From rotting bananas to Auschwitz art

My Word: If this is art, I’ll eat my words – or something.

A worker attaches a banana to the wall with duct tape where the artwork 'Comedian' by the artist Maurizio Cattelan was exhibited in Miami Beach Florida last week. (photo credit: EVA MARIE UZCATEGUI/ REUTERS)
A worker attaches a banana to the wall with duct tape where the artwork 'Comedian' by the artist Maurizio Cattelan was exhibited in Miami Beach Florida last week.
It’s hard to keep a straight face when talking about a banana as art. Perhaps that’s part of its appeal (or a-peel.) Last week, for a couple of days, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan kept the world pleasantly distracted with his work “Comedian,” comprising – in case you somehow missed it – a banana stuck to a wall with duct tape. It’s as if someone told him: “You know where you can stick your banana?” and he thought, “I know: on the wall of the booth of Galerie Perrotin at the Art Basel Miami Beach exhibition.”
In the social media age, the banana became an instant sensation with more than a bunch of imitations and memes around the global village.
Famously – or infamously – several editions of the “installation” were sold for a whopping $120,000. (Remind me never to complain about the prices in my local supermarket.) As you probably know by now, the banana came to a sticky, yet natural end. In the name of “performance art,” David Datuna – aka “Hungry Artist” – swiped the fruit of Cattelan’s labors and devoured it, posting on Instagram: “I love Maurizio Cattelan and I really love this installation.”
Not to worry, since it was only a common or garden banana, the curators were able to swiftly replace it with another. It’s art with a short shelf life, after all. The price reportedly included precise instructions on how to display the banana and a certificate of authenticity providing provenance and ownership.
If this is art, I’ll eat my words – or something. Cattelan is also a hungry artist of sorts – starving for attention. He thrives on being provocative. It’s not a matter of being thought-provoking, it’s because he loves publicity stunts – art for fart’s sake. Among his best-known previous installations was his 2016 work titled “America” – a fully functional toilet made of 18-carat gold. Call it a flush of inspiration; it was reportedly created as his bottom-line response to Donald Trump’s election. (It was ultimately stolen from Britain’s Bleinheim Palace, a harder but potentially more lucrative feat for the thief than peeling a banana from the wall.)
Another typical Cattelan work – one that earned him an uncool $17.2 million at a Christie’s auction – was a wax statue titled “Him.” From behind, it looked like a boy kneeling in prayer – but the front had the unmistakable face of evil: Hitler. The Christie’s catalog for the “Bound to Fail” auction in New York presented “Him” as “one of the most shocking and disquieting works of art to emerge in the post-war era.” I’m sure they were happy to profit from it.
Cattelan is quoted in the catalog as saying: “If you think my work is provocative, it means that reality is extremely provocative, and we just don’t react to it. Maybe we no longer pay attention to the way we live in the world… We are anesthetized.”
At this point, I would like to offer my heartfelt gratitude to Swiss-Lebanese businessman Abdallah Chatila who last week bought €600,000-worth of Nazi memorabilia – including a top hat once owned by Hitler and a silver-plated edition of Mein Kampf that formerly belonged to Hermann Goering – specifically to prevent them being purchased by neo-Nazis. Chatila was in Jerusalem this week, where he promised to give the artifacts to the United Israel Appeal, which has in turn pledged to hand them to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum for storage. Some things shouldn’t be displayed.
LAST WEEK, I took a quick break to catch a couple of exhibitions at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. “Fateful Choices: Art from the Gurlitt Trove” provided both food for thought and some amazing works of art. The 100 pieces displayed include paintings, drawings, and prints by Manet, Monet, Munch, Renoir and many other artists.
Vivacious museum volunteer guide Betty Eppel, who was a “hidden child” in the Holocaust, explained some of the dilemmas and challenges involved in the exhibition and made sure I watched the short video that also provided interesting background. The art is just a fraction of the Schwabing Trove, a collection amassed by Dr. Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895-1956), that was discovered in the properties of his son, Cornelius, in 2012.
Gurlitt Sr. was a museum director whose Jewish roots twice cost him his job under the Nazi regime but nonetheless he used his knowledge and contacts to become an art dealer for the Third Reich. Classified as a quarter Jew because of a Jewish grandmother, he registered his business under the name of his Aryan wife. He was hugely successful in buying up precious works for a fraction of their worth, preying on the vulnerability and need of Jewish collectors and dealers and taking advantage of the ban on so-called “Degenerate art.”
At the end of the war, his collection was initially confiscated by the Allies but in an act of chutzpah, he successfully argued that he had been a victim of the Nazis and that he had acted to save the artwork.
Where was the line between ensuring his own survival and profiting from the desperate plight of those around him? It’s a haunting question that adds an ethical dimension to the collection. Many of the descriptions of the items include the provenance and there are ongoing attempts to find the rightful owners (if they or their heirs survived.)
SLIPPING ON a banana peel is for some reason seen as funny – even though it can result in painful and even serious injury. There is absolutely nothing funny about “Auschwitz art.” No redeeming quality at all. But it’s definitely becoming a thing. Apparently, genocide sells.
Last week, my Facebook feed filled for a while with stories of Amazon’s Holocaust-themed products, including a bottle opener and bell- and star-shaped Christmas tree decorations featuring Auschwitz and other death camps. Or how about the range of Ruio “Arbeit Macht Frei” towels, advertised as “stylish towels... mainly for children... a perfect gift for families, friends, girls and boys”? The items were swiftly removed following public outcry and a complaint from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
If I thought those products were in poor taste, they were only the unpalatable appetizer to what was available online at at the height of the shopping season. “Decorate your home and accessorize your life with incredible works of art, and help support living artists all over the world. Welcome to Pixels,” says the site.
I don’t know what kind of home and life they had in mind but last week Pixels urged customers to “Choose your favorite Birkenau beach towels” with a death camp motif and – I can hardly believe I am writing this – a shower curtain with the image of gas chambers. Want to relax with some yoga? My imagination was stretched beyond its limits at a yoga mat with a concentration camp barracks theme.
The products were deleted from the site after a flood of complaints, although the images themselves remained on sale for a while as posters. There should be no need to remove them: They shouldn’t be there in the first place.
It’s appalling that any artist can think of “accessorizing” Auschwitz. And that any company can think to market death camps. Holocaust survivors are literally dying out. Generations are growing up who are either completely ignorant of what the Holocaust was – the systematic attempt to eradicate the Jewish people – or are capable of ignoring the murder of six million Jews. Or worse – they think the Shoah, so trivialized,  is chic. If the Holocaust is a fashion, no wonder there is a rise in antisemitic attacks, including lethal ones.
While writing this column this week I found on Amazon an advert for self-adhesive wall decorations: “Wallmonkeys [with the] Nazi Motto Jedem Das Seine Seen in The Buchenwald Concentration [Camp].”
The slogan on Buchenwald’s gates – less well known than Auschwitz’s “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work is liberating) – means “To each as he deserves.” The selling points of the wall decorations include: “Easy and fun to apply. Simply peel and stick.”
I’d rather have a rotten banana stuck to my wall. In fact, I’d rather have a bare wall.
Something is rotten in the art world and beyond. It’s not the banana on the wall that worries me, it’s the writing. Some “art” is too hard to swallow. In fact, it’s sickening.