Friday, August 24, 2007

I like America And America likes me!

Long before Borat, another stranger came to these shores to deliver a subtle message of mutual understanding and cooperation between the people. No, not Columbus, but the German artist Joseph Beuys who decided to foist his own brand of idiosyncratic humor on an unsuspecting, and we suspect largely unconcerned American public (by the way, I just learned that new word "foist". Thanks Mike!)

First of all, how do you pronounce Beuys? Try to remember that 1980s Eurotrash song by big-boobed Goddess Sabrina: "Boys, Boys, Boys" and you will have an approximate idea.
Secondly, what should you know about Beuys? Well, he was German, created his own myth of a "Luftwaffe fighter pilot during WWII whose plane had crashed behind Soviet lines. Severely burnt, he was rescued by a Tatar tribe in Crimea whose healing shamanistic powers changed his perceptions forever. War over, he returned home, became an artist, joined Fluxus and used a limited vocabulary of felt, grease, red adhesive crosses and vaguely mystical objects to deliver performances/teaching lessons, create egomaniac installations and generally make himself insufferable as some kind of Messiah bringing redemption to the post-war German people through art and environmental causes".
Or something like this.

I am *slightly* biased because I suffered a bevy of undergrad classes about Beuys when studying at the Louvre. Being a bit skeptical by nature, the idea of one lone guy endorsing the guilt of all the Postwar German people I found rather bemusing, many of them Germans not feeling so guilty if we are to believe G. Grass. Plus, I'm pretty certain if Stalin had found out about his people caring for (gasp!) a German during WWII, he would have gotten the entire tribe executed. Also, didn't Stalin displace all the Tatars out of Crimea to Siberia right at the start of the war? I haven't checked that, but anyone who can correct me will win my copy of Mergers and Acquisitions. Proof cannot come out of Wikipedia. I still retain about 5% of scholarly standards, thank you.

What else? Well, my scholarly training would want me to display a bit of objectivity, so just to show you how I'm going to give you the Beuys quote worth knowing.
It pairs very well with Warhol's "15 minute of fame" and I think it magnificently underscores what's so true about Web 2.0 and American Idol: "Everyone Is An Artist".
To which he should have added: but certainly most everyone is a bad one. Maybe it got lost in translation. Anyway, next time you are in a social situation and feels the urge to discuss the end of the civilization as we know it, I'm sure it will come handy. I wouldn't use it on a 1st date if I were you, just to stay on the safe side, unless your date is at the Mountain Bar or the Mandrake. Me, you can take me to Hop Louie instead and talk about your parents' divorce, I'm that Frenchy! and chic.

To go back to our subject.
So, this is May 1974, and this guy arrives at Kennedy Airport. Nobly fighting the forces of imperialism still embodied by Nixon and by extension all of America -aren't we subtle, we Euro sophisticated artists?- Beuys refuses to "set foot on US soil". Therefore, his friends wrapped him in a felt blanket, moved him in to an ambulance and took him to the Rene Block gallery where Beuys spent the next few days performing "Coyote" a.k.a " I like American and America likes me". He was locked up in a gallery space with a live coyote (symbolizing something like the freedom of Native American spirits), a stack of pre-Rupert Murdoch Wall Street Journals for the coyote to pee on (ha ha! so sarcastic and ironic! Pee on Capitalism! quel humour, ce Beuys!), a crooked staff that could have been either a very tall cane or a crude bishop's baton, and I think that's pretty much it.
Grainy B&W photos show a sort of burkha-clad figure from which emerges the staff, Beuys apparently trying to amuse that poor coyote. Which had lost its freedom in the process, so I hope that poor thing wasn't hurt and hopefully was later released to a free life of devouring neighborhood cats and puppies. Just kidding!
I think a film was made, and I may even have seen it but I don't remember any of it. Maybe it's on ubuweb.

Anyway, as a student I wasn't particularly impressed, even though I shared a firm and crude anti-Americanism with my compatriots in this faraway, long gone era. You see, I hadn't discovered Target yet, and I'm not speaking about the Apple Pan burgers (I'm not that much into Pies and Burgers).
I was pretty certain the performance must have been very boring, plus I am a very fastidious Frenchy, so just imagining the smell into that gallery, yuck. And I'm not speaking about that heavy symbolism and laborious humor.
In fact, I was rather taken aback by Beuys enormous fame. For my couple of non-art readers, Beuys was extremely famous, on par with Warhol. Beuys works looked all the same to me, and rather boring, with the huge exception of Plight at the Pompidou Center.
Mostly, I never managed to believe in his work, but it did my inner super-nerd a favor. The many classes (about 20 sessions total) about Beuys taught by my two antagonistic professors made me refuse to believe in myths spread by the artists themselves about their life/work and also reconsider that credo about interpretation our Panofsky-an schooling was ingraining into the Sorbonne Art History Program, Class of 1993 (so last century, I know).
I was very, very happy when the finals were on Conceptual Art, let me tell you.

When my readership reaches 10, we'll have a super-nerd drawing contest, OK?


Anonymous said...

Speaking of Mythomania, I can't
wait to tell you about the Barney/Beuys show at the Guggenheim
Venice...fat vs. vaseline--which
will endure??
signed your other loyal reader

Anonymous said...

cyncism ill suits you, your intelligence leaks out, In fact Beuys did not say that anyone could be an artist. it is a mis-translation. He said that everyone could lead an artful life. It sounds as if that is what indeed you are doing-leading an artful life.
Beuys is actually an amazing artist with a fantastic aesthethic but perhaps you need to live in Europe to understand it. That is why Barney is such a watered down version as Rita points out and it is curators from institutions like the Guggenheim that surprise surprise get it so very very very wrong.

Best wishes

Anonymous said...

"Jeder Mensch ein K√ľnstler" [ist] which JB said over and over esp. in his lectures and classes doesn't translate as "everyone could lead an artful life", but I don't object to your interpreting the quote the way you do, or to your liking of JB's work. This is just a fun blog, not a scholarly article in a learned journal, in case you haven't noticed.

I just happen to find JB's pieces overrated, repetitive, overtly simplistic and grandiloquent myself, and being European and having lived in Europe most of my life doesn't make it more appealing to me, sorry.

I'm sorry if you feel offended I dislike an artist you admire, but it is part of "leading an artful life" to encounter people with different opinions about art we love, and, hm, maybe trying to have a sense of humor about it and taking their writings with a grain of salt wouldn't exactly hurt, unless it's your own intelligence that leaks out, whatever you meant by that.

Anyway, enjoy Beuys as much as you want, and Happy New Year to you.