Beuys' Fat and Other Specters

History and Theory Department, M.A. Program in Policy and Theory of the Arts, Bezalel

Most rare are those works of art that manage to formulate in a simple visual gesture a dilemma occupying culture as a whole. This is precisely the case of Joseph Beuys' exemplary artwork Fat Chair. The work is comprised of two elements caught in an inner tension: a chair on the one hand, and a lump of fat on the other hand. The tension between the chair and the fat manifests the tension between two types of violence, which, following Benjamin's distinction in his essay Critique of Violence, between lawmaking violence (that is, the violence of God) and law preserving violence (that is, the violence of the law), assume the names "violence of the father" and "violence of ha-Rav". The violence of the father is mainly the violence of culture. This violence of culture could be identified, from the point of view of the object, with the violence of the category in its Kantian sense, which enforces the categorical order of reason on the sensual giveness; and from the point of view of the subject, with the violence of the Law of the Father which enforces the law and language on the living body. The violence of ha-Rav (a Hebrew word charged with three distinct meanings) pertains to the pre-cultural state of affairs prior to law and language, which is hypothesized by both Freud and Benjamin. This pre-cultural violence cannot appear in culture in general and in art in particular in full force and presence, but rather, only as a leftover and a specter. Beuys' art piece manifests the aporiatic manifestation of this primal violence in a brilliant fashion, and thus serves as row model for the possibility of hospitality in art. In this sense, the article shifts the locus of the thought on the event of hospitality – as it is formulated by Levinas and Derrida – from the socio-political to the aesthetic discourse.


Dror Pimentel