“I know I deal with forces”

Art and Spirituality with Joseph Beuys

Author: Rüdiger Sünner
This year, Tattva Viveka also looks at the artist Joseph Beuys, whose 100th birthday is being celebrated this year. This is a good occasion to shed some light on his relationship with spirituality. It tends to receive little attention in discourse. The filmmaker and book author Rüdiger Sünner presents three spiritual currents that had a significant influence on Joseph Beuys’ view of the world and thus on his art.

Does the art of Joseph Beuys, whose 100th birthday is being celebrated in a big way this year, have anything to do with spirituality? When it comes to these questions, there is often an awkward silence or helpless embarrassment in the media. Even now again in the anniversary year: Was this artist really a “shaman” and a follower of the controversial esoteric Rudolf Steiner? And what does all this have to do with his art? Since there is hardly anyone who can provide competent information on these topics, we are left with vague allusions that are treated only briefly and superficially, if at all.

The truth is that Joseph Beuys was certainly the most spiritual artist of the 20th century. He incorporated many inspirations from the fields of shamanism, anthroposophy, mythology and Christianity into his art.

He did not simply incorporate motifs in this regard into his works, but understood these themselves- As instruments for reopening spiritual sides that had been buried in modern man. Beuys once wrote that he had even been personally commissioned by Rudolf Steiner to “gradually clear away people’s mistrust of the supernatural. What other artist of the 20th century has found such clear words for his work.



Beuys once said this to art historian Rhea Thönges-Stringaris:

“I know that I deal with forces”. This is one of the key sentences to better understand his spirituality.

What “forces” does he mean and what are “forces” anyway? First of all, they are energies in an invisible space beyond the sensually perceptible. No matter whether we speak of electromagnetic forces or of the “powerful radiation” of a human being. Because of my long involvement with his work, which led to a film and a book, I understood that Beuys perceived the world not as a collection of things but of forces. For him, everything was energy fields. Wether people, animals, plants, or materials such as fat, felt, copper, gold, honey, oak wood, or basalt that made up his works.

In the tradition of a Paracelsus, Goethe, Schelling or Novalis, Beuys believed that the material world is embodied spirit. With this spirit our human spirit can connect if it develops a sensorium for it. For such reasons, Beuys was spiritual, in the sense of an older conception of spirit (“spiritus”). That located it not – as we do today – only in the neuronal activities of our brain, but everywhere in the cosmos. Since shamanism also represented such a world view, Beuys was interested throughout his life in its millennia-old traditions and received many inspirations for his artistic work from them.


The fact that Beuys showed great interest in this probably oldest spiritual tradition of our earth early on can be proven by many sources. Beuys owned reference books by the religious scientist Mircea Eliade and the ethnologist Hans Findeisen on the subject. He also knew the several-hour film “Shamans in the Blind Land” by the ethnologist Michael Oppitz. That which he had filmed under difficult conditions among the Magar in Nepal. According to Oppitz, Beuys had a “first-class layman’s understanding” of, for example, Siberian shamanism. “Sometimes also a bit in the Steinerian line, which is not so much to my liking, but that is forgiven”.
The mysteriousness of these rituals, in which attempts were made to communicate with spirits, gods and ancestors, as well as by their dramatic power, which he could use for his performances impressed Beuys deeply.


Beuys was just as interested in the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner as he was in shamanism. So he began to study it intensively in the early 1950s.

His library contained about 100 volumes of Steiner’s complete works, and Beuys referred to himself in interviews as an anthroposophist.

His biographer Hans-Peter Riegel took this as an opportunity to cast the artist in a negative light. He spoke sweepingly of Steiner’s “Germanic folk ideas” that Beuys had uncritically admired and adopted in his art [Rüdiger Sünner: Zeige deine Wunde, op. cit. 210, note 116]. An undifferentiated understanding of both Steiner and Beuys. For neither is anthroposophy “folk”, nor do Beuys’ ambiguous works of art reflect its ideas one-to-one. It is true that there are indeed racist statements in Rudolf Steiner’s work. But it is on this point of all things that Beuys radically departs from him. For example in his high esteem for Native American culture, which for Steiner was something “degenerate” that was rightly doomed to extinction.

In interviews, Beuys sometimes used anthroposophical terms without the uninitiated audience noticing. He spoke, for example, of how we could communicate with “angels” and “archangels”. That animals possessed a “group soul” and humans an “etheric figure.”

He also liked to use – like Steiner – the triad “imagination, inspiration, intuition” to refer to higher thinking faculties in man,

and spoke frankly about his belief in reincarnation and rebirth. However, Beuys always did this in a very unique way, often combined with a hearty laugh that kept everything ambiguously in abeyance.

Action: I like America and America likes Me, 1974

Action: I like America and America likes Me, 1974


This is also true of Beuys’ work “Crucifixion” (1962/63), which also consists of waste elements placed in a completely new aesthetic context: two blood can bottles, behind which rises a wooden stick, to the tip of which is attached a piece of paper with a sign, as we know it as the symbol of the “Red Cross”. Around the strange cross-like configuration wind wires that look like electric cables. What does it mean to “understand” such a work of art? Perhaps, first of all, to abandon oneself to the sensory impressions and feelings and associations triggered by them. We see a sculpture that seems awkward at first, again made of used materials, with containers for blood that can be life-saving in certain circumstances.

Feelings of distress and trepidation rise, the object exhales something pathetic and rampant, the electric cables could indicate a torture cellar. Had Jesus Christ been tortured here? Or prisoners of today’s regimes of injustice, for whom the blood supplies come too late?

And yet the fragile work also radiates a little hope, comfort, tenderness and warmth. Simply through the loving attention the artist has paid to his materials. The small cross above the sculpture also acts like a dim lamp. Not glowing in the radiant beacon like the “Red Cross” symbol, but rather brown and dark. One of Beuys’ favorite muted colors, in which he saw “earthy warmth” and “dried blood.” A small lackluster altar that stands crooked and lopsided like a hunchbacked man, but from whose depths a great power nevertheless emanates: Beuys’ very own form of a Christian alchemy that has repeatedly tried to make “spiritual gold” out of worn and degraded materials.


About the author

Unser Autor Rüdiger SünnerRüdiger Sünner, born in Cologne in 1953, studied music, musicology, German literature and philosophy. In 1985, he received his doctorate on the philosophy of art by Theodor W. Adorno and Friedrich Nietzsche. He then studied at the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin (DFFB). Since 1991 he has been living in Berlin as a freelance author, filmmaker and musician. His diverse publications and films deal primarily with spiritual borderlands, such as Black Sun – Mythological Backgrounds of National Socialism (1996), The Creative Universe – Natural Science and Spirituality in Dialogue (2010), Show Your Wound – Art and Spirituality in Joseph Beuys ( 2015) and Wild Thinking – Europe in Dialogue with Spiritual Cultures of the World (2020).

This article appeared originally on the German Homepage of Tattva Viveka: »Ich weiß, dass ich mit Kräften umgehe«

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