Here’s the most charitable explanation of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s “Comedian”. The work of art is not one that requires great skill to produce — it is a banana duck-taped to a wall. But it can be seen, perhaps, as a joke on the entire self-important and rarefied world of high art. At $1,20,00 or Rs 85,34,280, that’s a pricey punchline. And, on Saturday, someone ate the punchline. Performance artist David Datuna consumed the profound, if slightly putrefied fruit, at the Art Basel festival in Miami, US. He did so, he says, for the most fundamental of reasons — hunger.
The now-digested banana, of course, will be replaced and the publicity will only drive up the value of the “Comedian”. What the consumption of the work has done, though, is settle the debate about the usefulness of art. As much as talent, creating something from nothing is about intelligence and context. In the sparse, sanitised, “do not touch” environment of the gallery and the museum, a simple perishable object certainly makes a statement — both about the ephemeral nature of the work and the pomposity of those who run such spaces. The price is part of the joke on that world, and if Cattelan can get rich off it, kudos to him.
In fact, “Comedian” scores over most other contemporary works on one important score. It isn’t useless, in the most basic sense. A banana is a nutritious fruit. In addition, it has great value in its symbolism: Slipping on its peel is the most basic joke, and it is rife with social and political meaning (think banana republic). But, most important of all, Cattelan’s joke should finally silence both the elite gatekeepers of high culture, and those on the other end of the spectrum, who believe that literal meaning is the only kind that matters. The former can pay Rs 85 lakh for a banana (and a strip of tape), the latter can eat it.