Thursday, July 04, 2013

I Like America and America Likes Me

Joseph Beuys • I like America and America likes Me • 1974
Print on paper • 569 x 543 mm • via Tate

Happy Fourth of July. Joseph Beuys likes America.

In May 1974 the German artist, teacher, shaman and social sculptor Joseph Beuys arrived at JFK Airport in New York. He was rushed to an ambulance and wrapped in felt, the sickness in the air overcoming him. The ambulance, sirens blazing, took him to René Block gallery where a caged off area containing hay and a live coyote waited for him. Beuys spent the week communing with the spirit of America (embodied by the coyote), performing a healing and cleansing act. I like America and America likes Me, marked the artist's first visit to the US and further developed his ideas of the artist/shaman as healer.

This notion is at the core of Beuys' personal mythology, beginning with his origin story fit for a super hero. After crashing in Siberia as a Luftwaffe pilot during WWII, he was nursed back to life by wandering Tartars. They covered him in fat, and as in I like America and America likes Me, they wrapped him in felt. These materials became motifs in his work, addressing the question, "Why do you use ____ in your work?" artists regularly face in quite an inventive way.

It's interesting to look at the complex belief system Beuys authored in comparison to the myths surrounding successful artists today. Beuys' artist persona was based on spiritualism and faith in art, whereas today artists' backgrounds are often amount to unique selling points aimed at giving them an edge in grant applications, filling niches within collections, or simply standing out as a specialized commodity.

Celebrate the spirit of America and heal with Joseph Beuys by watching this video. It contains documentation of the performance and discusses the artist's work in general.

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