Suppose you are at an art gallery, you are walking through the chalk-white hallway looking at art hanging on the walls which respectfully give each other breathing space. You first see a vibrant colorful piece that reminds you of Van Gogh, then you see a bashful mandala art and then you stumble upon a banana duck taped to the wall. You think it is a joke and it actually is but the joke is not on the artist, the joke is on you, the joke is on us.
In 2019 when artist Maurizio Cattelan exhibited his conceptual art piece called ‘Comedian’ at Art Basel, Miami. It immediately attracted the world’s attention; it was nothing but a banana taped to the wall with silver duct tape. The comedian sold for $150,000 and the obvious happened. In no time it became the internet’s obsession, a meme frenzy ensued and people came with more unique and bizarre versions of the artwork. Thousands flocked the exhibition to get a selfie with the infamous banana. Although it generated a lot of mockery and the age of old rejection of modern art “this is not art, even I can do it”, people still couldn’t look away. Cattelan in an interview about the piece said that it is a wry commentary on society, power, and authority. He called it the Comedian because he wanted to showcase the inner joke of the art society; how the rich inflate prices to buy art which is worth bananas, and it was meant to provide an insight into how we assign worth to art and what kind of things we value. And he did that not by symbolism but by using a real banana. The huge traction it generated is reflective of the artist’s message; his point was tested and proved in real-time within 3 days of the exhibition.
The long queues got so unmanageable at one point that the organizers decided to take down the artwork. The gallery penned a message on their Instagram saying “Comedian, with its simple composition, ultimately offered a complex reflection of us. We would like to warmly thank all those who participated in this memorable adventure, as well as to our colleagues. We sincerely apologize to all the visitors of the fair who today will not be able to participate in Comedian”. Yes, they said ‘participate’ in their statement because the art of Comedian is not the artwork itself but in the response of society. In his own response to the artwork, artist David Datuna went up to the Comedian, tore off the duck tape, peeled the banana, and ate it in front of a bewildered crowd. When Datuna was escorted out of the arena, many thought he was being taken to the police station but Datuna as an artist understood that Comedian was conceptual art and him eating the banana was a performance which he called The Hungry Artist.
In conceptual art, the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. It means all the planning and decision are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. So the idea which is written in a certificate of authentication is the actual art, not the art itself. If Datuna had eaten the certificate of authentication, then that would have caused him some serious problems. Conceptual art was a way of working around the power structures of art. It is analogous to the political dissent of the prevailing suffocating power structures. It started off as a rebellion against art circles which were mostly dominated by the rich and the influential and were closed off to newcomers. Conceptual art challenged the concept of art itself. If the viewer accepts it as art, then it is a work of art however banal and regular it might seem. Artistic expression has challenged the status quo time and again; conceptual art does the same by being aggressively artless. The Comedian is an intelligent piece of satire. My only qualm against it is that it comments on our superficiality in a superficial way. The Comedian might not be the art we want but it is the artwork we deserve.