Maurizio Cattelan: ‘Comedian’

Many of the responses to Maurizio Cattelan’s ‘Comedian’ – the banana taped to the wall at Art Basel Miami Beach – take a familiar stance, decrying a fundamental superficiality or worse in his comic approach – intent to defraud, for instance, or a desire to ‘put one over’ on the audience. Jerry Saltz for one, fulminates against ‘joke art, shock-your-Nana-art, art about art about art.’ However, there is also some more thoughtful commentary which recognises that Cattelan’s comedy can co-exist with substance.

In the New York Times Jason Farag notes the ‘dismayingly common belief that all artists are con artists,’ observing that Cattelan’s ‘purloined banana has offered the perfect weapon to those who think that contemporary art is one big prank.’ However, he is clear that ‘‘Comedian’ is not a one-note Dadaist imposture in which a commodity is proclaimed a work of art — which would be an entire century out of date now,’ and suggests instead that the work is of a piece with Cattelan’s ongoing critique of the art world. He argues that the banana should be seen in the context of an earlier piece, ‘A Perfect Day’ (1999), in which Cattelan used duct tape to fasten his dealer Massimo De Carlo to a gallery wall, for the duration of a show’s opening day, thus placing ‘the art market itself on the wall, drooping and pitiful.’ And ‘rather than lobbing insults from a cynical distance,’ Farag commends Cattelan’s ‘willingness to implicate himself within the economic, social and discursive systems that structure how we see and what we value.’ Because, although Farag doesn’t say this outright, ‘Comedian’ is perhaps first and foremost a self-portrait. And, as Jonathan Jones suggests, it is a deeply melancholy one: ‘[h]e’s the clown who has to go on clowning when he knows his jokes don’t do any good.’ In place of his dealer, it is now Cattelan himself taped to the wall – taking on that disparaging label, ‘comedian,’ in a wryly reductive account of himself and his career. The impulse to deflate pretension that is so crucial a drive in his oeuvre, is equally unsparing when directed at himself. The poignancy of that personal sense of failure is augmented by the fruit’s rapidly aging flesh, a clear acknowledgement of mortality (the notes to the work suggest the fruit should be replaced every 10 days). Interestingly, Cattelan first created versions in bronze and resin, which would have effectively lost some of that mordancy, while also legitimising the piece through craft or labour, making it less anxiety provoking.

Taped as it is to the wall, Farag stresses the fact of the banana’s suspension as a way of placing it within a longer lineage, thus emphasising the analytic processes behind the work – it is not a con, or a one-off stunt, but part of a considered approach. He mentions Cattelan’s ‘Novecento’ (1997), ‘a taxidermied horse suspended from a Baroque ceiling like a drooping chandelier [which] collapses … the martial pomposity of the Fascists’, and ‘La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi’ (2000)(We Are the Revolution), a miniature doll of the artist, sheepishly suspended from a coat rack. And in his 2011 retrospective at the Guggenheim, Cattelan ‘diminished all his previous works by suspending them from hooks in the center of the gallery, like laundry hung out to dry.’ Cattelan’s use of suspension as a technique is thus as valid as say, brush strokes and colour are to painting, and effectively transforms an object into something both ridiculous and pathetic. It is a comic procedure Elder Olson describes as the ‘minimisation of the claim of some particular thing to be taken seriously, either by reducing that claim to absurdity, or by reducing it merely to the negligible in such a way as to produce pleasure by that very minimisation’ (23). Olson opposes comedy’s timely devaluation of overvalued goods to tragedy’s belated bestowal of value, but this ignores the tragic potential of that devaluation or deflation: the loss of sublimity for instance, and the loss of mastery or authority. Necessary losses, to be sure, but still painful.

Cascone, Sarah, ‘Maurizio Cattelan Is Taping Bananas to a Wall at Art Basel Miami Beach and Selling Them for $120,000 Each,’ Artnet, 4 Dec 2019 https://news.artnet.com/market/maurizio-cattelan-banana-art-basel-miami-beach-1722516

Farago, Jason, ‘A (Grudging) Defense of the $120,000 Banana,’ New York Times, 8 Dec 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/08/arts/design/a-critics-defense-of-cattelan-banana-.html

Jones, Jonathan,  ‘Don’t make fun of the $120,000 banana – it’s in on the joke,’ The Guardian, 9 Dec 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/dec/09/the-art-world-is-bananas-thats-what-maurizio-cattelans-been-saying-all-along

Olson, Elder. The Theory of Comedy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968

© Emma Sullivan 2019.

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