Scott Thompson: about Beuys, O’Leary and Benjamin’s text ‘The Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.

Nika has asked me to give a quick introduction to Timothy O’Leary’s article ‘Fat, Felt, and Fascism: the case of Joseph Beuys’, which, whether he intends to or not, questions whether Beuy’s ‘expanded concept of art’ was fascist, based on a close reading of Walter Benjamin’s text ‘The Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.
Following his reading of Benjamin, what makes Beuys’ ‘expanded concept of art’ fascist, for O’Leary, is not so much that he expands art into politics, but that he expands the wrong concept of art into politics, a traditional concept of art based on the production of ritual and myth. Where I disagree with O’Leary (and Benjamin if O’Leary’s interpretation is correct) is with his proposed solution, that in order to avoid fascism or a fascist application of aesthetics to politics, it is necessary to de-ritualise both art and politics, that the ‘Politicisation of art’ must be based on a non-traditional or non-ritualised concept of art, this, to me, is equally absurd. As David points out ‘ritual is an inherent aspect of human sociality’ and ‘we are all in some sense ritual producing beings’. There are clearly contemporary examples of a non-fascist application of aesthetics to politics that are based on ritual and myth, for example, in David’s essay on ‘The Phenomenology of Giant Puppets’, where the puppets revive ‘the sacred and unalienated experience’ of the carnivalesque and are used to ‘defuse’ situations of potential violence. As Boris Groys says ‘there is good theatre and bad theatre . . . it would make no sense to forbid its use by politically oppositional movements’

In ‘Walter Benjamin’s Concept of the Image’ (2015), Alison Ross argues that despite Benjamin’s early ‘polemic against the analogy of human life as a work of art’ in his essay on ‘Goethe’s Elective Affinities’ (1922), and his continued ‘allergy to the vocabulary’ of aesthetic form, ritual, and myth throughout his later writings, in terms of its ‘practical function’ the dialectical image – and I’m assuming any image space in Benjamin’s writing necessary for the politicisation of art – was ultimately dependent on all three in order to mark human life as meaningful or significant, and to set it apart from the profane, so if both sides of the opposition are not only ‘aesthetic’, but also based on ritual and myth, what then distinguishes the ‘aestheticisation of politics’ from the ‘politicisation of art’ other than the kind of politics doing the aestheticising? She asks: ‘Does this mean that Benjamin’s polemic against the aesthetic form unravels? And concludes: ‘At times, it seems that the way the polemic is staged raises objections of logical contradiction.’ In ‘On Revolution and History in Walter Benjamin’ (2019) she expresses doubt over the ‘emancipatory potential’ of progressive film that Benjamin proposed as the antidote to fascism’s ‘aestheticisation of politics’, and she raises concerns about ‘the promise of a new mass art that would inculcate a distracted, collective relation to non-auratic form’, saying that ‘it is impossible to differentiate Benjamin’s ‘image space’ and its technology from the program that may be assumed to underlie fascist propaganda techniques.’

The contradiction and absurdity of the auratic wasn’t lost on Joseph Beuys. According to Jan Verwoert, in ‘The Boss: On the Unresolved Question of Authority in Joseph Beuys’ Oeuvre and Public Image’ (2023), Beuys directly engaged with Benjamin’s negative valuation of auratic form defined as ‘proximal with simultaneous distance’ in his 1964 action ‘The Chief’. He basically did exactly what Benjamin says you shouldn’t do, and constructed a situation that resembled the German people experiencing the presence of an unseen speaker (‘the führer’) whilst listening to Nazi propaganda through the ‘people’s radio’. Visitors to the performance space could hear his presence acoustically through the speaker in the corner of the room, but he was absent to them visually, wrapped up in felt on the floor with a microphone: ‘The crucial thing’ he says ‘is that Beuys did not simply produce an aura of authority but that he also exhibited the material conditions of its production in all their crudity, and exposed the contradictions inherent in this process in all their obvious absurdity. In this way, Beuys simultaneously constructed and dismantled an aura of authority. The performance constituted an event. However, its eventful qualities were reduced to a minimum – not much happened. A man lay wrapped in a blanket between two dead hares and made strange noises for hours’
If nothing else, Beuys had a pointed sense of humour, and I would like to think that David would have written a very insightful and humorous book about him. They seem to have shared a more positive or liminal conception of ritual and myth, a more dynamic materialism of a world in flux rather than static – ‘social structures are really just patterns of action’ – an ‘anthropological definition of art’, where through human action or human creativity ‘everybody is an artist’ (‘human beings are projects of mutual creation’)‘continually redefining and remaking themselves at the same time as they are reproducing (and also inevitably, changing) the larger context through which all this takes place.’ Both wanted to undermine the boundaries between art and life, artist and non-artist. The point was not to ‘mould society for aesthetic effects’, but to transform society, turning all of human life and material reality into a form of ‘social sculpture’: ‘the social and political realm, as much as the aesthetic realm, should be a site of experiment, transformation and creative production.’

Do we agree with O’Leary’s interpretation that Benjamin had a wholly negative valuation of the production of ritual and myth in the modern secular context? What would Benjamin’s new materialist theory of art mean for Beuys’ ‘social sculpture’ or David’s work on ‘social creativity’, would they both be brushed aside as being based on an ‘outmoded concept’? Does the ‘total’ homogenous space of modernity and mechanical reproduction really ‘emancipate the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual’ and result in ‘the loss of aura’ forever? If the aura is a ‘topological’ or ‘situational’ concept, as Boris Groys argues, is the artwork ‘re-auratised’ each time it is ‘re-situated’ within a closed meaningful context, so where reproduction turns the artwork into a copy, the space of an art installation can turn a copy back into to an original? So do we really need to de-ritualise art and politics, or as Max Puchalsky suggested in our last discussion, can we ‘re-salvage the sacred’ without being accused of fascism? Was it really the concept of art that caused the real fascism or did the politics of fascism use art for its own political design? Would the aestheticisation of a decentralised and heterogeneous network of interconnected aesthetic and political enclaves, based on full and equal participation, voluntary association, direct democracy, and a non-vanguardist revolutionary practice, produce the same result as a fascist ‘aestheticisation of politics’? How would a non-vanguardist revolutionary art praxis based on a tactical use of ritual work? Would an art praxis based on a liminal concept of ritual be capable of generating new models or forms of social organisation? Are even the most democratic of spaces dependent on the ‘sovereign violence’ and authority of the artist as their ‘legislator’? Are the contradictions of the auratic structurally inherent to all artistic practice irregardless of your politics?