In the latest community education column, East Devon event promoter Cliff Gorman writes about Joseph Beuys.

Exmouth Journal: Cliff Gorman, an East Devon events promoterCliff Gorman, an East Devon events promoter (Image: Cliff Gorman)

"School is at the grocer's" - Not my words, but those of one of the most influential and controversial artists of the latter half of the twentieth century. His name: Joseph Beuys (pronounced “Boys”).

You'll be hearing a lot about him this year, since 2021 is the centenary year of his birth.

What did he mean by this statement? Well, in 1972 Beuys’ contribution to a major international art exhibition was to set up an ‘information office’ where for 100 days he discussed from morning to evening a whole range of social issues with anyone willing to participate.

It was when discussing education with one visitor that he is recorded as saying: “School is universal. That means, on the street when you talk about these things, with people at the grocer's, at that moment the school is at the grocer's”.

Although Joseph Beuys understood the need for and valued specialists, he certainly did not believe they should be the sole arbiters in their respective fields. Indeed he famously also said “everyone is an artist”.

But his understanding of art was an expanded view of art. He equated art to creativity.

Each one of us has a creative potential which more often than not remains hidden, unlocked and unfulfilled. Beuys maintained that it was the task of “school” to recognize, explore and develop this potential – and everyone can and should help.

Although he originally planned to become a medical scientist, he changed his mind when he reasoned that art was the most flexible and all-encompassing field for him to pursue.

Indeed he went on to use almost every material under the sun in his sculptures, paintings, installations and performances.

Eventually he came to the conclusion that the most important materials he, or anyone, could use in this expanded view of art were 'invisible' materials such as thoughts and feelings.

What is more, we all have the power to shape or sculpt these invisible materials for our own self-development - and for the betterment of society. He called this process 'social sculpture'.

He became an extremely popular and charismatic Professor of Monumental Art at Düsseldorf Academy but was later dismissed for insisting that everyone who wanted to study under him should be allowed to do so, and for introducing his own progressive pedagogical and social ideas into what was then a famous and traditional institution.

His dismissal, however, did provide him with both the notoriety and opportunity to take his ideas onto the world stage.

One such idea was the creation of a “Free International School for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research”. No actual campus was ever established despite several attempts, one of which was in Ireland.

Beuys was a committed environmentalist. His most monumental social sculpture was entitled “7000 Oaks - City Forestation instead of City administration”.

Here he proposed planting 7,000 oaks throughout the German city of Kassel, each paired with a basalt stone.

7,000 huge stones were piled up in front of the city museum with the idea that the pile would shrink every time someone committed to having a tree planted. Many local citizens and organisations stepped up to the mark.

Rather tellingly, however, most of the galleries who had so eagerly profited from his more saleable works did not. In the end he personally provided much of the funding by giving lectures and even appearing in a Japanese television advert for whisky! All 7'000 oaks were planted after five years and the project has been repeated throughout the world.

Beuys often used formulae to summarise his ideas. One such formula is: creativity=capital

Although money seems to be the common measure of capital, true capital actually lies in the creative power of every human being.

I believe this is at the core of John Astley's recent excellent article “Revitalising community education in Exmouth” - to make full use of our local capital.

More information on Joseph Beuys is available at