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Art gone bananas? — Meme culture’s entrance into high culture


An altered Frans Snyders (1579–1657), Fruit Stall (1618–1621)

Art about bananas. Art is going bananas. Art has gone bananas. Oh what a familiar refrain — “art is no longer valued for its aesthetic value, it makes no sense” says the outsider. “You philistine, art is valuable for it represents a concept, an idea, a commentary, of which you are too infantile or uninitiated to realise” the commodore of pretension claps back.

“Comedian” by Maurizio Cattelan

Comedian at the Art Basel gallery in Miami (2019) is the latest episode in the pantheon of expensive art-pieces that are designed to boldly comment on established conventions in the art-world and provoke shock-and-terror amongst the uninitiated. The Basel Banana, along with it’s £100K+ price-tag has a dual objective as an art-piece and as a viral news-story. It can be placed squarely within meme culture — an artistic statement which grows in value through its evolving interaction and usage by a specific community and the public.

The art-world has its say

The first non-controversial point, is that Comedian is a meme within the art-world. Since the emergence of the contemporary art market (watch Oscar Boyson’s explainer here), art has always acted as a type of memetic device conveying trends and stories that were judged importance from within the hermetic artist community (often in as small-a-circle as that of Warhol’s entourage in Brooklyn, NY).

The banana itself holds historical weight. Earliest representations in modern art depict the exotic fruit as a symbol of international trade and commerce, of consumerist culture and unsustainable demand for products sourced in another hemisphere. Then enters art legend Andy Warhol’s cover-art for the Velvet Underground & Nico, VU being a band that knew little commercial success but were once described by Rolling Stone as “the most prophetic band ever”.

Cover-art for The Velvet Underground & Nico, Andy Warhol (1967)

The Velvet Underground went-on to becoming a symbol for anti-communist resistance to oppression — particularly with Václav Havel and the Prague Spring (1969). This association between the fruit and resistance took a new form when the feminist artists The Guerrilla Girls re-appropriated this meme to fight male oppression. Famous examples of this are the photos of the woman seductively eating a banana and politicised pop-posters (seen below).

As memes evolve through time, they will lose their original meaning along with authorial intention. While many will say that Andy Warhol’s banana holds the inspiration for this work, others will say that it is a direct allusion to another story: Yoko Ono’s apple exhibit.

It is said that John Lennon first met his long-love at one of Yoko Ono’s exhibits, biting into an apple placed on a centre-piece pedestal. Exactly in the same way as how David Datuna bit into the banana at last week’s Art Basel:


Artist David Datuna reappropriates the origin of a meme

Like jazz, contemporary art has become a co-created art-form in flux, every-changing and mutable. A meme changes its meaning depending on how people interact with it. The original motive of the Basel Banana no longer matters, because it’s meaning has changed dramatically as we interact with it.

Enter the wider public

The second more significant point, is thus how the Comedian became a “popular” or folk meme.

No matter how hard artists from within the “inner circle” try to influence (or force-through) interpretations of their work to the public, Comedian demonstrates how artistic intent matters little in a world where everyone could become an artist. Death of the author is real and quite unstoppable.

The broader public, in aggregate, has the ability to change and reappropriate artwork just as it can do so for memes. In fact, it sometimes do so even better than the Basel or Frieze insiders, by simple nature of the amazing creativity and truth-to-zeitgeist of crowd-sourced content.

Although I am not proficiently versed in the art market, I can observe at least that a major quality of the more successful artists today is the ability to keep an ear on the ground for the latest social movements and political issues. On this, the algorithmic panopticon that is social media can (provided echo-chambers are brought down) do a better job.

The public had its first swing at the meme when it made fun of the artwork in various ways (sticking a banana to the NYC subway or on the hairy chest of a middle-aged man). It then had its second more-devastating swing, when an artist removed the banana entirely and replaced it popular folk meme “Epstein didn’t kill himself” (written in fake blood). This, along with throngs of smartphone wielding onlookers, “forced” Emmanuel Perrotin to remove the piece entirely from his exhibit.

Unfortunately for Perrotin (the curator), the damage is already done. In his own words:

“[Datuna] did not destroy the artwork. The banana is the idea”

Maybe he should have said: ‘I did not destroy the artwork. The wall is now the idea’. For by vandalising the wall after the removal of the banana, the vandaliser — this people’s vigilante for memetic justice — made the artwork more about the blank canvas that the walls of an art gallery represent.

These walls now belong to the audience. The much wider audience that contemporary art is blessed/cursed to have.

Yuji Develle

Yuji Develle

An inspired political technologist with a management consultant’s workflow, his gift lies in creating ecosystems where people and ideas can move from a whiff of inspiration to a firestorm of actionable opportunities. He is a strategist and networker, building the Wonk Bridge vision with its ever-growing community. His clear and evidence-based writing on deeply seeded social and political issues will help you unlock a new perspective.