That’s just how it works.
Am I saying it’s not crazy? Of course I’m not. It’s bonkers.
But what’s not crazy? Have you been to an art fair? They are revolting spectacles — imagination and talent brutally transformed into naked commerce. Are you aware of what’s going on in the wider world? Did you know a reality TV host is president of the United States?
The key to it all, as always, was the media attention. “Comedian” quickly went viral. It was the subject of wry and withering comments on MSNBC by Chuck Todd, who argued — quite reasonably — that a world where people can pay $120,000 for a banana taped to a wall is a world where income inequality is out of hand. And yes, it is now the subject of a critic’s commentary in The Washington Post.
How many artists get this kind of exposure? $120,000 — for a piece produced in an edition of three (all have sold) — will probably turn out to be a bargain.
What happened to “Comedian” after it became a media sensation sums up our collective disorder — a kind of media-based bulimia — exquisitely. First, at lunchtime on Saturday, David Datuna, a little-known and well-fed-looking performance artist wanting to become better known, showed up at the gallery, took the banana off the wall and, claiming to be a “hungry artist,” ate it.
The banana was promptly replaced; no problem. “Comedian,” like Damien Hirst’s dead shark, Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings and thousands of other works of conceptual art, is about the idea — which in this case, ironically, is that the art market is insane — not the fruit per se. It comes with an authentication certificate and instructions to the owner to replace the banana every 10 days.
But the crowds at the exhibit had gotten out of hand and posed “a serious health and safety risk, as well as an access issue,” according to the gallery. So by Sunday, the final day of Art Basel, “Comedian” had been taken down.
Then, perhaps craziest of all (but who’s measuring?): Hours before the fair closed, Roderick Webber, a 46-year-old, beret-wearing artist and aspiring politician from Massachusetts, scrawled “Epstien [sic] didn’t kill himself” in red lipstick on the gallery wall where the banana had been. This was, of course, a reference to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who died in prison in August. (Webber recently attempted to register his candidacy in the New Hampshire presidential primary under the name “Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself.”)
If you’re angry with Maurizio Cattelan for causing all this, you may have good reason. But I’m inclined to think you have the wrong man. Cattelan pokes fun at the art market and at himself and contemporary society in general. He’s smart, and he can be very funny.
That said, as a provocation and as a work of art, the banana is relatively weak. Much more intense and provocative was the time Cattelan taped his own dealer, the Italian Massimo de Carlo, to the wall of his gallery.
“Comedian” is clearly intended as a reprise of this earlier piece, which — needless to say — required a lot more duct tape. For an art dealer, a more pointed humiliation is hard to imagine. And yet it was gleefully agreed to because in the economy of the art market, it made sense. Everyone profited from it.
What is to blame? Art? The fact that people — yes, even rich people — have senses of humor? Income inequality, as Chuck Todd seems to think?
Sure, if you say so. And yet this kind of groping for scapegoats is facile. If you’re Todd — if you’re me — why not be honest about what’s going on? Why not apportion “blame” to the whole media (and social media) economy, which revolves around an intense fight for people’s attention and runs on advertising — advertising which manufactures desire, which stimulates acquisitiveness and produces more wealth, but also more desire, more hype, more waste, more anxiety, more psychic and social dissonance.
Saul Bellow called it “the moronic inferno.” It didn’t start with Maurizio Cattelan or with contemporary art. And it won’t end with people scrawling conspiracy theories in lipstick on gallery walls.