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Opinion: This Art Is Bananas

Dec 7, 2019
Originally published on December 9, 2019 2:10 pm

What makes a banana taped to a wall worth $120,000 to someone?

If it has been put there by the right artist.

This banana was duct-taped to a wall by Maurizio Cattelan, the Italian artist, and it's on display this week at Art Basel in Miami Beach.

The banana is real, by the way, not a sculpture. It will soon go brown, slimy, and may already be ... fragrant.

The Perrotin art gallery of Paris has already sold this piece of produce, and it turns out that $120,000 is practically a bargain. Another banana the artist taped to a wall is going for $150,000.

The artwork is titled Comedian. Emmanuel Perrotin, the art gallery's owner, told CNN that bananas are "a symbol of global trade, a double entendre, as well as a classic device for humor." Though slipping on a $120,000 banana peel doesn't sound all that amusing.

Maurizio Cattelan is a kind of art satirist. He makes artworks, not arguments. As he mused in a rare phone interview with The Washington Post a couple of years ago, "What's the point of our life? Everything seems absurd until we die and then it makes sense."

One of his sculptures, The Ninth Hour, shows Pope John Paul II holding onto his pastoral staff, being struck by a meteor. His best-known work is a probably an 18-karat gold working toilet, valued at more than a million dollars, called America — which, yes — is supposed to be a contemporary political comment. It was stolen this fall from Blenheim Palace in England.

This work may remind banana-art appreciators of Andy Warhol, who composed a gently browning banana for the cover of the 1967 album The Velvet Underground & Nico. Fans could pull back a banana-skin sticker to reveal a fleshy fruit below, which was famously suggestive for the times.

I doubt Paul Cezanne earned anything near the 19th-century equivalent of $120,000 for his masterful 1895 painting, The Basket of Apples, in which he turned spilled fruit into a picture of life's bounty.

But I don't want to sound like some finicky curmudgeon who thinks there hasn't been a truly great artist since Norman Rockwell. A banana duct-taped to a wall may not be everyone's idea of art, craft or inspiration.

But there is something absurd — and maybe delightfully so — about a banana on a wall, now turning brown, making people stop, stare, smell and wonder about the fragile passage of time.

What makes anything worthwhile is the use, joy or simple giggles that it gives us.

: 12/07/19

In the audio of this story, as well as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly say a version of this artwork had been sold for 0,000. That is the asking price for a third possible sale; the first two editions of Comedian reportedly sold for 0,000 each.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

What makes a banana taped to a wall worth $120,000 to someone? If it's been put there by the right artist. This banana was duct-taped to a wall by Maurizio Cattelan, the Italian artist, and it's on display this week at Art Basel in Miami Beach. The banana is real, by the way, not a sculpture. It will soon go brown, slimy and may already be fragrant. The Perrotin art gallery of Paris has already sold this piece of produce. And it turns out that $120,000 is practically a bargain. Another banana the artist taped to a wall has already sold for $150,000.

The artwork is titled "Comedian." Emmanuel Perrotin, the art gallery's owner, told CNN that bananas are a symbol of global trade, a double entendre, as well as a classic device for humor. Though slipping on a $120,000 banana peel doesn't sound all that amusing. Maurizio Cattelan is a kind of art satirist. He makes artworks, not arguments. As he mused in a rare phone interview with The Washington Post a couple of years ago, what's the point of our life? Everything seems absurd until we die, and then it makes sense. One of his sculptures, "The Ninth Hour," shows Pope John Paul II holding onto his pastoral staff, being struck by a meteor. His best known work is probably an 18-karat gold working toilet, valued at more than a million dollars, called "America," which, yes, is supposed to be a contemporary political comment. It was stolen this fall from Blenheim Palace.

This work may remind banana-art appreciators of Andy Warhol, who composed a gently browning banana for the cover of the 1967 album "The Velvet Underground & Nico." Fans could pull back a banana-skin sticker to reveal a fleshy fruit below, which was famously suggestive for the times. I doubt Paul Cezanne earned anything near the 19th-century equivalent of $120,000 for his masterful 1895 painting "The Basket of Apples," where he turned spilled fruit into a picture of life's bounty.

But I don't want to sound like some finicky curmudgeon who thinks there hasn't been a truly great artist since Rockwell. A banana duct-taped to a wall may not be everyone's idea of art, craft or inspiration. But there is something absurd and maybe delightfully so about a banana on a wall, now turning brown, making people stop, stare, smell and wonder about the fragile passage of time. What makes anything worthwhile is the use, joy or simple giggles that it gives us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YES, WE HAVE NO BANANAS")

LOUIS PRIMA: (Singing) Oh, yes. We have no bananas. We have no bananas today. We've got string beans and onions and big, juicy lemons and all kinds of fruit. And say, we've got an old fashioned tomato, a long Island potato. Oh, yes. We have no bananas. We have no bananas today. There's a fruit man on our street whose name is Mr. Pete. And he keeps... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.