I may be in the minority here, but I think there is something going on in Maurizio Cattelan’s work titled ‘Comedian’.
The Italian satirical artist has ‘created’ a work of art by using two common objects: an overripe banana stuck to a wall with a strip of duct tape. The work which is being exhibited at the famous Miami Gallery, Art Basel, has just sold for $120,000US.
Before the mockers mock and critics criticise, it is worth observing how successful this Cattelan original has become. Some might say that the work itself should be subject to ridicule. Add a $120,000 price tag, and the jeering and sneering is more than audible. But the story of this captivating banana isn’t yet finished. A performance artist by the name of David Datuna visited the Art Basel and while admiring ‘Comedian’ up close, he committed the great heresy of reaching out and touching the banana. He didn’t stop there. He ripped the banana and its duct tape from the wall and then proceeded to peel the banana and eat its flesh. Onlookers gasped while others laughed. A security guard appeared, horrified. Datuna exclaimed that his was a work of art and he gave it the name, ‘Hungry Artist’.
He was quickly taken away but later emerged as a free man, free to perform and eat again.
Posting on Instagram he said,
“Art performance by me. I love Maurizio Cattelan artwork and I really love this installation. It’s very delicious,”
The director of the gallery, Lucien Terras, told the Miami Herald,
“[Datuna] did not destroy the art work. The banana is the idea”.
The $120,000 banana has since been replaced with a fresh banana.
As this work of art captivates people all over the world, I’m thinking, who is acting the fool here? Friends are rolling their eyes all over social media and decrying the waste of money. People are quick to point out the foolishness.
Who is the fool? Maurizio Cattelan? After all, all he did was take a banana and stick it on a wall. Far from acting the fool, Cattelan is looking at us and laughing with a $120,000 wry grin, shaped like a banana. More significantly, Cattelan’s genius is him successfully drawing us into conversation and debate about a slightly smelly piece of fruit. We are the suckers, falling into Maurizio Cattelan’s world of satire. The banana isn’t the subject, we are the subject. Even eating the art piece forms part of the ever evolving expression that has been set in motion by the artist.
So are we the fool? Well, we are certainly silly monkeys for eating into his artistic expression, and then, of course, there’s the fool who paid $120,000 for old fruit and a strip of duct tape!
In the world of commonsense, we would be regarded as fools, as we offer up our half-digested opinions about a piece of fruit stuck to a wall. However, the world today isn’t ruled by reason. Rather, we have become eager participants in Cattelan’s pantomime. In this upside-down world where right is now wrong, and wrong is lauded, and where such divisions are even removed altogether, the only fool here is the security guard who dared assume that eating the banana was an act of vandalism. And yet, as Lucien Terras has declared, even the guard has become an aspect of the artist’s expression.
Art has merged into life. Or should that be, life has merged in art? Everything becomes art. We are the artist’s subject as much as that banana, and all the subsequent bananas that will replace the mould and smell.
As far as originality is concerned, Cattelan’s object is little more than a spin-off from Andy Warhol’s portrait of a banana. He is simply replacing a painting with the object itself. And yet, here we are, talking about a banana.
Now that we’ve established that all of us are fools and yet none of us is the fool, is there a right way to be looking at ‘Comedian’? Is there any single interpretation of ‘Comedian’ that is the right one? Indeed, should we even be talking in such categories?
The sculpture isn’t designed to elucidate a set response, but to create an entire spectrum of reactions. It is a portrait of the absurd and the absurd is us. There is no fixed meaning, just meanings. There is no primal purpose, just a bunch of ripening and then slowly rotting contributions.
I’m not quite sure whether ‘Comedian’ is mocking today’s avant garde or is an example of its stupidity. Either way, it is certainly revealing something rather sad and disillusioning about our society. What if the real world is also without overarching meaning and design? What if all we have is 7 billion opinions and convocations and divisions? It would be a truly satirical place to live. In such a world, why shouldn’t we eat and destroy an expensive work of art? Why shouldn’t we deride or laugh or even destroy? Why not spend $120,000 on a banana instead of giving the money to charity?
A universe without God is such a world. In such a closed material construct the only fool is the one who stands up and says “no, you mustn’t do that”. Instead, let people be, to steal, to take, to laugh, to admire, and however else we choose to express ourselves.
If Cattelan’s ultimate objective was to communicate the irreverence and heresy of particular meaning, the joke rests finally on him, for it was after all necessary for Cattelan to image the idea in his mind and then to make it with his hands. There is no art without the artist. Even the aleatoric movement of John Cage and company, the author could not fully remove himself.
The universe God created and in which we live is not such a place. It is filled with careful design and purpose. Not all opinions and reviews are equal. Not every action is good. Not every investment is wise or useful. The scary thing is that this world’s creator takes an active interest in things and he is concerned for how we treat his creation including one another. As Psalm 2 indicates, he is a God who laughs and scoffs at us for deluding ourselves into pretending that our speculations and philosophising can subvert and replace his revelation.
“The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
“I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.” (Psalm 2)
How much better is the portrait God has given us of his creation. How much more stunning and meaningful and satisfying is the Creator’s plan for the canvas on which you and I exist and have our being. Indeed, it involved the artist entering his own creation for the sake of redeeming us and reconciling us to His Divine purpose.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”