The Controversy Surrounding This Edible Piece Of Art

Certain types of contemporary art tend to get a lot of flak. Often the meaning of a work gets lost in its composition or just isn't very obvious. Take Andy Warhol's 1962 "Campbell's Soup Cans," a bunch of soup can labels lined up in rows like grocery store shelves. The Museum of Modern Art explains that the work pokes fun at the repetitive drone of advertisements and was intended to illustrate how art is "for the mass of the American people." Jackson Pollock's 1952 "Convergence" looks like a sloppy mess of streaky colors. Jackson, however, explains that the work was an intentionally rebellious statement of free speech during McCarthyism, the U.S.'s 1950s Cold War witch hunts. 

But what are we to make of a banana duct-taped to a wall? Just that. If not in an art gallery it could be mistaken for the drunken act of a frat bro. We admire artists like Warhol and Pollock because there's actually some deep, meaningful intention behind their work. But a banana taped to a wall? The title of the piece — "Comedian" — might explain the whole thing. Unveiled in 2019 in the Miami, Florida gallery Art Basel, the work has generated an absurd amount of controversy and "total chaos," as Artnet puts it. Rampant bidding wars, crowd control measures, a deluge of online and real-life imitators, political outrage, multiple defacements of the work, and a copyright suit: "Comedian" has seen it all in a few short years.

Going bananas

Depending on one's definition of art, "Comedian" could be one of the most successful pieces of art in recent memory. After all, even articles such as this one continue to talk about it and the completely bananas response it's generated. Artist Maurizio Cattelan seems acutely aware of the ridiculousness of the piece but won't comment on its meaning. As Artnet cites, however, Cattelan did describe the revelation it took to make it: "Comedian" started as a bronze-and-resin version that he couldn't finish, and then one day he realized, "The banana is supposed to be a banana." Cattelan, by the way, counts an 18-karat solid gold toilet as another work of his. As Artnet explains, it's entitled — hilariously and perfectly so — "America," and people can sit on it and take selfies.

But for certain members of the public, "Comedian" is no laughing matter. Those in the service industry in Miami have said, "A banana is worth more than us, apparently," citing the $120,000 price tag of "Comedian." As Miami New Times shows, they've taken to the streets in protest — the "plátanito protest" — to call out the cruel absurdity of earning $8.46 an hour as a janitor for the wealthy who can afford to pay $120,000 for a decaying piece of fruit. "Our work is something people don't value," janitor Felipa Cardenas said. "They look at us like we're nothing. But it's a job with dignity, and it's tough work. We deserve better payment."

A hungry artist

Further controversy surrounding "Comedian" stems from its cost. Back in 2019 artist David Datuna walked right into the "Comedian" gallery, pulled it off the wall, and ate it. Datuna, a successful artist himself, said he took issue not with the piece itself, but rather selling it for such a high price, as The Guardian recounts. "I have traveled in 67 countries around the world in the last three years, and I see how people live," he stated. "Millions are dying without food. Then he puts three bananas on the wall for half a million dollars?" Datuna said that it was fine to make the banana available to view for free, and that's that. And yet, Artnet cites Maurizio Cattelan's home, Paris-based studio Perrotin as saying, "If you don't sell the work, it's not a work of art."

By the time Datuna ate the "Comedian" banana, the piece had already sold three times: twice for $120,000 and once at auction for $150,000. As Moscow-based artist Evgeny Ches — who painted a street art version of a taped banana years prior — said on Instagram, "Maurizio Cattelan is taping bananas to a wall at Art Basel Miami Beach and selling them for $120,000 each." Artnet says that Art Basel had to swap out the banana in "Comedian" every couple of days to keep it "ripe." Each banana also needs a certificate of authenticity, otherwise it's just "an otherwise inexpensive and perishable piece of produce and a couple of inches of duct tape."

Starved for attention

Recently another gallery-goer pulled Maurizio Cattelan's latest banana from the wall and ate it. Korean student Noh Hyun-soo simply walked up to "Comedian," pulled it off, peeled it, and chowed down while people in the crowd spoke up and gasped but did nothing. Noh then took the peel and re-taped it back on the wall. According to The Korea Herald, Noh — an art major at Seoul National University — said that he'd "skipped breakfast and was hungry." He added to this statement later, saying that "damaging a work of modern art could also be [interpreted as a kind of] artwork," especially since he'd re-taped the peel back in the banana's place. In response to all this Cattelan simply replied (per The Guardian), "No problem."

All such foolishness and non-troversies highlight what is arguably the main success of "Comedian:" questions of the nature and purpose of art, especially if the public gets in on the mix. Shortly after "Comedian" was unveiled, female-led art collective Guerilla Girls Broadband put their own version up for sale at $120,001, $1 more than Catellan's. The makers of Moon Pies, meanwhile, taped one of their snacks to the wall and posted a picture on Twitter that said, "I'm an artist now lol." And most prominently, Popeye's Chicken paired with Miami's San Paul Gallery Urban Art to tape one of their chicken sandwiches to the wall, seen on Instagram and titled "The Sandwich," selling for $120,003.99. 

The joke's on you

Artnet goes into further depth about the "unhinged reaction" to Maurizio Cattelan's "Comedian," describing bananas and other objects taped to everything from New York City subway walls to Miami palm trees. Additionally — and in a ridiculous display of meta-commentary about artistic appropriation — artist Adrien Wilson took an Instagram post of two girls taking a picture of "Comedian," printed it out, and hung it in a gallery as a piece of art itself. At the same time, Artnet reports that Australian artist Matthew Griffin tugged a pickle slice out of a McDonald's cheeseburger and chucked it onto the ceiling of a gallery in New Zealand in 2022. It was valued at $6,200 and named "Pickle."

As if such bizarre and surreal happenings weren't enough, The Guardian reports that California-based artist Joe Morford is suing "Comedian" artist Maurizio Cattelan for apparently ripping him off. "I did this in 2000," Morford wrote in a Facebook post. "But some dude steals my junk and pimps it for 120K+ in 2019. Plagiarism ... ?" Morford's version featured a banana taped to the wall at an angle next to an orange dubbed "Banana & Orange." Judge Robert Scola's reason for allowing the case to proceed doubtlessly mirrors many sentiments from the public: "Can a banana taped to a wall be art? Must art be beautiful? Creative? Emotive? ... In any event, a banana taped to a wall recalls [philosopher] Marshall McLuhan's definition of art: 'anything you can get away with.'"