In the really old days, before the advent of the talkies in 1927, the lowest form of variety show in the U.S. was burlesque, home of striptease and the raunchiest jokes. Here's where the phrase, "top banana," originated, meaning the lead comedian in the show.
I suspect this info is already known to Maurizio Cattelan, the Italian conceptualist, heretofore famous as the creator of "America:" a fully-functional, solid gold toilet that had art-lovers who visited the Guggenheim Museum in New York a year or so ago lined up to use it.
Why do I suspect that this artiste is already familiar with the phrase, "top banana"? I say this because his contribution to civilization this year was a real, live banana fastened by silvery-grey duct tape to a partition in the Paris-based Perrotin gallery booth at Miami Basel. Its title was "Comedian," and its price tag ranged from $120,000 to $150,000.
Moreover, it was a wild success, with so many fair-goers wanting to see it and pose for "selfies" with it that the fair had to install special guards and stanchions to control the lines. Even fair-goers who didn't see it – and other exhibitors – were talking and laughing about it; many were messaging news of it via Instagram.
The good people at Perrotin were apparently overwhelmed by all the attention this artwork was getting, as they removed it from view for the last day of the show -- saying that it was endangering "public health and safety." Among "Comedian's" other fans was a performance artist named David Datuna, who took the banana down and ate it.
However – as the New York Times reported, in a December 9 story by Robin Pogrebin -- the gallery said that "Mr. Datuna's stunt did not actually destroy the art work or whatever monetary value it might have had at that moment. The three buyers who collectively spent about $390,000 on the taped fruit had bought the concept of the piece, which comes with a certificate of authenticity from the artist, along with installation instructions. It is up to the owners to secure their own materials from hardware and grocery stores, and to replace the banana, if they wish, whenever it rots. After Mr. Datuna consumed the banana, the gallery taped another one to the wall.
"Two "artist proofs" (extra prints signed as part of a limited edition)," the Times continued, "Were sold to unidentified museums."
Nor was the Times alone in its coverage of "Comedian." Among other publications reporting on it in the U.S. were Time, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue and the Deseret (Utah) News.
In the UK, the story was picked up by The Guardian, The Independent, the BBC and The Daily Mail. On U.S. TV, the story seems to have run on CNN, NPR, NBC and Fox News. Among other publications that my speedy check found covering this story were the Irish Times and the Djakarta Post.
The tabloid New York Post put "Comedian" on its front page. This seems to have been what stimulated the Times to its unusually comprehensive coverage of it. Pogrebin' s story was one of two that ran in the December 9 print edition of The New York Times, and one of three in all.
Pogrebin is one of the paper's "art news" reporters, but the other December 9 story was written by one of the paper's newer art critics, Jason Farago (rhymes with Chicago). He offered "A Reluctant Defense of the (Now Split) $120,000 Banana as Art."
These two stories – consigned, admittedly, to Page A22, but not to the paper's still-less-read Monday arts section -- had been preceded by a Page One appearance in the lede of a story by Guy Trebay for the Styles section for Sunday, December 8 (complete with a big picture of "Comedian,", though most of the story concerned other evidence of new "sophistication" in Miami – fledgling museums, parties coinciding with Miami Basel, and so on).
In yet more of a departure, the online edition of the Times put the Farago story on its home page, where it was titled "A (Grudging) Defense of the $120,000 Banana." And, as a constant reader of the online Times, I can tell you that stories about the visual arts practically NEVER make the home page.
If you want to know what's going in the galleries and museums, here in the art capital of the world, you need to buy the paper's print edition, which usually carries a lengthy section on the subject on Fridays, one full-page art story in its Sunday "Arts & Leisure" section, and occasional other stories on art during the rest of the week.
By contrast, finding whatever you want to know about art in the online edition is an exercise in futility. Sure, the stories are all there, but almost invariably buried deep within its database, and unless you know exactly what you're looking for, it can be very, very hard to find.
Farago's story isn't hard to find, once you know it's there. All you do is type "Farago Cattelan banana" in the paper's search box, and up the story pops. With it you can find 758 comments that the story elicited from the online edition's nearly 5 million paid subscribers (plus all the people who tune in for free occasionally).
These comments came from all over the U.S., as well as Canada, Australia, Italy, Israel, Belgium and Greece – and elsewhere, I'm sure. Because in essence, those 5 million readers – approximately five times as many as read its Sunday print edition – have turned the online edition into something closer to a sensation-seeking tabloid than the prim and proper broadsheet that my colleagues on Time magazine, back in the '50s and '60s, used to call "the good grey Times"
And, although advertising doesn't necessarily follow circulation on the web the way that it used to in hard copy, the Times still has to compete with every other online publication – now on a worldwide basis -- for whatever advertising it can garner.
To editors with this thought at the back of their minds, "Comedian" must have seemed like a surefire way to pull in more readers and let them have a good laugh and a chance to sound off along with feeding them more serious news.
WAS "COMEDIAN" ONLY FOR THE 1 PERCENT?
Though I still haven't gotten to the last of those 758 comments, those I did read were mostly lively. Among the first 78, though, I found only 16 that could be construed as pro-banana – meaning they praised "Comedian," or at least characterized it sympathetically.
On the other hand, not all the remaining comments were outright attacks on it. I was able to place only 39 of them in my definitely "con" category. The remaining 22 commentators might best be described as expressing a mild or amused puzzlement, often combined with humor or doggerel of their own.
Many readers who expressed an opinion (either pro or con) took "Comedian" as a form of humor or satire, but more specifically at the expense of whoever would pay $120,000 for such a humble object.
Some were outraged at this price tag, with a few commenting on how much food it would have bought for the hungry.
All or most of these people took "Comedian" as typical of the games that a certain class --- the richest 1 percent of the population --- likes to play, and as such a commentary and even an outright satire of them – but therefore not relevant to the general public.
I would argue that the magnitude of this object's appeal -- if only to be jested at – testifies to the widespread interest that almost all of us still have in "art."
There may be only a few thousand Americans rich enough to buy the sort of high-priced work with claims to "relevance" that one finds in the world of "contemporary" art galleries.
But much if not all of this high-priced art that these very rich people buy sooner or later will wind up in museums, where the public can and will come to see it.
This was graphically illustrated last year, in the movie "The Price of Everything." A documentary, it featured one major collector and his wife and their multi-million-dollar donation of contemporary art to the Art Institute of Chicago (for which they doubtless received a multi-million-dollar tax deduction for donating it to a non-profit institution).
And those mostly far-less-affluent Americans who go to art museums number in the tens of millions annually—24 percent of the U.S. population of 325 million recorded in 2017 (the most recent figure I saw online).
This amounts to 80 million visitors – or at least 80 million visits (as far as I know, these statistics merely record visits, not people – including individuals who could have made other museum visits in the same year, and hence gotten counted twice or even more often).
Although the number of younger Americans who go to museums has been declining in recent years, the number of older ones has been increasing, and so have the ways in which museums reach out to the larger community, from special events offsite to online offerings and programs in schools.
What I'm trying to say is that art in the first fifth of the 21st century is a mass entertainment, attracting audiences comparable to those who go to movies, sporting events and rock concerts.
The last time I looked into this was admittedly many years ago, but at that time I found that museum-going – as opposed to those other events that draw spectators – appealed more to the college-educated. Therefore, as the number of the college-educated was rising, so too did attendance at museums.
But above & beyond that, I think there is hardly an adult American who doesn't have some opinion about what "art" is or ought to be. Think of those millions who buy conventional work to hang in their homes and are still saying (or thinking), I may not know much about art, but I know what I like.
This is a very, very old response to "modern" art. When I was researching my memoir, I came across an article in Vanity Fair written in the early 1930s by Richard Sherman, a novelist who was a friend of my parents.
It cited this saying as one of two nearly universal clichés. (The other was, "New York is a great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there." Sound familiar?)
Among all these millions of people who (rightly or wrongly) take "art" as their personal purlieu, and in particular among the 758 commentators on Farago's defense of "Comedian," I would say there was a consensus that the sculpture was in the nature of a joke.
But how many of these people were actually amused by its humor? How many were offended by it? How many were aware of the original target of this kind of art? And who the heck were all these people?
A QUESTION FROM C. JAMA ADAMS
My own first comment on the story about "Comedian" in the Times had been very brief. I said that I understood there was also good art at Miami Basel, and that it was too bad Farago hadn't written about it.
This elicited a reply from C. Jama Adams, who politely asked me for my definition of "good art," and asked, "Who are the "gatekeepers who should pass such judgments?"
This writer speculated that what might make us "anxious" is that we might be missing something profound or not, "and there is no neat easy rule to apply. Perhaps the point here," the comment continued, "is to have us think beyond the obvious, and wonder what those ruminations tell us about ourselves and our culture."
It closed with a change in subject & style. "Please watch this space for my upcoming work," it said, "'Organic molasses, dripping unto Kim K.' I was inspired by the Got Milk ad of the 1990s."
My response, I regret to say, was more emotional than rational. First, I saw red at being asked to define "good art." I am sick of this question because to me, good art is obvious: it simply looks so much better than bad art.
It employs color in a lovely way (even if that color is only black-and-white) and it has a harmonious composition (even if very simple).
Most importantly, it moves me emotionally – the best of it – a late Cézanne landscape, for example -- really gives me a quivery, exalted feeling in the gut.
Obviously this is a subjective response, and all the other words I have or might have used to describe "good art" can be twisted around by any number of skillful people who disagree with my point of view to apply to the kinds of art I find ugly or otherwise unsympathetic.
So I fell back on a variant of the stock reply by the great and gone-but-not-forgotten critic, Clement Greenberg, saying that there's no way to "prove" taste, and maintaining that everybody had to be their own gatekeeper.
Then I skipped to the end of the comment, read the passage about "my upcoming work," and decided that "C. Jama Adams" must be a very young female artist who thought very highly of pop art and was proposing to create a work in that tradition based on milk ads instead of soup cans.
This led me to try and impress her with my accumulated age and experience, but since the Times limits its comments to about 600 characters, what I said may not have made too much sense.
Nor do I think inviting C. Jama Adams to read my column (as I did in my conclusion) would have been helpful, as my four most recent posts had been pretty much formal analyses of shows by abstract artists that would most likely have either bored or baffled any reader not already very familiar with abstract painting.
For a definition of "formal" in this context, see below. Because what I seem to have wound up doing is offering an extended interpretation of not only "Comedian" but also Farago's review of it (he too used the word "formal" in its specialized art-world sense).
In the process of this extended interpretation, I have found it desirable and even necessary to recap a good deal of 20th century art history. This may bore my regular readers but my fantasy is that this will enable me to reach out to some people who don't ordinarily read me, and to enable them make more sense of whatever they may have found mystifying in what the Times printed – C. Jama Adams not least among them.
Imagine my surprise when – in preparation for this entry – I googled "C. Jama Adams" and discovered that instead of belonging to a very young female, the name is that of a middle-aged male, and a pretty distinguished one at that: Carlton Jama Adams is a professor and chairperson of the Department of Africana Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with a BS, MA and PhD in psychology and a 3-page CV of further accomplishments to his credit.
I don't know whether "the upcoming work" inspired by those "Got Milk" ads was meant to be a joke, or whether Prof. Adams' daughter is a budding artist who borrowed his computer, but anyway I would like to try and explain more fully what I was trying to say as the fruit of my "ruminations."
MY OWN EXPERIENCE WITH A MASS AUDIENCE
First, let me say that because of my 13 years on Time magazine – where in my youth I researched or wrote about a wide range of subjects -- I have always been conscious of "the art world" as a subset of the larger society, and ruminated a lot on the relationship between the two.
My assignment to the Art page of Time was the last I had, and I found the subject so absorbing that I quit the magazine after 30 months on the Art page to concentrate entirely on art (eventually earning my own MA and PhD in art history).
While I was still on Time's Art page, though, I was always very eager to win the approval of the magazine's readers, and paid close attention to any responses I could get from any readers whom I encountered in the course of my daily rounds.
The magazine also published an interoffice memo every week, listing and quoting from the letters to the editor that it had received from readers in response to individual stories, and I read these memos eagerly, too.
Bit by bit, I came to the conclusion that, broadly speaking, my Art section had two kinds of readers. First, there were the readers who genuinely cared about the visual arts, read anything they could find about them, and went to museums and even galleries.
In this segment of our readership were also to be found my sources, the people who made or exhibited the work I wrote about. I desperately wanted to receive their approval, and occasionally I would receive a note of appreciation from one or more of them, but more likely not.
As time went on, I also became aware that this segment of Time's vast readership (in the late 60s, estimated at 20 million readers) was small, very much a minority segment of the total.
In my old age, I have become aware that advertisers like to place their ads next to stories that attract many sympathetic readers (one didn't, most notably, place a cigarette ad next to the Medicine section when it was carrying a story on the relationship between smoking & cancer).
Re-reading those back issues of Time, I am mortified to see that the only ads which ever ran next to my Art section were for Time-Life Books – house ads, in other words, meaning no outside money was coming in for those ads, just money being shifted from one division to another of Time Inc., our parent corporation.
The people who did write letters to the editor were almost always members of that vast majority of our readers who didn't care that much about art, were unlikely to have been to museums and galleries, and practically never read the one- or two-page Art sections that we normally published.
They would dutifully try to make head or tail of the major articles we occasionally ran—"cover stories" of seven to ten pages, or "inside covers" of four to six pages (in both cases including four to eight pages of color photography, otherwise a rarity in newsmagazines in the 60s).
If the subject was contemporary art, these people would reveal their ignorance with every word they wrote to us, in their letters -- ignorance and not infrequently resentment.
True, that was fifty years ago, and most people today I'd say are more tolerant of "modern art" than they were in the 60s.
I'd also say that readers of the Times have always been more sophisticated on average than were the bulk of Time's readers in its prime. Though the magazine was read on the coasts, in what today we'd call the blue states, it cared most about reaching readers in what its staffers called "the heartland," and what today we'd call the red states – famous (or notorious) for conservatism, then as now.
If I had to speculate on how this factored into the reception of "Comedian," I'd say that those most likely to be amused by it were all those art-world insiders whom I used to court back in my salad days at Time, not least those who will admire and buy work not too unlike it.
Since these people were not that upset by it, though, they mostly just laughed at it and didn't bother to write in to the Times about it.
Those most likely to be angered were the same sort of people who used to get upset by those major articles and cover stories about contemporary art in Time. Such people still don't go to art museums that much, or read about contemporary art in other publications.
If they hang any art at all in their homes, it's the more conventional sort, and they may feel very passionately that this is what art is supposed to be. In other words, whatever has been going on in the art world since about 1900 is nothing they are too happy about.
I'd place most of the people who responded with "puzzlement" also in the category of those who don't go to museums that much, or read that much about contemporary art either.
However, they differ from the more negative group that I just discussed in being aware that other people like this kind of art that they can't quite fathom, and they want to be tolerant or broad-minded about such art.
They may know some of the people who like it or even make it themselves, or they may simply like to be tolerant and broadminded in general – willing to admit that they don't know everything there is to know. (I am inclined to place C. Jama Adams in this category.)
"FORMAL" V. "SOCIAL"
Hardly anybody making a comment overtly questioned the fact that "Comedian" was meant to be art.
In the 116 years since Marcel Duchamp first placed a bicycle wheel upon a chair, and argued that this combination of objects was art because art can be anything that the artist says it is, most of us have at last come around to accepting his proposition.
Even I'd agree, though I'd qualify the claim by adding that this doesn't necessarily make anything that an artist says is art into good art.
I think that all three of these groups would further have agreed that "Comedian" was meant to be funny art, a joke in other words. But how many people in any of these groups were aware of the psychology underlying jokes in general?
How many could have pinpointed the original, and to me, still the most important subject, object or shall we (getting ahead of ourselves a bit) say target, of Cattelan's humor?
And what help would Jason Farago's review have been to any of them?
Lord knows he tried. His review seems to have been written in New York, as he apologizes for not having seen "Comedian" in person.
Nor would it surprise me a whole lot to learn that the article was written upon request from some editor who thought the joke was too good not to share with the world, but also that it needed a classy piece of writing to justify its publication in such an august publication.
Farago has imposing credentials, including a BA from Yale and an MA from the venerable Courtauld Institute in London. Although still -- I hazard a guess -- on the sunny side of fifty, he has contributed to slews of other publications from The Guardian to The New Yorker, prior to his ascension on the Times.
But I suspect that most if not all of his writing has been done within the confines of publications of far smaller -– but accordingly on average more knowledgeable --- circulations than those 5 million readers who have turned "the gray lady" into an online tabloid.
Even the print edition of the Friday New York Times, where most of his reviews now appear, can boast less than a half-million readers, and enough of those will know what he is talking about even if he is making only fragmentary allusions to contemporary art-world phenomena and/or art history.
I don't think he had that assurance online. I do think his analysis, while very likely acceptable to his usual readers, may have left maybe some, maybe many of those puzzled readers still in the dark.
So I shall take the liberty of spelling things out more than he did, in hopes of clarifying matters for them, though I warn readers that my opinions about what's really going on -- in "Comedian" and in art-world humor in general – might not agree with, or be acceptable to, our foremost art-world commentators.
So what did Farago's defense consist of? First he had to deal – in passing --- with the old question of, but is it art?
He handled this quite skillfully, by assuring his readers that they weren't being philistines if they found it all "a bit foolish. Foolishness, and the deflating situation that a culture which once encouraged sublime beauty now only permits dopey jokes, is Mr. Cattelan's stock in trade."
What this boils down to is, yes, it is art but it's meant to be funny. That's all art is today – it only permits "dopey jokes."
Then Farrago offered two more defenses, which he characterized as "one formal" and "one social." This gets a little more technical, since most Americans aren't aware of the art-historical meaning of "formal" or how it contrasts in art-historical discussions with "social."
Even I was made aware of how much my own art-historical education (gained in the 1970s and early 1980s) is now out of date – though I can easily see why and how the opposition of my grad-school days of "formal" versus "iconographic" seems to have mutated into "formal" versus "social."
In brief: the meaning of "formal" is still pretty much the same: it is a discussion used to describe the physical appearance of a work of art, how it actually looks and what it may be made of, to the extent that this handiwork affects its appearance.
"Formal analysis" of paintings may consider the shapes and colors of the work upon the canvas and how effectively they "work" in relation to each other – but not what the work upon the canvas depicts or the meaning of that subject matter.
This is why formal analysis is so appropriate for discussions of abstract paintings, and why critics who are said to favor abstract paintings are apt to be called "formalists."
Yet formal analysis can also be applied to representational art, and indeed most and maybe all of my grad school professors, though rarely dealing with abstraction, were adept at analyzing the physical appearance of paintings and sculpture.
When I was at grad school, formal analysis was contrasted with "iconography," which – broadly speaking -- meant the discussion of the subject matter of a painting or sculpture.
These "iconographic" discussions, in my day, could range far afield. They might start with the religious significance of facial & physical types, costumes and poses of the characters depicted. But they could go on to discussions of their personalities and their historical and/or literary contexts.
This could also go on to discussions of the artists who'd made the works, and how their personalities and/or experiences had influenced whatever they'd put on the canvas or carved into the marble.
Still, even in my day, emphasis was also already beginning to be placed on the broader socioeconomic factors determining the overall choice of subject matter and how it was depicted.
And this emphasis on the "social" seemed to have grown with the passage of the decades, to judge from what little I have gleaned of current practice, if only from attending occasional sessions at the annual conferences of the College Art Association and glancing through The Art Bulletin (also published by CAA).
Moreover, this emphasis on the "social" has positively mushroomed in the field of contemporary art -- in the galleries and at the museums as well as in classrooms.
Although it may have gained its initial foothold inside (and outside) of academia through the popularity of Karl Marx among so many young people in the later stages of Vietnam.
But I would say that the current dearth of genuine esthetic creativity is also a major contributing factor, along with a multitude of deeply troubling national and international extra-artistic developments in the 21st century, beginning with 9/11 and ending (to make a long story short) with DT.
Still, one way or another, "social" still equates to "iconographic" in the sense that both mean a discussion of the subject matter in the work of art, what it "means" as opposed to "merely" how it looks.
GROWTH OF A FUNNY SCHOOL
To get back to Farago's review: he gave as his "formal" defense the fact that "Comedian" wasn't just a banana, but a banana fastened to a wall with duct tape. This, he claimed, was "a significant difference," elevating it from "a one-note Dadaist imposture, in which a commodity is proclaimed a work of art" to something more august, a "sculpture."
Had it been merely a banana, it would have been "an entire century out of date now, as dated as a film director mimicking D.W. Griffith," Farrago maintained.
This is pretty technical unless you know your art history. I would agree with Farago that "Comedian" is dada, also known as anti-art. As such, it is part of the far-flung school which begins with Duchamp's "Bicycle Wheel" in 1913 and initially gained a modest amount of attention in the period right around World War I.
The "Bicycle Wheel" was part of a group that Duchamp called "Ready-Mades." So was "Fountain" (1917), which Duchamp made out of a urinal.
(Actually, though, "Bicycle Wheel" was what Duchamp would have called an "assisted Ready-Made," meaning that it was made out of more than just one ordinary household object by itself—it was made out of two, the wheel and the chair that the wheel sits upon.
(This kind of makes mincemeat out of Farrago's claim that "Comedian" is more up-to-date than D.W. Griffith in formal terms because the artist added a duct tape to the banana. But I digress.)
Both "Bicycle Wheel" and "Fountain" look funny – both funny ha-ha and funny peculiar. If you ask me, both were meant to serve as sarcastic humor -- joking commentaries on the extremes to which "modern art," as practiced by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, was going.
These two great painters between 1908 and 1912 had created a style called Analytic Cubism. To me, these are remarkably beautiful paintings, but they were so abstract that Duchamp seems to have felt they marked the end of art.
If you couldn't describe in words any of the objects in a painting, he felt, that painting was no longer "intellectual" enough to qualify as art. Instead, it had become merely "retinal," i.e. acting only on the surface of the eye, and not connected to the brain.
Therefore he created these "Ready-Mades" that – whatever else you might want to say about them -- could certainly be described in words.
And, as he went along, his rejection of Analytic Cubism broadened out into a rejection of all the qualities of earlier art that Picasso and Braque had managed to incorporate into their amazing paintings: beauty and emotional power especially.
Either as a result (or because he had always lacked the talents of Braque and Picasso), his own art – including paintings such as "The Large Glass" (1915-1923) and "Tu m' (1918) — are characterized by muddy colors and mechanically-oriented subject matter.
In the 1920s and 1930s, dada more or less became integrated into surrealism, an antic movement supposedly based on the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud, and centering in Paris.
To the world at large, surrealism's best-known practitioner was Salvador Dalí, with all those "limp watches" in "The Persistence of Memory" (1931), and sundry other japes.
The other, lesser-known surrealist leader was Joan Miró, who tried to let his Freudian unconscious direct his brush and achieved paintings that were relatively (though not entirely) abstract, the most celebrated being "The Birth of the World" (1925).
In the 1940s and 1950s, dada went underground, while a rival style called abstract expressionism dominated art-world news in the U.S. and even in Paris (where the local variants were known as "l'art informel' or "tachisme.")
"Ab-ex" was descended from Analytic Cubism by way of Miró's form of surrealism. Its leaders were Jackson Pollock & Mark Rothko, and it produced what for me are many moving & magnificent paintings.
These paintings share the values of the best earlier art that Picasso, Braque and Miró had also tried to carry on with: sincerity, emotional power and even beauty in 20th century terms.
Alas, ab-ex also drove many, many observers to distraction because it was even more totally abstract than any of its predecessors. All of these people simply couldn't relate to its apparent lack of subject matter (essentially the same problem that Duchamp had had with Analytic Cubism).
So, in the later 50s and even more in the 60s, we got another reaction – back into representation or at least figurative art (Duchamp's Ready-Mades are figurative but not representational, they are presentational instead, the object itself as opposed to a portrait of it, and the world has since seen many more examples of "presentational" but still figurative art).
This reaction into figuration was known originally as "neo-dada," and its leaders in the 50s were Robert Rauschenberg & Jasper Johns, but it was in the 60s that the campaign to dethrone ab-ex really caught fire, and the whole school was renamed "pop." Its best-known leaders were Andy Warhol, with his paintings of soup cans and popular icons like Marilyn Monroe, and Roy Lichtenstein, with his paintings based on comic strips.
Pop was so popular that it spawned quantities of descendants, all the way from a satiric form of non-objective art called "minimalism" in the later '60s to a cutesy form of representational painting called "neo-expressionism"' in the 70s and 80s.
Both then and more recently, we have also had paintings based on photography, photography itself, video, performance art, installations and anything else that—like "Bicycle Wheel" -- is so tied down to the external visual world that its subject matter can be described in words.
By the 80s, this whole Hydra-headed movement was becoming known as "postmodernism." This term implied that "modernism" (abstract expressionism and its latter-day practitioners, known as "color field" painters) was dead.
"Postmodernism" has more recently even spawned its own variety of abstraction – but abstraction still characterized by the anti-art esthetics of Duchamp – pallid, garish, ugly and/or badly-made.
If you ask me, all this art still represents not only a reaction against abstract expressionism but also a sarcastic commentary on it. And because so many more people were (and are) upset by abstract expressionism than had ever been upset by Analytic Cubism, pop and postmodernism in general have gone over with a bigger bang than Duchamp in his prime ever did.
This entire movement has become so successful that today almost the entire art world is dominated by it. "Comedian" is only the latest response to an increasingly frenzied need to come up with fresh frissons of shock.
Meanwhile, it's become increasingly difficult for the small number of artists working in the abstract expressionist tradition to survive amid the hordes of artists working in one way or another out of pop – and pop's daddy, dada.
These third-generation abstract expressionists have developed in so many different directions since the 1960s that one can hardly call them "color-field" painters any more.
They can best only be described as rugged individualists, and I am filled with admiration at their willingness to keep on breasting the flood of work still being created by the heirs of Duchamp and – just like Duchamp's Ready-Mades – directly or indirectly targeting their own kind of work.
AS ANALYZED BY FREUD
As I see it, those artists directly or indirectly descended from Duchamp share the same jokey sensibility. But it's not the most harmless kind of humor, as defined by Freud, in his classic study, "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious" (1905).
Freud saw that humor is a much more complicated and subtle business than slipping on a banana peel would appear to make it. It is a way of momentarily liberating the unconscious drives deep within us, and these drives can be anything but light humor themselves.
The actual antequated Viennese jokes that Freud told, in this remarkable book, are no longer funny. But the principles behind them still make awfully good sense today – unless, of course, you are one of those latter-day "scientists" who deny the existence of the unconscious and think that everything about how humans think can be explained by chemistry.
As Freud explains it, three main impulses may go into the creation of a joke. All make the listener laugh because they liberate – if only for a moment --forbidden and unconscious desires.
With what for lack of a better word I call "biological" jokes (dealing with sex or excretion), the joke liberates the desire to deal in public with subjects normally considered impolite to talk about in public.
With the "innocent" jokes, all that may be liberated is the surprise that a word or expression may mean something else that it appears to mean (word plays, or objects with more than one significance).
But the third kind of joke is the one that concerns me here: the "tendentious" one, or humor with a target. This kind of humor is a way of letting off hostile or aggressive feelings toward that target harmlessly through laughter.
This sort of humor isn't harmless to the target, though. To that target it is anything but funny. The Polish jokes which were in vogue among many Americans some years ago weren't funny to Poles.
The jokes they make in France about Belgians don't amuse Belgians, I'd imagine, and the jokes New Yorkers tell about New Jersey don't amuse Jerseyites. "Rastus and Sambo jokes," a mainstay of 19th century minstrel shows, don't amuse African Americans.
It is hard for Gentiles to tell Jewish jokes, even those that were told to them by Jews, without offending Jews who hear them. Nor do I think Donald Trump gets many laughs from the jokes told about him on the late-night talk shows.
Duchamp, I think, must have been very angry at not being able to create art as great as Analytic Cubism. The Ready-Mades express this anger and defeat.
Rauschenberg, Warhol and their contemporaries in their hearts must have known they weren't the equals of the abstract expressionists, and for this reason (if no other) did what they could to bring them down.
Abstract artists have their own anger and frustrations. But at least they conceal them instead of flaunting them – to use the Freudian term, they sublimate all those antisocial impulses into beauty and emotional appeal.
To return to Cattelan, I would argue that "Comedian" is tendentious, and has at least three targets (maybe more).
One obvious one is the suckers who will pay thousands, even millions of dollars for art that may very well be worth nothing tomorrow, and not least pay $120,000 for a piece of fruit stuck to a wall.
Another, only slightly less obvious one is an entire art world that will discuss, celebrate and promulgate such art – an art world composed of millions and even tens of millions of people.
But the third target is the one that few if any of the many commenting on Farago's review in the Times picked up on – and one that Farago (if cryptically) did.
That target is one which to me is more important than either of the others. It is still abstract art – as allied with those positive assumptions of beauty and emotional power that the best of it inherits from the best representational art which prevailed in the Western world prior to 1912.
Farago's analysis of "Comedian" includes two fragmentary phrases which indicate that he may be at least partially aware of this artwork's real target. They are: "the deflating situation of a culture which once encouraged sublime beauty" and "the pretensions of earlier art."
By omitting any reference to abstraction, though, by putting "sublime beauty" in the past tense, and by suggesting that all earlier art had to offer was "pretensions," the critic – like the artist – aligns himself with what is in essence a reactionary tradition.
And it is upon Cattelan's depressingly angry content that Farago bases his "social" defense of "Comedian." As the critic sees it, it's perfectly okay to sneer at "sublime beauty" and earlier art in general if the artist includes himself among his targets, if he sees himself an art world insider "implicated" within "the economic, social, and discursive systems that structure how we see and what we value."
God forbid he should be merely "lobbing insults from some cynical distance."
In other words, it's no crime to collect an artist's cut of $390,000 by making fun of other art as long as you cast yourself as a tragic "clown" who is "stunted here by money, there by his own doubts." Indeed, it's the formula for success.
Not everybody who laughed at "Comedian" may have realized that abstraction – and the generations of great representational art that preceded and produced it -- are its hidden target, but the overwhelming majority of Americans who pay the least attention to art still find abstraction yet more baffling and even infuriating than dada, aka anti-art.
Having watched the passing parade for an embarrassing amount of time, I have also evolved from a belief that the best visual art is that which appeals to the largest number of people and must therefore be figurative to a belief that the best visual art of our time is abstract and is therefore still only accessible to a relatively small group of people.
But we live in a culture where the success of a work of art, like everything else, is determined by the number of people who will pay for it in one way or another (through buying it or going to a museum to see it).
And since far more people are willing or should I say able to appreciate figurative art, those artists who are able to think up the cleverest ways to recycle figuration are those who will get the most attention, make the most money and dominate the art scene to the point where they drive the loveliest and most positive abstractions into the shadows.
A MATTER OF APTITUDES
I don't think that looking at and being conditioned to admire art that is bitter, angry, and often if not always ugly improves the quality of life for anybody.
I don't say that all art must be upbeat and beautiful; surely there will always be room for angry protest, but why must it so nearly monopolize the scene?
Even the tired businessman needs an armchair to relax in from time to time, as Henri Matisse once wrote. And any doctor can tell you that our bodies aren't at their most efficient when our adrenal glands are always working overtime.
But our best critics so far haven't been able to wean a sufficiently sizeable chunk of the public away from negative figurative art and into an appreciation of a more pleasurable abstraction.
This sad situation, I believe, is caused by the fact that sensitivity to visual stimuli is an aptitude that varies among human beings, as do other aptitudes of the sort that the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation in New York attempts to measure and that Howard Gardner of Harvard University has attempted to define.
Gardner calls these "multiple intelligences" though I stick with "aptitude" because that is the term used at Johnson O'Connor, and I took its battery of tests when I was still in high school.
Anyway, to make my point in layman's terms, some people are good at one thing and other people are better at others. Nor does it have anything to do with I.Q. as measured by standard intelligence tests. You don't send a prize pitcher for the New York Yankees to perform brain surgery, and you don't send a brain surgeon to pitch for the Yanks.
That is because they have different aptitudes, which by extensive education and experience have been developed to a very high degree (as opposed to a sandlot baseball player, say, or perhaps a nurse at summer camp).
Greenberg, in my opinion, was supersensitive to visual stimuli. This enabled him to more fully appreciate the many extraordinary abstract artists he (officially and unofficially) admired and encouraged.
Among them I'd list first-generation abstract expressionists like Pollock on to all the color-field painters (and sculptors): Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Anthony Caro, Michael Steiner, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons, Friedel Dzubas, Jack Bush – and finally the many younger artists who clustered around him in his old age (mostly mid-career artists by now).
All of these artists were – and/or are -- also hypersensitive to visual stimuli. That is what enabled and/or enables them to paint and sculpt as they did and do.
Alas, it seems that many and maybe most of the mobs who besiege the art fairs, galleries and museums don't possess this aptitude, or at least not to the same degree.
These people need and MUST HAVE subject matter to enable them to appreciate whatever art they are seeing, what Duchamp (rightly or wrongly) considered the "intellectual" content of art.
I prefer to think there is – or will be -- a way out of the impasse that our best painting currently finds itself in. I would like to see a far larger number of art lovers able to appreciate the ambiguity of abstraction, as I have discussed it in connection with my theory of multireferential imagery.
I won't go into this at length, having written about it a lot in the past. But there is another possibility at hand that may dismay some of my readers but that I, being a die-hard elitist, look upon with some admittedly sour favor.
A WAY OUT???
On December 18, the New York Times online published an article by Scott Reyburn, a London-based correspondent who frequently reports on art auctions for the Times. His topic this time was the "great wealth transfer" of many trillions of dollars that will be coming in the next decade, as the baby boomers die off and leave their assets to their descendants – Generation Xers or in some cases the millennials.
Many of these assets will be financial: stocks, bonds and trust funds. But "illiquid assets" like real estate and "investments of passion" – including art – make up more than $1.9 trillion in the U.S. alone, according to Wealth-X, a specialist analytics company that furnished much of the information in Reyburn's article.
"But will today's wealthy 30-somethings and 40-somethings develop a passion for buying art that will maintain its price?" Reyburn asks, adding that "Digitally minded millennials' widely observed preference for experiences rather than possessions might suggest otherwise."
He goes on to discuss how changing tastes have made prices oscillate in the past, how once 18th century French furniture commanded better prices than Picasso – and to wonder whether such typically 60s Warhol subjects as Elvis Presley and Liz Taylor will resonate with Generation X.
In case anybody asks me, I'd be delighted to see a massive sell-off of Warhol, Lichtenstein and all the rest of them, as well as a monumental shrinkage in the number of people interested in what is today called contemporary art.
Already I seem to see a few hopeful signs on the horizon, though they may be merely temporary: the decline in the number of younger people attending art museums nationwide, plus the fact that attendance at this year's Miami Basel was a few thousand people fewer than last year's – and the absence of records being posted in this fall's big art auctions.
Of course, it's quite possible that the public will throw out the baby with the bath water, and jettison good and even great abstract art along with all the dada and neo-dada folderol.
I prefer to think that if the world of people interested in new art were to shrink by several million, the percentage of art lovers with the capacity to respond to the purely visual would rise, and with it a renewed appreciation for excellent abstraction.
I don't think we can ever return to far smaller and more intimate art world that last existed in the 50s, but I wouldn't want to, either: the new though tastefully shrunken climate would include anybody with genuine talent, including those women, minorities and/or LGBT who might have been excluded in the old days.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCH….
Where would this leave the online edition of The Times, with its five million readers? Out on a limb, I fear, at least to the extent that few of those readers would be interested in reading about what was on view at Miami Basel any longer.
The editors would have to look elsewhere for circulation-building comic effects (though I'm sure it could find many in politics, celebrities, sports and entertainment – all areas that the city's mass-circulation tabloids, the Post and Daily News, have been exploiting for so many years).
Don't get me wrong. I am frequently grateful for the (usually enlightened) news that the Times brings me on the political, social, scientific and economic fronts, national and international. I respect its theater and movie critics (even when I don't share their judgments). It is a great paper.
But like all the "legacy" media, its economic base is threatened by the internet, and the sad fact that so many advertisers could care less about freedom of the press, and so place their ads next to Facebook, google, and amazon.com instead of in the online Times and other publications of note.
What does this mean for the Times's art coverage? Well, it appears to mean that both its critics and its art news reporters are continually under the gun to build circulation – both online and in print – by any means they can think of.
This seems to include covering subjects which appeal to larger (and often less knowledgeable) audiences at the expense of subjects which appeal to smaller (and more knowledgeable) ones.
It means more giant "take-outs" (as we used to call them on Time) dealing with the future of this or that museum, as opposed to reviewing actual art shows, especially gallery shows.
There are hundreds of galleries in the city showing recently made art, but the regular Friday section these days carries only four or five reviews of art shows in the galleries per issue.
To be sure, not much "new" seems to be happening on the art front. By this I mean that although there is considerable novelty in subject matter, there is little genuinely new in fundamental style.
Most of what is to be found in the galleries -- and therefore in museum spaces devoted to recent or contemporary art -- appears to be the same old mix of dada-based abstractions (usually unlovely), representational painting (occasionally passable), sculpture, collage, assemblage, performance art, video, installations (from big to gargantuan), clothes (the freakier, the better), interior design (likewise) and multimedia presentations (usually complete with sound and writing).
Faute de mieux, it seems to me, the art critics on the Times have thrown out esthetics in favor of politics as a way of evaluating new art – as have so many other areas of cultural endeavor, with a sharp uptick since November of 2016.
For some time, many if not all of the Times's art critics have been using identity politics to conceal the fact that there's not much genuinely new – or good – in art as art to discuss. If an artist therefore is a woman, minority, and/or LGBT, his, her or their art is considered worth reviewing, no matter how familiar and/or undistinguished as art it may be.
To be fair, a rising tide lifts all boats, and some very good women, minorities and/or LGBT artists are at long last getting the recognition they deserve (Helen Frankenthaler, Anne Truitt, Francine Tint, Ann Walsh, Frank Bowling, Ed Clark, Al Loving, Peter Bradley & James Little are nine names that spring to mind in this connection, as having had shows and/or significant sales within the past few years). On the other hand, if an artist is a straight white male, he may be out of luck – - no matter how excellent his work may be.
Moreover, to eliminate this more familiar segment of the artistic population is to vitiate the effect of showing the less familiar – because it suggests that the women & minorities etc. are getting the recognition not because their art is that good but only because they belong to a persecuted whatever.
For that reason, if no other, I am recommending serious attention be paid to one show I know of that will present the abstract art of a gifted straight white male: James Walsh. This show opens at Berry Campbell on January 9, and in my opinion is the most atypical and consequently most radical show around.
OTHER NEWS FROM MIAMI BASEL.
My initial comment on Jason Farago's review was to regret that he didn't write about the good art in Miami. Here I attempt to fill his void – combining the list of top sales posted by Art Net News with info from phone calls I made to galleries that took booths there..
Leslie Feely had a very successful fair, selling larger canvases by Dzubas, Poons, and Olitski.
Berry Campbell was also pleased with its results: it sold "Around Midnight Last Night" (1982), a beautiful abstraction by Frank Bowling, for "just under" $500,000, as well as a raft of paintings by lesser-known women artists in its stable.
Indeed, it was a good year all around for minorities and women artists, although -- according to Art Net News -- attendance of 81,000 was down by 2,000 from 2018. The most expensive painting on its list of top sales was a Chagall that sold for $2 million, but the second most expensive painting was by a woman abstractionist: Frankenthaler. It was "White Joy" (1981), and sold by Mnuchin for $1.65 million. The next three most expensive paintings on the Art Net News list were by women abstractionists, too: Bridget Riley, Agnes Martin and Alma Thomas. Mnuchin also sold a 1963 painting by Frankenthaler, "Storm," for $650,000.
Mnuchin did well in addition by Ed Clark, the abstract painter whose 2018 show was at its gallery, and who died this past October at the age of 93. In all, the gallery sold four paintings by Clark at Miami Basel, ranging in price from $150,00 to $300,000. Hauser & Wirth sold one Clark for $475,000, and Kayne Griffin Corcoran sold another for $375,000.
"Begin and End" (1981) by Noland, was sold by Pace for $275,000.