Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) was maybe one of the more influential artists of the 20th century. His was a strong belief in the power of art to transform society. He believed that art had an important social, cultural and political function and was confident in the power of art to bring about revolutionary change.
“Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline”
He was the first to develop the idea of ‘social sculpture’ – an integration of sculptural work into everyday social activity and – at its extreme – the idea that society as a whole was to be regarded as one giant work of art.
In environmental terms, his best known work is ‘7,000 oaks’. Starting with the planting of a single oak tree in Kassel, Germany in 1982, he initiated a project that culminated in the planting of 7,000 oak trees in that city over the following 5 years. This was a substantial artistic and ecological intervention with the goal of changing the living space of the city.
The project exemplified Beuys’s idea that social sculpture was a participatory process that could, itself, transform our social environment. The idea of artwork that intervenes and itself becomes part of our landscape or social fabric has since been taken up by a many of today’s conceptual artists.
Beuys’s work was not universally admired. His passion for social change and his belief in the power of art as the agent of change was described by some as ‘simple-minded utopian drivel‘.
Love him or hate him (and there are plenty of either), Beuys’s lasting influence is undeniable. in 1988, the Dia Foundation installed 5 oaks in New York City claiming them as a ‘continuation’ of Beuys’s project. British artists Ackroyd and Harvey collected acorns from Beuys’s oaks, re-planted them and exhibited the saplings as part of “Earth: Art of a Changing World” a recent exhibition at the Royal Acedemy, London. What these works lacks in originality they maybe make up for as a tribute to the impact of Joseph Beuys and his lasting influence on social and environmental art.