Joseph Beuys Wirtschaftswerte

Joseph Beuys, Wirtschaftswerte (Economic Values) 1980
Iron shelves with basic food and tools from the former GDR; plaster block with pencil and fat; paintings from the collection of the host museum
290 x 400 x 265 cm
Stedelijk-Museum Voor Actuele Kunst, Ghent © DACS, 2005

Economic Values 1980

Metal shelves are stacked with packets of foodstuffs and other basic products purchased in the former German Democratic Republic. Over time the packaging has deteriorated, and the food has disintegrated. On the walls are a group of nineteenth-century paintings from the Tate’s Collection, their dates loosely corresponding to the period of Karl Marx’s life (1818-1883). Each time the installation is displayed the paintings are different as they are drawn from the host museum’s own collection. Beuys requested that they should be presented in gold frames as an expression of bourgeois taste. They provide a deliberately provocative contrast to the humble products on the shelves.

Not only have the products on the shelves changed physically over time, the political, social and economic context in whichEconomic Values was created has also altered. When Beuys made the work, Communism was a major political force and the Berlin Wall divided East and West Germany. These goods from the East were the products of an anti-capitalist economy, and for Beuys, represented a simplicity and authenticity that reminded him of his childhood. According to Beuys, the inner needs of a human being should be met first through the ‘production of spiritual goods’ in the form of ideas, art, and education, rather than in commodities. ‘We do not need all that we are meant to buy today to satisfy profit-based private capitalism,’ he said.

The deterioration of this sculpture over time was something Beuys intended. Indeed he welcomed change in his materials, linking it to the process of regeneration and change he believed society needed to undergo. ‘My sculpture is not fixed and finished. Processes continue in most of them: chemical reactions, fermentations, colour changes, decay, drying up. Everything is in a state of change.’