The nature and scale of the problems facing society at present (environmental, political, social) seem overwhelming – insurmountable even – suggesting that an entirely new vision or approach to the way we collectively live our lives is needed. Owning up to such a view can feel ashamedly naive and utopian. The questions of what and how, too big to answer. Perhaps we are too deeply implicated in the world in its current state.
Against this backdrop, Leeds Art Gallery’s re-opening show – a major exhibition dedicated to the work of a man who believed deeply in the healing power and social function of art – seems fitting. Joseph Beuys (1921 – 1986) was an artist but also, as part of this, a passionate political and social activist, environmentalist, teacher, performer, myth-maker and ‘shaman’. His work arises out of notions of repair, healing and transformation, formed in response to a damaged world in the aftermath of WWII. He saw creativity as central to all aspects of human existence – declaring that “everyone is an artist” – and believed art should be a kind of “social sculpture” with the power to shape and improve life.
The exhibition will fill three main rooms at Leeds Art Gallery, bringing together a significant collection of Beuys’ sculptures and drawings from the 1950s onwards. His assemblages using ‘poor materials’, such as fat, felt and wax (traditionally considered ‘unworthy of art’), reflect the artist’s role in helping to fundamentally change the look and vocabulary of sculpture. While a number of objects from his legendary performances or ‘Actions’ should add a real weightiness to the exhibition’s portrait of the artist, his iconic persona and ideas.
Though Beuys has been dismissed at times for his determined optimism and idealistic belief in human’s capacity for change – these seem like not bad qualities for our current age. John Berger described him as “the great prophet of the second half of our century” (the 20th), and indeed, many of the challenges he was addressing have become increasingly prevalent today. Perhaps a visit to the show when it opens in October will serve as some reminder of each of our potential and responsibility to play a role in shaping the social sculpture of society – and of the power of art in helping to achieve this.