Why we’re so upset about the $120,000 banana on the wall

Showcased at this year's Art Basel Miami Beach, the work by Maurizio Cattelan reflects a culture of capitalist excess in the art world

A man poses for a photo next to a banana attached with duct-tape that replaces the artwork 'Comedian' by the artist Maurizio Cattelan, which was eaten by David Datuna, in Miami Beach, Florida, December 7, 2019.  REUTERS/Eva Marie Uzcategui

Marshall McLuhan once said, “Art is anything you can get away with.”

That certainly seems to be the case for Maurizio Cattelan. His recent work, Comediana banana duct-taped to a wall – has been causing a stir at the Perrotin Gallery booth at Art Basel Miami Beach, mainly because of its $120,000 (Dh440,700) price tag.

Even before the art fair opened to the public, two editions of the work were already sold to VIP collectors for the asking price and a third edition was recently bought for $150,000 (the artist and gallerist bumped up the price after seeing the demand).

The art world, the media and the public went, well, bananas – countless headlines, angry tweets, fruit-related parodies and plenty of “I-could-do-that” proclamations.

The whole thing seems to have touched a nerve. More than the disbelief is the amount of outrage, as expressed by art critic Jerry Saltz on Instagram. His post states, "The art world that we see already no longer actually exists – except for 155-people. The cracks are visible. The rot. That accounts for a full 1% of 1 % of 1% of the art world…"

He continues, “Joke art, shock-your-Nana-art, art about art about art: That’s all been DOA [dead on arrival] for a decade or more – of course idiot artists, collectors, dealers and critics don’t see that to even take it seriously is to put the gun to your own head.”

Meanwhile, people on social media are taping all kinds of objects to their walls, and some are wondering how all that money could have been put to better use.

On Saturday, performance artist David Datuna took down the fruit and ate it front of a captive audience. The gallery, however, remains unfazed. They simply put up another banana on the wall. “[He] did not destroy the art work. The banana is the idea,” said gallery director Lucien Terras to the Miami Herald.

So what exactly is the idea? And it is worth $120,000?

The gallery’s founder Emmanuel Perrotin has done much of the talking, or rather marketing, for the work. He has said that bananas are “a symbol of global trade, a double entendre, as well as a classic device for humour.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times has quoted him saying, "Maurizio forces us to question how value is placed on material goods. The spectacle… is as much a part of the work as the banana."

Indeed, spectacle is Cattelan's style. He has produced taxidermies like Novecento, a horse hung from the ceiling; taped a man to a wall (A Perfect Day); and installed an 18-karat gold toilet in a museum (America). All this has earned him the label as the art world's "jokester".

This time, despite the lack of stuffed animals or expensive materials, he still somehow caused a sensation. That says a lot about Cattelan’s cachet, and there is a sense of smug self-awareness on his part here. A lesser-known artist pulling the same stunt would probably receive no recognition or financial value.

However, those questioning whether the work is art are stirring up a debate that's long been put to bed in the art world. For better or worse, Comedian is art. Whether it is good or bad is a separate discussion. But it is art, in the same way that Duchamp's toilet, Malevich's Black Square and Manzoni's Artist's Breath are too. Part of art's allure is its ability to take on multiple forms and mediums. Whether it moves, disturbs or infuriates us is something else entirely.

The crux of people's concerns aren't about the piece's artistic merit, but rather its monetary value. Without the $120,000 price tag, there would be no narrative to Comedian. With it, the ways of the art market, which many critics and artists have come to lament over the years, have been exposed. One is the rise of mega art fairs like Art Basel, which have been pricing out midsize galleries who can't afford to participate. There's also the secondary market, which is its own self-serving beast. When Banksy's Parliament broke records at auction for £9.87 million, for example, the artist didn't get a cut.

The most visible part of the art world is one where a select few are extolled not because of merit, but for financial gain. It is a place where an artist’s value can become exaggerated and manipulated, and where art is likely to fall to private collections than institutions where the public can see them. While Cattelan may be pointing out a flaw in the art world, is it really meaningful if he’s using it for his own advantage?

There is something unsettling about the way these prices seem too fluid, too speculative and subjective. Beneath this collective outrage is something deeper. The truth is, the banana isn’t the problem. The artist isn’t the problem. The art market isn’t even the problem. Not really, anyway.

Comedian is a reminder of capitalism run amok, not just in the art world. Recently, an auction of luxury bags at Christie's London raked in $3.7 million in total. Among the lot was a White Himalaya Niloticus Crocodile Birkin by Hermes, which sold for over $160,000. Unlike Cattelan's work, the production of these products involves the slaughter of animals every year. Where is the anger? The fashion industry is rife with excesses that seem to be taken as a given.

The same ridiculous valuations are in tech, too. Let’s consider Uber, a company that has never made a profit since its launch, but was valued at $82.4 billion when it went public this year. Even more incredible is the valuation of now-defunct Theranos, which was worth $10 billion at its peak in 2013-2014. The whole project turned out to be sham run by founder Elizabeth Holmes. Then there’s the recent downfall of WeWork, which went from a $47 billion valuation to bankruptcy within weeks.

A woman poses for a photo next to a banana attached with duct-tape that replaces the artwork 'Comedian' by the artist Maurizio Cattelan, which was eaten by David Datuna, in Miami Beach, Florida, December 7, 2019.  REUTERS/Eva Marie Uzcategui

More often than not, it feels like we’re at the mercy of market forces that operate surreptitiously – algorithmically or calculated by a group of people who are making a wild bet. So when we hear of an art collector coolly parting with $120,000 for a market-store banana and some duct tape, we know something is off. It throws our concept of value out of the window. How was this amount calculated? And who decided it was worth it?

One buyer of Cattelan's Comedian spoke to the New York Times about her purchase, the first major piece of art she has acquired. The woman, Sarah Andelman, is the founder of a now-closed concept store. "It really reflects our time," she said, "the absurdity of everything." The statement is very telling. It is the voice of the affluent who understand the frivolity of their purchases, but are willing to make them anyway.

We bristle at the sale of Comedian because it confronts us with the ever-widening gap of inequality, and our powerlessness against it. To see such frivolity in a world of growing social problems feels like a slap in the face, and to see artists riding that wave seems like an insult to the potential of what art can do. But the art world or the art market is not to bear this fault alone. It's simply participating in a global economy that puts profit first.