Art can range from the sacred to the sacrilegious — and has often done — but it is a matter of time before what was considered provocative is deemed acceptable. It can trigger protests, and the last decades have seen Indian artists being subjected to ridiculous acts of censorship. That absurdity can test limits, but what happens when the art becomes absurd instead? Not banal, not mediocre, but plain insulting to the viewing public.
By now everyone knows about the banana on the wall that Paris-based Sarah Andelman paid $120,000 (Rs 85 lakh) for, with a second edition snapped up by Billy and Beatrice Cox of Miami. Maurizio Cattelan is a satirical artist known for his hyperrealistic sculptures who went for “real” instead with a duct-taped banana that many are referring to as a new low for art. He created three “editions” of the work, challenging most critics who failed to fathom how a banana taped to a wall could be deemed to be “original” or have any editions at all. Then, a performance artist wandered into the booth where the work was displayed, picked the banana off the wall, and ate it up.
Goodbye artwork? Apparently not, said Cattelan, who had tagged the third edition by then at a steeper $150,000 (Rs 1 crore). Bananas left out on their own decompose, so this was a renewable work. Buy a new banana, tape it back on a wall — and voila! New (very expensive) artwork. The Coxes plan to donate the “work” to a museum.
The farcicality should be obvious to everyone, but artists and art writers can be persuasive about the “meaning” of such work, laying it at the altar of high art. The Coxes call it “the unicorn of the art world”, as defining as Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans of the 1960s. A case can indeed be made about how the decomposing banana reflects the temporality of life, about nature’s cycle, about death amidst life yada-yada-yada, but there is only so much blah one can impose on any audience.
What it does is codify newer benchmarks that people will pay for something that will headline news around the world — as, certainly, the banana did. While the artist might be duplicitous, what about the complicity of the collector? Art patronage is considered serious business, but here — in paying good money for something ridiculous — the collectors were creating a yardstick for triteness while ensuring a footnote in art history. Mention of the banana will now be forever enshrined, just as, previously, letting a dog starve to death in the name of performance art, fossilising poo, laying down naked amidst a feast of fruits, grafting one’s own bleeding skin as part of mixed media on canvas, smearing semen along with paint, have been attempted in the name of art.
Most of these distractions occur in the West. Markets in the East have been less adulatory about embracing the incongruous. India has great art — just take a peep in the numerous museums and galleries — and while there is bad, hackneyed, clichéd, boring, idiomatic, shocking or pusillanimous art to be found, the absurd doesn’t have a place yet. Indian collectors, no matter how well or ill-informed they remain, would not countenance a banana — or mango, guava, orange or other fruit — stuck to the wall as a work of art. But it should serve as a warning to India’s contemporary artists to stay away from any form of gimmickry that could harm their already subdued market. Such absurdities mark the decadence of art in developed countries; India, instead, should raise the bar by experimenting but not denigrating the purpose — and soul — of art.
Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic. These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which he is associated