Joseph Beuys was a founding member of numerous political organisations that focused on ecological issues such as anti-nuclear power, recycling or prevention of groundwater pollution. Beuys was particularly influenced in his political as well as ecological and economic thinking by Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925).
Beuys’s politically active period started at the beginning of the 1970s, after he had been expelled from his teaching position at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. In 1972 Beuys debated democracy with visitors for 100 days at Kassel documenta 5. On the last day, the action culminated in a performance entitled Boxing Match for Direct Democracy. In 1973 he founded the Organisation for Direct Democracy through Referendum. The Free International University (FIU) came into existence in 1974. Beuys issued manifestos for free society and direct democracy. He was convinced that free education and culture belong to everybody and they serva as crucial instruments of social change.
“The only way is the non-violent transformation.”
Back in 1967 Beuys had founded a party of German students. In 1978 he became a co-founder of the German Green Party and its vocal advocate. He ran for parliament in 1980 but was not elected. The Greens entered the parliament for the first time in 1983, but by that time Beuys was cast aside for being too radical.
In 1981 Beuys donated part of his personal archives to the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódz´. The motive for the donation was both artistic and political: to show support for the Polish human rights movement and to Solidarity, the Polish trade union. The donation was also a personal attempt to break the geographic and metaphorical boundaries between East and West, which stood in the way of cultural interaction – the so-called Third Way, in which political rhetoric is replaced by art and human creativity.
Beuys’s political goal was the total renewal of society, but his actions were never disruptive or destructive: he believed that any political movement would have to offer a better, democratically and collectively chosen alternative.
“Between birth and death, human beings have collective work to do on earth.”
Beuys did not live to see the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He had expressed the hope that, after his death, people would see that he had understood the historical situation and worked to change the course of events, hopefully in the right direction.
Photo: Europawahl (Europe Election), 1978, from the collection of Muzeum Sztuki w Łodźi, Poland