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  • Victoria Comstock-Kershaw

OPINION | THE ART BASEL BANANA REALLY ISN'T THAT BAD

Maurizio Cattelan's work caused waves at Miami Art Basel this week when he sold a banana taped to a wall for a whopping 120,00 dollars. But when performance artist David Datuna removed the fruit from the wall, peeled it, and promptly ate the artwork, the conversation surrounding bananas, buyers, and broader values of modern art was intensified.

The banana is the idea.” explained Terras, director of museum relations for the Miami-based Galerie Perrotin. Disdain for this particular mode of defining art is not exactly uncommon; dislike for modern art has become mainstream. For art lovers it's a cultural insulting mockery of real art, for economists it's a money laundering scam, and for left-leaning cynics it's an irrefutable consequence of late-stage capitalism. The idea that modern art is devoid of real artistic value and that it is over reliant on the pretentious over-academisation of expression has been touted since the 1960s by critics and audiences alike (see Barbara Rose's ABC Art), so it is no surprise that Cattelan's original piece (named Comedian) elicited such viscerally negative reactions.

Entrepreneur Mark Oldman poses with the artwork

Comedian ticked every box on the 'modern art that is easy to hate' list: little to no technical skill involved, references to and reliances on an artistic canon that may seem inaccessible to the average viewer, easy achievable by someone with no artistic training (or knowledge), and - most importantly - sold for vast amounts of cash. It is truly is an artwork that lies at the very pinnacle of what makes modern art naysayers angry. So surely, shouldn't David Datuna's performance piece be revered as the antithesis to the supposed evils of modern art? The answer, as always, is complicated.


Many often feel that is it easier to respect and admire art that is clearly the result of years of practice, of technical talent, of difficult learning. Comedian - as most modern art - will naturally never (at least, not with any immediate intuition) fall into those categories. Neither, however, does Datuna's: ripped down to its' basics, the performance involved going to an exclusive art fair, taking a banana off a wall, and chowing down on some yummy potassium. This makes it exceptionally vulnerable to accusations of being a circle-jerk within a circle-jerk, but I argue that the interaction actually aided Cattelan's image. By consuming the fruit, Datuna has brought attention to question surrounding where the value of the art actually lies: not in the banana itself, not in its' presentation or location, or even its intrinsic properties, but in the artist's intent. Without the artist’s certificate of authenticity, the banana reverts to being just that: a banana. Artistic intent lies at the very heart of contemporary art, but is overshadowed by preconceived notions of fraud, vulgarity, and pretence. To overlook this truth is to be critically lazy: the assignment of value shows that you can't just ignore the art you don't like because you think it's pretentious. Conversations will still be had, money will still be circulated, values will be established, the canon will be expanded, and your sensibilities and my-four-year-old-could-do-this-isms won't change that.


Cattelan and Datuna's interaction was a reminder of just how easily concepts of artistic value and worth can be concretized or crumbled, within the context of Art Basel Miami. Even the title, Comedian, demonstrates a sharp awareness of the absurdity and ridicule the vast majority of the pieces will be subjected to over the week and down the line, never previously having shied away from the outrageous or shocking.

Fairgoers photographing Comedian

The entire interplay is just as much a reflection of the critics of modern art as it is of its patrons: he commentary on the oscillation of state and value not only mock those who place monetary value on something as intangible as intent through something as material as certificate of authenticity, it ridicules those who point-blank refuse to assign any value to modern art at all. The art decomposes, the art is eaten, the art is explicitly encouraged to be replaced every few weeks by Cattelan himself. But the value remains in the intent, and not in the execution. It's this disparity that drives anti-modern art critics mad, which brings me to my last point:


It's not that those firmly set against viewing modern art as anything other than sophomoric drivel don't understand it, it's that they don't want to. Their refusal to look beyond the somatic places those who want to defend modern art in a disagreeable position: defenders can only rebut accusations of artistic pretentiousness with pretentiousness, rambling about the philosophy of art, the historical artistic canon, and all that jazz. This, in turn, leaves us in a catch-22 situation: I must convince you of the non-commercial value of art with a strict death-of-the-author approach, which relies on finding artistic value in the corporeal and technical physicalities of any art piece. But by this logic, surely, no art is of value - as the appreciation of talent, manipulation of materials, and artistic style lies in the understanding of their value as compared to other pieces in the artistic canon - the same canon that was just deemed too irrelevant and inaccessible to be of significance to the assessment of modern art in the first place. And so the cycle commences again, an endless loop of trying to prove that the assessment of value is not arbitrary unless you recognize the subjectivity of it's criteria, in which case it is no longer arbitrary. As I said, modern art critics place the defenders in a position of catch-22 that is difficult to get out of.


Cover of the NY Post, December 6th 2019.

Modern art lets us get away with a lot. It serves little to view this as anything other than a good thing. Comedian recognises this absurdity while simultaneously deriding it, and Datuna's stunt only served to heighten any messages to be gained about the value of art. The setting being that of Art Basel Miami helped tout concepts of oscillating artistic and commercial value in an entertaining and appropriate fashion, and got us thinking about our own relationships with deeper and more complex aspects of society like merit, talent and expression - gosh, almost like it was art.


Image and video credits: the Miami Herald, Australian Associated Press/ Mark Oldman, Sarah Cascone.