• Prof. Woo Jung-ah (HASS)
  • 승인 2020.01.05 18:07
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▲Comedian, an art piece by Italian Artist Maurizio Cattelan
▲Comedian, an art piece by Italian Artist Maurizio Cattelan


When I was young, bananas were a symbol of wealth due to its high price. Only once in a while, when I sometimes suffered from sore throats due to a severe cold, my parents would buy me a banana and I would savor my each moment of it. I still love bananas, but strangely enough, it never tastes or smells good as the ones from back then. Considering this, how good would a banana taste like if it was worth 1.4 million KRW?
On Dec. 2019, Italian Artist Maurizio Cattelan, or precisely his art gallery Perrotin, sold Comedian – a banana duct-taped to the wall- for 12,000 USD at the Art Basel Miami Beach. Two pieces of the Comedian were sold on the first day of the fair and, considering the high demand, Perrotin increased the price of Comedian to 150,000 USD. Even before the artwork was sold, “the banana attached to the wall” gained the crowd’s attention. The artwork became the Instagrammer’s mecca and many parodies flooded the internet. Eventually, the administrators of the art fair had to install purple velvet stanchions to protect the Comedian. Then one day, Performance Artist David Datuna ripped the banana off the walls and ate it because “he was hungry.” Being an artist is indeed a hungry job. So was the Comedian gone forever? Surprisingly, Perrotin simply got a fresh new banana and stuck it back on the wall. Soon after this incident, however, Perrotin had to remove the artwork to protect it from the crowd attempting to eat it.
After such incident, many felt confusion, anger, and frustration. How can a banana sticked to a wall with duct tape be an artwork? How can a new banana simply replace the eaten banana and be the same artwork? The idea of conceptual art confused them. And how can people actually pay such bizarre work of art a fortune? It was a matter of fact for people to feel this way considering that most consider even the bananas sold in Starbucks for 1,500 KRW a rip-off. Subsequently, this sparked an uprise of the Miami’s underpaid janitors, each wearing a T-shirt with a banana taped on to it. Miami janitors are paid 8.46 USD per hour to tidy the extravagant buildings of Miami. It is reasonable for them to view this incident as a degradation of their human dignity- which is clearly worth much less than a banana taped to a wall.
Then what if Comedian was a oil painting instead. What if Comedian was Vincent Van Gogh’s artwork- thickly and curvy-painted using his favorite yellow oil paint recently found in someone’s attic all covered in dust for a hundred years? In that case, we will accept its value even if it was sold as 100 million KRW. We will still obey the powerful and ancient authority ‘oil-painting’ holds in the world of art, praise the ‘tragic genius’ who contemplated through his whole life with a discrete point of view, and recognize the value of a one and only original artwork. If Van Gogh’s banana was to be hanged on the walls of a museum, we would feel touched by the parity between the artist’s arduous life and dark nature to the bright and lively banana. However, no one would have considered from Van Gogh’s banana the upsetting questions that the Cattelen’s banana asks to the audience- the meaning of art, the status of an artist, value of labor, extremely polarized and unfair economic structures, the operating system of the artwork market and the intimately interconnected artist, art galleries and art fairs, and even the the crisis of the endangered bananas or the unethical behaviors of many companies in Latin America to supply bananas in cheap price. That is the value of Cattelen’s Comedian and the value of 1.4 million KRW.
Among the buyers of Comedian are Billy and Beatrice Cox- member of the Bancroft family which owns the Dow Jones & Company, publishers of the Wall Street Journal. Did the couple receive a 1.4 milliion KRW worthy banana? Actually, all they received was a certificate with Cattelen’s signature which describes as responsibility not rights to only and always use a ripe banana when displaying the Comedian. The couple has announced that, like changing water for a flower, they will replace the banana in every two days. They were “acutely aware of the blatant absurdity of the artwork” but testified that the public’s attention and controversy raised by Comedian will remain in the history of art as the “Unicorn of the artworld.”
Ever since 1917, when the French Artist Marcel Duchamp bought a readymade standard urinal from a shop, re-named it as ‘Fountain’ and claimed it to be an artwork, artists no longer create something new out of hands. Isn’t the world already full of amazing products printed out of machines? In this generation, no longer the term ‘genius’ or the respect to craftsmanship of a skilled professional holds on front of the superiority of machines. Artists in this generation, through usage of confusing and disturbing, sometimes even comical gestures to point out the oblivious but obvious unfairness of this society. Just as Cattelen’s banana, ludicrous like the act of a comedian slipping on a banana peel, raises question to all the prices we have generally accepted to be.