State of the Arts

The art world’s great ‘Banana’ moment won’t change a thing

Subversive gestures at art fairs, like Maurizio Cattelan’s $120,000 piece of fruit duct-taped to a wall, just provide better spiels for the dealers, says Mark Hudson

Friday 13 December 2019 14:02
Cattelan’s ‘Comedian’ on display in Miami
Cattelan’s ‘Comedian’ on display in Miami

It’s already being talked up as a game-changing moment in the history of contemporary art: when the bubble of art-world pretence, with its grossly inflated prices, finally burst.

I’m talking, of course, about the great banana moment, when Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan duct-taped a banana to a wall at the Art Basel Miami art fair with a price tag of $120,000 (£92,000), thereby precipitating the biggest art controversy since Banksy’s self-destroying painting last year. When the banana was eaten by Georgian-born performance artist David Datuna in an apparent protest at that absurd price, it was replaced by another which was removed from exhibition after “several uncontrollable crowd movements”. Riots at an art fair? Good grief!

The three “editions” of the work, sold at the full-asking price, complete with certificate and “replacement instructions” for when the fruit perishes – ie within a week. A second performance artist, meanwhile, one Rod Webber, was arrested after spray-painting “Epstien didn’t kill himself” on the empty wall where one of the bananas (I couldn’t swear which) had been displayed.

By the time this work is a year old, a lot of bananas will have been involved, but all are, certainly notionally, the same piece of fruit, relating back to the original banana, which – according to the artist and his dealers Galerie Perrotin – is an “idea”, not an object. Still with me?

Bananas are traditional indicators of hilarity. We puncture our pretensions by slipping on their skins, they’re comic stand-ins for the male member and they’re yellow – a colour that’s always been considered slightly silly. For these reasons and more, 59-year-old Cattelan – one of contemporary art’s more established pranksters (previous works include a solid gold toilet that was stolen from Blenheim Palace earlier this year) – titled his work Comedian. But even this practised controversy-monger could hardly have predicted the marvellous farce within a farce he was about to unleash.

From the moment the fair opened, Comedian was the most talked about work, the perfect selfie opportunity for the crowds of poseurs, liggers and voyeurs who make up the typical art fair audience. Then Mr Datuna calmly took the banana from the wall and ate it on camera, posting the film on Instagram: a gesture that appeared to turn Art Basel and everything the commercial art world stands for on their heads. If a passer-by can casually eat an artwork worth $120,000, doesn’t that fundamentally undermine the whole commercial basis of art?

The impact of l’affaire banane on the way we see art has already been feverishly discussed. New York-based designer Sebastian Errazuriz, one of many who produced their own satirical response to the work – in his case a dildo taped to a wall with an asking price of $12,000 – claimed to be “not sure the art world will fully recover. This could be that little extra push that finally gets people to shout that the emperor has no clothes and start pushing back.”

Veteran New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz declared that, “a violent disordering is in the offing. Art will be fine; so will we. But joke art, shock-your-Nana-art, art about art about art: that’s all been DOA for a decade or more. Migrations are afoot – art is on the move.”

Sound fantastic? If only! Anyone would think neither Mr Errazuriz and Mr Saltz had ever visited an art fair, that they had no experience of the gross self-satisfaction of the commercial art world and its ability to co-opt even the most subversive gesture to its own self-serving interests.

Man eats banana 'artwork' which was about to be sold for over £100,000

This is a storm in a bullet-proof, plate-glass teacup, in which the spectators – the vast majority of those queueing selfie-takers – will have paid handsomely (a day ticket is $65) for the fleeting illusion of participating in a world of transcendent glamour and money, where everyday critical faculties are suspended. Looking at Cattelan’s Comedian, we can see a host of precedents and references, from Martin Creed’s 2001 Turner Prize-winning Work 88, a screwed-up ball of paper stuck to the Tate wall through, to the 17th-century “vanitas” painting in which rotting fruit reminds us of our mortality via, of course, the banana on Andy Warhol’s iconic 1966 Velvet Underground album cover. But in an environment like Art Basel Miami all that feels completely incidental, fodder for dealer’s spiel.

The story of Cattelan’s banana is about people shouting at each other in a glossy art world bubble. Everyone involved is an insider – I bet neither Mr Errazuriz nor Mr Saltz nor even Mr Datuna paid for their tickets – and everyone’s a winner. While Mr Datuna appeared to attack the fundamental fabric of contemporary art, he will have made the investments of the mega-wealthy collectors who shelled out for Mr Cattelan’s work very much more valuable, while making himself very much more famous. And you’ll notice he hasn’t been prosecuted for destroying a $120,000 art work, while the luckless Mr Webber, that other interventionist performance artist, was arrested simply for spray-painting a wall – but then he probably did pay for his ticket, and he can’t spell.

Far from ringing the changes in art, this affair – like Banksy’s self-destroying painting, which immediately leapt in value – is yet another example of an iconoclastic gesture that functioned entirely to the art world’s advantage. If you want to rock culture to its foundations, don’t try to do it in an art fair.

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