You all know about the work of “art” by
artist scammer Maurizio Cattlean that sold for $120,000 last week in Miami. Called “Comedian,” it consisted of a banana duct-taped to a wall. Actually, a second version sold for $150,000 as well, so Cattelan cleaned up more than a cool quarter million dollars for his fake art. (See my posts here and here.) The plot thickened when, on Saturday, performance artist David Datinua dismantled the “art” work and ate the banana. He was not prosecuted.
In the face of universal derision of “Comedian”, and bemusement about the bananaphagy, it was inevitable that some snooty critic would artsplain why the duct-taped banana was not only art, but profound and significant art. And that critic is Jason Farago, who works for the New York Times. You can read his unconvincing defense by clicking on the screenshot below.
We first learn that the question of “What happens when the banana rots?” appears to be moot, for Farago tells us that Cattlean had instructed the buyer to replace the fruit every week to ten days. But that doesn’t impress me; it’s like an artist painting a work with paint that fades, and telling you to simply repaint it from time to time. If the original materials don’t matter, then what you’re paying for is an idea.
And of course that’s what these charlatans are purveying: ideas, and ideas that aren’t particularly novel. In the case of Farago, who doesn’t really know what Cattelan intended, he simply confects an idea that sounds plausible:
First, I have been dismayed to discover that for a work that has been endlessly photographed and parodied over the course of its one-week life, almost nobody has discussed that it is not just “a banana.” It is a banana and a piece of duct tape, and this is a significant difference. “Comedian” is not a one-note Dadaist imposture in which a commodity is proclaimed a work of art — which would be an entire century out of date now, as dated as a film director mimicking D.W. Griffith. “Comedian” is a sculpture, one that continues Mr. Cattelan’s decades-long reliance on suspension to make the obvious seem ridiculous and to deflate and defeat the pretensions of earlier art.
Suspension via duct tape, in particular, has a history in Mr. Cattelan’s art. Perhaps the most important antecedent for the banana sculpture is his notorious “A Perfect Day” (1999), for which Mr. Cattelan used duct tape to fasten his dealer Massimo De Carlo to a white wall, who stayed taped above the ground for the show’s opening day. The banana should be seen in the context of this earlier work, which places the art market itself on the wall, drooping and pitiful.
Okay, so we have a two-note Dadaist imposture. And I’m not buying it as art, for why is “suspension” anything beyond the idea that “if I hang up this thing, it mocks the art market”? It’s not obvious, nor is it profound. But mocking the art market is not art; it’s the equivalent of writing a piece that mocks art, or putting the words “the art market is ridiculous” on a piece of paper and hanging that on the wall. Further, how does this “deflate and defeat the pretensions of earlier art”? Which earlier art, exactly? Surely not van Gogh or Rembrandt. How about the fur-lined tea cup or the “R. Mutt” urinal? (These were, by the way, not one-note pieces either, as the former has a cup, saucer, a spoon and fur, and the latter has a signature).
Farago goes further to try to fend off the people like me who laugh at him for making up meanings for artworks and turning facile ideas themselves into “art”:
But perhaps you have read all this and thought: this Times critic is as bad as the poseurs at the fair! In which case you have already anticipated my second point: Mr. Cattelan directs these barbs at art from inside the art world, rather than lobbing insults from some cynical distance. His entire career has been a testament to an impossible desire to create art sincerely, stunted here by money, there by his own doubts.
Umm. . . .now we learn that the taped banana is art because Cattelan is an artist. Had he not been one, the banana would not have been nearly as significant! Or so we are told. Again, I’m not buying it. So Cattlean is stunted in his desire to create real art, “stunted by money” (seriously—with $270,000?) and “by his own doubts.” Well, many artists, among them van Gogh, had doubts, but still created works that resonate with us emotionally. Cattelan has created what Farago sees as a whiny, self-referential reflection on failure. Fine, but that’s self-help, not art.
Finally, Farago compares Cattelan unfavorably to Banksy, the street artist who recently sold a painting that self-destructed on the auctioneer’s wall. To Farago’s mind, Bansky (who at least can draw) is not an artist because he mocks others rather than himself. Again, fine, but why does that make the taped banana art as compared to Banksy’s provocative murals?
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. It makes sense that an artist would find those systems dispiriting, and the duct-taped banana, like the suspended horse, might testify to his and all of our confinement within commerce and history. In that sense, the title “Comedian” is ironic — for Mr. Cattelan, like all the best clowns, is a tragedian who makes our certainties as slippery as a banana peel.
Farago should take his own words to heart here, for he has avoided implicating himself in this Bananagate scam. In fact, he’s defended the banana as serious art. Farago, with his pompous pronouncements and confected “explanations” of art, makes himself part of the system that has led to the ruination of the art market. It is people like Farago, who sees “Comedian” as profound, that has created its value. Should he hang a tear sheet with his column on the wall and sell it for big bucks?
The last sentence of Farago’s piece, above, is simply a Deepity that sounds good but says nothing. Do all good clowns really render our certainties less certain? Does W. C. Fields or Charlie Chaplin do that? The last sentence is simply a show-offy way to end a column. Farago should be writing for the New Yorker, where that type of clever but shallow bon mot is the hallmark of the magazine’s prose.