Art may be long, and life short, but the existence of a hand fruit is most ephemeral of all. This week at Art Basel Miami Beach, the art world’s premier Champagne-steeped swap meet, no work drew more grins, guffaws and selfies than a new sculpture by the semiretired Italian trickster Maurizio Cattelan: a banana duct-taped to the wall, its peel already speckled with brown spots.
It’s titled “Comedian.” By Wednesday it had already won art-world notoriety, and on Saturday it achieved a public visibility that any artist would envy, after a self-promoting wag tore the banana off the wall and gobbled it up. (Not many iconic art works can also be said to be a rich source of potassium.)
Suffice it to say that works of contemporary art rarely make the cover of the New York Post, but this is Mr. Cattelan’s second recent appearance on the tabloid’s front page; in 2016, he emerged from semiretirement to install a functional 18-karat-gold toilet in a restroom of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which drew snaking lines of art lovers. Now the Italian artist is back in the headlines and the Instagram stories, and his purloined banana has offered the perfect weapon to those who think that contemporary art is one big prank. I can only imagine the “60 Minutes” segment this would elicit if Morley Safer were still alive.
“Comedian” was withdrawn from view at Art Basel on Sunday, because of the crowds and the hullaballoo, so let us first settle the matter of whether the artwork has been destroyed or defaced. I don’t have much good to say about the random guy who munched Mr. Cattelan’s banana, though it continues a long tradition of literalists who like bringing conceptual art from the realm of ideas back down to Earth. Numerous artists have urinated in “Fountain,” Marcel Duchamp’s upturned urinal; John Lennon, in 1966, notoriously picked up an apple in Yoko Ono’s first London exhibition and took a bite. And thus they met.
For when it comes to the banana’s ontological status as art or produce, I thought we had settled this already. If you buy a light work by Dan Flavin and the fluorescent bulb starts flickering, you can replace it with a new one. If you buy a Sol LeWitt wall drawing and you move house, you can erase the old one and draw a new one. A banana, even more than a light fixture, was always going to require replacement; Mr. Cattelan had already drawn up instructions for the lucky collectors to replace the fruit every week to 10 days (“Everybody changes flowers regularly,” his dealer Emmanuel Perrotin observed.)
As to why Mr. Cattelan’s banana has gripped the public imagination, it has something to do with its price — $120,000 to $150,000, in an edition of three and two artists’ proofs — and the emperor’s-new-clothes impression of the international collecting class fawning over it at Art Basel. (When Lucille Bluth, the doyenne of “Arrested Development,” said, “It’s one banana, Michael, what could it cost? Ten dollars?,” it turns out she was off by a factor of 10,000.) Something to do, also, with the comic potential of bananas. I don’t think that a taped-up pineapple would have got this much viral traction.
I wasn’t in Miami this week, and I feel a little hesitant delivering a critical judgment about a work I haven’t seen in person. Though even writing that, I recognize I am exposing myself to derision. What kind of critic treats a piece of fruit with the same seriousness as a Rembrandt? It’s just a banana, you nitwit!
Well, is it art? Is Mr. Cattelan taking us for a ride? Did you have to be there? Isn’t this banana just a banana, and not a wry commentary on male sexuality, genetic monocultures, or Central American geopolitics? (I am sparing you a lecture on the Guatemalan coup d’état of 1954, and the origin of the phrase “banana republic”….)
Let me reassure you, you are not a hopeless philistine if you find this all a bit foolish. Foolishness, and the deflating sensation that a culture that once encouraged sublime beauty now only permits dopey jokes, is Mr. Cattelan’s stock in trade. But perhaps you will find more to appreciate in Mr. Cattelan’s work if you take note of two points: one formal, one social.
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.
His renowned “Novecento” (1997), a taxidermied horse suspended from a Baroque ceiling like a drooping chandelier, collapses both the martial pomposity of the Fascists and the futility of modern art to live up to classical architecture. “La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi” (2000) consists of a miniature doll representing the artist, suspended from a coat rack and dangling like an air-cured prosciutto. By 2011, when Mr. Cattelan opened his retrospective at the Guggenheim, he diminished all his previous works by suspending them from hooks in the center of the gallery, like laundry hung out to dry.
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.
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.
In this way Mr. Cattelan is wholly unlike Banksy, the ultra-bankable street artist whose default stance is populist mockery: colluding with an auction house to sell a work that self-destructs, or selling a print of a painting sale with the title “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This ….” (The title has one unprintable last word.) Banksy’s juvenile, notably British stance satisfies a dismayingly common belief that all artists are con artists, and that museums, collectors and critics are either dupes or hustlers. Indeed, it’s exactly because of frauds like Banksy that audiences believed Mr. Cattelan arranged the theft of his own gilded commode in September, as if every artist was putting something over.
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.