Arts and Entertainment

How Do We Talk About “The Comedian”?

Art journalist Javed Jokhai ruminates on dealing with a piece that really doesn’t like art journalists.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The title “art journalist” exists in a similar vein as “civil war” and “old news,” in that it’s truly oxymoronic. Art, in its most essential state, is using the ordinary to create something larger than the sum of its parts. In contrast, the work of a journalist is akin to that of a detective, in which we extract a concise, distilled truth from the immense web of reality. There’s no real definition of an art journalist, at least not one that is completely accurate. Instead of getting bogged down in semantics, we art journalists circumvent a solid definition and make up our job title as we go. This usually goes quite well, seeing as the title is never tested, even by our editors. I thought I would never be in a situation where I would have to question what my denomination truly means. I was wrong.

You may have never heard of “The Comedian” or Maurizio Cattelan, the artist of the work. But unless you completely avoid the Internet or news, you have probably seen it or at least one of its hundreds of parodies and pastiches. “The Comedian” by Maurizio Cattelan is the banana duct-taped to the wall at Miami’s annual Art Basel that was sold for $120,000 and caused a massive reaction amongst both art lovers and art haters. Considered both conceptual art and an art assignment—as it is art focused on representing a singular idea and comes with instructions on how to create the piece—“The Comedian” is one example in a long line of Cattelan’s art pranks. His past “joke works” include statues of giant middle fingers, taxidermied golden retrievers, and his previously most famous work, a golden toilet titled “America” that was available for use at the Guggenheim. However offensive his previous works may be, none have rocked the mainstream more than “The Comedian,” which is surprising given the inoffensive nature of the work compared to his previous attempts at getting the public’s attention.

This seemingly unprovoked outrage begs the question: why? Why is it that a banana duct-taped to a wall is worthy of such attention? Before answering this, an exceptionally complicated yet underrated question must be brought to the table: what even is “The Comedian”? The obvious answer of tape and banana has already been mentioned, but this reductive response not only just scratches the surface while ignoring the possible depths, but it was also disproven at the exhibition.

Well-regarded New York artist David Datuna used “The Comedian” as a prop in his own performance art, titled “Hungry Artist.” To put it bluntly, he did what we all wished we could: he ate the $120,000 banana. A rather obvious prank, yes, but what Datuna inadvertently exposed was something fascinating. Eating the banana in no way hindered the exhibiting of the piece. Using the certificate of authenticity purchased from Maurizio Cattelan, the gallery was able to reassemble an authentic Cattelan all by themselves. This would imply that the true art lies not in the banana but in the unadulterated idea protected by the certificate which manifests itself via taped fruit.

Going off the implication that “The Comedian” is not simply the banana one sees but rather an abstract concept, hence the genre “conceptual art,” what is the idea? We grasp an idea of what it could be by the gallery’s description of the piece. Of course, one could easily accept the Perrotin Gallery’s interpretation of the artwork being “a wry commentary on society, power, and authority,” but I believe the more interesting part is their recognition of the interactive nature of the piece. As opposed to simply studying or observing the art, Art Basel Miami distinctly says in an Instagram post that the exhibit visitors that wait in line to take pictures with the work are “participating” in “The Comedian.” This would lead me to conclude that “The Comedian,” or rather, the concept behind the piece, has nothing to do with bananas and duct tape but instead the outrage. The millions of reactions, both positive and negative, all the parodies, pastiches, and memes referencing the work, and all serious artistic discussions of the piece, including this article, are the true spectacle of Cattelan’s work. All of us are the butt of the joke of “The Comedian,” for our swiftness to react has caused us all to waste time caring about a fruit signifying nothing: Cattelan’s greatest magic trick.

So how do we talk about an artwork that insults us for simply trying to understand it? Some of the audience of “The Comedian,” or rather participants, suggest avoiding discourse altogether. Just as one would deal with an attention-seeking person, some suggest withholding the one thing both “The Comedian” and Cattelan himself crave—acknowledgment. For what is a joke if no one’s there to hear it? In fact, I grappled with not writing an article about “The Comedian” at all out of spite. Despite how satisfying that may be, it adds nothing to the world’s artistic collective intelligence and serves no one but my ego, as well as the egos of fellow art critics. This is why discussing “The Comedian” is so difficult for art journalists. The traditional journalistic approach would rip Cattelan’s work to shreds as it is untruthful and disingenuous. However, the artist’s approach would be to praise Cattelan not only for his monetary success but for creating a piece that could possibly go down in the western canon, making me a fool. An identity at odds with itself, how does one cope with the dichotomy? Well, first recognize that this dichotomy is a false one, and then embrace the third option: facing the embarrassing confusion. If there is any moral or lesson “The Comedian” has to offer, whether unintentionally or intentionally, it’s that it’s better to be authentically confused than inauthentically pompous and sure of oneself. It’s okay for people, myself included, to be confused by the meaning of a banana on a wall because that’s the natural reaction. Being vulnerable and asking “silly” questions like “what is ‘The Comedian’ really?” is more honorable than being a snobby art critic using a banana to pontificate about status and power. At the end of the day, “The Comedian” makes fun of all of us equally. And by accepting this truth, we are able to return the favor and give “The Comedian” its own fair share of criticism.

Ironically, Maurizio Cattelan becomes the butt of his own joke. Despite masquerading as someone subversive and against the commodity-fetishizing art world, he hypocritically submits to the institution and makes $120,000 off a piece of fruit. By trying to insult everyone, Cattelan has become the epitome of the people he attempted to make fun of. A roast that is directed at someone else but also applies to oneself is more of a joke on the insulter than the insulted. If “The Comedian” is the banana that the whole world slipped on, no one fell harder than Maurizio Cattelan.