from ‘The Cultural-Historical Tragedy of the European Continent’
Dialogue between Joseph Beuys, Jannis Kounellis, Anselm Kiefer, Enzo Cucchi, Zurich – 1985.
ANSELM KIEFER: For me there have always been people who are ignorant, others who are less ignorant, and others still who are very intelligent.
JOSEPH BEUYS: This is a question of individuality, a matter of personal fate. There will always be various levels of ability. But in the future all abilities will be malleable, the level will be elevated.
JANNIS KOUNELLIS: Yes, but a monument like the Cologne Cathedral indicates a centralization, encompasses a culture, and points the way for future development. Without signs like this we would run the risk of becoming nomads.
BEUYS: The Cologne Cathedral is a bad sculpture. It would make a good train station. Chartres is better. But what Kounellis says about the cathedral is a nice image. The old cathedrals were built in a world that was still round, but that in the meantime has been constricted by materialism. There was an internal necessity to narrow it like that, since in that way human consciousness became sharpened, especially in its analytic functions. Now we have to carry out a synthesis with all our powers, and build a new cathedral.
KIEFER: It makes me feel terribly uncomfortable if what Beuys means is that humanity would change if we change a concept. There have always been different kinds of people.
BEUYS: That goes without saying. It’s a matter of raising the level in every domain. We agree that throughout history it’s enough to see how people furnished their apartments. They’ve never lived so degradingly. [. . .] At the same time, the way one lives is an important and elementary expression of one’s artistic sense. The esthetic sense is disturbed nowadays like never before in history. So let’s build the cathedral!
KOUNELLIS: Right. This excess of nomadism and of rejecting culture creates an absurd situation.
KIEFER: The declining level is obvious. But last time we asked ourselves why the innocent, primitive native, as soon as he gets a plastic bowl, throws away his own.
BEUYS: They’ve become susceptible because nowadays the old tribal cultures are no longer valid. [. . .] It would be better if these people could develop themselves. But, of course, they are subjugated to capitalism and usually die out because of it. You can see this quite well with the Basque problem. The Basques are really the abandoned vestige of some nomadic people. There are thousands of theories that they came from Asia and, perhaps as punishment by some tribal chief, were left behind. Now they are there, trying time and again to preserve their old tribal culture. But they haven’t developed their own literature, everything proceeds according to oral tradition. Now they are, with good reason, making very specific demands.
JEAN-CHRISTOPHE AMMANN: Why do you mention the example of the Basques?
BEUYS: Because the context of the European Economic Community, within which the Basques find themselves, corresponds to the machinations in the system of the Western monetary economy. That is, the Spanish government doesn’t give the Basques any autonomy, and therefore a problem arises – like in Northern Ireland. In Spain I proposed that the Basques should be given full autonomy. The Spanish claim that the Basques would then degenerate because they have no indigenous culture. But then I said that they did indeed have their own culture, just by virtue of the fact that they wanted self-determination. It’s even possible that these people, just like us at this table, work out a concept for their own economy which could be paradigmatic for many people. If the Basques were given self-determination, it would certainly be much different. That would provide a good opportunity to develop something paradigmatic, which we could view like a work of art. We could then possibly sit down together with them and develop something paradigmatic for the whole world.
ENZO CUCCHI: The Basques 1 method is interesting because they use terrorism but I don’t know where terrorism leads us to.
BEUYS: Terrorism doesn’t lead to a solution of the question. It leads us to a totally boring, conservative social system.
CUCCHI: That’s not what I meant. I just wonder which feelings are inherent in terrorism nowadays, what form it takes. Both the Basques and the Northern Irish use this code. [. . .]
KOUNELLIS: Within Europe there are many peoples who want to be independent, for example, the Sicilians, the Sardinians, the Corsicans, and others.
BEUYS: That’s very positive.
KOUNELLIS: Yes, but it’s also very positive to speak about the Cologne Cathedral. Not only those who want to separate are positive.
BEUYS: The Chartres Cathedral is positive when one sees that such attempts at independence lead to another system, so that the Corsicans, the Sardinians, the Basques, the Irish, and the Scottish can build a cathedral at all. I’m convinced that the Basques are doing it right. I’m not so sure about the Scottish. You really have to begin with a small group and introduce a different principle into an easily receptive community. The idea of the cathedral means a different understanding of culture, justice, spirit, economy and so forth. If the Spanish would give the Basques autonomy, I’d go there immediately and the Basques would say: ‘We need nothing more desperately than such talks, since everything has to be erected from new foundations. We don’t want to give everything a new basis, the basis of art.’ They want the body of society to be like a work of art. But terrorism hinders these attempts, since it provides the larger countries and powers with new arguments to keep implementing police force, to become a military state.
Capitalism is happy to have terrorism. It’s artificially bred by capitalism. [. . . ] Regarding the broadened concept of art, I’m searching for the dumbest person. And when I’ve found the dumbest person on the lowest possible level, then I’ve surely found the most intelligent one, the one potentially most endowed. And that person is the bearer of creativity. The so-called intelligence that people jam into their heads like a knife only produces a superficial view, and this intelligence must be destroyed. Dullness has to take a hand, because all the other powers exist in it like a wild volition, a fantastic sensitivity and perhaps an entirely different perception. Maybe they already exist in heaven.
KIEFER: That’s your personal idea, Beuys.
BEUYS: No. It goes beyond me as a person. My personal self is absolutely uninteresting. I’m just trying to describe power relations in the world, which are like they are today, and tomorrow must be different. And I’m trying to make that clear with examples. [. . . ] We’re not here talking together to improve our relationship, which is good anyway. We’re here to build the cathedral.
KOUNELLIS: The construction of the cathedral is the construction of a visible language.
BEUYS: That’s an important detail. But today everything is possible, and so the cathedral isn’t materialized. We’ve agreed to build a cathedral and to arrive at a really human culture. But we haven’t agreed upon how the cathedral should look, or from what material it’ll be made.
KOUNELLIS: Beuys has suffered severely, more than all of us. That’s a feeling I have, because he’s suspicious about openly discussing fundamental things.
BEUYS: Openness is, of course, a somewhat obsolete concept. Many people think they are quite progressive and ‘with it’ if they speak about so-called openness. But openness has to be precisely defined. Otherwise, openness means nothing more than that everything is possible. However, I claim nearly nothing is possible. In order to have access to every single point of view, you really need an astute sense of perception. But if one wants to arrive at a consensus, openness must take on a totally determined form, a condensation, and that’s the opposite image of openness. Openness is also a term used in propaganda. We’ve been seduced by this word. People spoke of openness, of a pluralistic society, in other words, and claimed that in the end everything is possible: and they just didn’t want any particular ways and principles, as these require a precisely worked-out form.
KOUNELLIS: But we’re individuals who don’t let ourselves be influenced.
BEUYS: Openness should be human, related to the individual anthropologically; open for what the other means.
KOUNELLIS: We’re talking about an openness in the interior of Europe, where cultures are very close despite differences.
BEUYS: Present-day culture is, however, really not determined by the Gothic dome, but rather by a leading economic system that has shoved art out to the periphery or into nonexistence. And when the whole system goes bankrupt because the economic culture is on a wrong footing, then art will once again have a good chance to construct an authentic culture in every way, rather than a stifled formation. I simply refuse to accept that this microphone on the table in front of us is not supposed to belong to culture.
KOUNELLIS: As long as the microphone is on the table like that, it can’t belong to culture. But when Beuys puts it on felt, then it becomes a part of culture, because Beuys has the power to transform the microphone into culture.
BEUYS: But the power only benefits me, it leads back to my individual actions and not to the cathedral.
KOUNELLIS: No, it benefits us all and that also has something to do with the cathedral. [. . .]
BEUYS: [. . .] Regarding art as the only way to build the cathedral, I really do need the spoken language.
KIEFER: Before an artist has died, one can’t completely tell what he meant with his work in its entire spectrum.
BEUYS: But I can certainly say what I mean.
KIEFER: What you have said, however, is only a small part of the real range.
BEUYS: It’s just not true that the artist says something only after his death. But perhaps it’s true that a dead artist is better than a living one.