That Banana. You don’t even need an image, you know the one I mean. Maurizio Cattelan’s latest work, Comedian, a banana duct-taped to a wall at Art Basel Miami, is the latest artwork cum internet meme to blast across our screens and ignite us with a collective fury that this is the state of art now. As usual, the fury is real, but it’s misdirected and will blow over like so much morning fog. Here’s what it proves, however, about the sorry state of our collective consciousness.
1. We have a very short memory.
This might be asking a lot, but it shouldn’t be for anyone with an art degree. If you’ve ever worshipped at the “throne” of R.Mutt (aka Marcel Duchamp), Cattelan’s piece should be derivative at best. It’s not a coincidence that Duchamp was making the same points about who gets to define the nature of art during the gilded age of the early twentieth century. When art becomes commodified to the point of losing all meaning and edge, it’s the imperative of artists to subvert the collectors and institutions who would render if meaningless. If you want to really see some meaningless art, you can look around at all the tacky, shiny shmaltz filling the rest of the art fair. It probably took (somebody) longer to make than a banana, but that doesn’t mean it’s good.
2. We love to be scandalized by the price tags commanded by works of art.
This never ceases to amaze me. As spectators, we goggle at the prices commanded by works of art, never stopping to understand the art market as it is separate from the artwork itself. Unless you’re Damien Hirst, making artwork as a luxury good, artists don’t (in general) make artwork to get rich. Auction houses and million-dollar bidders are speculating on a market, just like they did with our mortgages back in the 2000s, and we all know how that worked out.
3. We don’t know how to talk about artwork outside of a financial framework.
I know that we live in a capitalist system that has an unbelievably difficult time defining value for anything outside of a dollar amount, but please let’s remember that even something as sacrosanct as fiat currency is subject to the whims of human perception. All of this is to say, our minds should be powerful enough to comprehend that a banana duct-taped to a wall and slapped with a high price tag is the punchline, not the art. The art is in the willingness of collectors to pay for a name. Cattelan knows this, and he is intentionally capitalizing on it to make a point.
4. Maurizio Cattelan still loves to get one over on wealthy collectors.
This circles back to my first point. Cattelan has made a career out of duping the art-viewing (and especially art-buying) public into revealing their own worst qualities: money to burn in a time of rising income inequality, conspicuous consumption, and a deep yearning to be “in” on the joke so that the joke will lose all of its bite. Cattelan makes these statements at art fairs because art fairs offer the most egregious examples of the wealthy behaving grotesquely around artwork. When he’s shown in museums, his aesthetic seems to mix in a healthy dose of historical awe along with his jokester’s penchant for shock.
For a screed that purports to be about “The Banana,” I realize I haven’t done much analysis of the actual object here, but that, I believe is Cattelan’s point. Traditional analysis of artwork focuses on form and content, and while the form here is mostly a gag, the content is deadly serious. Art is pushing back against a global system of money the likes of which we’ve never seen in human history, and Cattelan, the Charlie Chaplin of the international art world, is throwing out a banana and betting that somebody will trip on it. The banana isn’t all that important, but Cattelan’s art definitely is.