This week, you may have seen a banana taped to well… something. These funny yellow interventions have been popping up across walls (both material, and digital), and other surfaces all week. This is because of the one used in Maurizio Cattelan’s piece “Comedian” at Miami’s Art Basel, which sold for $120,000.
I’ve scrolled through some interesting conversations about this banana, but I generally try to stay away from digital debate, so I hadn’t said too much about it – until the kids started complaining. One of the young folks in my life is an emerging artist, she was super annoyed about the price the work fetched, given the minimal amount of technical skill used by the artist to make it – specifically relative to the amount of work she puts into her art. At that moment… I realized that, finally… all my years of arts based education had prepared me for a real life situation!!! And… what’s more, I thought if any of you were struggling to explain to your art-aware students why a banana taped to a wall means so much to so many people, I could possibly help.
Let’s start with meaning, this peice isn’t really about a banana. It’s about an idea. This type of work is called conceptual art, which is a practice in which the artist is using the materiality of the piece to draw our attention to an idea. The idea IS the art – the materials just help the artist explain it.
Conceptual art emerged with post-structuralism, which asks us to re-think our relationships to concepts and ideas. The theory goes like this: some basic structural knowledge is necessary for us to understand any concept be it supposedly simple (like say, a banana) or complex (like say, economics). Banana is just a word, it could mean anything really, but in our culture, we know what a banana is (usually yellow, sometimes brown, fruit, grows in hot climates, etc.), and what it isn’t (a car, a skateboard, a color, a hat). A post-structural approach asks us to be mindful of the structures that allow our common understandings. BECAUSE a banana could be (and has been) a car, a skateboard, a color, and a hat – and many other things. We borrow and use parts of things to build a scaffolding that holds up meaning in our society - if I tell you this link leads to a picture of a banana car, you already have an idea what that looks like because you know what both a banana and a car “are”. Post-structuralists, like conceptual artists, are asking us to think about that “are” – they draw our attention to things that we take for granted, and ask us to examine them.
So what sort of things does a banana taped to a wall make us think more deeply about? What scaffolding is it using? For me, there’s three main reference points of banana in my life: banana as food commodity, banana as comedic foil, & banana as weapon in Donkey Kong. These reference points are of course individual, so there’s as many of them as there are people, but they’re also cultural: there are shared ideas about what bananas are and what they do that many people agree on.
When I’m looking at this work, I wonder if Cattelan is using the complex issues of the global trade of the banana to comment on commercialization in the art world? Conceptual art is, in many ways, a response to the commerciality of other forms of visual art, because it generally eschews collection, display, and aesthetic value (the purchasers of the piece in this case will get a certificate that allows them permission to mount it, using direction and specifications written by the artist). For example, this work had to be taken down before the end of the show, because of fears of damage. Thinking along these lines, leads us to wonder about the banana as perishable. Is Cattelan asking us to think about the ways that art traditions change over time, their depreciation and appreciation, and their relationships with (or apart from, due to conservation) lifecycles?
The banana was also famously used (by comedians), as a sight gag. It would be tossed, and someone would slip. That slip was not usually understated. Most often it’s an epic fall that causes the unfortunate person to land on their bottom – a reframing of their world if you will, to a new horizontal perspective. This reference has such a strong place in collective memory that it has been built into the fabric of contemporary culture through video games. Donkey Kong hasn’t had his own game since around 2014 (for Nintendo DS), but tossing a banana peel to foil your enemy is an classic element of the iconic game Mario Cart. When you toss a banana in game, you cause your opponent to slip up. If done correctly, this causes the player to lose standing, thereby reframing the in-game world. Is Cattelan demanding us to look at art through a reframing, a new viewpoint, as if we had slipped on the peel? Or is he saving us from slipping, because it’s taped to the wall? Is he asking us to see the absurdity in the piece, and apply it to other works as well?
I could go on wondering, and we haven’t even got to the duct tape yet, but I think I’ve made my point… It doesn’t matter exactly what Cattelan wanted to direct our attention to, because we have paid attention to the work, and brought ourselves to it. We’ve used it to explore ideas. Although this work is clearly complex, with many interesting ideas inside, it makes sense to focus in on the role of comedians, who hold up a mirror to society and ask us to laugh at what we see.
I wish we had one at the museum! If we did, I’d ask students what they know about bananas, (or duct tape) and let their responses lead us into interesting rabbit holes, complex ideas, and deeply personal stories. The upshot is, I’m planning to do that with the other art that’s here anyways.
P.S. Earlier in this post I made a joke here about my educational background, and it’s an easy joke to make, low hanging fruit really – but in actual fact, I believe that university training, especially in the arts, is a really valuable skillset that has prepared me to navigate the complexities of life (both professional and personal) in important ways. I’m a huge advocate of educational opportunities that speak to the needs of the whole person, which I feel like art approaches better than a lot of other disciplines.
P.P.S. You should know that David Datuna (another conceptual artist) ate the banana as a performance piece, and brilliantly described it as putting a question mark, after Cattelan’s question mark. Also, Cattelan has worked in with duct tape before.
P.P.P.S. $120,000 may be a lot for a banana (we could keep talking about the comoditiy trade and global poervty here) but it’s not a lot for a contemporary piece from an important artist like Cattelan who had another work recently blow up in pop culture. Many works sold for millions at Art Basel Miami this year.