An artist sold a banana for $120,000

Maurizio Cattelan’s The Comedian

Reports that a banana duct-taped to a wall was sold for $120,000 dollars at Art Basel Miami have left the public agape. But there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the price. Maurizio Cattelan is one of the world’s most famous artists. He may not be as famous as Banksy but his work belongs in a similar genre: they are designed to catch the public’s attention and get everyone talking about the work. If you think about how hard the attention economy works to steal a few seconds of your time, then how valuable controversial art can be for museums and galleries for footfalls, ticket sales and general publicity. Unlike Banksy’s public graffiti, however, Cattelan works deep inside enemy territory, vandalising the art establishment from the inside.

As public frenzy erupted, someone walked up to the banana and ate it. Then another person decided to finger-paint “Epstein didn’t kill himself” in the empty space. The security personnel and organisers of the fair are completely harassed, but the art is making headlines around the world.

Cattelan’s most famous work, before the banana, was an actual functional gold toilet. This work was titled “America”. It is made from 103 kilograms of 18-karat gold. “Its participatory nature, in which viewers are invited to make use of the fixture individually and privately,” explains the Guggenheim, “allows for an experience of unprecedented intimacy with a work of art.” In its first show around 100,000 people queued to use the gold toilet. It is estimated to be worth six million dollars.

On loan to Blenheim Palace, thieves broke into the antique manor and ripped the art work from the toilet it was installed in. This caused huge damage to the structural pipe-work and plumbing of this heritage building. Blenheim Palace is the ancestral home of Winston Churchill. As Pankaj Mishra wrote in The Malign Incompetence of the British Ruling Class:

Mountbatten was actually less pigheaded than Winston Churchill, whose invocation stiffens the spines of many Brexiteers today. Churchill, a fanatical imperialist, worked harder than any British politician to thwart Indian independence and, as prime minister from 1940 to 1945, did much to compromise it. Seized by a racist fantasy about superior Anglo-Americans, he refused to help Indians cope with famine in 1943 on the grounds that they “breed like rabbits.”

But perhaps my favourite story about the strange power of Cattelan’s art is narrated by Massimo Bottura in Season One of Netflix’s Chef’s Table.

Bottura talks about entering an art fair pavilion and being struck by the pigeons sitting on the air conditioning ducts inside the building (like one sometimes sees in railway stations). He then realises that it is a joke and that the pigeons are fake and stuffed. It then strikes him that to complete the gag, the artist has attached what appears to be real bird droppings to the work of the other artists below his pigeons. A light bulb goes off in Bottura’s head. To create, it is sometimes necessary for your work to literally take a shit on convention. This inspires him to vandalise traditional Italian cooking. The result: Osteria Francescana, recognised as one of the world’s greatest restaurants.

The artist behind the fake pigeons and their droppings?

You guessed it: Maurizio Cattelan.

I write about culture, books, and graphic design. Life goals include a graphic novel, and a hand stand.

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