The Social Sculpting of the “Humans of Museums”

The Social Sculpting of the “Humans of Museums”

(Paper and Photography Presented at Pomona College on Wednesday, November 6th 2019)

The German artist, Josef Beuys, was a Fluxus performance artist in the 20th Century. Commonly regarded as one of the most prolific and influential artist of the century, when he arrived in America for the first time in 1974 it is said that he was donned “the Picasso of the Avant-Garde.”[1] His conceptual and performance pieces in Germany, across the sea from America, relegated his work to a flourishing underground art scene in the US. American art critic, Kim Levin writes, “In the late 1960s, Joseph Beuys was an underground name in the American art world, and a hero to art students. His representation preceded him in the United States.”[2] Upon coming to the United States, Beuys was given a platform to share what has become his longest standing claim to fame in the art world proper. His idea of “social sculpture” became a crucial intervention into not only the discourse around art specifically but social-political analysis as well. At a Public Dialogue in New York city at the New School to a packed auditorium of 350 people, Josef Beuys addressed the audience on what has become known as one of the most radical expansions and deconstructions of the modernist conception of art and its institutional affiliations with the Museum. Beuys states:


I would like to declare why I feel that it’s now necessary to establish a new kind of art, able to show the problems of the whole society, of every living being – and how this new discipline – which I call social sculpture – can realize the future of humankind. It could be a guarantee for the evolution of the earth as a planet, establish conditions for the other planetarians too, and you can control it with your own thinking… Here my idea is to declare that art is the only possibility for evolution, the only possibility to change the situation in the world. But then you have to enlarge the idea of art to include the whole of creativity. And if you do that, it follows logically that every living being is an artist – an artist in the sense that he can develop his own capacity.[3]

This “radical” deconstruction of the boundaries of art and non-art contributed to the image of Beuys as being at the forefront of a new and radical avant-garde, one which, like all avant-gardes of the past, would come with its “derision, suspicion, and distaste” but which nonetheless would make a difference in the way Culture conceives of itself as itself. Beuys work of finding art in everything and everyone, received ambiguous appreciation in America, yet he was hailed by the institution of art as a meaningful interlocutor in the ongoing operations and discourse surrounding art. Even though the parallels Americans wanted to draw between  the theory behind Beuys work, pop art and performance art were misleading, there never remained any major incredulity to the idea that whatever Beuys was doing whether it was in Germany or in America, it was, in fact, Art. Art against the old guard of Art, Art against art’s category, and yet still, Art. Indeed, Beuys was an artist and there was no doubt about it. Beuys injected his philosophical reflections with symbolism, expressionism and mysticism, and though these aspects of his thinking made his American audience uneasy he was never disavowed by his audience. He was seen as Frank Wilderson describes it, as “within a world of contemporaries.”[4] This is the case even as he had gone on to be described by Kim Levin as, “speaking to a different culture,” and “coming from a different past.”[5]

Black Dada Nihilismus has an analysis of this situation that starts with an understanding that as Fred Moten put its in his In the Break that, “The idea of the avant-garde is embedded in a theory of history. This is to say that a particular geographical ideology, a geographical-racial or racist unconscious, marks and is the problematic out of which or against the backdrop of which the idea of the avant-garde emerges.”[6] This particular history is a history which excises the Black from its coherence from the outset since the Black stands as the anti-thesis of the Human and its manifold manifestations. No matter which different culture Beuys was speaking to or from, he had never belonged to that category of being that had been cosigned to being expulsed from the idea of Culture. He had never been in a position where his “metaphysics, or less pretentiously [his] customs and the agencies to which they refer, were abolished because they were in contradiction with a new civilization that imposed its own.”[7] As a result, he manages to see capacity everywhere in much the same way that Frank Wilderson critiques throughout all of his major work Red, White and Black. The fact that the goal of Beuys’ social sculpting was to construct a new “Energy Plan for the Western Man,” circumvents any idea that Beuys was somehow outside of tradition. Beuys, like the Fluxus Movement generally, like the Dadaist movement specifically, like the various movements who have found themselves positioned within the Museum as the “avant-garde” are a part of a different, more unthought social sculpture. This is the social sculpture of anti-Blackness, a social sculpture constituted by the endless propulsion of Western society towards the Human against the Black. Western notions of the human constitute the structure of Western dis-course and civilization, and the Black centers that structure by being both a part of the structure and excluded from it. What constitutes the seeming stability of the structure of the West is the cyclic death and dying of the Black body. The Black as the antithesis of the human orients, balances, and organizes the structure, and limits what we might call the “freeplay of the structure.” Thus, the structure of the world is the structure arrangements constructed by man. The human is the structure, whereas the slave and the slave’s ever-present death constitute the inside-outside of man’s structure. Josef Beuys’ subjective capacity and corporeal integrity is tied to general sculpture of structure which operates through continuous disavow. As Wilderson writes:

[T]he threat of discovering oneself in one’s own scholarly or artistic endeavors as “comparison” is not a fate that awaits White academics (and artist). White academics’ disavowal of Black death as modernity’s condition of possibility (their inability to imagine their productive subjectivity as an effect of the Negro (Judy 92, 93-94, 97)) stems not from the unbearable terror of that (non)self-discovery always-already awaiting the Black, but from the fact that, save brief and infrequent conjunctures of large-scale Black violence (18th and 19th century slave revolts and 20th century “urban unrest”), the socius provides no catalyst for White avowal: in short, thought—essential, ontological thought—is all but impossible in White cultural and political theory…. [8]

I think Afro-pessimism opened my eyes to the fact that if I were honest with myself, and if we were honest with ourselves we’d recognize that history has promised black death as a fundamental principle of social life. Meaning: It is impossible to imagine a moment in modern social life where black life has not been constituted by a proximity to death unparalleled to that of any other category of being/genre of being “human.” So, that if this is true, then it must consequently be true that in our endless struggles against this proximity, we have failed to free ourselves from it. Meaning: we are still “slaves” to Anti-Black Masters (read: Human, “not always necessarily pro-white, but almost always anti-Black). What understanding this has also opened up for me, and this I why I say my pessimism is positive and my nihilism is optimistic, is the idea that as Fanon put it “The density of History determines none of my acts. I am my own foundation. And it is by going beyond the historical and instrumental given that I initiate my cycle of freedom.”[9] I am a pessimist because I do not believe we will ever get beyond History and the instrumental given – not because the violence and power is too much, but because the trauma is too deep. This is what I fine to be the importance of understanding the deep seated connection between revolutionary action and madness. Not to glorify madness nor to glorify revolutionary action but to see how much trauma these performances must swim in – not as a result of contingent moments of interpersonal racisms nor from simply structural and institutionalized racism but rather because a sociogenic principle of this World we have is to be anti-Black. Meaning: The sociogenic principle[10], the unconscious and preconscious cultural assumptive logics, to which White people and Black people alike have come to internalize as an eternal fact of existence is that black people will live their existence with this proximity to death as result of a conception, an Idea – which is both material and symbolic – around what black people “are” (read: ontology).


Ronald Judy writes, “There lies the rub, because the black victim is not a perception but rather a conception. The danger is in confusing the one with the other.”[11] This principle is the result of histories of massive gratuitous violence – intergenerational, transgenerational violence – discursive statements made from the most brilliant minds of the Western world about who I am and what I am and whether or not I am actually Human or not Human, and trauma that becomes so indiscernible to the rest of the world that we disallow the reality that violence had actually occurred at all. This is what it means for Black suffering to be hieroglyphic[12]. It is hieroglyphic because no matter how often we speak on it, no matter how much we fight against it, no matter how much we ask, plead, fight, shoot, stab, vote, create, sing, etc. it never stops and no one comes to the rescue. No repair. No redress. No address. No nothing. So Afro-pessimism says that if we are to be honest the axioms of this reality are fundamentally sculpted by a statement similar to the following: Black people are nothing. Or rather, black lives don’t matter.

I find this to be true of every moment in history where you can find a being that gets named Black in relation to the category we call “Human.” But I find optimism in my nihilism and positivity in my pessimism through this idea that the World is in fact nothing more a hyper-chaotic space of radical contingency. Black Dada Nihilismus as an artpractice, as a thoughtpractice, which is as much a style of performance as it is a method through which we antagonize Life as-is and the Maxim of Life more generally is driven by a relationship to indeterminacy, chaos, cataclysm, style and impossibility. Indeed because “[t]hat is what style is, or rather the absence of style—asyntatic, agrammatical: the moment when language is no longer defined by what it says, even less by what makes it a signifying thing, but by what causes it to move, to flow, and to explode—desire.”[13] Nothing that is, has to be and everything that is, can fall. So the question becomes: how to create a desirable breakdown of the World such that we can know longer live in accordance to this principle?

History provides a series of wonderful, informative and necessary strategies, tactics, procedures and ideas about how this may come about. But history is not and must not construct the boundaries of our imagination, and we must leap away from the idea that nothing novel could BECOME. There can be new things under the Sun. We must bring invention into existence and even this invention, is not a guarantee or guarantor of freedom. For we all know as things change things seem to stay the same. Indeed, invention guarantees nothing. Promises nothing. Nothing other than the possibility that things might be done different. Whether that difference is freedom or not is not for me to decide, but I do believe if its a difference that antagonizes the language of black inferiority, that alleviates the tensions of black trauma, and causes pause to the ongoing operations of anti-Black violence then I would say that it is a difference that matters even as the paradigm repeats.

Beuys is sutured to a historical a priori which preconstitutes the Black as “an object among objects,”[14] such that when the Black creates there are only two options and two options alone: Whiten or Perish. I am constantly thankful for Afro-pessimism and at the same time forever attempting to leap beyond the map of this reality and to encourage and inspire my friends to do the same. To dare to be different in radical opposition to History. We are swimming in these histories – indistinguishable from them, we couldn’t even know our names without them, but as Fanon states, and I conclude: “I am not a prisoner of History. I must not look for the meaning of my destiny in that direction. I must constantly remind myself that the real leap consists of introducing invention into life. In the world I am heading for, I am endlessly creating myself.”[15]

Humans of Museums: A Photo-Series


[1] Kim Levin, “Introduction” to Joseph Beuys in America, by Josef Beuys, compiled by. Carin Kuoni (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1990), 2.

[2] Levin, 1.

[3] Beuys, 26.

[4] Frank B Wilderson III, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms (Duke University Press, 2010), 59.

[5] Levin, Joseph Beuys in America, 1.

[6] Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (U of Minnesota Press, 2003), 31.

[7] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (Grove press, 2008), 90.

[8] Wilderson III, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms, 60.

[9] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 204.

[10] David Marriott, “Inventions of Existence: Sylvia Wynter, Frantz Fanon, Sociogeny, and” the Damned”,” CR: The New Centennial Review 11, no. 3 (2011): 45–89; Sylvia Wynter, “Towards the Sociogenic Principle: Fanon, Identity, the Puzzle of Conscious Experience, and What It Is like to Be ‘Black,’” National Identities and Sociopolitical Changes in Latin America, 2001, 30–66; Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks.

[11] Ronald Judy, “Kant and the Negro,” Surfaces 1, no. 8 (1991): 8.

[12] Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritic 17, no. 2 (1987): 64–81,

[13] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, ed. Penguin Books (New York, 2009), 133.

[14] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 89.

[15] Fanon, 204.