In a small room, we see a man sitting on a stool with a pile of bones underneath him, his face covered in honey and gold leaf, cradling a dead hare and whispering to it about his drawings on the walls. This man is Joseph Beuys. He’s covered in honey because he believes it will help him communicate spiritually to the dead hare in his arms. He believes this dead hare will bring healing to himself and the audience. This performance is Joseph Beuys work, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965).
This work should be included in the Art History-19 curriculum because Joseph Beuys was associated with the Fluxus movement, but unlike other Fluxus artists, Beuys incorporated autobiographical references in his oeuvre, and instead of intending to only have an underlying social critique to his performance like other Fluxus artists, Beuys intent was mainly to make the viewer feel a spiritual connection and bring healing to the audience and himself.
Beuys’ performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) also challenges the typical approaches in the Fluxus movement that we had previously been taught in the course. In this way, including this work will help further college students’ understanding of the Fluxus movement. The first reason Joseph Beuys artwork How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) deserves a place in the course is because it expands college students’ understanding of performance art and how it opened the door to the numerous possibilities of what art can be.
In class we were taught that Fluxus artists used performances to not only change art history but to change the world itself. These performances were nontraditional, promoted living art, and were simply things that anyone could do. We were shown examples of Fluxus performances such as Nam June Paik’s One for Violin Solo (1962), where he is seen on stage wearing a tuxedo, smashing a violin on the table in front of him with one bang.
This kind of performance is typical of Fluxus because it’s live art, it has a social critique, and it’s symbolic. The violin symbolized high art and the elite, and the smashing of the violin was used as a metaphor for destroying the typical high-art conventions. We were also shown Yoko Ono’s performance Cut Piece (1964). In this performance she is seen sitting on a stage, fully clothed, with a pair of scissors in front of her. The audience was told they could come up on stage and cut a piece of her clothing off and keep it. The audience does so until Yoko is left merely in her underwear. This kind of performance is typical of Fluxus because it involves audience participation, the artist giving up control, it’s symbolic, and has an underlying social critique. By Yoko Ono letting the audience have the control to cut her clothing any way they’d like, she reveals to us society’s true intentions where women are concerned.
While these two works are great examples of typical Fluxus performances, there is an important artist who’s intent and approach is left out, giving students only a partial summary on Fluxus and performance art. Including Joseph Beuys How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) in the course would help expand college students understanding of performance because while Beuys performance was similar to other Fluxus artists in that it wasn’t traditional, that anyone could do these things, and that it was symbolic, it was also very different because Beuys sought out to make the viewer have a spiritual connection, and have a healing effect, rather than to only have an underlying social critique like other Fluxus artists did. In Joseph Beuys How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) he is seen through a gallery window, sitting on a stool with bones piled underneath it, his head and face smothered in honey and gold leaf, a hunk of iron tied to one boot, and a felt pad tied to his other foot, as he cradles a dead hare in his arms.
In the performance, Beuys would regularly explain his drawings to the deceased hare. Beuys would occasionally change it up by making a series of ritualistic gestures, walk around the small space, and manipulate the deceased hare’s body to physically touch the drawings. Beuys made this work not to have the viewers go home and try to interpret what the performance means, but instead to make the viewers feel it themselves and understand it on a spiritual level and have a healing effect on not only the viewer, but himself as well. This can be seen through the symbolic associations that the materials he used carried. Honey is a nurturing substance that symbolized life. Beuys also believed the honey would expand his abilities to think and help him communicate with the hare. The gold leaf symbolized wealth and also gave Beuys a shaman aura.
Beuys chose a hare because the hare symbolized death and hares were commonly used in shamanic rituals. He chose felt because it was an ancient healing aid, and it symbolized protection. He chose the iron because it symbolized human strength. These elements combined made what Beuys believed to be a spiritual connection where he was some form of liaison between art and the spiritual world. Beuys believed the audience and himself would receive a healing effect from this performance; An effect given to them by the deceased hare. He believed the hare would heal the souls of the audience and Beuys himself and give them a renewed spirit and perspective that would spark new ways of thinking, bring hope, and be applied to the real world. In this way, Beuys blurred the lines between art and life and paved the way for different artistic approaches.
This performance should also be included in the course because it is very different from what we had learned in class. That is, that Fluxus artists were removing themselves from their art. Beuys work How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) is different from that of other Fluxus artists because he introduces personal autobiographical references in his performance. Joseph Beuys combined his personal experiences and artistic ideas to make captivating works. The materials and items he used to create his visual masterpieces were never chosen at random. Each of these items and materials carried enormous amounts of symbolic representation and significant associations with his past experiences. In 1944 Beuys was a radio operator serving in the military when he was shot down in his plane and landed on the Crimean Front in Ukraine.
Beuys claims that the nomadic Tatars in the area found him on the brink of death and took care of him. The Tatars nursed Beuys for over a week and covered his wounds in animal fat and wrapped him in felt to raise his temperature. Students can see just how much his experience with the Tartars impacted him and inspired him when they look at his artworks. For example, Beuys performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) is based on Shamanism. Not only does Beuys look like a shaman in this performance, but he also uses a shamanistic approach in the work. He covers his face in honey and gold leaf because he believes it will help him communicate spiritually to the hare and that the hare will bring healing.
This is a common belief in Shamanism and here we see the link to Beuys personal life because while Beuys was recovering from his injuries in Crimea, the Tartars introduced him to Shamanism. Another reference to Beuys personal experience with the Tartars is Beuys’ choice of a hare to use in this performance. While he did choose the hare because it symbolized death, he also chose the hare because many shamanistic rituals involved hares. Beuys chose to use felt not only for its symbolic association but because it also had deep significance to his life, considering the Tatars used this material to wrap his wounds and essentially, save his life. These autobiographical references were not typical of Fluxus artists and yet, Joseph Beuys, a key participant in the Fluxus movement incorporated them into many of his works.
Another reason this performance should be included in the course is because this work is so incredibly strange and morbid, that it pulls the viewer in and encourages deep thought and analysis. The visual aspects of this work such as the dead hare and the manipulating of the hare’s carcass, the pile of bones underneath the stool, the eerie whispering, and the strange mask Beuys wears, is so striking and bizarre that the viewer wants to understand what the artist was thinking and what the work means. Truth be told, many college students don’t pay attention in class, let alone participate. Finding an artwork that fascinates them goes along way and makes them want to analyze that work. Although the textbook does provide a fair summary about Beuys and his works, it is written in a way that most college students will merely gloss over it and not truly understand what is being said or how to interpret his works. Because of this, I believe students will also benefit from a more down to earth, relatable interpretation that an art history professor can provide.
Joseph Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) should be included in the Art History-19 curriculum because although Beuys was a member of the Fluxus movement, his use of autobiographical references such as felt, hares, and Shamanism, and his intent behind his work such as the spiritual communication and healing effects, his approach and intent were not common in the Fluxus movement we learned about in the course. To say the least, Joseph Beuys was incredibly innovative, and he attempted to be proactive and change art and the world through his performance. For these reasons, Joseph Beuys deserves a place in the Art History-19 course.