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Allan Antliff, Joseph Beuys.

Allan Antliff, Joseph Beuys

London: Phaidon, 2014; 146pp; ISBN 978-0-7148-6134-0

As Antliff argues, Joseph Beuys continues to be a 'polarizing figure' both within and beyond the art world. This new monograph focuses on Beuys's provocative 'actions' of the 1960s and 1970s which disturbed, baffled, and sometimes enraged, viewers and critics alike. In one infamous ritualistic performance at Schelma Gallery, Dusseldorf--How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965)--the artist, his head covered in gold leaf and honey, whispered inaudibly for three hours to the carcass of a dead hare. Besides addressing the brutalities of Nazism, such artistic 'actions' had a cathartic role for Beuys as he had been on active service during the war as a dive-bomber pilot. Subsequently, Beuys's shamanistic activities were mythologised and the cult of the charismatic artist has obfuscated the nuanced political attention which his work deserves.

Despite the extensive body of literature on Beuys, Antliffhas added a vital ingredient thus far overlooked: Beuys's anarchism. Oddly, Antliff omitted Beuys from Art and Anarchy, but redresses this here by rebutting Hal Foster's portrayal of Beuys as a 'neo avant-garde' artist 'severed from all utopian and political aspirations' (see Foster et al, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Anti-Modernism, Post-Modernism, New York, 2011). Instead, Antliff makes a powerful case not only for Beuys's relationship to anarchism (specifically, the ideas of Gustave Landauer) but for his relevance for contemporary 'direct action' movements. Indeed, Antliff highlights the currency of Beuys's preoccupations: his ecological and environmental concerns encapsulated in the co-founding of the West German Green Party (1980); after being dismissed from his professorship in 1972, his challenging of authoritarian, hegemonic forms of knowledge through initiating the Free International University; his aspirations for direct and cooperative action through the Organisation for Direct Democracy through Referendum; his conviction that art (through his concept of 'social sculpture' and 'everyone an artist') could empower creativity for all and contribute a means of transforming society.

Besides providing a chronological overview of the artist's life and work, the book is organised around ten 'Focus' sections, including 'The Legacy of Nazism' and 'Shaming the Shaman'. Particularly valuable sections are those examining the influence of Rudolf Steiner and 'Joseph Beuys, Anarchist', which emphasises the artist's interest in the 'cooperative impulse' and in the idea that the connectedness of all beings can further a kind of spiritual knowledge. Significantly, Antliff highlights Beuys's personal declaration of being a 'non-violent anarchist'. Providing detailed analyses of selected 'actions' (including the infamous Fluxus-related event in Aachen, 1964) the book concludes with the legacy for ecological and environmental activism of Beuys's two later works: 7000 Oaks (1982) and his final monumental sculptural installation, The End of the Twentieth Century (1983). As Antliff indicates, these works have inspired many ongoing planting projects from Baltimore to Sydney and beyond.

Overall, Antliffs study provides a re-evaluation of Beuys's political legacy with a particularly useful focus on his anarchism. However, as part of the Phaidon series of 'introductions to modern masters' (lavishly illustrated slim hardbacks with no footnotes and minimal bibliography) its usefulness for serious scholars is limited. Despite this, and the vast array of published material on Beuys, Antliff's book provides a fresh political insight, suggesting there is more research to be done on Beuys in particular and on art and anarchism more generally. Certainly, Beuys remains a formidably complex figure. In his own time, his work acted as a catalyst but his ideas have particular relevance for today's political activists and Occupy-related movements. Alongside the need to re-read the political legacies and relevance of his work, with the recent body of critical theorising related to 'new materialism' and affectivity, there is also re-thinking to be done in relation to the spiritual dimension of Beuys's artistic work and, importantly, Antliff's contribution highlights this aspect too.

Gillian Whiteley, School of the Arts, Loughborough University
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Author:Whiteley, Gillian
Publication:Anarchist Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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