The Wound and The Coyote: Joseph Beuys’ Spiritual Vision
If you come in a space with a big flame of fire you will get burnt, and you cannot say: ‘This is the symbol of a flame’, because you will die of the heat of this flame. So is Christ not a symbol for something. It is the substance in itself. It means life. It means power, the power of life… Without this substance of Christ the earth would already have died.
Joseph Beuys believed that Western society, and particularly Germany, had become spiritually bankrupt. During WWII, Beuys flew in the German Luftwaffe and his plane was shot down. As the legend goes, a tribe of tartars found him and managed to keep him alive by wrapping him in animal fat and felt until German soldiers eventually brought him to a hospital. After WWII, Beuys watched his country and Europe fall into dark times. He believed that Western society was wounded.
The wound is a potent and pervasive theme in Beuys’ work. His environment Show Your Wound (1974) spoke of death and the possibility of regeneration, and exhorted Germans to “show your wound.” In his famous I Like America and America Likes Me (photo above, 1974), the wound motif reappears. The performance begins at Beuys’ home in Germany where he is wrapped in felt, placed on a stretcher and driven by ambulance to the airport. When he arrives in New York, he is met by another ambulance that takes him to a gallery. Beuys then prepares a room for himself and a coyote to live together for several days. He had only a shepherd’s staff and a blanket of felt for protection. Over the course of their cohabitation, Beuys is able to tame the wild coyote, and at one point the coyote actually lays harmlessly upon his lap. In this remarkable piece the wound is recognized and healed. As one commentator puts it, this encounter becomes a “reconciliation between the New World and the Old World, fraternization between different races, animal and man, nature and culture.”
Beuys’ work could be described as prophetic. The prophet is one who, as Walter Bruggemann says, embodies an “alternative consciousness” in such a way that he “serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness” and “energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move.” It is clear from nearly all of his works and from his numerous statements, that Beuys’ main concern was to nurture, nourish, and evoke an alternative consciousness. Beuys thought that the key to transforming society is found in what he calls Social Sculpture: the shaping of society through the collective creativity of its members. Beuys believed that human freedom begins with the recognition that everyone is an artist.
For Beuys, there is no potential for social change in a materialist world and, thus, no possibility of experiencing the freedom that Christ offers. This is why Beuys urgently appealed to humanity to restore their connection with a spiritual reality. So, what are our wounds, and how might art be brought into service to heal them?
 Joseph Beuys, Interview with Louwrien Wijers, Joseph Beuys Talks to Louwrien Wijers, (Holland: Kantoor Voor Cultuur Extracten, 1980), 46.
 Lucrezia De Domizio Durini, The Felt Hat: Joseph Beuys A Life Told, trans. by Howard Roger Mac Lean, (Milano: Edizioni Charta, 1997).
 Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) 3.