A defense of the banana “artwork”

December 9, 2019 • 12:00 pm

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is not a one-note Dadaist imposture in which a commodity is proclaimed a work of art — which would be an entire century out of date now, as dated as a film director mimicking D.W. Griffith.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.

58 thoughts on “A defense of the banana “artwork”

      1. I think none of them are.

        “A person falsely claiming to have a special knowledge or skill; a fraud.” — Oxford Dictionary

        A quack, or “one making usually showy pretenses to knowledge or ability : FRAUD, FAKER” — Merriam-Webster Dictionary

        A key feature of a charlatan is deception, and usually with malicious intent. The term also often includes people who make harmful or false assertions sincerely believing what they say, or where we just can’t tell how honest they are (see Hanlon’s Razor).

        But here nobody was mislead or deceived at any point. The banana is a banana, the tape is a tape. It was somehow mysteriously decided that this is worth up to 150,000, even though nothing can change hands but a rotten banana and a used tape.

        Perhaps inadvertently, it made use of the social media age, and maybe the target was everyone outraged by it. I appreciate this troll move. It’s art for the clickbait age.

  1. It looks like even more proof that the art world is FUBAR from top to bottom. I hold the ones at the top responsible. I quit showing my paintings years ago. The art world doesn’t support honest artists because the art world is dishonest.

  2. Mr. Farago’s name is itself a kind of Art.
    More on the creative genius he wrote about can be found at:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/1411500.stm , from which here are choice bits.

    “A stuffed, suspended horse has been snapped up for just over £600,000 by a mystery bidder at auction.
    The horse – a piece of contemporary art by “shock” Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan – was bought for £619,750 at Christie’s in London.

    …The taxidermied racehorse called Tiramisu – after the Italian dessert – was shown two years ago at the Tate’s controversial Abracadabra show, also featuring Cattelan’s suicide squirrel.

    …”By making ironic references to other artists, especially to his Italian predecessors, he re-writes art history from a charlatan’s point of view,” said the sale’s description of Cattelan’s work. “His work is subversive, humorous and sharply ironic, frequently mocking the art market by attacking the very infrastructure and presentation that supports it.” “

    1. First thing I thought of as well:

      noun [ C ] US formal disapproving
      UK /fəˈrɑː.ɡəʊ/ US /fəˈrɑː.ɡoʊ/
      plural farragos or US farragoes

      a confused mixture:

      He told us a farrago of lies.


  3. I think you have discovered some folks who need to get a real job. The steady job of con man for America is already taken.

      1. Well, Catellan did offer his previous “artwork” – a gold toilet – to the current occupant of the White House, but it was declined. It was later stolen from Winston Churchill’s birthplace here in the UK.

  4. There’s an interview with pianist Bill Evans – I cant find the exact cue mark right now – where he says, for music, even a baby screaming is expressing something but that doesn’t mean anyone wants to listen to it. I think a parallel for the non-musical arts could be made from that.

    The NYT also recently had a music commentary recently where a drum beat on a recent The Jonas Brothers song was like a “wormhole” to a new dimension of funk.

    I’ll try to find links for those claims, but in the meantime, if a very interested Googler wants to have a go…

  5. By the way, on another note: If you need a lot of reading material and happen to take the Washington Post. I think the way to put this is – If you liked the Pentagon Papers, you will love the Afghanistan Federal Project. After 3 years and a few lawsuits, the post has obtained this Internal review/project on the Afghanistan conflict. It runs over 2000 pages and includes interviews with hundreds of people. Since 2001, over 775,000 have been deployed with 2300 dead and 20,589 wounded. Approximately $1 trillion dollars spent. The best description I got on this – A self-licking ice cream cone. This is what real journalism can provide.

  6. I think PCC(E) SHOULD write “The art market is ridiculous” on a piece of paper, sign it (perhaps in the name of Ceiling Cat) and offer it for sale at an art show. I bet it would sell.

  7. The duct-taped banana itself isn’t a piece of art. Art critics must to find another name for objects like that. But the Cattlean’s piece made an ideological statement that succeeded to make many people angry and this is exactly what he wanted. The idea is not particularly novel nor profound, but the degree of absurdity of its material expression (the banana), and of the whole situation around it, is exactly what makes this piece significant. The fact that a banana was bought for so much money makes us ask many questions about the world around us, its values and rules of the game. These are important issues, and the banana is just a trigger, something that makes us confront them. So far it has been very successful in doing that. Can an article expressing the same idea affect us to the same degree as a rotting fruit that was sold for a fortune?

    1. I agree. This piece was social commentary not visual art. It’s stirring the pot, as it were. It’s not new, nearly cliche really, and therefore not particularly clever. It’s one of those things that all want-to-be-big-time starving artists that truly believe that concept is everything and have little to no skill try to do regularly. But it’s only artists that have already gained notoriety that can actually get enough attention with this kind of gimmick to stir the pot.

      1. Agree on this point as well that it’s not art, but more of a social commentary. I think the focus here is too much on the banana. Cattelan never said that he was creating an showstopping piece – he acknowledged from the beginning that it could be replaced. The fact that we’re talking about this piece as much as we are confirms that the work has done its job.

  8. “What makes Mr. Cattelan a compelling artist…is precisely Mr. Cattelan’s willingness to implicate himself within the economic, social and discursive systems…”

    He’s implicated himself to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars. I wish I could implicate myself into something that lucrative! It wouldn’t cost anything more than my self-respect.

  9. The distance between the “legitimate” art world, social media “influencers”, and fake celebrities of Paris Hilton’s ilk, is shrinking daily. They all involve personalities elevated by some sort of lottery system. Their “art” is just a token for which consumers pay for their 15-minute connection to fake celebrity.

    1. I blame Andy Warhol – both for the “15 minutes of fame” the shysters are seeking, and for the artwork bananas!

      1. Whenever Banksy’s stuff comes up for auction, it goes for enormous sums. Someone is making a lot of money out of it. That person might well be Banksy himself.

        1. Did you read about and watch some video of Banksy setting up a booth in Central Park to sell his artwork? Everyone thought it was just another rip-off vendor, but he sold art valued at about $225,000 for $420, or some such.

  10. Oh holy shit, how out to lunch is this person: “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. [THANKS FOR CLEARING THAT UP!] ‘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.”

    Would that directors would “imitate” D.W. Griffith – perhaps I’d update my movie-watching.

    Stupidity, it seems, and outright arrogance – not a banana! A banana and duct tape, you Philistines! – never goes out of date, unfortunately.

    We are the artists, better than you are, and we’re artists because we produce art, we’re better than you, of course you can’t understand it, because we’re better than you.
    Got it – and THAT attitude is profoundly out of date.

    1. Out of date? It’s perfectly in sync. Arrogant fatuousness is the zeitgeist of much political discourse these days and as always it is a defining characteristic of the art world.

    2. Having run in art circles for a bit I became convinced that much of the tilt-nose art-sophisticate attitude and bullshit art-speak among many artists, collectors and critics is inspired by the fear that others in the group might realize that they don’t have a clue about what the art “means.” This same thing, wanting desperately to be one of the ones that gets it, is what leads to pieces of no particular skill or concept (or worse) becoming worth stupid amounts of money.

    1. Come to think of it, I wonder if it could have been treated somehow to preserve it indefinitely- that would have been interesting

  11. ” . . . what makes Banksy a tedious and culturally irrelevant prankster . . . .”

    This “white noise” locution not infrequently shows up in the NY Times. I’ve never seen writers define it.

    “Culturally irrelevant” to Whom or What – the currently prevailing winds of fatuous mass pop culture piffle?

  12. Contemporary art can be a real challenge. I suspect this has been the case for every generation. Remember that Van Gogh was a failure as an artist during his lifetime. His paintings only started to sell after his death. The later works of Marcel Duchamp failed to find a market as well. But both of these artists are now considered important and influential. If you are struggling with Cattlean’s “banana”, imagine how the public responded to Duchamp’s “fountain”. May I suggest you search for contemporary art that you do like. Ai Weiwei might speak to you – but don’t just look at all the photographs on the Internet. His work is widely exhibited; go to an exhibition, and read up on each of the works. Another contemporary artist I recommend is Edward Burtynsky, but again, make the effort to see the original photographic prints – he makes huge prints. Perhaps his work will speak to you. But don’t write off all contemporary art.

  13. Someone grabbed one of the bananas and ate it. So soon his excrement will contain this valuable work of art. Maybe he can bag it and sell it as a work of art. Since this took more skill than just taping up a banana [hours of work in his digestive track], a bag of his poop should go for at least a quarter mil.

  14. In a story from many years ago (“cultural irrelevance” is my middle name), an artist felt that smoking pot had led him to insights of great profundity; unfortunately, he could never remember later what these dazzling insights were. So, one day, he made a point of writing down the thoughts that came to him in cannabino. Later, he examined this journal, and found only a single entry, which read as follows:
    “The banana is great
    But the banana skin is greater”

    1. When I was a kid, I once overslept on a school day, and my mom came into my room and exclaimed “Aren’t you going to school?” My reply was, “I’m going, but not in color.” Made perfect sense to me at the time. It turned out I was running a high fever. :->

  15. I bypass the angst by an inclusive definition: it is art because it sells as art. Lemma: The art critic is an art critic because he sells as an art critic; so caveat emptor.

    Of course, if the art has limited experiential value you wouldn’t expect it to have commercial value … Oy!

  16. Given the ‘art revolution’ initiated by Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), the subsequent ‘art movements’ or ‘art periods’ of the 20th century such as Dadism, Futurism, De Stijl, Constructivisim, Minimalism, etc have all challenged traditional styles of art and continually raised the question “What is art?” That question still prominently challenges the public as we continue to slip on the ‘banana peel.’

  17. Whole affair reminds me of what the Brit playwright Tom Stoppard said: “Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.”

  18. The wonderful thing about all of this is how dumb it is. As John Birmingham noted talking about this event

    “we all owe Cattelan and Datuna for distracting us from the onrushing death of our civilisation. For while we seem doomed to die choking on stupidity and ashes, the two artists remind us that our species’ self-destructive stupidity needn’t always lead to mega-death and impotence and vast conflagrations of burning bushland.

    Sometimes our foolishness is just for fun.”


  19. They’ve obviously been watching the Python sketch “how to defend yourself against someone who attacks you armed with a piece of fresh fruit”.

    First you make him drop the banana, then you eat the banana, thus rendering him helpless.

  20. some snooty critic would […] And that critic is Jason Farago

    Farago? Farago??
    Talk about having your job forced upon you by the parents you choose. I almost feel sorry for the guy. Dropping an “R” doesn’t hide the origin.
    Definition : farrago (plural farragos or farragoes)
    A collection containing a confused variety of miscellaneous things.
    Synonyms: hodgepodge, hotchpotch, melange, mingle-mangle, mishmash, oddments, odds and ends, omnium-gatherum, ragbag.

  21. First, a typo: the artist’s family name is Cattelan, not Cattlean.


    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.

    This is literally true.

    The reason that people are willing to spend $120k on a banana duct-taped to the wall is because Mr Cattelan is an artist. If I taped a banana to a wall, I could not sell it for $120k or even $1.20. I suspect you couldn’t sell it for $120k either, although, since you have a public profile, you might get a bit more than $1.20.

    I would ague that, in modern terms, it is an outstanding work of art. If the purpose of art is to elicit emotion and discussion and to entertain, it’s been brilliantly successful at all of those. How many column inches have been filled tasing about a banana taped to a wall?

    Also, everything is worth exactly what somebody is prepared to pay for it. If somebody will pay $120k, let them. The rest of us can laugh at their stupidity – more emotion and entertainment.

  22. Here in Belgium we have the story of a sculptor who planned to ship his latest sculpture to an exposition. With the help of friends he moved the sculpture onto the sidewalk. They went back inside to get some other stuff, and found that when they emerged from the house, the sculpture was gone. It appeared that it had been picked up by a passing garbage truck.

Leave a Reply