I was about to take a shower. I stood nude before the mirror in my bathroom and realized that my entire perspective on art is anathema to the contemporary art world. The people who are in the inner circle, who are rich, along with the big art institutions, and even the art critics are in alignment, and I am like the guy on the street corner by the freeway with a “The End is Nigh” sign.
I won’t detail the long list of disagreements I have with the contemporary art world here, but it goes back more than a quarter century, and there are volumes of articles on my blog examining all our differences. The catalyst here was people heralding a banana taped to a wall with duct tape — “Comedian” by Maurizio Cattelan — as a great accomplishment in art. Suddenly it seemed like the universe was conspiring to serve me a stream of patently ludicrous art scenarios in order to challenge my own artistic values and creations. Was I being played with in a simulated universe? Or was I alone in the universe tormenting myself in a cosmic dream?
That is Solipsism, the philosophical idea that nothing else exists and you are dreaming or otherwise making up everything yourself. That is utterly ridiculous, and only works when you are alone looking at your reflection in the mirror. It absolutely fails when anyone else tells you that you are a figment of their imagination. Then I snapped out of my instant of toying with insanity and remembered that people entertain entirely opposite ideas about all sorts of things, each has their own reality, and most everyone gets by well enough as long as they last. There isn’t just one reality, at least not within the scope of the human mind. For us, it’s always a subjective and limited portal on the real. I need not be nuts, deficient, or out of touch with reality in order to hold an unpopular opinion.
We can’t even get a consensus about what we should eat. Are eggs good or bad? How about carbs? Experts will give diametrically opposed views with absolute certainty. Last night I was watching a documentary about the serial killer, Henry Lee Lucus. He was at one time the most nororious of the serial killers, reputed to have killed in the neighborhood of 300 people, but is now known as the “confession killer” because he admitted to scores of murders he didn’t commit. Turns out the sheriff was feeding him information that only the actual killer would know, Henry was regurgitating the facts as confessions, and thus dozens upon dozens of unsolved cases were finally closed. At one point there were decent, educated people, with jobs and families, who were convinced Lucas had killed more than a hundred people, and other learned, successful, competent people who believed he was innocent of all but a few possible murders. There again was the simultaneous coexistence of completely opposite realities.
Only in science do we routinely, eventually, through repeatable controlled experiments and peer-reviewed research arrive at consensus findings. And in the case of Henry Lee Lucas, evidence eventually cropped up that it was logistically impossible for him to have committed most the murders, including the one he was going to be sentenced to death for. And so, while we can function with all kinds of models of reality in our heads, in many cases I still believe that we can defer to the more comprehensive, logical, and persuasive argument. Art is as subjective an arena as any, and contemporary art is infamous for testing the boundaries of the comically ridiculous, but even in art there tends towards a consensus over time.
I woke up this morning wondering if the people that bought or championed “Comedian” had their doubts. And then I reminded myself that they are the ones worshiping a piece of rotting fruit strapped to the wall. Of course I used “worship” here hyperbolically, but art does, or used to provide a sort of space of transcendence, even if it was just of beauty combined with insight and observation, that they formerly found in religion (and often in the music, paintings, and architecture celebrating it). We could say that the transcendence of art continued after certain beliefs fell from mass acceptance. This was true for me, as I’ve often found the enjoyment, contemplation, and assimilation of art to be the most rewarding experiences. It allows me to engage with other minds in sophisticated, personal, and imaginary spaces, and is nourishment for the metaphoric soul. And then there is the art that snubs its nose at all that, takes a shit on it, and presumes to occupy a higher philosophical plane of understanding via that rejection, as if it were a simple scientific experiment that handily disproved thousands of years of superstition.
Marcel Duchamp is the high priest of anti-art, and his drawing a mustache on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa puts him right up there with da Vinci, according certain authorities.
Duchamp has been compared to Leonardo da Vinci, as a profound philosopher-artist…”~ Martin Gayford, for The Telegraph.
Duchamp had most famously implied art was a thing to be pissed on, when he entered a urinal in an art exhibition. Piero Manzoni implied that art was shit when he exhibited a can of “artist’s shit” containing his own feces. There can be multiple competing interpretations of conceptual works, but the idea that his shit is on par with the work of the old masters is definitely one of them.
I laid in bed comparing what I think of as art, and what had just made worldwide headlines. I didn’t need to remind myself that my own art is a lifelong struggle to get any recognition, and part of my my tactic has to be to level up my game, which also requires that I be ever more dedicated, organized, and disciplined. And as much as this goes against every tenet of contemporary art, to break through to the next level I need more skill, which will allow me to express a greater range of content, and more cohesively. My chronically naive belief is that if you make good enough art people will not be able to ignore it indefinitely, when in reality, the artist of today learns to game the system. For me, I reflected, the best artists were virtuosos of sorts — one could easily argue Jackson Pollock is a virtuoso of flinging and spilling paint — but virtuosity is not the accomplishment itself, just the necessary means. One has to have the competence in a medium in order to communicate with it, and one also needs to have something to communicate.
This afternoon I learned that the buyers of one of the trio of bananas [why sell one when you can create a limited edition within seconds?] intend to loan the controversial work to a major art institution in order to attract new generations to the museum. This insult won’t be solidified until a museum does show the work, but the unavoidable implication is that “Comedian” is museum worthy, and thus among the more formidable artistic achievements of humankind.
But if I compared the banana sculpture with its polar opposite, something like the Greek sculpture, Laocoön and His Sons, one is an inspiring testament to the human imagination, our ability to render beauty, astonishing skill, and an almost alchemical transformation of stone to flesh: the other is a middle finger aimed at the former.
The intellectual giants who properly understand “Comedian” in all its grand philosophical implications will glibly point out that my moment of self-doubt before the mirror is precisely the kind of reaction the art is intended to stir. But that would mean that it’s supposed to suck so bad — while being celebrated as a masterpiece — that you have to wonder if the whole world has a concussion, which would mean that the art sucks indeed. Art really can’t be great because it sucks.
I argued in my prior article why “Comedian” is bullshit. It isn’t new, and the least we can ask of radical conceptual art is that it not be dead on arrival; it’s the kind of art that insults us by presuming to outsmart us (while failing to do so); the aesthetics are too minimal to register; to the degree it is a critique of the moneyed art-world it nevertheless anticipates being successful within that very same framework; and any meaning is too vague to gel into a coherent statement. I haven’t found any known art critic to make a similar case, as all the published material I could find online was either silent or fawning, and Robert Hughes is dead.
Most articles just echo each other and seem to have been written quickly in order to appear sooner in searches, boost the SEO of whatever outlet they represent, and accrue ad revenue. I didn’t find arguments that I could really grapple with. But today I encountered a defense of “Comedian”. And here I see an opportunity to test my own perspective and see who has the more thorough and persuasive argument.
Brian P. Kelly wrote for the Wall Street Journal:
“The Banana has been mocked and ridiculed as completely fatuous; the six-figure purchase price lambasted and held up as an example of the absurdities of income inequality; the whole saga held aloft as an overripe example of art world hubris. But allow me to state unequivocally that The Banana is good—and that is exactly why.” ~ Brian P. Kelly, for the Wall Street Journal:
This is a position I anticipated:
“Why, the fact that it looks like pretentious fuckwittery is the crystalline genius. It’s a comment on pretentious fuckwittery, and, uh, materialism, authority, capitalism, commodities, controversy, spectacle, popular culture, and so on, while only appearing to be the very thing it is critiquing! Astounding!” ~ Me, for my basement blog.
Too easily lost in the commotion and over-intellectualizing about the work is the fact that The Banana is meant to be ridiculed. It exists to be mocked. Mr. Cattelan, after all, has a pedigree thumbing his nose at wealth and the elites.
Traditionally, the discourse around conceptual art starts where over-intellectualizing leaves off, and you need to familiarize yourself with a custom, multi-syllabic vocabulary, and have a foundation in linguistics to join the conversation. I guess this is the one exception. And in just this instance, as opposed to Manzoni’s canned shit, or Duchamp’s piss-pot, we are to understand that the artist actually anticipated ridicule. Somehow, a career made in selling art to the wealthy elite is supposed to signify a rejection of the wealthy elite. Unlike anti-art practitioners before him, according to Kelly, Cattelan’s not thumbing his nose at artists, but at his own supporters, who are also presumed to get the critique and buy the art specifically for that reason.
As I put it in my last article:
Part of the meaning is to be found in not outsmarting the backwards art audience, or making fools of the gullible rich aficionados, but rather making fun of the gullible rich aficionados with a wink. The wink is the real art. It’s saying the buyers are chumps, but the saying they are chumps is the art, in which case he’s not really saying they are chumps.
Kelly further argues:
With this new work, he’s turned his critical eye on the art world itself—an institutional and market critique that should be a shock to the system…
Are we forgetting that Duchamp was mocking the art insitution a century a go, in which case this tactic was a staple of conceptual art since before most people taking selfies with the banana were born? And are the buyers supposed to be shocked into making the purchases?
In this case, nothing could be more emblematic of a divorce from the reality of money than dropping $120k on a piece of fruit that will rot on your walls simply because the guy who put it there is semi-famous. And in that sense, apples to apples, The Banana could have been anything, because for buyers it’s not about the work itself but the acquisition of it, the ultimate example of the unbridled commodification that has defined the art trade since the 1980s. ~ Brian P. Kelly.
The notion that the banana could have been anything is also a concession that it isn’t anything. If it had any intrinsic worth it would undermine the message that it could have been anything. We are left with the sculpture being a prop for an idea, which is nothing new in conceptual art, and the buyers being fully cognizant that they are buying a prop illustrating an idea. He concedes this himself:
Might those buyers have been in on the joke being made literally and figuratively at their own expense? Most likely—these are art-world VIPs, after all.
Both the artist and the buyers are in league with each other. Cattelan isn’t biting the hand that feeds him, nor undermining the theory that underpins the validity of his own work. If he establishes that his buyers will purchase his work even if it’s bogus, that suggests other work of his might also be bogus? Were Duchamp’s buyers similarly being chumped when they bought a comb or a snow shovel? In both cases I’d say the buyers were chumpled, but not necessarily deliberately. Buyers and artist alike can believe the same fantasy, such as that a gesture attacking art or the art institution is the highest form of art.
So, “Comedian” is supposed to be a Trojan horse snuck into the contemporary art world in order to expose its corruption and stupidity, and thus it’s brilliant. But the victims here know it’s a Trojan horse, and think that’s wickedly clever, especially when it comes from a insider who prospers enormously within this same paradigm. It’s the same scenario that played out when Banksy’s stencil of a girl with a balloon, selling for $1,000,000 self-destructed at Sotheby’s. The supposed targets of this subversive act applauded, laughed, and took pictures, as if they were at a surprise party. The 750 limited editions of the same print his gallery was selling for $50,000 each ($37,500,000 in total) got added publicity, and all in the name of condemning the moneyed art world and its exclusive superstars.
We should give Mr Cattelan his due for shining a light on the absurdities of the market. And even if the piece fails to instigate any real self-reflection, we can still appreciate the farcical hilarity of the entire spectacle. The work’s real title, “Comedian,” has proved apt.
Let’s see if I got all this straight.
- The banana taped to the wall is supposed to suck as a sculpture.
- Because it sucks and is meaningless it proves that elite buyers will purchase anything by a famous artist no matter how bad it is.
- The real content of the art is pranking the buyers into buying crap, exposing the artworld as clueless, and that’s why it is good.
- The buyers know the art is punking them, are in on the joke, see the joke as the art for which the banana is a mere artifact, think it’s all so brilliant, and thus are buying it not because they are stupid, but because they know a good bargain when they see it, and this work is making history.
- The artist knew the art aficionados would get the joke, would buy the bananas, and made the work for them respecting their savviness and appreciation of conceptual art, and his oeuvre in particular.
- The artist made a standard work of conceptual art for his admiring audience in which both benefited.
- This time the same old story of an artist doing an outrageous and irreverent stunt, and being showered with money and attention for it, is supposed to be hilarious because we have amnesia and don’t remember every other time we’ve been through this.
Cattelan is part and parcel of the absurdity of the art world, and his banana solidifies his stature within it. It’s a cyinical stunt of, by, and for the rich art world insiders, the end result of which was to promote his brand. The butt of the joke are artists who work hard at their craft, try to communicate something meaningful, and sell their work for tens or hundreds of dollars if they are lucky, and the art audience that is starved of meaningful and transcendent art.