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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 download the PBS Video App today!:
#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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For his 2011 retrospective at the Guggenheim, Cattelan suspended all of his works from the ceiling of the rotunda, instead of putting them on the walls like usual.

"Comedian" also has plenty of ties to art history, for those who care about that sort of thing. Marcel Duchamp was the famed progenitor of the ready made. Credited as the first to put a non art object into a gallery and call it art. And Cattelan's banana is certainly part of that tradition. Very many artist have put bananas, and images of bananas to use, like Andy Warhol did in 1967 for his Velvet Underground & Nico album cover, complete with peel-able sticker.

The banana has appeared frequently in works often grouped under the banner of feminism art. Like Natalia LL's 1970's consumer art series. And art historian Linda Nochlins 1972 play on a 19th century image of a woman with a tray of apples. The Guerrilla Girls have put the banana to go use in some of their 1980's protest posters. And plenty of other artists have too.

All of these may or may not have been on Cattelan's mind when selecting a banana for this work. But it doesn't matter. They're all things that make Comedian a potentially good investment. And the ultimate Cattelan for a collector to own. They can of course show it off at dinner parties or just enjoy the fun of watching it rot, and always making sure to have bananas on hand. They can also lend it out to museums for shows or sell it if they want to. Probably making a considerable profit, that is until the art bubble bursts. But for museums that have purchased it good god! They are going to be mobbed. Who wouldn't want to come take a selfie with the famous banana. Although museums are likely to confront the same challenges that the gallery did at the fair. Lines formed quickly of people wanting to see and take selfies with Comedian. Things when relatively smoothly, until one artist, David Detuna, decide to remove the banana from the wall and eat it. Explaining that he was performing his own work titled Hungry Artist. While it did get a lot of media coverage, it didn't mean much to the art itself.

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The gallery had another banana and "Comedian" was back in no time, because (?~8:06) didn't eat the artwork.  To do that, he would have had to have eaten the certificate of authenticity, which is actually a peformance I'd like to see, but the gallery did decide to take the work down before the end of the fair, because of the crowds and risk to the safety of other art work and people in the vicinity, and let's talk about the gallery for a minute, because they do play an interesting role in this.

Their Instagram posts explain "Comedian" as related to Cattelan's past work, offering a wry commentary on society, power, and authority, and insight into how we assign worth and what kind of objects we value, which is all fine and good, and you can accept that or not, but the good stuff comes with their post about taking the work down.  They say, "Comedian" with its simple composition, ultimately offered a complex reflection of ourselves.  We would like to warmly thank all those who participated in this memorable adventure as well as to our colleagues.  We sincerely apologize to all the visitors of the fair who today will not be able to participate in "Comedian".

Yes, that's right.  Participate in.  Because the artwork isn't just the banana and neither is it the certificate of authenticity, really.  It's all of us.  It's those who flocked to see it, our response to it, our memes, the press, this video.  As Teddy L. Wang astutely commented to our community post about it, "I think the outrage is the art," and the outrage around the art of course makes it more valuable, because it makes it more famous, which is these days, a proxy for value.  Hungry artists may have been intended as a critique, but in the short run, all its done is bolster the value of "Comedian".  

Several of you asked me to not make a video about this, and I get it.  Us talking about it gives this work its power and it implicates us as players in its scheme.  For everyone who loves art or spends a lot of time trying to make or support truly earnest creative endeavors, both "Comedian" and (?~10:03)'s banana eating are big downers.  

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That the only art that filters out into wider discussion is multi-million dollar auction sales or this does devalue the good work that many are trying to do and it adds fuel to the already raging fires of those who hate modern art or think anything art-related is a con game.  Some of it is a con game, but not all of it, but whether or not you like "Comedian" or think it's constructive, it does reflect life today.  One of the great things art can do is point to what makes the now moment distinct from all the other moments and life, for many of us, is confounding and absurd and inflated and outrageous and by outrageous, I mean filled with outrage at something new and different every week, and it's rarely about the real outrage like the root causes behind the polarization of wealth, but about bananas.  

This pool of images we're swimming in and instant meme-ification of everything has left us even more unsure than we've ever been of what art is supposed to be and do.  It shouldn't shock us that a mere idea can be worth $150,000.  What, after all, is intellectual property?  What is influence and views and likes, but social capital that's been turned into capital capital?  Nothing is sacred.  Everything is a commodity, and we're not sure whether to laugh or cry.  

My problem with "Comedian" is not that it's conceptual.  It's that it comments about our superficiality in a superficial way.  It demonstrates what is deeply wrong with contemporary discourse but without much depth, which is to say, it might not be the art we want, but I fear it's the art we deserve.

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