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Witnessing Stupidity

Banal Art – The Tale of the $120,000 Banana

When you hear that somebody spent $120,000 on a banana taped to a wall, what do you think?

The obvious knee-jerk reaction is that it is ridiculous, or that it may not even be true. But at Art Basel in Miami, last week, this was reported to have actually happened.

Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, who gained notoriety for creating a solid gold toilet (valued at $6,000,000) which was later stolen and never recovered, stated that he had been toying with the idea of a banana on a wall for some time. So finally, when Art Basel rolled around, he decided to check in, buy a banana and a roll of duct tape, and instead of doing any work at all, instead of harnessing any creativity that could be considered thoughtful and dynamic, he put a banana on a wall and claimed it to be art.

It is not.

A banana taped to a wall is not art. It is just plain fucking stupid. It is lazy and pointless and does nothing to induce a cerebral escape into another ephemeral plane, as art should. The “artist” should be ashamed and should not be called an artist.

That is one take.

On the other hand, perhaps the artist and the renowned art exhibitionist Emmanuel Perrotin knew what they were doing when they sold two of three of these simply designed installations. They knew that creating something so childishly simple as a banana duct-taped to a wall would create buzz. They knew that with their reputations that, if they say it is art, then it is art. They also knew that no matter what, no matter how simple and outrageous it was, it would demand an exorbitant price tag. They knew this because they know their customer base and they knew exactly who their marks were. They knew exactly who would be stupid enough to pay six figures for a piece of fruit.

If this is the case, they are con artists. Thieves. Scoundrels.

But what of the client? Who has that kind of money to throw around and waste on a banana duct-taped to a wall? Apparently, a lot of people do. If you take a close look at what is accepted as art and the insane prices being paid for it, and if you really pay attention, you have to see that these are scams.

I like Banksy.

The elusive and unknown persona of Banksy has set himself or herself apart as an artist by posting graffiti in public view, essentially vandalizing any and all matter of public and private and abandoned building, in several corners of the globe. Banksy has created unique images that tell cutting edge stories in fast and furious fashion. Banksy has sold art through auction and given it away on the streets of New York. Whatever Banksy’s deal is, they are in it for the art, and maybe only a touch of scam.

When Banksy sold Girl with Balloon at Sotheby’s for $1,400,000, the hammer fell and witnesses gasped as the work self-destructed before them. In an artistic crescendo right out of 1960’s Batman, complete with high-pitched horns and nothing a caped crusader can do to stop it, a shredder hidden within the frame ripped the image into no less than twenty strips of worthless paper. But somehow, someway, that work is now magically estimated to be worth twice as much.

Girl with Balloon BANKSY

It was definitely a strange artistic statement. But if I were the one person who had honestly earned my fortune (don’t ask how, because I don’t know), and decided that I liked this original Banksy of a little girl grasping for a heart shaped balloon because it spoke to me in some way, and that I had just spent a fraction of my fortune on this one piece of art in a beautiful gold frame, and had planned to place it in a position of prominence as a centerpiece within my humble mansion, as the single extravagance to celebrate my wealth, I would be devastated to see it crumble and would never buy another piece of art again. I wouldn’t care if they said it was worth ten times as much. If I spent over a million dollars on a picture, I would not want it shredded.

Luckily, if anybody wants to see the pre-shredded image, it will likely remain on the internet for the foreseeable future. With a simple right click of the mouse, you can even save one to your hard drive or print it out.

Scams are not generally perpetrated by artists, they are orchestrated by people who know people with money, and how to get it from them. The debate about whether or not Jackson Pollock was an idiot, or a genius, will rage forever because somebody with money will keep buying what looks like vomit on canvas and consider it art.

Those who consider expenditures like this a big waste of money that could be used for something better are absolutely right. One Jackson Pollock painting commanded $200 million a few years ago, placing the artist in league with other high dollar canvases brushed by Picasso, Modigliani, and Leonardo Da Vinci. Historical significance aside, while these works are nice, the only way they command such price tags are by supply and demand. Somebody has to want it bad enough and the one in possession has to know how to squeeze those dollars out of them.

Whether you are looking at millions of dollars or mere thousands, it is reasonable to ask, couldn’t that money be put to better use? Yes, it can. Sometimes it is. In the case of Masterpiece by Roy Lichtenstein, which sold for $165 million in 2017, philanthropist Agnes Gund, who sold the work, used the money to start a fund in order to reduce mass incarceration with a project called Art for Justice. While benevolence came from the seller’s side in this instance, it makes you wonder why the buyers don’t just contribute directly to worthy causes to begin with, take out the middleman, and forget about owning anything that costs so much. In the case of buyers, maybe some of them just have too much money, maybe they do contribute money to causes they care about and still buy art just because they can. When you have more money than you know what to do with, you generally start to do a bit of everything.

Every picture tells a story, right? At least, it should.

Art and beauty and its perceived value is a complex mystery. The eye of the beholder and the mindset behind it defy rationalization. As much as I dislike Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning’s “works,” I can’t explain why somebody else would pay unfathomable amounts to own them, or what attracted the first buyers to begin with. If we all saw everything the exact same way the world would become awful boring quite quickly, anyway.

Let’s try something fun. Say you take the price tags off all of the art. Then put a bunch of these multi-million-dollar pieces side by side in a museum with a bunch of basic stuff you find sitting piled on the floor at your local Goodwill and Salvation Army stores. Now you have a display of no-name artists right next to authenticated masterpieces. Now bring in a tribe of indigenous Amazonians who have never seen a painting. What will they react to? How will they react? Why?

I don’t know what such a litmus test would reveal, but no matter what, the judges will be fair, balanced, and unbiased. That would even qualify as performance art, would it not?

Meanwhile, back in Miami, after two of the three had been sold, self-proclaimed performance artist David Datuna ate the last banana at Art Basel. It is as ridiculous as is it is inexplicable. When he pulled the banana off the wall and ate it, over two dozen people clamored around, held up their cell phones and videotaped it like they were at a Lady Gaga concert.

I watched the video and wondered Who are they? How did they get duped? Are they the same people who would spend hundreds of thousands on a banana if they had the chance? It truly makes me wonder – What are they thinking? Watch the video. They are like lemmings pushing to see over the edge, asking What’s going on? Let  me see! It is absolute and true stupidity.

It was just a guy eating a banana.

I am left empty wondering how this held any value for the witnesses, why they felt compelled to document it, and what they got out of it. It wasn’t like staring into the eyes of a Rembrandt portrait, thinking the fellow winked or looked away. It wasn’t finding fluidity in The Dancer of Renoir. It wasn’t seeing the constellation twinkle in Van Gogh’s Starry Night. It wasn’t anything spectacular. It was a guy eating a banana. How do so many people get so stupid?

You can’t fix stupid, but you can take advantage of it. This is what the art world thrives on and art dealers know it. They also know that some people with money need help with their money. Because they know people. They know all kinds of people. I am not just wading into fictional waters. Miami’s big beautiful ocean flows all over the world. It rains in Miami just like it does in other places. Sometimes, it even snows.

Miami, like other big cities, has a huge slice of every cultural pie you can imagine. Music, food, politics, sports, guns, drugs. You can get anything. Like Art Basel, Miami has it all. Something for everyone.

Now take another view of that banana on the wall. It represents opportunity.

You can own it.

One guy ate it without paying for it, as far as I know. But that banana can be replaced over and over again. It is not forgery. Artists can mass produce, the same piece, or similar pieces, over and over, again and again. Signed and numbered prints flood the floors of resale shops. But this is not about the art. It is about the opportunity.

A person who wants something they can not get through legal channels must operate in a vacuum. They must find a place where a seller exists, and they can get what they want without calling attention to themselves. A place where they can spend money freely. Like air flowing through a vacuum, they get in quietly, and need to get out clean.

When you look at the installation of a banana duct-taped to a wall, entitled Comedian, you can muse at the banality, ponder what you are missing, or revel in the perceived mastery of execution. Once again, the eye of the beholder is fickle. But when you step back and consider the wider scope of what makes sense, while it may not be so with this piece, which has drawn so much attention to itself (it may have even served as a distraction), some sales may only be fronts for other less innocent products.

You can do a lot with $120,000.

Take a close look at that amount of cash and equate it to something. It could be a small house in a quaint neighborhood. It could be a half dozen trailers or several acres of land. It could be one awesome automobile or enough to open your own used car lot. It could be a luxury vacation, or it could feed thousands of people for a while. With these possibilities in mind, do you find it shameful that anyone would actually make such a savagely inept purchase? How could anyone feel good about that?

That moral dilemma is yours if you want it. But there are only two possibilities.

  1. It is not true. Nobody actually paid $120,000 for a banana taped to a wall and it was all a big stunt and a practical inside joke meant for a select few who really got it.
  2. It is true and the possibilities of how that money was actually used lead to several conclusions.

Which explanation do you find most logical?

Maurizio Cattelan has a superfan with deep pockets who likes him enough to support him and would buy the banana taped to the wall just to help that artist thrive and have bragging rights among their peers to be able to say “I spent $120,000 on a banana taped to a wall. Lucky thing I got the one I did, because somebody ate the last one. It must be worth a quarter million now.”

Maurizio Cattelan is lucky. Nonsense? Maybe, but it is possible. Yes, he got paid for the banana. A standard commission rate for art is about 40%, so he made around $72,000 minus his cost for the banana and duct tape. That gives his art dealer, Emmanuel Perrotin, a $48,000 payday. That must have been one hell of a sales pitch, right? “Hey, I got this banana that Maurizio taped to a wall – only $120 K. I am letting you know because we are friends, so you can have the first crack at it.”  They may have negotiated down from some higher amount. We don’t know.

When you introduce logic, the math doesn’t add up.

Take this fictional “artwork” for example.

“Besides a burger on a shelf, what else do I get for my $120,000? Does it come with fries and a shake?”

“We can’t put it in writing, but my boat could meet your boat out there on the baby blue and we could throw in a little extra something-something, just for being one of our best customers. No extra charge!”

Something unknown, unseen, and illegal has a strong contention of likelihood. Moving huge amounts of money in drugs, weaponry, human trafficking, political bribes, and many other forms of contraband present unique challenges and implications when cash is improperly laundered. The art community (while this may not be the case at all, but great speculative fiction), offers itself as that beautiful watery vacuum. Where you can buy all the stuff you need, receiving as a token of trust, a painting or sculpture, albeit extraordinary, just plain nice, or simply mundane, it does not matter, as it is only the note of title for whatever that stuff is, that is really being purchased.

Maybe the burger on a shelf is a vehicle for a large donation, as it was in the case of the leather jacket Olivia Newton-John wore in Grease. It was purchased at auction for $243,200 and the money went to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Center. The anonymous buyer didn’t care about the jacket. He wanted to support her cause, so after the man won the auction, he gave the jacket back to her. Now she will display it at the Research Center as a shining example of charitable contribution. While an old movie wardrobe piece may not exactly be art, like the Lichtenstein that sold for $165 million, the donation process is the same. For the buyer the purchase can be a way to spend down money for tax purposes. For the seller, commissions aside, they may be able to make a large charitable contribution, and bring themselves down a few tax brackets, depending on their obligations.

In the case of the man with the jacket, if he were in the USA (I don’t know Australian tax law), he could have spent the money from whatever fund he needed to in order to lower his assets, then donated the jacket for the same amount he paid for it, and Voila! He knocks his tax bracket down by nearly half a million dollars. Exchange the concept of the jacket for any piece of art in the world, do the same thing, and you get a sweet tax write off.

Unless somebody comes forward with a reasonable explanation, which is highly unlikely, or gets busted, you will never know what is really going on with all that money.

Maybe somebody really does have a rotten banana hanging on their wall.

We don’t know.

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There's so much to tell, where do I begin?

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