enhancing sun of southern Italy, and by extension the force of Mediterranean nature, transcends its metaphoric and symbolic level to become a battery. It becomes an apparently practical and prosaic object, but, in turn, it is one of the key elements of the Beuysian universe, a supreme example of human intelligence and accumulator of inexhaustible natural energy. In other words, Capri – Batterie opens and closes the circle between the symbolic and pragmatic fields without a solution for continuity, fluctuating uninterruptedly between the apology of nature (or of the world) in all its real and sensible beauty and the defense of its intangible, symbolic and alchemic value.
 In 1973, Beuys founded the Free International University based on a manifesto drawn up with Heinrich Böll with the overriding goal of encouraging creativity in all of its forms and in all environments, including the social and the political fields.
 In the words of the artist himself, “Despite these objects not appearing to be able to bring about political change, I believe that they emanate more in this sense than if the ideas behind them were openly revealed”, in SCHELLMANN, Jörg and KLÜSER, Bernd, Joseph Beuys, Multiples, Schellman & Klüser, Munich, Germany, 1980.
 The radiant sun and nature of southern Italy are of fundamental importance in Beuys’ cosmology. It is worthwhile reading, on this subject, the interview with Lucio Amelio, Beuys’ dealer and friend in COOKE, Lynne and KELLY, Karen, Joseph Beuys Arena – where would I have got if I had been intelligent!, Dia Center for the Arts, New York, EU, 1994 (p. 34-51), from where the title of this text is also taken.