IN CASE SOMETHING DIFFERENT HAPPENS IN THE FUTURE: Joseph Beuys and 9/11

In matters of seeing Joseph Beuys was the great prophet of the second half of our century…Believing that everybody is potentially an artist, he took objects and arranged them in such a way that they beg the spectator to collaborate with them…by listening to what their eyes tell them and remembering.

—John Berger1

It’s a sort of prop for the memory, yes, a sort of prop in case something different happens in the future.

—Joseph Beuys, in response
to a question about his Multiples2

Joseph Beuys, "Cosmos and Damian," 1974. Courtesy of A R S.

In the year 1974, the United States of America was in crisis. We had lost an ill-conceived and disastrously mismanaged war in Vietnam, and were about to withdraw in defeat. Following the Yom Kippur war, the Arab oil-producing states initiated an embargo on oil shipments to the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan, in retaliation for their support of Israel, and this triggered an energy crisis in most of the industrialized world. Economic growth in the U.S. slowed to near zero.3 In August of 1974, Richard Nixon would become the first U.S. president to resign in disgrace, and his successor Gerald Ford promptly pardoned Nixon of all crimes committed while in office.

This is the time Joseph Beuys chose to make his first visit to the United States. Since 1970, he had been increasingly extending his theories of sculpture into the social realm, calling this new work “Social Sculpture.” Rather than mounting a conventional exhibition in the U.S., Beuys decided instead to arrange a series of lectures and discussions—in New York, Chicago, and Minneapolis—under the collective title “Energy Plan for the Western Man.” He arrived in New York from Düsseldorf on January 9, 1974. When he flew back into New York from Minneapolis on January 19, he performed a therapeutic operation on a striking new feature of the New York City skyline.

The World Trade Center had been completed only months before Beuys’s arrival in New York. It was the world’s largest commercial complex, including seven buildings and a shopping concourse, built at a cost of $750 million. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki and Emery Roth, it was capped off with two 110-story skyscrapers, the Twin Towers, which dwarfed every other building  in New York (including the Empire State Building) and rose up out of Lower Manhattan like severed limbs. The towers immediately stood for (symbolized) globalized capital and American dominance in the world market; they were the symbolic pillars of the New World Order.

Beuys was fascinated by the Twin Towers. He must have seen them to great effect when he flew into John F. Kennedy Airport on January 19. In the terms of his theory of sculpture, the Twin Towers were classic crystalline forms: rigid, dry, and cold, like the basalt columns of 7000 Oaks. He immediately did several things in order to warm them up. He chose a 3-D postcard image of the towers that softened their sharp angles and tinted them yellow, making them look like two sticks of butter, a substance that responds to heat very differently than does crystal. The yellow also made the towers appear to be coated in sulphur, which in alchemy is the hot, dry, active seed of metals, the male principle, and is a Beuys staple, often used in his objects and actions. As Annie Suquet put it:

By drawing or marking a space with fat, Beuys subtracted it from the deadly “appropriating mastery” of the right angle: fat, as unstable matter, can shift from the liquid (warm) to the solid (cold) state and compensates, through its very reversibility, the motionless rigidity of architectures. To prepare the space of action with fat meant warming it up, inscribing it with the possibility of movement—of life.4

And then Beuys inscribed on the two towers the names “Cosmos” and “Damian” in blood red ink. Why?

Choosing these twin Arab saints, martyred by beheading, to adorn the World Trade Center Twin Towers, 27 years before these towers, in collapse, became the symbols of Christian/Muslim strife was prescient, certainly. At the time, Beuys must also have enjoyed the significance of tagging the Twin Towers—the new image of global Capital—with the names of the patron saints of physicians, who were known as the Anargyroi (“moneyless” or “the unmercenaries”) because they refused to accept money in exchange for their services. Was this action by Beuys a goof, a lark? Or was there something more going on? Klaus Staeck, who collaborated with Beuys on the Cosmos & Damian postcard (and some 300 other postcards, as well as many other multiples, from 1968 to Beuys’s death in 1986) has written that Beuys “discovered the cosmos in details and was at the same time a master of staging on a large scale. He could devote as much time to the form and contents of a postcard as to the installation of a large environment.”5 So what was Beuys trying to do with the Twin Towers image?

Cosmas6 & Damian were twin brothers, born in Arabia, and brought up as Christian by their mother. They studied medicine and became great itinerant healers, treating both humans and animals. Since they accepted no payment for their work, the Anargyroi’s charity helped to spread the faith. Under the Diocletian persecution, the twins were arrested and tortured, but refused to give up their beliefs. When the authorities tried to burn them at the stake, the flames turned away from Cosmas & Damian and leapt onto their tormentors. When they were stoned, the stones turned back upon the throwers and injured many. When they were crucified and shot with arrows, the same thing happened. They were finally beheaded, probably in 287 A.D., and their remains were buried in the Syrian city of Cyrrhus, where the Emperor Justinian I (527–565) restored the city in their honor. In gratitude for their healing of him from a dangerous illness, Justinian rebuilt and decorated their church at Constantinople, and it became a place of pilgrimage. Pope Felix IV (526–530) brought their relics to Rome and built a church for them in the Via dei Faro Imperiali, where magnificent mosaics from the sixth century detailing the lives of the twin saints continue to inspire. 

From the fourth century on, the cult of Cosmas & Damian spread widely, both East and West. In the East, they appeared on countless icons, and some of these images themselves had the power to heal. Their skulls traveled from Rome to Bremen in the tenth century, from there to Bamberg, and finally, in 1581, to the Convent of the St. Claire Nuns in Madrid, where they remain. The cult has been especially resilient and long-lasting in Germany, where Beuys would have known about the saints from childhood.

The Tower. Rider Waite Smith tarot deck. Courtesy of US Games.

Since Cosmas & Damian (or Cosimo and Damiano) were also the patron saints of the Medici family (hence, all those Cosimos), their images can be found throughout Italian Renaissance art. Their statues, designed by Michelangelo, flank that of the Madonna in the Medici Chapel in Florence, and one of the earliest decorations by Donatello depicts the saints in half relief, set above the doors of Brunelleschi’s Sacristy in the Church of San Lorenzo. Fra Angelico made a series of paintings recording the incidents of the saints’ lives for the church and monastery of San Marco in Florence, including the two predella panels now in the San Marco Museum and seven other panels now in Washington, Dublin, Munich, and Paris. Cosmas & Damian were often introduced, in various guises (usually dressed in the scarlet and ermine of physicians), into paintings by Fra Lippo Lippi and Botticelli, and they appear in Rogier van der Weyden’s “Medici Madonna,” painted in Rome and believed to be the first sacra conversazione in the history of Flemish painting. Both Titian and Tintoretto put them in pictures celebrating the recovery of Venice from the great plague of 1512.

A favorite subject for painters was Cosmas & Damian’s performance of the first surgical transplant, when they removed the diseased leg of a Italian man afflicted with cancer, and replaced it with the leg of a recently deceased Moor, thus accomplishing, as well, the first interracial and cross-cultural healing, putting a black man’s leg onto a white body, a Muslim leg onto a Christian body.

Beuys made another multiple in 1975, combining a color print depicting Cosmas & Damian transplanting the leg, with a sprig of Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis). This is the Asian species of Bleeding Heart, often cultivated in gardens in the Eastern part of the U.S. A similar plant, Dicentra cucullaria (called Dutchman’s Breeches)is native in the Eastern U.S., and is known to New Yorkers as the springtime flowers whitening the shady ledges of Central Park. The Iroquois used an ointment made from Dicentra cucullaria to make athletes’ legs more limber, and a leaf potion made from the plant has long been used in folk medicine for skin ailments, paralysis, and tremors. Beuys might also have been playing on the meaning of the plant’s Latin binomial, in relation to Cosmas & Damian: dicentra, “two-pronged,” plus spectabilis, “visible” or “worthy.”

Cosmas & Damian are later manifestations of the ancient Indo-European myth of divine twins, and especially the tradition of twins as magical healers. There are numerous Vedic hymns extolling their virtues. One relates the story of how the mare Vispata lost a foot in battle, and the Asvins (the name of the divine twins in the Rig Veda) appeared and replaced the stricken limb with an iron foot.7 The Rig Veda also says that the Asvins possessed two wooden poles that they rubbed together to make fire. Aniconic wooden pillars are among the most common symbols of the Dioscuri.

Additional evidence of the worship of wooden pillars has been found in Lower Saxony, where archaeologists have found the remains of thatched-roof structures dating from the eighth century A.D. which were so constructed that there were two wooden pillars beneath the gables. The only evident function of these poles is reinforcement of the ridge ends of the roof, and it is generally considered that their primary function was a religious one. When economic factors forced changes in the structure of these houses, these pillars disappeared; however, their religious function survived in items such as horses’ heads and swans adorning the gables of Saxon structures. Since these items are typical Dioscuric symbols, it seems highly probable that the pillars were originally idols honoring the Divine Twins.8

The church introduced Cosmas & Damian (and other pairs of saints, including Sebastian and Rochus, Johannes and Philippus, Protasius and Gervasius, etc.) into Northern Europe in the hope that they would displace surviving Dioscuric cults, since these saintly twins had already absorbed the Mediterranean Divine Twins traditions. But the truth is that powers such as this do not just disappear, but are reabsorbed and continually rejuvenated in different forms, as Beuys well knew.




Show Your Wound, Dicentra Spectabilis



Beuys’s aesthetic is embedded in the ideas of alignment, perpetuation, and addition. Rather than advocating invention, he believed it was the artist’s task to discover connections and expand upon them.

—Pamela Kort9

When one speaks about the sociableness of man, one has to know that suffering and showing compassion are the actual prerequisites for becoming a social being.

—Joseph Beuys10

Alberto Giacometti, "La Jambe," 1947. Courtesy of A R S.
Fra Angelico, “San Marco Altarpiece: Cosmas and Damian are to be Burnt Alive,” 1439 – 1442. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland. Tempera on panel, 46 × 36 cm.

To Beuys, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were already a “death zone” in 1974: rigid, cold, dedicated to the accumulation of money and world domination under Capital.11 Was his inscription preemptive and tactical, to put the twin healers in place to heal the wounds to come, or apotropaic, as an attempt to ward them off? All of Beuys’s work can be seen on one level as therapeutic, an attempt to heal the wounds of the social body—both the external wounds inflicted on others and the internal wounds of complicity and denial. As the patron saints of the Medici, Cosmas & Damian were certainly called upon to heal all manner of spiritual maladies arising from the pursuit and exercise of power. Might they be enlisted again in the New World?

And it is difficult not to see the visual cues of Beuys’s second trip to the U.S., for “I Like America and America Likes Me,” as prophetic as well. We see Beuys on the airplane from Düsseldorf to New York, hooded like the detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, on an “extraordinary rendition” flight. Klaus Staeck has reported that “After arriving at the John F. Kennedy airport in New York [Beuys] also had to endure the longest questioning. What was his profession? Sculptor. What kind of sculptor? Social Sculptor. What did that mean? What did he want in the U.S.A.? Give lectures. What kind of lectures? Where? What about? Did he intend to be active in politics? And so on.”12 Beuys was then wrapped up and transported in an emergency vehicle to his meeting with the despised other, the coyote, behind bars, like another detainee and suspected terrorist.

But rather than try to blow up the Twin Towers, as Al Qaeda did in 1993, or knock them down, as they did in 2001, Beuys made an attempt to heal the wound these towers stood for through symbolic action—image magic—homeopathically renaming the towers as great healers, famed for their cooperation and cross-cultural surgery. As he had said earlier, “When you cut your finger, bandage the knife.”

What if Bush & Blair (those other twins) had received Beuys’s message and taken it to heart, realizing that the Twin Towers were a wound from the beginning, that needed to be healed, not given “an eye for an eye,” and that their loss was an extraordinary opportunity to reach out to the world and bring it together, rather than to use our loss as a pretext for a previously (badly) planned military adventure in Iraq, and the dismantling of 60 years of human rights protections and international law, in the name of an incoherent “War on Terror”?

The writer Michael Brenson, who has called Beuys “the most prophetic voice” in the tradition of healing art,13 recently reminded me of Giacometti’s “The Leg,” from 1958, as a sculpture of relevance to the Twin Towers. This one amputated leg, improbably resolute in its verticality, while remaining as vulnerable as a twig, manages to be, as Jean Genet wrote, “at once anxious, tremulous, and serene.”14 Giacometti saw the mosaics of Saints Cosmas & Damian in the basilica in Rome in 1920, at age 19, and they immediately entered his pantheon of works—Tintoretto in Venice, Giotto in Padua, Cimabue in Assisi, an Egyptian portrait bust in Florence—that break down the barrier between art and life. It was right after this that Giacometti had his death epiphany, watching Pieter van Meurs die, in Madonna di Campiglio, and realizing once and for all how close death is to life. And I think of his 1958 leg, now, in relation to what’s happened after 9/11—of all the wounded soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and all the severed limbs of innocents, blown up by improvised explosive devices in the streets of Baghdad, every day, endlessly. Who will heal these wounds? This endless wound?

The oldest depiction of Cosmas & Damian we have is in a mosaic frieze in the Hagios Georgios, in Thessalonica, from the beginning of the fifth century. The two saints, in long white robes, stand in perfect symmetry, facing us, with their arms raised in blessing and supplication. They stand in front of a sumptuous palace, with twin towers rising behind them. The mosaic has been badly damaged, and a jagged wound cuts through the center of the composition, separating the twin saints and obscuring much of the frieze. One inscription is still legible. It reads “Damian, physician, month of September.”



1. John Berger, “Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Pantheon Books, 2001), pp. 21-22.

2. Joseph Beuys, in Jörg Schellmann and Bernd Klüser, “Questions to Joseph Beuys,” Part I, December 1970, in Joseph Beuys: Multiples, edited by Jörg Schellmann (Munich and New York: Edition Schellmann, 1997), p. 9.

3. At the same time, Chase Manhattan Bank reported that the net profits of 30 of the world’s largest oil companies increased by an average of 93 percent during the first half of 1974.

4. Annie Suquet, “Archaic Thought and Ritual in the Work of Joseph Beuys,” Res, 28, Autumn 1995. Published by the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in Santa Monica, California, and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, p. 151.

5. Klaus Staeck, “Democracy Is Fun,” In Memoriam Joseph Beuys: Obituaries, Essays, Speeches, translated by Timothy Nevill(Bonn: Inter Nationes, 1986), p. 14.

6. Beuys’s spelling of “Cosmos” on the card is not out of order, since some say the name Cosmas comes from the Greek cosmos, in the sense of “order” or “form” (world). Others say the name Kosmas is Aramaic.

7. Donald Ward, The Divine Twins: An Indo-European Myth in Germanic Tradition (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), p. 18.

8. Ibid., p. 44-45.

9. Pamela Kort, “Beuys: The Profile of a Successor,” in Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy, edited by Gene Ray (New York: D.A.P. and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 2001), p. 23.

10. Joseph Beuys, in conversation with Axel Hinrich Murken, March 1, 1973. In Axel Hinrich Murken, Joseph Beuys und die Medizen (Münster: F. Coppenrath Verlag, 1979), p. 149.

11. In the Tarot, the Tower represents man’s creations built on the foundations of false science, and it portends conflict, unforeseen catastrophe, and the fall of selfish ambition. P. D. Ouspensky begins his entry on the Tower with these words: “I saw a lofty tower extending from earth to heaven; its golden crowned summit reached beyond the clouds. All round it black night reigned and thunder rumbled. Suddenly the heavens opened, a thunder-clap shook the whole earth, and lightning struck the summit of the tower and felled the golden crown. A tongue of fire shot from heaven and the whole tower became filled with fire and smoke. Then I beheld the builders of the tower fall headlong to the ground.” P. D. Ouspensky, The Symbolism of the Tarot, translated by A. L. Pogossky(New York: Dover Publications, 1976), p. 48.

12. Klaus Staeck, Beuys in America, edited and photographed by Klaus Staeck and Gerhard Steidl (Heidelberg and Göttingen: Edition Staeck, and Steidl, 1997), p. 7.

13. Michael Brenson, “Healing in Time,” in Culture in Action (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995), p. 30.

14. Jean Genet, “The Studio of Alberto Giacometti,” in The Selected Writings of Jean Genet, edited by Edmund White (Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1993), p. 318.

Contributor

David Levi Strauss

DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.

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