Joseph Beuys



In the all-encompassing utopia of a transformation of society based on an expanded definition of art, which from the late 1950s he called “Projekt Westmensch” (Western Man Project), Beuys touched upon every area of social affairs. The notion of human beings as artists inevitably included all their creative potentials, especially production in the general sense and the economy as a whole.


At the center of his considerations on economics stood the concept of capital as defined by Karl Marx in his eponymous major work of 1867. In the 1960s-70s, the Marxist theory of class struggle was the most popular revolutionary idea in the anticapitalist student movements in France and Germany. Beuys, in contrast, advocated a third way, resulting from his expanded definition of art: a fundamental re-evaluation of the role of man in society based on a redefinition of the concept of capital. As Beuys explained in an interview:



“So I would tell people that alternative economic ideas have long since been developed that provide people with the freedom they need, that provide people with the democratic equality they need, and that give them the opportunity to act with self-responsibility in economic life. Yes, I would certainly arrive at ideas like these: the expanded definition of art, “Everyman an artist,” the creativity issue, the freedom issue, the issue of a truly free economy, the necessity of a new monetary order – something that goes far beyond capitalism and communism. We have already called this the “third way.”



Based on the Latin source of the word (caput = head), Beuys defined capital as the mental creative abilities of people, which he reduced to the provocative formula “art=capital.” As he noted in a 1984 interview:



“This economic system, which relates to this [expanded definition of art] and is impelled by it, will change its form. And a monetary economy – which brings us right back to the concept of capital – a monetary exchange economy that degrades human dignity to a commodity for money – an important point in Marx – would change into an economy in which human ability is the sole capital. And when this matter has been taken care of… then money would disappear as the economic value and shift to this area and become a legal regulative, a legal document.”



There emerged in this connection various works, mostly editions, such as banknotes bearing the formula “Kunst=Kapital”, which qualified the overwhelming dominance of money. Beuys understood human beings as historically determined, but not necessarily bound by economic conditions and their environment. Rather, in his view, people shaped history. For Beuys, economic processes were the results of free men, of their creative activity.



A meeting with the economic theorist and anthroposophist Wilhelm Schmundt in 1973 in Achberg, and his theories on the concept of capital and monetary circulation, lastingly influenced Beuys’s thinking about “economic values”. Beuys and Schmundt proceeded from Rudolf Steiner’s three-part social organism, in which the State had merely to guarantee equality before the law, while the intellectual life and economy were to be left up to free individuals independent of the State. Beuys’s entire oeuvre, including his enigmatic performances, were aimed at a complete change of thought and thus of all societal relations.


Professor Eugen Blumem