"Comedian" :: Prophecy of the Banana
Perhaps the most talked about event of 2019 in the Art World, so frenetic that it bled into global news for its sheer noise, was Maurizio Catellan’s contemporary art sculpture, “Comedian”. A banana duct taped to a wall at the Art Basel Miami art fair, two editions of which sold for $120,000 USD each, the third reportedly sold for $150,000. The news was further excited when artist David Datuna came and ate the sculpture as his own work of performance art titled, “Hungry Artist”. On the surface, the whole thing is beyond absurd -- comedic even! How could a person justify spending so much money on a piece of fruit duct taped to a wall that had already begun to decay whilst still on display, especially when world hunger and food insecurity rates are soaring (see the protest of janitorial workers it spawned here)!? And then, is the value of the work so easily destroyed by a few chomps? While Emmanuel Perrotin, owner of Galerie Perrotin who represents Cattelan, assures the public that the value was not diminished due to the Certificate of Authenticity, the whole bonanza is still utterly mystifying.
But there is something very profound about the art itself that everyone missed in the media frenzy surrounding the banana buzz of the fair. The New York Times missed it, CNN missed it, ARTnews, Artnet, NPR, The New York Post and Jerry Saltz all missed it. Mr. Perrotin missed it, the artist Maurizio Cattelan missed it, the collectors that purchased it missed it -- though they felt instinctively drawn by its inherent importance, as did the performance artist that ate it, though he ultimately missed the full extent of its meaning while at the same time enacting the profound truth that I am about to share:
The banana is the symbol for -- the icon of -- the 20th Century. Cattelan knew it was important, but I don’t think he grasped just how important, how multifaceted and brilliant its meaning. Mr. Perrotin’s statement that it is "a symbol of global trade, a double entendre, as well as a classic device for humor," only scratches the surface. Since the artist has been quiet since the incident and rather let the art speak for itself, let’s dive into the quantum meaning of the banana, and just how to recognize its cultural significance:
In the beginning of the 20th Century, when Colonialism was at its height, the black African was referred to as “Monkey” by the white man. This is also the time where the modern image of man’s reality is being shaped and reinforced with new forms of media portraying whites as angelic and blacks as devilish, subhuman, and/or monkeyish. And what does the monkey eat? Bananas. Where do you find bananas? In the tropical cash crops of Colonialism, where slave labor thrived, and “Banana Republics” were born.. So bananas became a symbol not only of Western Empirical Might, Luxury and Leisure (and global trade as Perrotin noted), but also of black people being degraded by white colonial masters as monkeys who eat bananas, here with the actual double entendre towards their projected “primal sexuality”.
Enter Josephine Baker in 1926 at the Folies Bergère theater in Paris, breaking the taboo of this global chasm by putting bananas around her waist and dancing the “Coco Banana.” Also at its height, French fascination with American jazz and black exoticism, in conjunction with the end of WWI and the impending uncertainty leading to WWII, bred the perfect environment for an artist like Baker to flourish. When she sauntered mischievously down that big coconut trunk on stage upon the scene of the white Imperialist taking a nap amongst his African slaves, all the white men who were calling black people bananas, went bananas over her. When she shook and shimmied in little more than her banana skirt, she was figuratively communicating the complexities of the Caucasian fantasy towards the African race and their perceived primitiveness. Baker’s movements were quirky and not overtly sexualized, lending the white subconscious the freedom to explode safely within its own comfort zone. That particular dance of hers became so iconic as it revealed the truth of reality in all its poignant irony: While the whites were looking down on the blacks, they were intensely attracted to the inherent strength, beauty and freedom of the race, but for their own deep sense of insecurity -- or perhaps deep anguish from separation from the source -- felt the need to dominate completely, and brutally. Josephine Baker’s bananas were a vehicle for her to make a masterful statement about the abysmal degradation of an unjust world. By using the preeminent commodity of the system the world was under, she transmitted directly to the white psyche the broader truth of their reality -- making herself a powerful purveyor of popular culture, not to mention a millionaire, in face of it all. Baker is fascinating because she was able to transcend through Art the confliction of the white man in his feelings of superiority to the black man, in spite the many flagrant inferiorities, making me think that Jerry Saltz should have used one of Mapplethorpe’s black dicks in his reimagination of the NY Post cover, “Bananas! Art World Gone Mad” (more on that later). For how many innocent black men have died from the fiery envy of angry white mobs? How many black women raped, tortured and set alight because of this white internal affliction? How many powerful white men have hidden or disowned biracial children, enslaved their own blood for this rotten system -- and its ultimate root cause of phallic envy? All the while, in this conical strife, the Art of the Banana is being born.
Fast forward a few decades to 1956 (after another World War had ended), Harry Belafonte releases the musical album, Calypso, featuring the Banana Boat Song. Once again, the Art of the Banana took by storm the white world’s cryptic fascination, though this time in a much more G-rated way. Belafonte made the work of slavery easy on the ears and seem not so bad with the swimming beat and vibrantly warm, rolling men’s vocal harmony. But the truth of the song told by simple repetitive lyrics is a savage reality most white people simply cannot relate to:
Day-o, day-o Daylight come and me wan' go home Day, me say day, me say day, me say day Me say day, me say day-o Daylight come and me wan' go home
Work all night on a drink of rum Daylight come and me wan' go home Stack banana 'til de mornin' come Daylight come and me wan' go home
Come, mister tally man, tally me banana Daylight come and me wan' go home Come, mister tally man, tally me banana Daylight come and me wan' go home
Lift six foot, seven foot, eight foot bunch Daylight come and me wan' go home Six foot, seven foot, eight foot bunch Daylight come and me wan' go home
Day, me say day-o...
Daylight come and me wan' go home Hide the deadly black tarantula Daylight come and me wan' go home
Belafonte was moved by the idea that social change could be achieved through song (Art), using the banana as a means to communicate the truth of the barbarous conditions this beloved fruit requires for consumption. While it could be argued that softening the reality of slave labor through pleasant tunes does disservice to the cruel experience that is being sung about, it is an infinitely more palatable way for the truth to be expressed to sensitive ears -- and the truth of it is, the audience of primary consumption at that time was white. So to survive and succeed as a black person in a Colonial world, one had to walk the fine line of truth within taste, most often found in the arts, and Belafonte mastered that walk. He used the artistic capital gained from the Banana Boat Song to support the Civil Rights Movement and hopefully enlighten white audiences around the world.
The Art of the Banana continues, never abated, when Andy Warhol shows up another decade on and says, “It’s still the banana!” In 1966, Warhol managed and produced the Velvet Underground’s first album, ‘Velvet Underground and Nico’.
While the album has gone on to inspire countless counter culture musicians, at the time of its release was so experimental that it was not the music but Warhol’s illustrated, peelable banana sticker on the cover that gave commercial value enough for the distribution company, Verve, to sign on -- not dissimilar to the collectors of “Comedian” that are familiar with the commercial value of Maurizio Cattelan, snatching up the duct taped banana like hungry monkeys. And much like the Banana fiasco at Art Basel Miami, most missed the significant meaning of Warhol’s banana and took it mostly as the phallic infatuation associated with his generation. Yet, as is Andy’s position as a Prophet-Saint of Pop to point to the thing, call it what it is, and make its meaning “Pop!”, what did the banana represent for him? Why a banana and not an orange, or pineapple? Just it’s phallic shape? Hardly. Colonialism, still, whether he recognized it or not. But Warhol comes at it from the opposite approach of Josephine Baker and Harry Belafonte, being a benefactor vs. the subject. So all of a sudden the banana is famous again, but this time from a new angle. Because where did Andy’s banana appear? On an album cover of an American rock band. Warhol and the Velvet Underground were broadcasting the enduring icon of their era -- the white dick of empirical privilege. Most likely intended to be a witty way to catch publicity, but Warhol’s banana represented the leisure of white, western men to spend their days recording music, dissatisfied with the entitlement the crop has wrought them. Though he did not have the same socio-political drive to use the banana as an art piece as did Josephine Baker and Harry Belafonte, he too was using it as a device to state his angle of experience within a Colonialist society.
Another decade or so on, Robert Mapplethorpe took Andy Warhol one step further in the Art of the Banana and removed the intimation of the dick, photographing the black penis in all its glory. Mapplethorpe’s portraits of black male genitalia brought from the white subconscious a full frontal affront with the active consciousness, no longer subverting the fascination with black sexuality. He too was reflecting through his own lens the quantum meaning of the banana using more literal language in his composition of black and white models.
In 1986 Mapplethorpe shot an editorial for Interview Magazine titled “Studies in Black and White” that featured a black male pornstar and two white models, where the black man was the prop and primary desired commodity alongside the fashion that was being marketed -- again in a way palatable to a white audience, the man’s head is often times obscured and his hard, muscular body is objectified in the way that portrays him as nothing more than tight buttocks and bulging biceps. This play on the object of desire was a powerful statement in the way the Art of the Banana was continuing to break down and reveal the Colonial psyche. By the 1980’s, almost all countries that had been under colonial rule had declared independence thus thrusting the world into the beginnings of a new era -- stripped of the illusions that hid this phallic fascination. So in the closing of the 20th Century, the image of the banana had been peeled to its natural conclusion, but it’s story does not end there.
Now open to the transitioning decades of the 21st Century with Millenial mindset in mind, Art is saying “What up, G? What up with the banana now?” And along comes Cattelan the Italian with his duct tape -- the new fix all -- to say, “I’m going to show you again, its still the fucking banana -- but its going rotten and in need of a quick fix.” i.e. Colonialism is crumbling, trying to patch itself up and transition the ‘brick and mortar’ mentale into the new metaphysical terrain of the Data Age.
Closing it all with a signing in the spirit of Andy Warhol, David Datuna came and ate the banana, becoming the monkey. Interacting with the idea to transmute it to the next level, Datuna assumed the role as monkey in an inverted association as it was for blacks. Datuna is Georgian born, American based artist that appears as a white man, so his monkey is perceived differently. It is cute and tinkers with different things in order to discover, finding unintended solutions and unique perspectives. The monkey has curiosity, so the spirit of Art says through the performance artist, “I am Curiosity -- now, be curious! I am the banana that circles through everything, eating itself to discover the new banana (the new symbol).” Like the Ouroboros eating its own tail to sustain its life in order to be born again, Datuna’s act revealed the answer to the major problem Cattelan posed on the wall at Art Basel Miami -- the problem ailing humanity at large -- Colonialism and the fruit it bears: Global warming e.g. the destruction of earth via industrialized capitalism, and White Supremacy e.g. the destruction of humanity through ‘pure blood, chosen race,’ and fascist ideology. The answer is that it must be consumed whole, good parts and bad, digested with nutrients absorbed and waste disposed of so a new system may be born. A system born for all humanity, not just a slice of the species. Like Nietzcshe said, “God is dead. We have killed him. Long live God.” So we say, “Colonialism is dead, we have eaten it. Long live the people.”
“Comedian” is important culturally, and the banana as an artistic device is so pertinent at this moment because humanity is in the midst of crossing a Rubicon. We are experiencing the utter failure of the Colonialist system, putting bandaids and duct tape where serious reconstruction is needed. Cattelan played his role as Artist correctly in using the banana and duct tape as an iconic testament to our figurative reflection on the current state of humanity. The disruptive reaction it caused at Art Basel Miami was instinctive because the work struck the subconscious of fair goers whether they realized its depth or not. The zeitgeist appears out of the essence of the times as voiced or channeled through an artist truly open and receptive to the moment -- not by an over thought gimmick or self aggrandizing intention. The meaning of artwork today often seems to outstrip the idea of the artists, either in its truth about the hollowness of the digital age or the deeper unintended truth that is the very registration of the times in a lucid moment of creation.
Five of the six artists mentioned, as pictured left to right, Baker, Belafonte, Warhol, Mapplethorpe and Cattelan, were all channeling the predominating image of the 20th Century through their own lens. Like looking through a kaleidoscope, you see infinite configurations of the same image, so the banana is a kaleidoscope of meanings -- a Multiple Perspective Fragmentation -- of Colonialism and its lasting impact -- industrialization, racism, sexism, elitism, privilege and if left unchecked, the ultimate destruction of earth and humanity. Datuna comes in as the sixth representing the 21st Century, moving the banana to its natural conclusion; consumption and rebirth.
Everyone was so hung up on the price tag for what they saw as just a piece of fruit and some duct tape, they were inevitably blinded to the inherent meaning of the work itself, and the self-fulfilling prophecy of the eating of the work by another artist. It is the ultimate reflection of the nature of life eating life itself, causing death to sustain life. It is at once a farewell to the old ways, and a call to take action for the future system we desire. The river is impartial, it is to humanity to decide our fate once its crossed and return is no longer an option. Do we want to live (can we live?) in a world under the rule of Colonialism? Or do we wish to bear a new fruit for the 21st Century where the quantum multidimensionality is represented in the law of the land? It is for us to choose and act, and for all Artists to take their duty seriously as agents of the unseen. Since the birth of Modernism, the burden of Art's message has shifted to the meaning and less on an easily recognizeable "skill" as we have historically seen the two to be inextricably linked. In that sense, maybe at the next Art Basel fair, the cycle will be completed by a Pomegranate on a Pedestal, fertilized by the completed act of Datuna eating Cattelan’s “Comedian” -- what would be a truly comedic end to the tale.