If you didn’t think the art world was bananas before, last week at Art Basel Miami Beach should be all it takes to convince you. Major media attention was garnered by the ongoing saga involving “Comedian” by Italian conceptual artist and Maurizio Cattelan — which, as many an observant human has noted by now, is a banana duct-taped to a wall. Between the theft of his gold toilet and his subsequent stint as the poster boy for an up-and-coming art insurance firm, it’s really been Cattelan’s year to grab headlines — a streak which he extended by debuting his first new art fair work in 15 years and thereby breaking the internet.
In case you haven’t heard (how??), Cattelan presented “Comedian” as a commentary on the tendency for the art market to assign ludicrous value to nearly arbitrary objects. What better way to do so than to duct tape a banana to a wall at the art fair where more or less every aspiring artist would kill their actual mother for a place in the sun? To attach a $120,000 price tag, of course!
But in this darkest timeline, no object can be so ludicrous that the preternaturally wealthy will decline to throw money at it, in a desperate bid for edginess within lifestyles so buffered from reality that this somehow seems worth it. “Comedian” sold three times over the course of the week, pulling in $120,000 to $150,000 each time, until Cattelan’s gallery Perrotin announced on the last day of the fair, the decision to retire the banana from circulation, due to misgivings about their capitalization on its overexposure. But of course not before the work gathered the lion’s share of controversy, op-eds, and interventions by other aspiring artists, including performance artist David Datuna, who de-installed the piece and ate it before being escorted off the premises.
But even removal of “Comedian” was insufficient to quell the fervor instigated by this art world chicanery, as 46-year-old Roderick Webber of Massachusetts was arrested on charges of criminal mischief after writing “Epstien (sic) didn’t kill himself,” in lipstick, on the wall where the banana was once on display. According to reporting by the Miami Herald, Webber shouted: “If someone can eat the $120,000 banana and not get arrested, why can’t I write on the wall?” as he was removed from the convention center. Dude has a perfectly fair point, to be honest — he didn’t even vandalize a piece of art, as did Datuna. This is what it’s come to: deciding whether a blank wall or a fucking banana has more symbolic currency in our deeply tragic era.
Meme-while, art world insiders and outsiders lined up to get in on the banana roast. Variations on the meme included “sha-wall-ma,” with the Arab American National Museum parodying a shawarma wrap to the wall, and Lalo Alcaraz presenting “Taped Tamal” (2019) valued at $120,000, with a starting bid of $1.20.
Meanwhile, Paddy Johnson of Art F City officially proclaimed peak banana after Coco the cutting-edge art dog made an appearance on beloved Facebook group Dogspotting, sporting a banana safety-taped to her side.
Truly, no one wants to be second banana, when it comes to commenting on the most eye-rolling entry into Art Basel, including those like Nizan Shaked who suggested there was perhaps a subtle intimation of counter-Capitalist symbolism in the ostensibly counter-Capitalist art piece, that nonetheless successfully leveraged the worst parts of Capitalism to send artist and gallery laughing all the way to the bank.
But of course, like everything these days, the rest of the world is far behind the post-Millenial zeitgeist, as a thread by high schoolers on reddit from 15 days ago shows that Cattelan is derivative, at best.
I’ll be honest, though, I find such stunts to be true art, inasmuch as they inspire within me great hope in the face of challenges that face our beleaguered planet. The hope, for example, that the same Capitalism that cannot be lampooned, no matter how blatant the bullshit, will continue unchecked until the ice caps melt and sea levels rise. All goes well, perhaps Miami will be underwater before the next Art Basel Miami Beach comes around to make fools of us all.