Peeling the Banana – the Elitist Guggenheim

The Party’s Over for the Avant-Garde

Friday 18th September, the board of the Guggenheim Museum acquired a $120,000 banana for its permanent collection.

In December 2019 crowds at Art Basel Miami Beach laughed themselves into a lather when Maurizio Cattelan duct-taped a banana to a gallery booth wall. Appropriately titled Comedian, three editions of the banana sold for up to $120,000 each, setting a world record for the price of bananas.

Before Covid-19, Art Basel was a big-top event on the calendar for the partying jet-set who travelled the world in search of the hottest, most exciting, and most expensive art. The world’s press gleefully reported on this banana outrage, and stories made the front page of national newspapers throughout the world. It made incredibly good copy for the art fair hosting the sale, and for Cattelan, the entertainer, the popular fool for the art world court. The life of the story was extended when a lesser clown, a self-described “performance artist,” ate the banana, which was probably the most expensive breakfast he’ll ever enjoy, certainly gave him his fifteen minutes of insta-fame, and was perhaps the highlight of his entire insta-career. No legal proceedings were instigated against him for destroying an artwork of such value, because a spokesman for the gallery announced that the banana wasn’t a real artwork anyway, unless the owner had a certificate of authenticity. Besides, the gallery had a stand-by banana they had picked up from a local grocery store which was quickly installed in the same spot as the original. Thus, this stunt-banana was instantly transformed into another $120,000 masterpiece. And sold in three editions.

Peak absurdity had been reached, and security guards were hired to control the giggling mass of insta-fashionistas which gathered at the booth to snap filtered selfies with the banana, annoying the tenants of neighbouring booths, because of the threat to the safety of other artworks, which they not unreasonably thought were of greater intrinsic value than a banana, and eventually it was removed so these unfortunate dealers could return to quieter and more serious transactions.

For ordinary people the news that half a hand of bananas had sold for more than their annual salary could only be taken as a condescending joke, as cruel and mocking insult that ridiculed their station in life, that derided their position. Only very, very rich people have the money to drop $120,000 on a bit of a laugh.

Now, the Guggenheim Museum has accepted one of the duct-taped bananas into its collection, sending a clear message about its cynical priorities. This is not art for the people, it is an obscene insult to both the bourgeoisie and the working class, who are struggling to get through the pandemic. The Guggenheim is blind, tactless, or cynical. Its president, Wendy Fisher, should have declined this dubious gift. The party’s over, Wendy.

Americans dislike talking about class, and they don’t like having the economic void between themselves and the super-rich thrown in their faces. They like to believe in the foundational ideal that everyone is equal, even though they’re quite obviously not. In 2015 the Pew Research Center published a poll that revealed that Americans earning between $30,000 and $100,000 a year all consider themselves middle class. But the boundaries of this imaginary middle class expand beyond this already broad range. Only 6% of people with a household income of more than $100,000 describe themselves as “Upper Class,” and only 27% of people earning less than $30,000 describe themselves as “Lower Class.”

Perhaps vulgar spectacles like Cattelan’s $120,000 banana will help to raise awareness of the enormous chasm separating us from the very rich, and will clarify the unavoidable fact that elite avant-garde galleries like the Guggenheim are hopelessly out of touch with the vast majority of American people.

Because the Guggenheim is a 501ciii corporation, art donations may be written off to the value of their purchase price. A banana purchased for less than fifty cents, even if it’s an organic free trade banana, can be given to a gallery as if it was a valuable object, once it has been sold for $120,000 as a pretentious work of art, and that value can be deducted from the donor’s tax bill at the end of the year. Revelations like this harm the art world. No-one is accusing the banana donors of foul play – their fault is merely being tactless – but other high value transactions of poor quality art have been perceived as unregulated covers for money-laundering. Is this what art has become? The tool of clever accountants, a hiding place for criminal finance, the plaything of the rich?

Three editions.

Performing for the members of the upper class who can think of $120,000 as fun money, Cattelan is one of the art world’s courtier clowns, occupying a privileged position as conscience and entertainment for his decadent and aristocratic friends. While these aristocrats gulped Almas caviar and washed it down with Armand de Brignac champagne, the clowns provided them with laughs and outrageous amusement. Before Covid, Cattelan commanded impressive budgets for seriously expensive projects set in palaces and country estates, and the Guggenheim’s board and curatorial staff were among his snickering champions. They gave him a retrospective in 2012, hanging his work from the ceiling of the spiral gallery.

Among Cattelan’s amusing and clever jests for the board was his casting of a working toilet in solid gold, which was plumbed into the smallest room of the Guggenheim Gallery in New York in 2016. The golden toilet was opened to the public, and punters formed lines for a chance to get scatological in the proverbial. The aristocrats on the giggling Guggenheim‘s board and it’s well-heeled staff laughed all the way to the other kind of proverbial. While New York punters paid good money to tug their forelocks and use the loo, in 2016 the Guggenheim reported income of $70,615,121. It paid its ten senior officials annual salaries ranging between $219,980 and $801,324.

In 2018 Cattelan’s golden toilet was installed, uninsured, in the wood-panelled splendour of Blenheim Palace, England, where it was quickly stolen by a practically minded gang of working lads, and doubtlessly melted down in a hurry, reducing its worth to its more honest weight.

The message of Cattelan’s spectacles was that avant-garde art could be hugely amusing entertainment for the very rich, and now the Guggenheim board has confirmed that this is their priority. The avant-garde art world they adore is a spectacle, a glittering performance for the elite. Their clowns provide amusement for the grandees, even in this time of hardship and deprivation. Their hypocritical avant-garde has never been for the people – it’s a circus for the rich and the pretentious, and the great unwashed only get to watch from the cheap seats, craning their necks for a view of the performers over their betters’ designer-draped shoulders, a crowd of desperate aficionados paying for the dubious privilege of taking a dump in the aristocrats’ golden toilet.

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From Montmartre to Burning Man to Dot-Com Bohemia

Recently I noticed a strange phenomenon – the old centers of bohemian life had vanished, and young bohemians were no longer gathering together in communities as they once did. Now, the bohemians are using the internet to find connection with their tribe, and looking for inexpensive places to live and work far from the cheap parts of the great cities.

My story at MutualArt.

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Daniel Sprick’s Hiraeth

This story came up because of a strange synchronicity between a Facebook meme and looking at paintings. The Facebook meme simply explained the meaning of the Welsh word “hiraeth,” which is a deep feeling of longing for home, like nostalgia or yearning.

I have recently become fascinated by Daniel Sprick’s work – his paintings are extraordinarily layered and reward close scrutiny. Look at this beautiful piece of work. A simple landscape? Not under Daniel’s eyes. It’s a complete invention, and look at the brilliant and impossible light! I think he’s one of the great painters of our time. But what really caught my imagination was the idea that these gorgeous paintings are perfect expressions of hiraeth.

Here’s my MutualArt story about his work and his hiraeth.

Daniel Sprick, Fantasy Landscape, oil paint on wood panel, 24 x 36

I’m always keen to build my collection of art books. Daniel has a few books on Amazon which are worth having.

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Adam Miller and Salvatore Guerrero. When Artist & Patron Go Big

My story “Adam Miller and Salvatore Guerrero. When Artist & Patron Go Big” – in the latest edition of Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. Don’t miss it! Here are the first few paragraphs, but you’ll have to buy your own copy to read the whole story and to see the gorgeous art that Adam is creating.

“In this historic year of elemental iconoclasm, when monuments to yesterday’s flawed heroes and Confederate generals alike are dishonored or ripped down, perhaps it is strange to speak of the importance of sharing humanity’s great ideas. Although it is easy to be discouraged by the graffiti, boarded-up windows, and overall mood of destructive anarchy, now—more than ever—we need to be reminded of the good ideas that have shaped us, and to prioritize them over those that are evil.

Mobs tearing at the scabbed sins of history cannot erase its wounds, but their destructive zeal will change the aesthetic priorities of our shared cityscapes, sometimes perhaps for the better. After the spray-paint and shattered stones have been removed, empty plinths will remind us that society once prioritized the evil of inequality, and now it does not. It is likely that decades will pass before new sculptures fill these empty spaces, for the fragile sphere of public discourse is too easily punctured by insensitive choices, and well-intentioned committees will slow their procedures to a crawl. All public art is political, and there is little chance of finding consensus in this divided time.

Because public art is frozen, we will have to depend upon private patronage to nurture the big ideas of our time. But what are they? The Israeli scholar Yuval Noah Harari’s epic survey of the big ideas, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015), has inspired the brilliant painter Adam Miller (b. 1979) and his patron Salvatore Guerrera to produce an ambitious cycle of four 8-by-10-feet oil paintings. Together these scenes will span human history and reveal its most important strands: the cognitive revolution of 70,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago, the scientific revolution of 500 years ago, and the present.”

For more, subscribe to Fine Art Connoiseur…

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The Connoisseur and the Artist

Don’t miss picking up your copy of the September edition of Fine Art Connoisseur. In it, you’ll find my story about the relationship between Adam Miller and his patron Salvatore Guerrera. Adam is producing extraordinary art, doubtlessly made possible by the support he receives from Mr. Guerrera.

I suspect that we will see a lot more private patronage in the next five years.

Adam Miller – Twilight in Arcadia
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The Fifth Ring of the Art-world Circus – A Message to Millennials

The art business is a five-ring circus, but its clowns and acrobats are worthless without a ring to perform in. Although Covid-19 is the diet soda of plagues compared to previous pandemics, it has been a catastrophe for four of the five rings in the art world big top.

File:GeorgeBellows-The Circus 1912.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
George Wesley Bellows – The Circus
Michael Pearce
Junkie Pieta (detail)

The first ring of the art business circus is the primary sales market. The grand art fair spectacles where many of the most dramatic sales and attention-grabbing headlines took place are closed and show no sign of re-opening. Commercial galleries are shuttered and allow art-browsing by appointment only, and attempt to sell on-line in half-hearted digital exhibitions. The big top is dark, the performers have left, and the party-animals of the audience, the first-class sensation-hunters, the elite who satisfied their desire for sensual indulgence in the pleasure gardens of art have nowhere to go, to see, and be seen. 

The second ring is occupied by the museums, vying for the notice of the public with block-buster shows and spectacular marvels. The American Alliance of Museums reported that one in three American museums is likely to close down as a result of the crashed economy. Those which allow socially distanced visits are earning a tiny fraction of their income.

Public art occupies the third ring. Here, grant-funded sculptures and murals find the lenses of regional television cameras, and engage the public in the issues of communal approval. The carnival of iconoclasm at recent BLM and Antifa demonstrations removed hundreds of sculptures from the public arena, which will not be replaced for decades. Public art is now so divisive that the word “artist” has become synonymous with “political sloganeer” in the popular press.

Ring four is the stage for the secondary market, where the major auction houses perform, and huge sums of money change hands. Here art is often a token of exchange, and dollars often seem more important than the works that they buy. Recently, the auction analysis website MutualArt reported that the major houses sold only as much art in the first six months of 2020 as they had hammered in May of 2019 alone.

Thus, the decadent and spectacular art circus of the oughties and teens has been afflicted. The primary market is closed, the public sector is closed and contentious, the museums are collapsing, and the secondary market is reeling. The circus is almost silent now.

Only one arena remains in which new American art might continue in any meaningful and significant way while corona reigns over us. This is the fifth ring. Unlike the other rings, it is usually private, a quiet place where the discrete and sophisticated dance of patronage is performed. In the fifth ring the lights are dim, and the performances are finely crafted for the satisfaction of individuals. This is where hope for art rests, for it is only within the fifth ring of patronage that artists have a chance to meet philanthropy and benevolence. This is a golden moment for wealthy Americans to become buyers of a new kind of American art. But what kind of art will they commission? And what kind of people will commission it?

english camo peace clown
Ron English – Camo Peace Clown

The black death eliminated a third of the population of Europe. After the tidal plague receded it had transformed the world. Medieval feudal hierarchies collapsed. Either killed by the disease or bankrupted, much of the nobility was replaced by a novel and dynamic bourgeois class of merchants who hungered for wealth. This new social mobility allowed the families of former soldiers to become dukes, and former peasants to become bankers. Education became a necessity – mathematics for the bankers, languages for the international traders, engineering for the builders, science for the warriors and the merchants. These families were keen to show that they were worthy of their new status, and demonstrated it by commissioning masterpieces in the explosion of the renaissance. And they shared much of the new art they commissioned with the people of their cities.

Our plague is a lightweight compared to the heavy black death, but the Center for Disease Control estimates that it will kill up to 1.7 million Americans, most of them elderly. This spike in mortality will speed up the immense transfer of wealth from the baby boomers to the younger generation that was predicted before Covid-19 had appeared, and an extraordinary $30 trillion will change hands in coming years as boomers die. This historic change will create a class of millennial Americans who have suddenly inherited great wealth, a new class which will feel many of the same insecurities as those families of the renaissance. Many among them will be keen to show that they are cultured members of society. Among this new, well-educated generation of American aristocracy there are many who know and understand the big and good ideas that provide the foundation for the liberal democracy that makes their lives possible. This enlightened class has our culture in its hands.

Covid has forced us to experience the disturbances of great social change. Such changes tend to cause a reaction against the preceding order. Could there be a reawakening among the new millennial aristocracy, a drive to seek out sincerity, depth, meaning, skill and goodness? Surely, among the rising millennial generation, there are decent, honest people who believe in the value of the virtues. The circus is closed. It is time for you to commission the art of the new renaissance. It is time for you to become our artistic leaders, to show by your example how we should live in these dark days.

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The Uncharted Territory the Surrealists Left Behind

MutualArt published my story: Julie Heffernan’s Fountainhead, Her Annihilation, Her Eve, Her Eden.

“Many of the surrealists left the mysterious landscape of the imagination largely uncharted, barely penetrating the frontiers of the subconscious. Not so Heffernan.”

I really enjoyed writing this.

I try to write my articles to reflect the art, and it seemed to me that the rich flow of imagery that I love in her paintings resembled hypotaxis – a sentence with multiple subclauses and sideways journeys, so I wrote the first paragraph in that manner. It’s 354 words. However, I was also struck by the contrast between the richness of the paintings and her studio, which is so simple and bare. So I wrote the next paragraph describing the studio using parataxis, which is the opposite of hypotaxis, language written in short, undecorated sentences, punchy, to the point. I liked the juxtaposition of the two very much, because the styles paralleled the real world.

Julie Heffernan – Fountainhead

You can see more of Heffernan’s paintings in her books:

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The Story that made Laurie Lipton Flinch

My article about Laurie Lipton is probably the darkest story I’ve written.
When she read it she said, “A good read, but I think I need a drink.” Curiously, that’s how I feel about her drawings.

Laurie Lipton – Selfie

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The Trouble with Ken Griffin’s Basquiat

Jean-Michele Basquiat – Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump

I wrote this article for MutualArt about the problem with hedge-fund billionaire Ken Griffin’s purchase of a Basquiat for $100,000,000. In it, I describe the issue faced by US museums that it doesn’t really matter how many paintings by minority artists they buy, nor how many of their employees are from minorities – they will always be accused of virtue-signaling until their aristocratic, white boards include minority members who are equally as rich as them.

You can see why Basquiat made such a huge impact on the art world by flipping through this lovely volume of his energetic work, published by Taschen.

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Coffee with Cornelius – Art and Power

I had a lovely time chatting with Cornelius Christian on his podcast, Coffee with Cornelius.

He was an excellent host, and allowed me to explain the early history of the avant-garde and its indisputably proto-communist origins. I regret that I didn’t have time to talk about how New York brahmins appropriated the term “avant-garde” to mean something quite different.

Early 20th-century American art critics Guillame Apollinaire, Clement Greenberg and Edward Jewell subtly changed the meaning of the term when they began applying it to left-wing artists who were individualists, instead of using it to describe artists who were socialist-realist propagandists. The transition began with Apollinaire, who had coined the terms “surrealism” and “orphism,” and also used “avant-garde” in 1912 to describe “the young painters of the avant-garde school.” Apollinaire said these avant-gardists wanted to make pure paintings after the fashion of the legendary ancient Greek painter Apelles, who had used delicate lines to compete with his rival Protogenes.

Regardless of whether Apollinaire was unaware of, or did not understand the history of the term as the specific domain of socialist realism, or if he deliberately appropriated it in his search for the nomenclature of modern painting, using “avant-garde” to describe modern and abstract artists was a significant choice, for now the term was equated with radical efforts to find a new art to satisfy the new time, not to describe specifically communist propaganda.

In Fall of 1939 Greenberg’s Avant-Garde and Kitsch was published in Partisan Review – an American communist journal. The article was written from the position that in the 1930’s, capitalism was perceived as a failed and broken system for which the only antidote was Marxist communism. This apocalyptic stance colours everything that follows in the essay. With remarkable pessimism, Greenberg claimed that avant-garde culture was a response to “the last phase of our own culture.” He starts well, noting that the birth of the avant-garde coincided chronologically – and geographically, too – with “the first bold development of scientific revolutionary thought in Europe,” which presumably means Saint-Simonian proto-communism. But he quickly gets his facts absurdly wrong, ridiculously claiming that bohemia “was then identical with the avant-garde,” despite his own admission that bohemians were “demonstratively uninterested in politics.” He maintained that the avant-garde had emigrated from bourgeois society to bohemia, and rejected the markets of capitalism, but that bohemians were also conscious of the fact that bohemia needed bourgeois money. Greenberg correctly explained that his avant-garde artists – he really meant bohemians – had rejected revolutionary politics and embarked upon a search for the absolute, manifested as art for art’s sake, at which point subject matter or content were “avoided like a plague.” His avant-garde, then, tried but failed to imitate, not god, but “the disciplines and processes of art itself.” This imitation of imitation was “the genesis of the ‘abstract.’”

This was an hopelessly incorrect application of the term “avant-garde” to the true situation in mid-19th century France, in which the bohemian and individualist practitioners of art for art’s sake would have vehemently objected to being described with it.

Clement Greenberg

By describing bohemian abstract artists as “avant-garde,” the Marxist Greenberg had appropriated bohemia and given it a radical left flavor. The contradiction was self-evident – hadn’t he said himself that his avant-garde was umbilically attached to the American elite by capital? His claim that after 1848 bohemia had become a sanctuary from capitalism jars with the historical narrative of the repeated story of bohemians either maturing into members of the bourgeoisie as they found success, or, as Murger had described, finding the hospital or the morgue instead.

This new avant-garde was still used as a propaganda tool, but now it was a tool that projected American soft-power.


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