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?
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.