My last blog entry dealt with an unexpected question that was asked during the Artist Rooms session on Beuys at Tate Modern on 18 September. Here is another one: was Beuys a feminist?
My own answer was brief and purely factual: his Office for Direct Democracy through Referendum went in for equal rights for men and women. A blackboard that was used at Documenta V in 1972, where Beuys’s contribution consisted of the presence of the Office throughout the entire 100 days the exhibition lasted, said:
“Our suggestion: Equal Rights for men and women! 20 years of party politics have not managed to realise this basic right: the recognition of domestic work as labor (career); to legally place this career on an equal level with others and to legitimate it through salary. Homemakers [sic] salaries! Women and men! If you would like to support our work toward the citizens’ demand to secure a true equal rights [sic] for women, then please sign this list. True freedom for women”.
At face value, unconditional basic income does nothing to secure equal rights for women. It only makes it easier for women (and for men to force women) to stay at home and do the chores. I will return to the question of true equal rights and true freedom further down.
First, I want to paraphrase what another participant, the collector Anthony D’Offay, had to say about the matter. D'Offay, a former art dealer who knew Beuys personally, pointed out that the latter distinguished between a male and a female “principle”, that he counted intuition among the characteristics of the female principle and that he had great respect for women’s intuition.
One might add that he also tended to represent the male principle by means of hard iron and the female principle by means of soft copper. Beuys’ entire universe consisted of opposites, with the energy that animates it circulating permanently between them. In his view, no pole should dominate. If one particular pole appeared to be fixed, it should be liquefied by means of the other.
In terms of sex and gender, such views no longer hold up. To take but one obvious reference, Judith Butler has argued convincingly that being female is not the same as being a woman. Gender roles are established and perpetuated performatively. From this perspective, any female principle set within a bipolar system is suspect. Respect for women’s intuition is all fine and well, but within a bipolar system built up around a male and a female principle it will only serve to perpetuate conventional gender roles.
Several arguments could be made against this. One of them is historical: the first wave of feminist artists, roughly contemporary with Beuys’s formative period during the 1960s and early 1970s, was concerned with visibility. In order to achieve equality between the sexes, it was felt that traditionally “female” activities, materials and tasks ought to be made visible and to be recognised as equally important as “male” ones. In this respect, Beuys is first and foremost a product of his time.
More importantly, however, Beuys’s ideas about the circulation of energy extended to the field of economics. If he mentions labour, salary and domestic work in one sentence, it is because his Energy Plan distinguishes between “production capital” and “consumption capital”. Every citizen, he said, ought to receive consumption capital in order to satisfy his/her needs. After a particular need had been satisfied, the money, having lost its value, would be returned to a central bank and be issued again as consumption capital. Everybody has needs, so everybody deserves his/her portion of consumption capital, no matter what they do. Payment for domestic labour follows logically from this scheme.
So was Beuys a feminist? I would say not. He wasn’t one in the modern sense of the word because he thought in terms of bipolar opposites and he wasn’t one in his own time because he thought in terms of flows. He isn’t one now because he is not radical enough and he wasn’t one back then because he was too radical. So please don’t get me wrong: if I say that he wasn’t a feminist I don’t mean to say that he was a male chauvinist, heterosexist pig. I mean to say that a concept like “feminism” would have been secondary in his scheme of things. Whether he was right to give it that position is another question.