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Artist Maurizio Cattelan duct taped a banana to a wall, titled it "Comedian", and sold 5 editions of the artwork for as much as $150,000 each. Why did it capture our attention, curiosity, and memes? What does it mean? And don't forget to download the PBS Video App:!
#banana #comedian #art

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Now I'm sure you've already heard about the banana duct-taped to a wall at an art fair in Miami. And about the person who ate the banana. And the multitudes who have created their own gestures in response.

You might already have a firm opinion about it all too. But I'd like to ask you to clear away for a moment what you know or think you know about this thing that's happened and consider it with me anew. What do we think of this $150,000 banana?

 The $150,000 banana (0:30)

Let's get the facts in front of us—and yes, there are still facts. This real banana attached to the wall with a length of standard-issue silver duct tape is titled "Comedian," and it is the brain-child of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. 

It was presented as his gallery's booth at the 2019 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach, an art fair that's been held annually in Miami since 2002.

Galleries from around the world apply to have the privilege of paying for space to display their wares within the Miami Beach convention center. Then, for a handful of days in early December, a bunch of mostly affluent people descend on the fair and the many other shows and events and parties that have sprung up around it.

Collectors come to buy art, of course, but anyone who can afford a ticket (starting at $50) can come to just look at a ton of art and witness the fair as a fascinating sociological phenomenon.

This is all to say that "Comedian" was just one very small work of art in booth D24 in a loud and crowded convention center filled with thousands of works of art, many of them rather huge.

But it didn't take long after the doors opened for the banana to attract attention. And also buyers.

Gallerie Perrotin was offering three editions of the work for $120,000 each. Two of those sold very quickly, and then the dealer raised the price to $150,000 for the third, which also sold. There were an additional two artist's proofs of "Comedian" that were both sold to museums by the end of the fair.

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Now, artist's proofs are generally the small number of prints in a limited edition that an artist hangs on to for their own collection, or to hold back and sell later on to someone important. They're often regarded as special and can sell for more than the original edition, even though yes, they are technically the exact same.

And this is very funny in the case of "Comedian" because it's a conceptual artwork: the buyers did not purchase actual bananas and duct tape. They paid 120 or 150 thousand dollars for an idea. All they're getting is a certificate of authenticity that proves it's a verified artwork by Maurizio Cattelan, and instructions for how to install it.

Can anyone who wants to buy a banana from the grocery store and tape it to the wall in the exact same way? Yes!

But only people with the certificate are technically owners of "Comedian," which they can replenish as often as needed with a fresh banana and duct tape.

The museums that own the certificate are the only ones who can rightfully display a banana duct-taped to a wall this way, and put a label next to it with Cattelan's name on it.

I'm guessing they'll have the right to loan out the certificate to other institutions too, who will likely be clamoring to get in on a piece of the banana action.

This may sound absurd, but there are many examples of this kind of thing in the history of conceptual art. It's what allows museums and individuals to own wall drawings by Sol Lewitt, who issued certificates of authenticity with each work, along with detailed diagrams and instructions for how they should be installed.

You didn't need Lewitt to paint the walls himself when he was alive, or even now that he's not.

If you move, or want to show the wall drawings somewhere else, you have to paint over or destroy the old wall drawing and have it re-made in the new location, according to specification. But you've got to have the certificate!

This is what is simultaneously so maddening and hilarious about Cattelan's banana. He has selected one of the most common and easily accessible of objects, and through will and clout and roguish ingenuity, has transformed nothing into something of value.

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All artists perform a kind of alchemy when they turn humble materials into items people will pay money for. But "Comedian" sets this reality into high relief, especially with its strategic placement in the context of a scene-y art fair, calling out the absurdly inflated art market and the narrow sliver of the privileged population that participates in it.

But it's not actually nothing that the buyers of "Comedian" receive with their purchase. They now own a valuable artwork by Maurizio Cattelan, the same Cattelan who's been long pulling art pranks and exhibiting in respected museums and galleries around the world.

He made a solid gold fully-functioning toilet titled "America" in 2016, that for a time was available for use in a bathroom in the Guggenheim in New York.

That is, until it was stolen when on loan for an exhibition in England.

But for Cattelan nothing is sacred. When viewed in the context of his sculpture of Pope Joan Paul II being struck by a meteorite, or his miniature figure of Hitler kneeling in repentance, the banana is pretty inoffensive subject matter, even with its obvious phallic allusions.

But "Comedian" is fully in the Cattelan tradition of exploiting and exposing the things we love and hate and hold dear. It pokes fun at our desire for art to be unique, original, or something we couldn't do ourselves. And for art buyers and sellers, it laughs at their susceptibility to hype, name recognition, and the perception of scarcity.

Cattelan has a track record for involving his galleries in his exploits too. In 1995 he designed a costume for his dealer Emmanuel Perrotin to wear throughout the run of the show. And in 1999 he duct-taped Gallerus Massimo deCarlo (?~5:47) for the entire 2-hour opening. So the duct tape is an art world in-joke and also something that ties "Comedian" clearly to Cattelan's wider body of work.

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