Social sculpture is a specific example of the extended concept of art, that was advocated by conceptual artist and politician Joseph Beuys. Beuys created the term Social Sculpture to illustrate his idea of art’s potential to transform society. As an artwork it includes human activity, that strives to structure and shape society or the environment. The central idea of a social sculptor is an artist, who creates structures in society using language, thought, action, and object.
It was during the 1960s that Beuys formulated his central theoretical concepts concerning the social, cultural and political function and potential of art. Indebted to Romantic writers such as Novalis and Schiller, Beuys was motivated by a utopian belief in the power of universal human creativity and was confident in the potential for art to bring about revolutionary change. These ideas were founded in the social ideas of anthroposophy and the work of Rudolf Steiner, of which he was a vigorous and original proponent. This translated into Beuys’s formulation of the concept of social sculpture, in which society as a whole was to be regarded as one great work of art (the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk) to which each person can contribute creatively (perhaps Beuys’s most famous phrase, borrowed from Novalis, is ‘Everyone is an artist’). In the video “Willoughby SHARP, Joseph Beuys, Public Dialogues (1974/120 min)”, a record of Beuy’s first major public discussion in the U.S., Beuys elaborates three principles: Freedom, Democracy, and Socialism, saying that each of them depends on the other two in order to be meaningful. In 1973, Beuys wrote:
“Only on condition of a radical widening of definitions will it be possible for art and activities related to art [to] provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build ‘A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART’… EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST who – from his state of freedom – the position of freedom that he experiences at first-hand – learns to determine the other positions of the TOTAL ART WORK OF THE FUTURE SOCIAL ORDER.”