The art world suffered a tragic loss when artist Maurizio Cattelan’s “Comedian,” which consisted of a regular banana duct-taped to a wall, was eaten by fellow artist David Datuna. The reason for the blow was not so much that the banana had been eaten — one banana is as good as another last I looked — but because the piece had been bought for $120,000. Even that was not the ceiling price of artistic bananas; the price tag for a third “edition” of “Comedian” was $150,000.
Cattelan has a reputation of being the imp of the art world. He has made “art” consisting of golden toilets and giant, extended middle fingers. “Comedian” might have been another joke, but the joke was certainly on Billy and Beatrice Cox of Miami, the couple who purchased the piece. When the inevitable backlash began, the Coxes defended their decision, saying “Comedian” was the “unicorn of the art world” and, “We bought it to ensure that it would be accessible to the public forever, to fuel debate and provoke thoughts and emotion in a public space in perpetuity.”
Here the real problem comes to the fore. A unicorn is a mythical creature for which there is no hard evidence of existence. But a banana isn’t mythical, or even rare. Thanks to global trading, you can buy a banana at Walmart for 12 cents. Duct tape is just as common, and if walls were scarce, people would notice, especially with the dawn of winter only a week away.
What then makes “Comedian” so rare as to be worth $120,000? It’s the idea. Emmanuel Perrotin, founder of the gallery that sells Cattelan’s work, told The New York Times the real reason for the steep price tag was the certificate of authenticity that came with the piece. In other words, it was Cattelan getting the idea to duct tape a banana to a wall and then following through that made the piece valuable.
But Art Is More Than an Idea
This is, unfortunately, the default position of the art world now. In an article for The New York Times, Jason Farago spilled a fair amount of ink to give what he claimed was a begrudging defense of the banana. The duct tape was the element that lifted the banana from the Walmart bin to the art gallery, he wrote, since the duct tape “continues Mr. Cattelan’s decades-long reliance on suspension to make the obvious seem ridiculous.”
His second point stated that Cattelan’s “willingness to implicate himself within the economic, social, and discursive systems that structure how we see and what we value … might testify to his and all of our confinement within commerce and history.” In this light, Farago knights Cattelan a “tragedian who makes our certainties as slippery as a banana peel.”
I won’t pretend to be a comedian or a humorist, but I was always told by people with more experience in those fields that if a joke has to be explained, it’s a pretty poor joke. A clown who interrupts his act at 30-second intervals to explain the trajectory of the humor might be intellectually stimulating in a classroom, but he won’t do the one thing all clowns, by nature, are supposed to do: make ’em laugh. This is especially true in art .
Only someone who has, at the very least, the passion for contemporary art and who is helped in this passion by the time and money to devote to it will be properly marinated in the world to understand the possible punchline. Odds are, he’s someone who already agrees about the nature of the prisons 21st-century man is in.
The regular Joes, who are the very sleepers who need to be awakened (according to this mentality), are the ones who won’t see anything except a banana. Perhaps the real joke hidden in all this is that the tragic clown, Cattelan, while despairing over our economic and social prisons, made a cool $120,000 from his critique of modern culture.
There is a deeper consideration in all this. Philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, in his 2012 documentary, “Why Beauty Matters,” made the obvious and therefore brilliant point that if an idea is all that matters in the art world, there can be no such thing as art.
We all have ideas, and everything we consciously do reflects an idea or symphony of ideas, whether we are aware of that or not. Art reduced to mere intellectualization, shorn of craft and cunning and creativity, means anyone from off the street can be an artist — which means no one will be an artist. By making art only about an idea, artists slit their own wrists without even realizing they are holding a razor.
What Is Beauty?
But this all pales to insignificance in light of the real lesson from this drama: the continued desecration of art and therefore of beauty. Until the 1930s when Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal and declared it art, art was seen as something specific; it could be pointed to and positively proclaimed to be art. This is because whether the piece in question was Peale, or Monet, or Michelangelo, the art in question captured beauty. Or to put it another way, it incarnated beauty.
Beauty has been defined as long as philosophers have been asking questions about its nature. Today, the popular definition is, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The idea is that beauty depends on the individual person and that each person has his own idea of beauty; what one person finds beautiful, another will find ugly.
Not only is this a cheat of a definition — since it does not actually define anything — but it is also a terrible lie. According to this idea, two people could be looking at the sea at sunset or at a pile of decomposing garbage and come to two contradictory opinions about what they were seeing, with one person declaring the object to be the most beautiful thing in the world and the other saying it was the ugliest.
However, this violates the principle of non-contradiction, which states that something cannot be X and not X at the same time. A wooden table can’t be a table and simultaneously a broken pile of wood. The principle, first articulated in Aristotle’s “Metaphysics,” is the bedrock upon which not just logic but all knowledge is based. After all, if something can be a certain thing and not be that thing at the same time, knowledge has no sure footing, since everything is in flux.
Showing the Real in Light of the Ideal
Beauty, then, must be real. All the best definitions of it have realized that and recognized beauty as a molding of both the transcendental and the material. Plato said it was the union of contrary (not contradictory) things, such as reason and the senses, unity and division, spirit and matter. German philosopher Friedrich Schelling defined beauty as the finite presentation of the infinity. Scruton says it is the real in light of the ideal.
This means beauty shows us what should be as opposed to what might be at any one particular moment. Michelangelo’s “David,” for example, is the ideal man. He’s not a “new man” as the Soviets attempted to create, but what men should be like: strong, determined, young at heart (faithful), and ready to battle for right (see the sling he carries over his left shoulder).
All men are not like that. Everyone, including Michelangelo, would agree with that. His sculpture, however, is the ideal to which all men should reach. Similarly, Norman Rockwell’s “Free From Want” or “Springtime, 1933” give us “timeless moments” (to steal a phrase from T.S. Eliot) into the nature and dynamic of family and boyhood and the interaction of men and our little sister, Nature.
The reason beauty is able to show the real in light of the ideal is that, as American contemporary philosopher D.C. Schindler says in his book “Love and the Postmodern Predicament,” beauty is the intersection of truth and goodness. Beauty appeals to our appetites because it is our taking in of something’s appearance, but at the same time, it presents itself to our reason, declaring itself to be beauty and demanding an audience with our minds. A cat, after all, sees the same sunset as our two theoretical people mentioned above, but where they were able at least to disagree about whether the sunset was beautiful or not, the cat wasn’t able to join in the conversation.
We Need Beauty
Because beauty is this intersection between truth and goodness, we need it, for we need truth and goodness. Politicians win election after election on promises to bring the truth to their constituents. Christmas is still the most wonderful time of the year because it is still the one time a year people open their shut-up hearts, and we see evidence in our weary world that goodness still exists.
Artists, then, are not vanguards for a movement or primarily social commentators; they are prophets, reminding us beauty is real and presenting that proof before us. This is exactly why modern artists such as Cattelan and Datuna and modern art connoisseur such as Billy and Beatrice Cox are one of the problems with the world.
To attack beauty is to attack truth and goodness, the real things to which we should aspire. Artists are in this sense responsible for the shallow and ugly world we live in today. And nothing about it is comedic.