A Quibble About Scribble
Approach the St. Louis Art Museum from the south and you’ll come face to face with one of the first objects on display: a three-way electrical plug. The everyday object would be just that — everyday and mundane — if not for the fact that Pop sculptor Claes Oldenburg decided to make the easily ignored item ridiculously oversized and disarmingly heroic. The giant socket is a pleasant shocker on the museum’s south lawn.
Now head inside, to gallery 336 and its room full of contemporary art. There you’ll find Joseph Beuys’ 1972 work “Urbis.” Like Oldenburg, Beuys (1921-1986) has taken common objects — a pair of schoolhouse blackboards in this case — and transformed them into something that we supposedly should take time to visit and admire.
No playful gigantism here, however. No bells. No whistles. No dogs and ponies needed to put on a show.
Instead, the prefabricated “Urbis” blackboards get their weight and import from the very fact that they contain the scribbled, chalk-written notes from a lecture Beuys gave in 1972. As the wall text at the museum explains: “The blackboards he used to illustrate his thoughts during lectures became a part of the artist’s oeuvre.”
They may be part of Beuys’ oeuvre, but are the blackboards really works of art? Does placing “Urbis” in the same room with a Brice Marden, a Susan Rothenberg, a Willem de Kooning and a Martin Puryear give it legitimacy?
Obviously enough of the right people must think so. Because Beuys’ lecture notes outline the philosophical issues surrounding art’s role in history making and freedom of expression (Beuys spent many years as a university professor), these people might argue that “Urbis” falls into the realm of conceptual art, even social critique, perhaps.
As critic Arthur Danto wrote in a 1994 review that referenced Beuys in describing Cy Twombly’s blackboard paintings:
“Blackboards are emblems of professional authority, and would especially be that in the German system, in which Beuys was a professor of art, and, as an artist, played the role of a professor in his ‘actions.’ The scientific symbols, the scientific terms and the confident adult hand all proclaim that the writer is a person of some learning, enough learning to stand before a group in a posture of pedagogy.” Well, OK. But does that really offer enough evidence to support Beuys declaring his classroom supplies to be collectible objects?
The ultimate irony is that Beuys, one of the leading artists to come out of post-war Germany, spent his life and career in a politicized quest to expand art’s limited definition as well as its accessibility. To quote the museum’s wall text once more: “Both topics (the ones outlined in “Urbis”) are central to Beuys’ concept of the role of art in society and the responsibility of the artist to further democracy and freedom.” The irony, then, is that “Urbis” comes across as the ultimate act of elitism and hubris. Admire the chalkboard, adoring crowds, for Beuys once graced it with his scribbled thoughts.
Not that Beuys didn’t produce some groundbreaking and important work in his day. From his performance pieces to his iconic drawings and sculptures, Beuys often questioned art’s boundaries in a way that has withstood the test of time. His sculpted felt suits, one of which the museum owns, stand as one of the great examples of art’s ability to simultaneously make us break into a smile and deep thought.
But “Urbis,” however much you tailor it, just doesn’t fit quite right. If it’s another Duchampian stab at the whole “what is art?” question, then it’s a bit out of fashion and threadbare. If it’s simply a piece of material culture, then perhaps it belongs in the Smithsonian with Archie Bunker’s favorite chair and Fonzie’s leather jacket.
In fact, the blackboards would probably work just fine in a larger retrospective of Beuys’ life and work, one that highlighted his aesthetic output as well as the objects – the “things” – that made the artist the person that he was. (His varied life included founding membership in the art group Fluxus and the Green political party of Germany.)
Such a tact was taken at the Whitney Museum’s Keith Haring retrospective in the late ’90s. Glass-enclosed cases filled with the “things” of Haring’s everyday life helped visitors establish a more meaningful, human connection with the artist. The things mattered.
To be fair, things mattered for Beuys as well, as anything from a found object to a random act fit into his art lexicon. Art was life. Life was art. The two should be integrated, not artificially segregated, he believed.
During the last three or four decades, that ethos has been developed – for good and for bad – by a large number of working artists. Often the results prove to be a toxic mix of pretentiousness and laziness, with old stalwarts’ skill and inventiveness thrown by the wayside. But the occasional bright light does shine through. Former hometowner Larry Krone springs to mind, especially his 1998 show at the Forum for Contemporary Art that incorporated hair – pulled from the artist’s shower drain – into a textual composition that referenced country music and its themes of loss and loneliness. As Patsy Cline sang, this sounds “Crazy,” but it really did work.
It wouldn’t have, however, if Krone had merely exhibited his drain pipe or his balding pate – or perhaps a sketchbook that outlined his theories on art’s relationship to life. He took it to the next level. He used his creative powers, and his wit, to forge a lasting work of art.
Despite the argument of the museum’s wall text, I’m not sure if “Urbis” makes that leap. But work of art or not, the piece will surely be lasting: Beuys’ words are protected by sheets of glass placed over the black Masonite panels. No unruly students will be able to write naughty messages on the board. No vandal will be able to erase the chalky contemplations – which would be difficult, anyway, in that the blackboards’ eraser holders are both empty.
Not that they need be. Beuys signed hundreds of felt blackboard erasers in what was dubbed his “Eraser” series. Washington University’s Gallery of Art, just a stone’s throw away from Art Hill, owns one. Perhaps a mutual exhibit could be arranged, one that gets everyone in on the action. If so, we could chalk it up to the democratizing power of art.
© 2002 St. Louis Post-Dispatch