There have been plenty of articles defending Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s work that was on display at Art Basel Miami, of a banana duct-taped to a wall. This installation, aptly titled Comedian had thousands queueing up to take selfies with it before a canny, self-promoting performance artist decided to gobble it up, and became an instant Internet sensation. (It is not unreasonable to wonder that if a banana attached to the wall can pass off as art, why a performing artist eating it is not — but he was escorted out by security and the piece removed). The long and short of it is that at one of the most important events on the international art calendar, a mere banana grabbed all eyeballs and headlines, completely eclipsing the dominating theme at Art Basel Miami — of sustainability and climate change. To add insult to injury, Comedian sold three times over for between $120,000 to $150,000, notwithstanding the fact that three-fourths of the installation, the rotting fruit, cannot survive a week.
I’m no connoisseur of fine art and the metaphysical meaning behind this banana, if any, eludes me completely. In fact, at the risk of sounding like a complete dolt, it has occurred to me that there is something to cheer that I can tape a banana on a wall and claim to own an artwork worth a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. But, then again, why would I want to? The very idea of a banana as a mounted display is seriously weird and only an idiot would decorate their house like this. (I am not the only genius who thought of this, Brooke Shields taped a banana to her forehead and tweeted with the tagline: ‘An expensive selfie’.) Perhaps, on the other hand, Cattelan is the most subversive artist alive, who’s simply making the point that not everything selling for 150K is worth buying and that when we look at art, we shouldn’t go by price tags. What the critics hailing Cattelan’s originality are saying is that of course that wretched banana is ridiculous, and the rich collectors falling for it need to question their own foolish pretensions. At least that’s what I understood of it, though it is all very twisted and confusing.
I suspect there are plenty of people like me who are caught in a time warp when it comes to appreciating, or simply understanding contemporary art. Because, for those of us who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, it was barely a thing and unless you came from a family of artists, exposure to modern works was very limited. Only a privileged few who had insider access to museums developed some discernment while the rest of us referred to books on artists, like the tragic and strange life of Vincent van Gogh immortalised in Lust for Life to interpret artistic expression. Obviously those who cut their aesthetic teeth on the vivid and light colours of Monet’s Impression, Sunrise or Van Gogh’s vibrant sunflowers will gravitate towards beauty more classically portrayed, than an inside joke that Cattelan’s sculpture (if you can call it that) appears to be. One can’t help but be nostalgic for a time when artistic concepts weren’t so abstract and didn’t confuse viewers like this, by being a fruit.
Maybe he spent many painstaking hours coming up with this concept: one must not grudge Cattelan’s his incredible good fortune that his spectacle so completely captured the world’s imagination. The banana provoked, stirred and jolted the audience, tragically, much more than the humongous ice sculpture of Greta Thunberg’s powerful words ‘How Dare You’ quietly, and profoundly melting away at Art Basel. Perhaps we need another wild and gimmicky artwork that’ll explain why people respond to absurdity so much more, than to a crisis.