IN ART: somewhere beyond the beautiful

Robert Enoch, 2001

Joseph Beuys said ‘Everyone should be an artist’. I believe he meant it in the sense that art is simply creative human endeavour and not aestheticism, gallery exhibition and sale of objects or invention for the sake of invention. Our conception of what “Art” is needs to change before Beuys’s ideal can be reached. Artists are now as much a part of the bourgeois dream as pop stars, film directors and millionaire entrepreneurs. Art has become another profession, like Law, Medicine, Business or Technology rather than an alternative way of life, or an experiment with life. Perhaps Art today has almost lost its meaning in the confusion of its purpose. It seems that the Avant-garde is dead and the only clarity available is the artist’s desire to obtain bourgeoise-hood and the survival of his body and his ego. Art today decorates a successful economy with little enigmas and petty scandals, even showing a susceptibility to its own fashions. Artists have become celebrities but they are not much more than entertainers or sophisticated interior decorators. Reports of their art works selling for huge sums of money reach the media, as do those works obviously aimed to poke suburban sensibilities. These popularizing forces shape the identity of the “Artist”, influence what he makes and affect his purpose. In terms of its social role Art appears not as a renegade and alternative to middle-class aspirations but a part of them. If creativity no longer offers a solution or shows no potential for liberation other than from poverty and a diminished self-image, then what is the point in being an artist?
Consumer culture has a propensity for delusions. But folly and reverie and the forces that perpetuate them appear to suggest that the citizen is satisfied and can afford to indulge himself – at least in the expense of bolstering his daydreams or relieving boredom. However, with statistics showing 1 in 4 people suffering from depression in Britain, this hints that not everyone is under the spell of illusions and that many are psychologically dissatisfied. Consumer choice has long been confused with life choice. For real choice and real freedom in life, where do we start? Could it be that Art is the key?

To achieve a visionary art, an art of life and exploration the artist must avoid the futility of aesthetics and effect and evolve a personal and possibly quasi-religious search for authentic experience. Philosophic motive must use art - symbols and actions - as a means, not as an end in itself; the way a mountaineer uses hooks and ropes to accomplish his climb, or a doctor uses medicine and bandages to heal. I am not only thinking of an art of pursuing desire but a bigger art that reaches beyond the ego and into the lost divine where not only ‘everyone can be an artist’ but everyone can be their own Messiah.

Duchamp’s “Fountain”, a latrine exhibited flat on a plinth, threatened the traditional mediums of paint and plaster, the traditional subject matter of portrait and landscape and questioned artistic motive. In doing this he pushed art to the edge, but it was Joseph Beuys who pushed it over. In the art of Beuys the creative process becomes the conduit of esoteric experience and knowledge. In his performances he re-contextualized religious rituals and transformed them from habitual ceremonies into an effort to ‘re-expand’ a crushed reality and to reconnect with a lost mysticism. I believe his work is mostly effective by example and not directly experience-able for the spectator. Nevertheless, it implies a vital need to engage in a quest to find, develop and act out our deepest inclinations in order to re-establish the dynamism destroyed by Reason, socialization and conformity. Beuys’s creative drive led him from art as object to art as ‘akt’ and then to a semi-mystical professorship through lecturing. This trajectory itself illustrates a desire to avoid art as a gallery exclusive experience.

Beuys’s use of materials was significant. He often used the personalized objects: felt, fat, dead animals, honey and various metals as materials but he also abstracted and utilized electricity, sound, warmth, liquid, danger, absurdity, death, gravity, the experience of spacial confines, the relationship between life and death or civilized and wild. This was not merely to show them as aesthetic objects but to confront the spectator with their use.

A spectator can only observe and be affected through empathy; the spectator’s part in an action is at once removed and perhaps this is the central flaw of all observation. You cannot taste the fruit I am eating by watching me eat it! Talking to a dead hare about his drawings or living in a room with a coyote for a week was a means to realize the mystical relationship between animals and man that he had felt all his life, but it was his own idea and experience and thus remains an illustration to others. The idea for the action and its realization are the authentic elements of the self in creativity – without these there is only re-action. Nevertheless, Beuys displaced art’s long-standing mode of disinterested contemplation and voyeurism for direct experience and active involvement.
There is an element of Dada in Beuys when he says that too much reason kills creativity. This could be a one-way trip to joke-art unless it is an art without an audience or an art that cannot achieve an audience because it creates no ‘product’ because the product is in the self. In this case his ideas and his work suggest a leaning towards a process of Individuation and that is where Art finally becomes Life.
The term ‘Individuation’ comes from the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung and refers to the process of self discovery that a patient goes through in psychoanalysis whereby he reaches an ever-more idiosyncratic selfhood and distances himself from the social mores, conventions, manners and prejudices of ‘mass man’ that he has unwittingly grown into during his life. It is about liberating the fundamental preconditions of the unconscious from some of the inculcations of culture and marks of life that may have adversely affected his motives. Dreams during therapy are perceived as the unconscious mind helping the patient towards his goal – one of individual psychic integration and then social integration. In the same way, artistic products can also be seen as symbols that divulge clues. Jung gives his warnings about the unconscious search and he himself went through hallucinatory madness with his own search. Indeed, there are no guarantees that one’s search will lead one directly to happiness and satisfaction. Art is difficult when something is at stake for those who practice it. It becomes a matter of individual psychological survival rather than an act of showing or the joining of a social club.

The mundane is increasingly small and constricting, but can art really offer a “way out” through its potentially transformative powers or are we all destined to remain stuck behind cultural and political advancement? One must be cautious of artistic ideas for they readily succumb to fantasy and pretence. Texts and pictures can easily become fictions but ideas can reflect realities. In this way the difficult and inexpressible contents of the mind can be given form: words to the dumb, images to the blind. Somewhere beyond aesthetics, acts of despair and absolute necessity, illegal immigrants trying to walk through the Channel Tunnel to Britain, become works of Art.