The Art World Is Too Elitist

Opinion By Nick Beattie

Last December, the art fair Art Basel Miami showcased a banana duct-taped to a wall. The exhibition sent waves through the art world as the piece sold for a whopping $120,000. That’s right. You read that correctly. A banana, duct-taped to a wall, nothing else, sold for more money than the average American salary. 

What’s more absurd is that David Datuna, a local performer, then approached the piece, took the banana, and ate it. The humorous banana artwork, named “Comedian,” hilariously, did not go up in value. Still, it did cause enough commotion for those attending. So much fervor, that when Datuna later replaced the banana, it was considered significant enough to warrant police protection. 

“Art Is What You Can Get Away With”

Though by eating the banana, Datuna did not destroy the piece of art. The banana is simply the idea of the work. The idea that, when one places it into a gallery context, a mere banana can be deemed “art” by causing enough commotion. As a result, collectors quite literally eat it up and throw gobs of money at it. 

Critics likely believed the banana as a meta-commentary on the nature of valuating art. Alternatively, it speaks to the authority collectors and critics have within the art world. An authority to transform artwork into a fortune, or an artist into a celebrity (e.g., Clement Greenberg to Jackson Pollock). But that would be giving “Comedian” too much credit. Questioning the value of art is not quite an original idea. In 1913, Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal, titled “Fountain,” into one of the most influential works in the art historical canon. The porcelain ready-made was later acclaimed by critics, singlehandedly pushing the world into the contemporary era.

I am not saying that Cattlean’s banana art will cause a diametric shift in how an artist creates art or how one should critique it. Of course, anything can be art; art is intentionally subjective, with there being no clear boundaries that contain it. But for someone looking in from the outside, this consumerist idea of art is difficult to understand. The fact that a work can be difficult to understand, or just look odd, yet sell for millions, is incomprehensible. Admittedly, in comparison to abstract installations, it is easier to critique the skill of a classical sculpture or Renaissance painting. The context behind contemporary art is not entirely obvious, but the reality of a banana costing $120,000 is also ridiculous. 

You Can’t Sit At Our Table…Or See The Art

Great art still very much exists, often outside the umbrella of major museums. It resides in the small galleries hidden from crowds; or the street vendors untouched by waves of cash flowing through the mainstream. 

But that’s the problem with the art world of today. It’s a community of insiders and collectors, moving money back and forth to share pieces that will rarely be seen by others. Like an internet subculture sharing memes in a group-chat, everything passing around progressively becomes self-referential, abstract, and exclusive. As a result, when it gets to the average viewer, it’s impossible to interpret. To the insider elites, it might be imbued with a meaning that strikes their very souls. But to the general viewer, it could be indecipherable. 

Now add money into the equation. People buy art today for abhorrent amounts of money, with auctioneers and collectors distorting the subjective value and transforming it into a profit. That is what is wrong with the art world today. Art should not be exclusively for a small group of wealthy insiders. That does not represent the audience for which much of art was intended to communicate. Nor does it represent much of the artists who created such works; people who do not get nearly enough credit or cut of the funds. People to swoop an artist’s livelihoods up and take them to a high-rise in New York where no one else will see them would probably be missing the point of what they are trying to say. For art is meant to be seen, critiqued, and discussed, not hoarded.

Suffice to say, I would best sum up this entire debacle with the words of contemporary artist Gerhard Richter: “It’s a nice work of art, but it’s not a house.”