Visual art: You have to try saying it in German

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Joseph Beuys: Editions

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Joseph Beuys Drawings

Royal Academy, London

For no obviously good reason, 1999 seems to have been declared National Joseph Beuys Year by the British art establishment. Both the Royal Academy and Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art are currently holding full-scale Beuys shows, and the Barbican will host another from late October. Since Beuys was born 78 years ago and died in 1986, this sudden surge of interest in his work cannot be put down to handy anniversaries. The reason for this new-found popularity hinted at by the galleries showing this work is a centennial desire on their part to sum up late-20th-century art: a phenomenon in whose creation Beuys is now widely held to have played a uniquely influential part.

The logic goes something like this. Following his involvement with the Fluxus movement in the early 1960s, Beuys discovered the single obsession that was to dominate his work for the last quarter century of his life: namely, the portrayal of the life of Joseph Beuys. Of course, his work had other ambitions as well, among them the relatively modest ones of rejoining Man and Nature, the creation of social egalitarianism and other high-minded things that sounded good in German.

In his role as a moral messiah, Beuys made himself the complete public artist. Dismissed from a teaching post in Dusseldorf for his political activism, he founded the Free International University for Creativity and International Research. A champion of direct democracy, he stood as a candidate for the Greens in elections to the European Parliament. But these things were merely part of a larger piece of performance art, left untitled by the artist but which you might like to think of as the Life of Joseph Beuys (1921-1986).

It is a piece that includes other well-known autobiographical (and occasionally invented) episodes: Joseph Beuys is Rescued From a Plane Crash By Tartars and Wrapped in Fat and Felt, for example, and Joseph Beuys Locks Himself in a Room With a Coyote For 12 Days. In short, Beuys took his own dictum - "Every man an artist" - a step further by turning himself into a work of art. In doing so, he helped shape a certain kind of autobiographical practice much in evidence in the late 20th century. Without his transformation, suggest the current spate of Beuys shows, we might not have had Tracey Emin's incessant cataloguing of her love life or Matthew Barney's videos of himself climbing gallery walls with no clothes on.

Another way of putting this is that Beuys was the first artist to recognise the potential of the media as a material for making art with. One of the less eye-catching but more telling objects in the Edinburgh exhibition of his multiples is a print on paper called Threshold (1984), which bears the gnomic legend "Whether advertising is art depends on what it is advertising". It is an observation that you might usefully bear in mind as you walk around the show. For one thing, it makes the ambitions of Beuys's multiples clear: they are advertisements, reproducible in large numbers and eminently portable - the majority come in their own travelling boxes or briefcases - so that the Beuysian gospel can be broadcast to the people of barbarous places like Scotland. Just in case the point is missed, Beuys flaunts the multiples' status as media art by including in them all the flotsam and jetsam of the modern communications industry: newspapers, magazines, audiotapes, bits of product packaging.

The Threshold legend also contains another message, though: that everyday objects can be alchemised into artworks if they are used to portray alchemical things. The alchemical thing in this show is, of course, Beuys himself, the advertising of whom unquestionably counts as art. If you're British, you may find yourself overcome by the heady whiff of egotism that underlies this assumption. It seems ominously Nietzschean; worse, it is immodest. But accusing Beuys of egotism is about as useful as accusing Glenn Gould of being a pianist. It is, quite simply, what he is all about.

Take what is probably his best-known work, Sled (1969), a wooden sledge with a felt blanket, block of lard and torch strapped to it. On the one hand, Sled is an intensely private sculpture, the evocation of a particular epiphany in the artist's own life: Beuys's own personal Rosebud with his private security blanket on top. On the other, Sled is public art, a universal symbol of nurture that is meant to be intuitable by anybody on a primitive, atavistic level. It is a reduction of life to its essences: warmth (felt), nourishment (fat), light (torch), motion (sledge). If Sled has any kind of resonance for the viewer, then it is precisely from this elision of the confessional and the secretive, the contemporary and the primeval that it will come.

The question, though, is whether Beuys's work does have this resonance. The idea of an intrinsic human vocabulary, a Jungian grammar of the unconscious, is an appealing one. It suggests the possibility of the kind of healing that Beuys's art, forged in the fires of Nazism and Cold War, was all about. Like T S Eliot's, his fragments are shored against the ruin of mankind; like them, too, fragmentation is their point. Walk around the Edinburgh show and you will be overwhelmed by its untidiness, its lack of editing. Dadaist fish in boxes jostle with dry-point drawings of stags next to scribbled-on copies of Der Spiegel alongside vitrines of Super- 8 film canisters. The exhibition is, if you like, a portrait of the mind, 40 years of thinking condensed into one hectic snapshot of thought. But do the hares and hare-blood, felt and fat that form the vocabulary of Beuys's art really plug into some kind of collective unconscious, even if it is opened up by this post-Surrealist melange of unlikely opposites?

I don't know. I also don't know whether the faint feeling that there is something disturbingly Germanic about his compulsion to mythologise is simply the result of my having been raised on sixpenny war comics. This sensation is particularly niggling in the Royal Academy's show of Beuys's drawings, "The secret block for a secret person in Ireland". Curated, pre mortem, by the artist himself (the pictures were chosen by him in 1974 as a latter-day Codex Atlanticus), the exhibition shows, among other things, that Beuys could draw like an angel when he felt like it. Works like Dianthus (1945) - a watercolour sketch of a carnation plant - demonstrate an extraordinary graphic talent that must have taken some courage to set aside in favour of making felt suits and boxed fish.

At the same time, Dianthus also represents the (literal) first flowering of Beuys's later obsession with Golden Bough-ish vegetal myths, primitive shamanism and the like. What could be more benign than a watercolour sketch of a carnation plant, especially one that is meant to foster universal happiness? Why, then, do you hear the quiet thrum of Wagner in the background when you look at it, feel the distant shiver of megalomania?

`': Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh (0131 624 6200) to 12 September. `Joseph Beuys Drawings: The secret block': Royal Academy, W1 (0171 300 8000) to 16 September

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