When Joseph Beuys boxed for democracy
A new London show looks back on the German artist’s pugilistic performance at Documenta VI
On 13 October 1972 Joseph Beuys was dismissed from his teaching post at Düsseldorf Academy of Art. Though he was already one of Europe’s most innovative artists, his relationship with his employer had become strained. Beuys insisted on removing entry requirements to his classes, and broke down both divisions between both the student and the master, and art and politics, in ways that disrupted Academy life.
In response, Beuys set up his own Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research. This new institution had “no charges for participation, no restrictive admission policies, complete autonomy from the state and an interdisciplinary curriculum based on the idea that creativity permeates all aspects of human endeavour,” writes Allan Antliff in our Joseph Beuys book.
“A number of prominent cultural figures rallied to the project, which was inaugurated in 1977 at ‘Documenta VI’, where Beuys organized the Action 100 Days Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research, to serve as the springboard for his Free International University project. Beuys transformed an exhibition area into an educational space for films, lectures and a series of workshops on subjects such as ‘Nuclear Energy and Alternatives’, ‘Media’ and ‘Work and Worklessness’. “ At the end of this run, Beuys put his words into action an extraordinarily vivid way: a boxing match.
“On the final day of Documenta VI Beuys staged ‘Boxkampf für die direkte Demokratie’ with Abraham David Christian, a local art student,” explains London’s Waddington Custot gallery, which is currently showing Boxkampf für die direkte Demokratie a display of pictures and mementos from this fight. “Christian had challenged Beuys to the fight and stood for ‘representative government’ versus Beuys’ ‘direct democracy’. The ‘Boxkampf für die direkte Demokratie’ took place at the Museum Fridericianum, against a backdrop of Ben Vautier’s ‘Thinking Room’ and with a rowdy crowd of spectators in attendance. Beuys’ student, Anatol Herzfeld, refereed three rounds, after which he declared Beuys the winner, “on points for direct democracy through direct hits.””
Did the 51-year-old artist really beat his younger opponent, or did a little institutional hegemony – something the artist had always tried to resist - help Beuys triumph? It’s unclear, though the match, and today’s show serve a worthy reminder of how engaged Beuys was with political concerns far beyond the art world’s traditional confines.