The 2019 Art Basel in Miami played host to the art world’s biggest story this year. It all started when artist Maurizio Cattelan duct taped a banana to the wall. Titled “Comedian,” the work was one in a series of three like it. The other two were sold — one for $120,000 and the other for $150,000.
That’s correct. Galerie Perrotin gave Cattelan precious booth space at one of the most prestigious art events of the year, and he taped a banana to the wall — et viola! Not only that, but identical pieces were sold for three times as much money as most Americans make in a year.
That alone would be just another moment of head-scratching, expensive art that compels the viewer to say, “I could’ve done that.” But then, in a case of unrequested collaboration, came along performance artist David Datuna, who ate the banana at Art Basel.
Yes. Mr. Datuna pulled the duct taped banana off the wall and ate it, rather casually in fact. This act shocked the art world, went viral, and wound up with millions of people angrily tweeting about what might have been the most expensive healthy snack ever eaten. (Cattelan is no stranger to controversy around people dismantling his pricey works of art. His $6 million pure gold toilet was stolen this September from Blenheim Palace.)
The internet is buzzing with talk about the banana at Art Basel, but maybe it is time we start asking questions. What is going on in the art world? Why are stunts like this or mega bids at auction all we ever hear about?
Peeling Back: How did we get here?
The art world is awash in stories of unbelievable price tags and seemingly low-effort gags passed off as art. As a culture, we pine for a time when great artists made masterpieces that captured our imaginations. When regarding the art world, there is a growing philistine pride in “not getting” it, because “getting it” looks more and more like being suckered into something that long ago lost any tether to the real world.
How did this happen? The internet makes more great art available than ever before. And through social media, people can follow artists they like and gather deep insights into their process and development. You can even interact with the artists. And depending on the artist and the person reaching out, you can even buy work directly from them. Through image based social media platforms like Pinterest and Instagram, you can craft algorithmically generated galleries for yourself that never end — an infinitely generated hallway of art catering to your exact interests and predilections.
Once upon a time, getting your work out to the public meant going through gatekeepers. Gallerists and publishers would have to okay your inclusion to an art show or magazine spread. These gatekeepers had their own biases, and so when the internet lowered the barrier to entry, there was an incredible flourishing of work addressing niche interests and minority perspectives. We now have access not only to so much good work but also an enriching diversity of good work.
And yet, despite this, the only time we seem to talk about art anymore is when it outrages us, when the art in question has us doubting if you can even call it art.
Well, maybe it isn’t despite the easy access to art that shock is the biggest currency in the art world today, maybe it is because of that access.
The internet creates a glut of information. With that overload, the information is no longer scarce. What is scarce is attention. With so many options, so much content, your choices are only limited by the amount of time you can spend consuming it.
That is why many economists refer to this new situation as an attention economy. When there is so much art available to view online, how does an artist get people to care? In an attention economy, grabbing attention rules the day. And anger is one of the most stimulating emotions for driving engagement and shares.
We get angry when an all-white canvas is sold for $15 million dollars, just as we get angry when a man points to duct tape and a banana and calls it art.
Biting the Banana: How does this all work?
In 2018, Sotheby’s auctioned Banksy’s Girl With a Balloon for $1.4 million dollars. Within moments of the gavel banging, however, the painting was sucked down through a shredder built into the frame. Half of the painting ended up shredded. The stunt thumbed its nose at the outrageous sums being handed around for art, which is now traded more as an investment commodity than as an aesthetic achievement. While it mocked this trend, it also participated in it. For one, Banksy still made a killing on the shredded art. Also, the drumming up of outrage made it one of the most talked about moments from the art world in recent memory.
Banksy’s self-destructing art puts all of the pieces in play: the importance for artists to push through all the chatter and go viral, the commodification of art by the super-rich, and the reliance on shock and anger to get people interested.
Like the banana on the wall at Art Basel, all of the worst parts of the contemporary art world are mixed up together. A story like that makes people mad, which makes them click and share. In other words, these artists aren’t mistaking this kind of stunt with work like Michelangelo’s Pietà. These artists are doing it because they know it will make people angry. Angry people spread the word.
Digesting the Fruit: How do we improve the art world?
If we care about art and want to rescue it from a cycle of stunts and billionaire capture, it is up to us to do so. These stunts keep happening because it gets the most attention. And people keep spending millions on paintings because they can keep selling them for even higher sums.
We are the reason. When we scroll past great work by a phenomenal artist without liking, sharing, or buying, we participate in the problem. When we don’t support young artists, whose talent is just starting to blossom, when we only pay attention because something outrageous is going on, when we only take time to comment on art to say “that isn’t art,” we perpetuate the state-of-the-art world. And if you are waiting around to hear about art, these kinds of outrage inducing stories are the only things you’ll hear.
Cattelan and Datuna are smart. We aren’t talking about what they did because they made a mistake. We are talking about it because they wanted us to. They taped the proverbial banana to the wall, and we all took the bite.