The art work that moved the world from Miami
This commentary by Marion Maneker is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
Whatever else the coverage of Maurizio Cattelan’s latest work of art, the banana duct-taped to a wall named Comedian, was—a frenzy that devolved into a cacophony of acting out and one upmanship—it was also the epitome of the art world. From the crowds at Galerie Perrotin’s booth to the mocking cover of the New York Post to Jerry Saltz’s Twitter screeds, the reaction to the success of Cattelan’s work proved that the art world is nothing if not predictable.
Commentators jumped to the conclusion that the work was somehow a commentary on income inequality (it wasn’t;) that the artist was engaged in a cynical prank (there’s plenty of evidence that the work is sincere;) or that the work was derivative of or inferior to other banana-based works (turns out there’s a lot of banana-based art.)
No one appeared able to sit this one out, including the self-proclaimed performance artist who ate the banana and the bizarre conspiracy theorist who scrawled “Epstein didn’t kill himself” on the wall of the gallery booth after the art work was removed on Sunday. The final only-in-the-art-world thing left yet to happen is for Kenny Schachter to chronicle how he had the inside track on buying one of the bananas but got screwed by the dealer.
The sale of the work was the essential element in sparking the conflagration of interest. Reading Comedian as a satire of art buyers was only helped along by the artist’s dealer’s own comments to the New York Times:
The purchase, Mr. Perrotin added, is part of the artwork. “If nobody buys it, nothing will happen,” he said. “The fact that somebody buys it makes the piece.”
Without a buyer, the work is deprived of its sincerity as well as its irony. But sincerity has never been easy for Cattelan to convey. The recent theft of the golden toilet, stolen from Blenheim Palace, has created a certain amount of skepticism about the artist. Many of Cattelan’s friends and admirers reacted to the news of the theft with barely concealed glee. Surely, stealing a golden toilet was too “on the nose” to be true. It had to be a stunt.
The suspicion surrounding Cattelan is so great that it was not a surprise to find read the New York Times’s Robin Pogrebin quote one of the buyers of Comedians, as if the gallery was eager to produce a person to cop to having actually bought the work and explain her own sincerity:
One of the bananas was bought by Sarah Andelman, a founder of the Paris concept store Colette, which recently closed; it was her first major art purchase. “I knew it was going to be a phenomenon,” Ms. Andelman said in a telephone interview from Paris, “this banana on the wall.” […] But humor aside, Ms. Andelman said she had no buyer’s remorse, having long admired Mr. Cattelan’s work. She plans to hang the certificate accompanying the banana in her office, if not perhaps the banana itself.
Last year, to mark New York Magazine’s 50th anniversary, we asked 50 well-known artists to make commemorative artworks, each in the form of a magazine cover. Printed as posters, they appeared all over New York, constituting a citywide exhibition. One of the contributors was Maurizio Cattelan[….] What he came up with for us was a photograph of a banana duct-taped to a wall. […] “I was trying to imagine something to symbolize my love of New York, and it was difficult,” he told New York today. “There was a time when the Greek coffee cups were everywhere, and I thought somehow the banana was something that now you can find at every street corner.
New York Times critic Jason Farago made the important connection to Banksy, the other artist-prankster who has an even greater track record at capturing both the popular imagination with art-related stunts and cashing in from them, whom he describes as having the “default stance” of “populist mockery:”
Banksy’s juvenile, notably British stance satisfies a dismayingly common belief that all artists are con artists, and that museums, collectors and critics are either dupes or hustlers. Indeed, it’s exactly because of frauds like Banksy that audiences believed Mr. Cattelan arranged the theft of his own gilded commode in September, as if every artist was putting something over.
Farago does more in his sharp essay to connect Comedian to Cattelan’s body of work which has the recurring themes of suspension (think of Cattelan’s most famous works and his Guggenheim retrospective that hung all of his art in the center of Wright’s atrium) and a self-implicating sense of humor that pokes fun at the art world while accepting it.
Here’s how Farago counterpoises Cattelan against Banksy:
Actually, real artists are not out to hoodwink you. What makes Mr. Cattelan a compelling artist, and what makes Banksy a tedious and culturally irrelevant prankster, is precisely Mr. Cattelan’s’ willingness to implicate himself within the economic, social and discursive systems that structure how we see and what we value.
What we value brings us back to the success of the work. As unexpected as it was, Comedian’s success is a healthy reminder of how far Contemporary art as come in the last 20 years from the esoteric fringe of our culture to the front page of tabloids and the interactive mayhem of social media. Art—exciting, vexing and envy-inducing—has become a one of the few common experiences we have left in our fractured and bumptious culture. Hating on Cattelan, either out of envy or derision, or reveling in the work, either from intoxication or cheering on the satire, has at least given us some sort of common ground. Who knew that could be so satisfying?