Cattelan’s banana and the desire-machine

Art Basel Miami, December 2019

It is impossible to avoid sparing a word for the now famous banana of Maurizio Cattelan.

During the Wednesday preview of Art Basel Miami, while strolling in the alleys, one could spot at Gallery Perrotin a banana affixed to the wall by means of a silvery tape. Peering at the sticker, the name Maurizio Cattelan would bring an “of course” in mind. When coming back on Friday, the situation would be very different: someone had purchased said banana for a hefty 120,000 dollars, and a new banana was now on the same wall. People now had to queue in order to approach it, surrounded by four or five security people dressed in black and rudely asking anyone not in the queue to pass by.  

One would assume that Cattelan had correctly anticipated that people were ready to go bananas, and therefore he did not choose a pear or a cucumber for which popular wisdom has failed to carve any useful phrase. But it would be mistaken to stop at the mere idea of a “provocation” designed to increase, if still possible, Cattelan’s fame, and support, if it were still needed, the business of Perrotin’s gallery.

This banana suggests of course a number of comments. It does have some resemblance with the gesture of Duchamp, except that the banana is not really a ready-made in that it is not a manufactured object but a berry, a natural product, which has no permanence as it inevitably rots. The gesture also comes 102 years after the Fountain : the statement was made long ago, and needs no repetition. The fact of designating a banana as “art” by sticking it on a gallery’s wall points at the gesture itself as the art piece. But this gesture requires two conditions : to be made by an established artist, as otherwise it would only be a worthless parody or mockery of the art system, and to be acknowledged as such by a “collector” who – by the act of paying a price much above the intrinsic cost of the banana – makes it penetrate the realm of art. The gesture being made by an established artist is a necessary condition to this acknowledgement, as nobody would fork out 120,000 dollars for a work by his grandma. But the banana is changed into art through a manner of transubstantiation, if I may dare the comparison, – just as for the Catholic Church the Blessed Host becomes the presence of the substance of Christ during the sacrament of the Eucharist – when it is purchased as a price which sets it as an art object.

This would suggest that it is not the gesture of putting the object in the museum or the gallery which endows it with the aura of an art object, because such gesture being a mere repetition it has largely exhausted its symbolic potential, but rather the price paid, the market judgement. You could say that the difference between the usage value of an object (which is admittedly complicated to quantify but has an obvious intuitive meaning) on the one hand, and the price paid, on the other hand, provides an indication or a measure of the symbolic value. When this difference is very significant, and therefore well beyond what mere mistake, caprice, fancy, or stupidity may command, you enter in the realm of art. And what happens once an artwork which a collector chose to pay a huge price for suddenly becomes worthless, or even commands the negative price of having to store, remove and perhaps destroy it ? It degrades from art to junk (or joke), the symbol is not effective any more – probably because the collective judgement of those who opine on symbolic value has changed – and one is left with a dead piece of wood and metal, a dead canvas, a stale image.

This in turn leaves us open to the twin questions of who passes judgements on symbolic values, which then justify someone paying the “symbolic premium”, and of whether it is the price paid which enhances the object to the level of an artwork or if the judgment precedes the payment, having created a symbolic value in waiting ? The Cattelan banana obliges us to consider that both options have merits. What if nobody had purchased the “artwork”?  It would have remained a form of joke, or provocation, justifying a smile and some printed lines. But for the gallery and the current art system, it would have been a failure. This had to be purchased, as the purchase was the engine of the buzz, the excitement, the publicity, the interviews, the utterings of the pundits, the talks of cocktails, which are all part and parcel of the contemporary art system.

Potrait of Mr Putin

What does the banana refer to, imply, or evoke which could sustain a symbolic value ? Probably not mere advertising, as usually third parties do not willingly, or without some other form of compensation, pay for the publicity of an unrelated party. Although involuntarily (perhaps), this publicity was extended to a Georgian-American artist, Mr David Datuna, who cleverly ate the banana thus becoming himself part of the art work. The Artist-Who-Ate-Cattelan’s-Original-Banana, meet the AWACOB.  Mr Datuna’s works are indeed typical of an attitude consisting in seizing the right moment in order to manufacture a – profitable – event. Such as his portrait of Mr Putin made by assembling many miniature prints of Mona Lisa, which sold 269.000$ during the 2011 Moscow Art Fair, ahead of the 2012 presidential elections in Russia.

I would say that Cattelan’s banana does have, nevertheless, a symbolic value insofar as it visually exposes a new relationship between the artwork and its author, it brings social media within the sphere of symbolic attribution, it provides a comment on the desire for art, it functions as an allegory of the media, whether social or not, and it defies simultaneously all the ideas one could hold about art which were proxies for a form of altitude in the human being. Not bad for a banana and a silvery piece of tape.

The relationship between the artwork and its author has evolved to include intents and purposes which used to belong to the world of designers or advertisers, insofar as the designer creates a product which is meant to respond to a perceived or latent state of society, and the advertiser’s mission is to mobilize attention towards – or awareness of – a product or idea which is not always the one which ultimately benefits from such awareness, or to create a desire of a particular product or concept irrespective of their necessity, relevance or novelty. Neither is for free, in the sense that a tangible or intangible benefit is anyway expected from such work. The category of “artists” now includes both that of artists in the classical sense of the word and that of advertisers-as-artists whose social and economic role depends on their ability to attract attention or to adhere to and promote the art system which supports it. In the particular case of the banana, the object itself is clearly not an artwork; the ability of the gesture to raise awareness, to create a buzz, is perfectly in line with the functioning of the art system understood as a production system.

Social networks or media are now clearly part of the artwork, because their mobilization – by which I mean the concentration of attention on an event, an object, or an utterance, made possible on such a wide scale by the internet is by itself a creator of symbolic value: it is the attention per se which represents a value, once it meets a certain quantitative threshold. The attention of a few hundred people is worthless; that of millions creates value, whatever the underlying object of this attention. Going one step further, one could go as far as stating that the banana is a comment on a world determined by the erratic circulation and coalescence of opinions on the networks. Suddenly something captures the attention. That something is close to being nothing, a soon-to-be-rotten banana affixed to a wall. But this “nearly nothing” is sufficient to attract attention, to radiate energies, and then grows by means of all the comments that become attached to it. The banana is nothing, but the comments attached to the banana have become the artwork even in the absence of the banana itself, which is short-lived by its very nature. The flow of comments may cease of course, and will inevitably dwindle in number, and those made forgotten just as the ones in this very article; but the comments will not disappear altogether, they will have existed, and changed the notion and history of art forever: nobody else will be able to pin a vegetable or any other perishable good on the wall without implicitly or explicitly referring to Cattelan’s banana… An irreversibility will have been established, and precisely that which established any irreversible moment in the history of “art” is what is of most value because it is by definition unique.  

There is no need to explain to any adult why the upward-bending banana is a metaphor of desire, nor is there any need to assess or demonstrate the intention of Maurizio Cattelan in this respect. What is being suggested ? Perhaps that art is a desire-machine, having ceased to be a vehicle or a passage towards another order, dimension, or depth of reality. Desire for what ? For nothing in particular, for the pleasure of desiring, or as the proof that in a system where art has become a status-related merchandise, the logic of desire is inevitably becoming associated to the artwork rather than awe, admiration, contemplation, or pleasure. Barring mere necessity, there is no functioning market without the submission to a form of craving, the desire to appropriate not the artwork itself but the symbolic value which it is deemed to contain. In a society which has expelled any transcendent value, the main sources of immaterial value are contained in – or evidenced by – either historic objects or artworks, which act as kinds of proxies for the possibility of an extension of reality beyond the trivial or the visible, including the idea of “genius”.

Desire focuses on an immaterial object beyond the artwork, and which the collector himself feels unable to reach although it emanates from himself, from his own representations, in the manner of Narcissus, but an object which it is nonetheless possible to assume, fancy, or otherwise mentally manipulate. Narcissus looks at his own image in a way which is impossible to achieve unless you are placed outside of yourself; art provides that mirror of our desires, perhaps now of the cemetery of our desires.

The banana could thus be construed as symbolizing the desire-machine that the art system has nurtured, as well as pointing at the inevitable death of desire by presenting a real berry. Death of any particular desire as distinct from greed as it is to be replaced by another banana after a couple of days; of desire within our “western” civilization in general insofar as desire as an aspiration is replaced by lust, greed, craving for the possession of things or the accomplishment of some performance which is but a variant of narcissism.  

Last but not least, the work denies any altitude to art by depriving it – even by implication – of all the characteristics which are constitutive of an aura: visual beauty or harmony, violence, expressive power, absolute novelty, durability, contact or proximity with an exceptional event or person, reference to transcendence or to some great questioning… It cannot even be copied, only the act can be repeated. A rotting berry which anyone could purchase in any supermarket around the corner, the banana fails to achieve the status of Arte Povera to reduce itself to an atto povero, a minimal act.  

Let us think about it: a banana painted on the wall, or the photo of this banana, would have made no impression whatsoever. Even sculpted. But this is the real thing. It seems to be stating: first and foremost, art means something as a presence, a view very close indeed to Arte Povera.

The fact that the work is called Comedian is certainly not to be disregarded. Comedian, not Comedy. Comedian the author, comedian whomever desires art as a mere possession, comedian who eats it and who buys it, comedian who talks about it…or rather comedian the banana itself ? The origin of the word comedy (κωμῳδία) seems to be that of “pieces sung during Dionysiac parades”, and if we are to interpret the meaning given to it by Aristoteles, comedy is a form of purification through laughter of the affections of human nature. If the banana is the comedian, the comedy must be the world that we bring in its presence. 

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