From the Fine Art Connoisseur January/February 2020 Editor’s Note:
Here We Go Again
It’s the New Year, but everyone is still talking about the banana that fetched $120,000 last year. If you haven’t heard about it, you are lucky, and I hesitate to relieve your bewilderment. Every December the cutting-edge art world gathers in Miami for the constellation of fairs surrounding Art Basel Miami Beach. Billions of dollars’ worth of art is traded, most of it more conceptual, minimalist, or experiential than what you see here in Fine Art Connoisseur. If you haven’t visited Miami during the first week of December, it’s well worth going, once, to get a sense of how closely cutting-edge art resembles show business these days.
Perhaps Miami Basel’s greatest triumph ever came last month when Galerie Perrotin — a leading international dealer — exhibited a real banana attached to its wall with duct tape. This “sculpture” came in an “edition” of three, and all three sold promptly for $120,000 each. The “creator” is Maurizio Cattelan (b. 1960), the dashing Italian provocateur whose previous “outrage” was the 18-carat gold toilet premiered at the Guggenheim three years ago and stolen from an exhibition at Blenheim Palace last year.
Cattelan is a hugely successful conceptualist more interested in ideas than craftmanship, and he is also a publicist’s dream because his ideas are far more exciting to read about than to see; this knack for getting noticed sells newspapers, and draws “collectors” like moths to the flame. To make the Miami situation even more memorable, a Georgian-born performance artist (David Datuna) walked into Perrotin’s stand, calmly removed the banana from the wall, then ate it as “astonished” onlookers filmed him.
No harm done, of course. As with most conceptual artworks, the new owners were expecting to replace their bananas with fresh ones whenever they wanted to admire their new acquisitions.
In fact, most “collectors” at this level are more interested in the limited edition’s certificate of authenticity issued by the artist, which gets parked in a bank vault and sold to someone else eventually. In this world, it’s about the idea, not the object.
I believe in capitalism, so I have no particular objection to this nonsense. If people want to spend money on a clever prank whose notoriety will be superseded by next January, that’s their right. But I am worried — yet again — about what message this sort of thing sends to sensible people who occasionally think that art might just be something they would enjoy buying. Note: I felt the same way about the heavily restored Leonardo painting of Christ that sold for the ludicrous sum of $450 million at Christie’s two years ago, so this is not about my hating Maurizio Cattelan or bananas.
Bottom line: a succès de scandale like the banana essentially tells “regular” people — folks who can actually afford to buy good, appropriately priced art — that any art worth having is admirable only for its financial value, cleverness, or rarity. That perception is not helpful for most working artists, for dealers, for auctioneers, or even for museums, which feel increasingly pressured to exhibit sensational artworks in order to sell tickets.
What to do about it? Take it all in stride, chuckle at the joke, then reassure the “regular” art lovers we know that they can still get in the art game — a less noticed corner of the field, to be sure, but one that is more emotionally, intellectually, and even spiritually rewarding than the nonsense making headlines last month.