Precious. Prank. Delicious.
These are the words used to describe the piece of art that’s taken not only the art world, but broader society as well by storm.
“Comedian” by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan was unveiled at Art Basel in Miami last week during the annual premier international art show.
Created in a set of threes, the piece has been steeped in controversy ever since it first graced the festival’s stark-white walls. It’s challenging to some, infuriating to others and simply confusing for most of us. Oh, and it’s a banana duct taped to a wall. And the versions have sold for $120,000 to $150,000 each.
Upon first booking our flights to Miami for last week, my fiancé and I didn’t initially even realize that the art show was going on at the same time. But after finding out that the annual to-do would be happening, we thought, Why not? So, we picked up tickets for a reasonable 60 bucks each. Housed mostly in Miami Beach’s convention center, the show spans five days and presents work from more than 200 galleries from across the world. Close to 80,000 attendees visit each year.
As soon as we stepped into the building, it was immediately clear to me and my fiancé, that we were out of place at the show. Despite it’s rather-affordable tickets, it seemed like everyone in the space came decked out in brand-name get-ups and designer sneakers while we wore crop tops and jeans and short sleeves and slacks. We even ran into Serena Williams, who shopped the market with her daughter and an assistant. (I freaked out and called almost everyone I knew immediately.)
So it’s not surprising that a simple banana — not a sculpture of a banana or even a photograph of one, but an actual banana — adhered to a wall with a sideways strip of duct tape sold for more than $100,000.
At first glance, it’s consumerism and hedonism at its finest.
During my time as an art history student, I was often confronted with the age-old question: What is art?
And that’s exactly the question everyone around the world has been asking themselves since the controversial fruit made headlines a few days ago.
Let’s start with Cattelan’s background as an artist.
Emerging into prominence in the late 1980s and ’90s, Cattelan made wooden furniture in Italy. From there, he transitioned to creating satirical sculptures like “LOVE,”a statue of a large middle finger cut from marble; “La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour),”which depicts a sculpture of Pope John Paul II being hit by a meteorite; and his most famous work until “Comedian,” “America,” an 18-karat solid gold toilet which was offered on loan to President Trump after the Guggenheim declined his initial request for a painting by Van Gogh.
So based on his past work, it’s not the like the man can’t create what people consider art. And yet, this new “sculpture” if you want to call it that, seems lazy, shallow and self-indulgent.
But maybe there’s something else here.
Maybe it’s meant to be a commentary on the absurdity of art and the art market and the way we value things as a society. Maybe, because it’s degradable, it speaks to our own mortality. And maybe it’s just a banana taped to a wall.
But isn’t that kind of the point of art? To challenge, to make one think, to spark conversation? And then, if you add the fact that a self-promoting “performance artist” came up a day later and ate the banana right off the wall, that adds another layer to the story and to the piece itself. While Cattelan hasn’t commented on the “vandalism,” any buyers of the pieces were instructed to replace the banana every week or so because of its impermanent nature.
So, is it art?
To answer this, I look to art critic Arthur Danto.
“The status of an artifact as work of art results from the ideas a culture applies to it, rather than its inherent physical or perceptible qualities,” he states. “Cultural interpretation (an art theory of some kind) is therefore constitutive of an object’s arthood.”
In a sense, because of how much attention and thought we’ve put into this banana on a wall, that’s what makes it art — it’s our own fault.