Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Art History


Harriet Senie

Committee Members

Claire Bishop

Charity Scribner

Wolfgang Zumdick

Subject Categories

Art Practice | Contemporary Art | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Models and Methods | Politics and Social Change


Art history, Pedagogy, Germany, Aesthetics, Socially Engaged Art, Social Change


Alongside the rise of the activist movements in the late 1960s, the German artist Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) proposed his concept of “social sculpture” — a method of fostering creativity, aimed at transforming society through interdisciplinary dialogue — as an alternative to the chaotic political, economic, and social life of postwar West Germany. He sought to heal society through a work of art with holistic and spiritual intentions, centered on the belief that art can include the entire process of living and therefore can be created by a wide range of people beyond artists. Although his ideas are understood and even celebrated in Europe, this dissertation contends that a misunderstanding of his artistic practice as separate from his political engagement resulted in a lack of recognition by art historians and a weakened dissemination of his ideas to politically active artists in the United States until the Reagan–Bush era (1980–1993). This dissertation argues for the centrality of Beuys’ concept of social sculpture to the development of a form of socially engaged public art, now identified as “social practice,” that developed in the United States during this period to address what artists perceived as failing social structures and increasing inequality. Focused on the interaction between artists and audiences, the form of social practice that is informed by Beuys’ concept of social sculpture is characterized not only by its performative nature, but also by the diversity of its audiences, pedagogic intentions, and politically charged themes.

This dissertation provides a nuanced understanding of Beuys’ theories and practice in order to convey how his work resonated in the United States following his acceptance by pioneers in the field of social practice in the late 1980s and 1990s. Beuys’ theory and reception is analyzed through two key figures in U.S. art of the 1990s: artists Suzanne Lacy (b. 1945) and Rick Lowe (b. 1961). While not a method exclusive to these artists, the work of Lacy and Lowe offers two models for the confluence of social sculpture and community-based activist artistic practice in the United States. Lacy is known for her site-specific feminist media interventions, which in the 1980s and 1990s took the form of bringing together diverse groups to discuss issues such as race and teen violence using mentorship programs and planned performances. Beginning in 1993, Lowe became involved with a low-income African-American area of Houston, which he has socially and economically revitalized using art and dialogue via a long-term collaborative initiative called Project Row Houses. This dissertation will demonstrate how each has interpreted Beuys’ concept by adapting social sculpture to fit the needs of their audience, and thereby revealing Beuys’ shifting critical reception over time, as well as demonstrating the breadth of Beuys’ impact in its application to a range of issues including feminism and racism. By establishing how these artists have employed an aesthetic concept of politics in a manner similar to Beuys, I will argue that the type of artistic practice that was impacted by social sculpture differs from other participatory art practices that have emerged in the United States and Europe since the 1980s.