Determining value in art’s slippery peel

All the craze over the banana that was sold for $120,000

Navigating through the slippery art world, forever fluctuating, is a difficult task for any artist. The recent spectacle of Maurizio Cattelan’s ‘Comedian’ caused a sensation at Art Basel in Miami Beach. The artwork consisting of a single banana stuck to a wall with duct tape was sold to three buyers for roughly $120,000. Bringing us to the question, as Andy Warhol once put it, is art truly ‘whatever you can get away with’?

Cattelan is an Italian absurdist known for his ironic commentary of the world we live in. The banana was a double entendre symbolizing global trade and a device for humour. The simplicity of the artwork contrasted with the whopping selling price attracted many opinions, opinions against the artwork. As ‘Comedian’ got more and more media coverage in respected news channels such as the New York Times and CNN, an overwhelming number of art enthusiasts went to see this for themselves.

One of these spectators was David Datuna, a performance artist based in New York. After seeing the ‘Comedian’, Datuna posted a video titled ‘Hungry artist’ on Instagram, recording the entire process of him ripping the $120,000 banana off the wall and eating it non-consequentially. This action wasn’t a result of disrespect or criticism as Datuna publicly commends Cattelan for his genius concept. But the entire internet community praised him for finding the irony in the artwork. Many replicated and circulated different versions of the comedian with various other things stuck to the wall with tape, just to name some, bread and Donald Trump. In an interview with Vogue magazine, Datuna said, ‘It was a big question mark for all of us—can this banana be an artwork? […] With my performance, I put my question mark after his question mark. This is just a game between two artists.’

What is even more hilarious is the way Art Basel replaced the banana after Datuna’s public stunt, and all was restored. The monetary value of the artwork wasn’t affected as the buyers bought the concept of the art, not the banana and the tape itself. ‘Comedian’ as a conceptual artwork is valued in terms of its meaning and message which is more important than the object on the wall. What the buyers tangibly bought was the certificate of authenticity from the artists and the installation instructions. 

The value of art in our monetary world is labelled as objective even though it arises from subjective opinions of what is art. As humans, we can never come to a unified consensus regarding what should be valued in society. A marked selling price can be determined by an artwork’s size or the medium used traditionally. Oil painting on canvas is considered richer in value and more durable in different climate comparatively to charcoal on paper which easily fades over time and is hard to maintain in its original state. But these factors are irrelevant to conceptual art and many other contemporary artworks of today, raising the question of how does one determine the monetary value of an idea without offending one party or another? This question feels even more crucial to young, emerging artists who are reluctant to price their ideas. In addition to that, with the digital world, in which we have become wholly immersed has evidently proposed newer, more subtle problems for artists. Due to the ‘clickbait’ world in which we live in, artwork can be seen to be valued by its shock factor, determined through algorithms and audience reach on social media. The subjectivity raises more ethical questions than we are equipped to answer. 

In many ways, Datuna’s comical act further popularized this artwork beyond the societal frames of artists, art collectors and advent art readers. Indulging in all of these questions, one could vaguely argue that half the world is bored of the traditions and the other half clinging to it with any mendable tape they can get their hands on. At the end of the day, all we have is the brutal statement that ‘art is subjective’. This age-old argument which we can’t deny, nor do we want to. But in many ways, it’s as unsettling as having no answer at all.