Golden Calves or Van Goghs?

A couple years ago at the Art Basel Miami happening, an artist named Maurizio Cattelan made waves at an opening press conference, where he gave a speech, duct-taped a common banana to a wall, and then declared this to be a work of art named ‘Comedian’ btw worth $120,000. Incredibly, two editions of it were sold for that price. And then another artistic prankster ate one of the taped bananas. And then common finger-paintings done by children started flying out of the galleries for $75,000 each.

What is going on here? Has everybody lost their minds? Well there’s a lot to unpack. Too much, really, because so much is wrong with this nonsense! I can’t possibly go over in just one day all my objections to things uncovered here. But the first question to tackle, I suppose, is this: “What is art?”

The term ‘art‘ comes to us from the Latin, ‘ars‘. That old Latin word confers a lot. In my Lewis & Short Latin dictionary the entry for ars takes up almost half of a page! (And these pages are in annoyingly fine print that I can no longer read without reading glasses, and the pages are large). Pregnant with so many nuances, the word’s entry is too much a task to cover, but all of the nuances dance around one idea: significant skill at producing something. I can make a taco, but am I a taco artist? Do I truly know that elusive Art Of The Taco?? That’s a bit much to say! Significant. Skill.

An antagonist may say, “Okay, that’s well and good. But still, ‘significance’ contains subjective criteria.” True! Beauty is indeed always in the eye of the beholder. Many more things exist to consider. We can take the example of Mr. Cattelan’s neat little trick with the banana. What did this involve? First, a setting, then a production, and then a language through which others could participate. And towards what end? An influence. Suppose that Mr. Cattelan came into your living room, duct-taped a banana to your wall, and told you he’d just done you a $120,000 service? Wouldn’t you rather have Di Vinci swinging by with a Mona Lisa? You’d call the funny farm on Mr. Cattelan asking them to get down here because there is a madman on the loose. His little gag of ‘Comedian’ — for that is what this is — only works for him in a certain setting, having set everybody up with his prankishness for more deviltry, and then inviting them to get in on the joke. And to what end? What is Mr. Cattelan’s influence with all of this? Why, it’s to make everybody a fool along with him. His ilk impoverishes us all, and in particular true artists, for what if you were a latter-day Di Vinci who showed up to Art Basel Miami with a Mona Lisa, only to find out that pranksters started a run on bullshit and on grade-school refrigerator finger-paintings?

Mr. Cattelan’s endeavor, then, is an usurpation of artists, of art, of artistry itself. The antagonist may counter, “Oh, but can’t you admire the artistry of the gag?” I suppose, but by the same coin will you admire the artistry of a terrorist? What is that difference? What would you call a man who would deploy art against art itself, but an anti-artist? Indeed, a terrorist of sorts! Ultimately always the influence of any artwork is its raison d’etre, its reason for being. Properly, that end needs to be for the good, for truth, for improvement of the soul as its final influence. 

The wily antagonist would then naturally counter, “Oh, but then we only have art that ends in fairy tales and puppies and kittens, the constraint of goodness is too limiting!” But is this a too-narrow conception of the good, the beautiful and the true, for truth includes terror and fear. Grim realities are a part of truth, a part of life, a part of great art. Dr. Johnson reports that the ending of William Shakespeare’s King Lear shocked and upset his very soul to its core, it’s deeply upsetting. What is that play if not one of the very greatest ones that anybody has ever penned? Can we face these truths which tax us and grieve us to bear?

Or, shall we tape bananas upon the wall and call it a day? What kind of damned cop-out is that? 

The wily antagonist might say to us at this point, “But maybe you just don’t understand the artist. Maybe that language of his art, the one you mention, is simply one you cannot hear. But others can!” True, this always a possibility. How many great artists of every type died a pauper racked in misery, only to have their reputations soar to great heights after they had left us? Too many to count!

Vincent Van Gogh is one of these. Did you know that his first fame came not from his paintings, but from his letters? Yes, after his death his letters were published and they became a bestseller. That image of Van Gogh as a stammering madman eager to rip off his own ear in fits of delirium, a man “suffering for his sanity” as Don McLean tells us, is one mostly of legend, not reality. For Van Gogh’s letters reveal a nimble, cogent and skilled mind at work. Those letters are high quality literature all to themselves and are enough to make Vincent notable even without all his paintings.

One of Van Gogh’s aims in these letters was to convince his beloved brother, Theo, that his art was not crap. I don’t know if Vincent ever really found success on that front, but the effort paid off when the public read it. The public now had a language to understand Van Gogh’s artwork and his struggles, and he got a second look. And now equipped to participate in Van Gogh’s art, humanity has raised the man to the empyrean airs of one of the greatest artists of all time.

Van Gogh tells us in those letters, “there is something good in all labor.” And it’s true! Even, I suppose, in taping a banana to a wall. But I am afraid we’d need a better artist than Mr. Cattelan to find that goodness here. Ralph Waldo Emmerson, perhaps! He saw a ploughman in the field and said that act, wordless, by itself, was a prayer. I bet you we could have asked Emmerson to write a poem about taping a banana to a wall and he’d have something! 

But not Mr. Cattelan. He has a golden calf. 

(Below are two instances of artworks that illustrate aspects of art that I’ve mentioned:

  • Significant Skill
  • Setting
  • Production
  • Language
  • Participation
  • Influence

I had hoped initially to go over all of these aspects in greater detail. But not now — perhaps in later posts!!!)

The Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript is a 600 year old mystery ! It’s a book written in a strange, unkown language and filled with ornate, intricate illustrations. People have puzzled over what it could possibly be, over what secrets or mysteries it might reveal, over whether it’s an elaborate hoax, or what it is exactly. But most people agree on this, that the book is a beautiful work of art.


How can that be? How can a book that no one can read possibly speak to us, what language does it speak that we can understand?


But it yet speaks to us, even though the text cannot be understood! We see it immediately as a fine book, and we know “bookness”. This book is the product of great passion and careful work by someone over a long period of time. That strikes us at once. Its illustrations are labored over, containing skill and detail. For even that script which we cannot read, we can see the beautiful form of its calligraphy, we can see the unknown words on their march. These are the footprints of a foreign mind a journey somewhere, recording something.  


The Vietnam Memorial

When the design of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memoral was unveiled, enormous controversy erupted. The monument spoke a new language for military monuments. Where was the glory, the heroism, the sacrifice, the sacred duty? Where were all the trappings of triumphalism that mark such things as the Arc D’Triomphe or the Ara Pacis? Where is the art? Initially many Vietnam veterans took offense, describing the design as “a great gash of shame.”

The language spoken by the monument is not obvious, until you participate in the monument. It is indeed a great, black-marble gash in the earth. As you approach it you descend. Your descent into the earth is wreathed by names, thousands of names, over 58,000 names are written in the marble. Just names, they are crying out to you, each one belonging to a brother who lost everything he had in that conflict. You can know each name if you care to look at them all, but you cannot. That task is too overwhelming, for one thing, but also too painful for each new name brings another serving of loss and tragedy to place upon a growing pile.

Most Vietnam veterans have swung their opinion to the opposite of the initial opposition against the monument. It is not the worst war memorial, it is the best one. It is not a great gash of shame, it is a great gash of sacrifice, honor and tragedy, You can walk all around Washington, DC and see all of the many classically styled monuments and buildings, but none of them will touch you and move you like the Vietnam Memorial does.

It is a powerful work of art that seizes you unawares. It has justly inspired other monuments now.