Maurizio Cattelan’s recent success with his aptly titled Comedian is disappointingly telling of our times. The work, shown at Art Basel’s Miami Beach, comprises a banana gaffa taped to a bare white wall. It is priced at $120,000. How neatly it slots into our artistic oeuvre in this age of celebrity.
The Parisian gallery Perrotin, who have been showing the work at the fair, have heroically made an object history out of this small assemblage. That’s the beauty of marketing for you. But is it a prank? Perrotin are quick to dismiss this idea. Every aspect of the work has been carefully considered, they say, from the shape of the fruit to the angle it has been affixed to the wall. Cattelan developed the idea a year ago, making several models in both resin and bronze before coming back to the original fruit. None of these facts answer the question.
Cattelan is no stranger to the art of the prank. A self-proclaimed ‘lazy’ artist, in 1991 he assembled a group of donors to award him a $10,000 grant that stipulated he did not exhibit any art for a year. At the 1993 Venice Biennale he sublet his pavilion to a perfume company, making a profit in the process. With this background in mind, it is no wonder that the alleged theft from Blenheim Palace of the artist’s America, a functioning solid gold toilet, has raised some eyebrows. A long-standing critic of the art world and society in general, I’m sure if the theft is real, it will have thrilled him.
So did the banana prank work? On the 4th of December, Emmanuel Perrotin gave this update to the Art Newspaper;
“The first edition of the banana was sold at 1:15 pm. Edition two sold at 3:30 pm and we are in discussion for edition three with a museum. Maurizio is seriously back.”
The third edition of the work is being sold to a museum for the raised price of $150,000. At time of writing, two institutions have already expressed interest.
Prank or not, it’s a lucrative effort. Cattelan is at a stage in his career where anything he assembles will sell. In fact, with most of his other (much larger scale) work now on the secondary market, this is as good a chance as any to get the contemporary artist’s name into your collection at a comparatively affordable price.
One could easily fall into the mistake of comparing Cattelan to Marcel Duchamp, whose 1917 ‘readymade’ Fountain started a new conversation of what art could be. Fast forward just over a century, past a whole host of objects re-purposed in the name of creativity, and the idea has lost its sheen. Except, of course, in terms of the very famous. Whilst these ideas have long since stopped making an impact in their own anonymity, they are totally dependent on the celebrity of their maker.
Far from being a new concept, the artist as celebrity was borne in the Renaissance. The fourteenth century saw the long-standing ecclesiastical taste for the copycat craftsmanship of medieval artisans lost to intellectual and artistic creativity. For the first time in European history, artworks and objects started to have a fully individual maker’s mark. Artist had become intrinsic to art.
The rise of artist as individual and inevitably (for the lucky few) celebrity, has led to some forgiving critics. I myself am certain that if Renoir’s nudes had been from another hand, they’d hardly be on museum walls today.
It is the same with Cattelan. Cattelan can make work like this simply because he is who he is. In the same way, safely buoyed on his record breaking auction figures, KAWS will keep on making the same poppy bullshit he has been since the 1990s, and Banksy (another art world satirist) can sell even the work he destroys. Within this guise of artistic appreciation is our contemporary obsession with celebrity.
The art itself, in the case of the three aforementioned artists, is irrelevant. Perrotin was never worried about someone stealing Comedian. Should disaster strike, there has even been a spare banana in the booth throughout the fair. More to the point, without the artist’s certificate of authenticity, the work is worthless. It reverts back to being, in the artist’s words “just a banana”. But perhaps this is what it always had been? We may not walk off a cliff if our friend did, but we would buy a banana for over a hundred thousand dollars. More fool us.