‘Maybe it’s performance art?’ I’ve lost count of the number of times these words, laced with varying quantities of irony, have been uttered in response to a celebrity’s strange behaviour – most recently that of Kanye West on Twitter. West returned to the social media platform in April after a long period of abstinence, and has since come out as a crusader for ‘independent thought’ with tweets proclaiming his love for Donald Trump (in West’s words, ‘We are both dragon energy’), calling for everyone to stop talking about race, and suggesting that the enslavement of black people for 400 years was a ‘choice’. Various explanations and justifications have been offered, ranging from a mental-health crisis to a publicity stunt – or a Joseph Beuys-inspired work of performance art.
According to the theory, put forth by a Twitter user named Spencer Wolff and picked up by a host of art and mainstream media outlets, ‘Kanye is doing a modern take on [the] Beuys piece with the coyote’. The evidence for this premise is that West recently tweeted several photos documenting work by Joseph Beuys, including I Like America and America Likes Me, a notorious performance from May 1974 in which Beuys, wrapped in felt, locked himself in the same room as a coyote for three days. The coyote, once revered by Native Americans as a creature with godly powers but by then widely reviled as a dangerous pest, stood in Beuys’s work as a symbol of America’s degradation by colonisation. ‘You could say that a reckoning has to be made with the coyote, and only then can this trauma be lifted,’ he explained of the confrontation between artist and animal. In the words of Wolff, ‘He’s embraced what might be considered the coyote of today. Gotten close to it. Trump, Candace Owens, Alt Right. Maybe he sees this as a better chance to “tame” the coyote than more traditional methods.’
Underpinning this explanation for West’s behaviour as ‘performance art’ is the idea that his words and actions are not to be taken seriously – in essence, that they are not real. (Let’s disregard for the moment the reading in which a metaphor relating to the oppression of indigenous populations is translated into an emblem for Trump’s America.) It’s comparable to when Joaquin Phoenix’s claim that he had quit acting in order to pursue a career as a rapper was revealed to be a performance for a mockumentary directed by Casey Affleck – and the New York Times ran with the headline ‘Documentary? Better Call it Performance Art’. Or when Shia LaBeouf was accused of plagiarising the plot of a graphic novella for a short film he had directed, which he atoned for with a series of plagiarised apologies – before announcing that the whole thing was a performance artwork about the myth of originality, and walking around with a brown paper bag on his head. ‘Performance art’, in this popular usage, becomes a synonym for ‘faking it’: faking it in the most narcissistic, headline-grabbing way possible.
Joseph Beuys was never one to shy away from elements of fiction or myth in his work. The use of felt in I Like America and America Likes Me can be traced to a story frequently told by Beuys – and since disproven – in which, after his plane crashed in the Crimea during the Second World War, he was rescued by a group of nomadic Tatars who tended to his wounds with animal fat and wrapped him in felt. Beuys also believed in an expanded role for art in society, in which we are all artists working together to transform the existing social order into a radically democratic utopian future. He described this vision of art as ‘social sculpture’, neatly encapsulating the fusion of aesthetics and politics, of myths and icons invoked in the service of pedagogical engagement, that motivated his entire artistic endeavour. For Beuys, his performances – or ‘social sculpture’ or ‘actions’ – were a way not of making something fake but of bringing art into the realm of the real world.
This quest to overcome the artificiality of representation, as epitomised by the traditional forms of painting and sculpture, lies at the roots of performance art as a medium. In the 1960s, Beuys was one of a number of international avant-garde artists associated with Fluxus, a movement that sought to collapse the boundaries between art and life. In his Fluxus Manifesto of 1963, founding member George Maciunas urged participants to ‘PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art’ in favour of a ‘living art, anti-art’ that would ‘FUSE the cadres of cultural, social & political revolutionaries into united front & action’. Performance, with its literal incorporation of living, interacting bodies and its resistance to commodification by the art market, seemed like the perfect medium to forge this utopian path.
Both then and now, critics have frequently struggled to take performance seriously as an art form, dismissing it either as naively literal or cynically attention-seeking. Taking off their clothes, cavorting with coyotes – the work is summarised as a wayward artist behaving weirdly, shockingly, badly. From this point, it’s easy to see how parallels might be drawn with the moral missteps of celebrities like West or LaBeouf. In recent years, a number of pioneers of performance have in fact chosen to disavow the label of ‘performance artist’. Joan Jonas, in a recent interview with Apollo, said she doesn’t like ‘to be seen as a performance artist’ because her work is ‘a coming together of different forms’; Carolee Schneemann went further and called it a ‘demeaning term’. When ‘maybe it’s performance art’ is invoked as the obvious explanation for out-of-control celebrities on social media, should we really be surprised?