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Maurizio Cattelan and When Art “Ridicules Art Itself”

(Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian)

This is an art which no longer presumes to speak to or for the general public. Such an art “assails all previous art” and even “ridicules art itself.” 

It seems every year or so some new peculiarity from the Art World is cast into the public spotlight. Most recently, a single banana duct taped to a wall at the Basil Miami Art Fair sold for $120,000. Apparently, before artist Maurizio Cattelan (of golden toilet fame) could even cash his check, someone came along, untaped the banana from the wall and ate it.  

The general public is more or less amused by such antics, while critics enlighten us on their cultural significance. We are told that a banana duct-taped to a wall is more than a banana duck taped to a wall—or, alternately, that a banana duck-taped to a wall is nothing but a banana duck taped to a wall. Apparently the words “profound” and “banal” are now synonyms. As often as not, we are further informed that our sensibilities have been “challenged” and “subverted.” Most of us don’t seem to be aware that we’ve been challenged and subverted, which is apparently why the adamantine public is in perpetual need of ever more challenging and subverting. This kind of thing has been going on for quite a while now, so we might well wonder: Why does it persist? 

A Return to Nothing

Cattelan’s banana and golden toilet partake in a century-old tradition of “anti-art.”  Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset—in his 1925 essay “The Dehumanization of Art”—describes the emergence of a radically new sensibility in art, which was arising in response to the cultural and institutional collapse of Europe. For artists, all forms and conventions were called into question, and the very nature and purpose of art became problematic. This new art turns away from “lived reality,” observes Ortrega, and “the artist is going against reality. He is shattering the human aspect, dehumanizing it.” This is an art which no longer presumes to speak to or for the general public. Such an art “assails all previous art” and even “ridicules art itself.” 

Duchamp’s inverted porcelain urinal is the ultimate parody: not only has art become useless—art makes the most utilitarian useless.

Marcel Duchamp’s “ready-mades” epitomize this absurd state of human creativity, stripped of its historical powers of depicting a common reality. Duchamp’s inverted porcelain urinal is the ultimate parody: not only has art become useless—art makes the most utilitarian useless. Ortega was ambivalent about this emerging sensibility. “Who knows what will come of this budding style,” wondered Ortega: “the task it sets itself is enormous, it wants to create out of nought.”

Europe found itself in a state of “nought” very much as Nietzsche had prophesied more than a generation earlier. He called this state of civilizational and psychological collapse nihilism. Nietzsche saw this as simultaneously a disaster—but also as a great opportunity. He envisioned two kinds of responses to nihilism: one response as “divine” or “active”—and another as “pathological” or “weak.”      

With the benefit of hindsight we can see these two responses to an experience of nihilism manifest in two strains of art. Nihilism, according to Nietzsche, is overcome by an immersion into the world of experience and the acceptance of conflict and suffering as necessary aspects of a unified universe. This active or healthy response to nihilism is found in artists like Wassily Kandinsky or Paul Klee. The collapse of art represented the possibility of a wholly new beginning, an unprecedented opportunity to shed dysfunctional conventions. Kandinsky’s abstract art represents a return to essentials, purging itself of its now useless outer forms, and it was guided by an “inner necessity.” Kandinsky’s abstract art contains the “hidden seed of renaissance,” and artists were to be, in effect, “the invisible Moses who sees the dance around the golden calf.”  

For Klee, the disastrous collapse of Europe could be seen as a part of an ever-greater transcendent whole. “Evil is not conceived as the enemy whose victories disgrace us,” wrote Klee, “but as a force within the whole, a force that continues into creation and evolution.”  This “divine” or transcendent strain of art accepts the reality of the modern human condition, while affirming the many millennia traditional function of all art as a unifying power (as a way of reconciling us to nature). This is Camille Paglia’s characterization of art as, “revelation of the interconnectedness of reality.”  

Nietzsche’s “weak” or “pathological” response to nihilism is characterized by a confused understanding of the very nature of the experience of nihilism. The collapse of the Christian interpretation of reality, “awakens the suspicion that all interpretations are false.” Absurdity, disorder, and meaninglessness are not understood to be aspects of reality but to constitute the very nature of reality. This sensibility does not embrace and transcend its historical moment; rather, it succumbs to nihilism. To reconcile meaning and meaningless requires an affirmation of the unity of history and nature. As Nietzsche imagined, this weak response to nihilism has prevailed. It is precisely Nietzsche’s “last man” who fails to transcend nihilism; he is sterile and incapable of creative acts of affirmation and renewal.  

Some of the pathological aspects of nihilism can be seen in sentiments expressed in the anti-art Dada movement. “The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art but of disgust.” wrote Tristan Tzara in 1924.  “As Dada marches it continually destroys…The Beautiful and the True in art do not exist…Everything is incoherent…There is no logic.” This tendency to reject lived reality (and this incapacity to affirm a unity of experiential reality) suggests a kind of art and a whole sensibility that no longer serves as a revelation of the interconnectedness of reality.  This strain of art became a revelation of the disconnectedness of reality.  

Both Nietzsche and Ortega anticipated this tendency to dissociate from experiential reality into the world of ideas and ideation (this is indeed the soil out of which would grow the great totalitarian monstrosities). “The idea”, writes Ortega, “instead of functioning as the means to think an object with, is itself made the object and the aim of thinking.” Writing in 1946 Marcel Duchamp recognized the Dadaist movement as “serviceable as purgative,” but Duchamp himself did not re-engage the world of experiential reality; rather, he ceased creating art and immersed himself in the world of ideas. And so the experience of meaninglessness became the idea of meaninglessness. Nihilistic Dada arose from experience but became a “state of mind,” incapable or unwilling to reengage with paradoxical reality and, in the words of Ortega, “doomed to irony.” 

Art as provocation, subversion, and a challenging of norms has now been around long enough that it has become quite normal. The iconoclasts are now icons, and unorthodoxy is the new orthodoxy.  

The Opposite of All Earthly Things

Ortega recognized the youthful nature of this new artistic sensibility, which recognizes no past and no obligations. However, nothing is free to remain young forever. It’s been more than a century since Duchamp first exhibited his inverted porcelain urinal. Art as provocation, subversion, and a challenging of norms has now been around long enough that it has become quite normal. The iconoclasts are now icons, and unorthodoxy is the new orthodoxy.  

A sensibility of disconnectedness and absurdity has become routinized and institutionalized. We now have what Arthur Danto christened as “the Artworld”: an international complex of artists, museums, galleries, critics, theorists, and educators who propagate various forms of “art as concept,” “art-as-art,” “art as self-expression,” as a display of wounds, as provocation, etc. This is generally a dehumanized self-referential art that makes no attempt to give form to a common reality, except, of course, ironically. Czesław Miłosz characterized this sensibility as, “the rapture of self-liberation.” What began as an experience of disconnectedness became the idea of disconnectedness, and, finally, the idea becomes idol. The visions of the prophet become the dogma of the priests.

This sensibility of absurdity inevitably would percolate down through consciousness into pop culture. The nihilistic anti-art sensibility even made its way into comic books. In 1961, DC Comics published a strange satirical inversion of Superman comics called “Tales of the Bizarro World.” Bizarros are inverse duplicates of Superman; they insist on doing the opposite of normal: they say “goodbye” when they arrive, “hello” when the leave; they punish their children if they get good grades, and—in Bizarro World—“gold is worthless and rags are riches.” Bizarro anti-morality is actually well-described by the Bizarro Code:

“Us do opposite of all earthly things! 

Us hate beauty! 

Us love ugliness! 

Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizzaro World!”

I discovered Bizarro comics when I was around twelve years old. What appealed to me and my friends was the unrelenting silliness and absurdity of the Bizarros. We ourselves would play at Bizarro logic, which would, of course, quickly devolve to pure inanity. (You don’t have to go very far with the logic of negation to arrive at complete nonsense.)

A total negation of any thing is no thing. There is, then, no Bizarro world—or, more precisely, there is no Bizarro world in itself. Bizarro comics are a pictorial representation of the human mind’s amazing capacity to play games with itself. Bizarro comics reflect an imaginary unreal world. Bizarro comics are part of a greater physical, social, economic order, but they tell us nothing about how disorder is part of order—nothing of the interconnectedness of reality. Bizarro comics are simply the objectification of an experience of absurdity for twelve year olds 

In one episode of Bizarro comics someone commits the great “crime” of building a “beautiful museum.” This museum is apparently full of great classics of art, which, of course, disgust the Bizarros. We can well imagine the kinds of art that would fill a “proper” Bizarro museum: perhaps an upside down urinal, an 18k gold toilet, a blank painting, a banana taped to a wall. The anti-art of the modern world is our Bizarro Art. The likes of Maurizio Cattelan seem to have stepped right out of the pages of Bizarro Comics. Anti-art is the objectification of an experience of absurdity for adults.  

Absolute Irony

A twelve year old’s reaction to Bizarro comics is quite similar to the way most of us react to contemporary anti-art: We are amused and move on. However, a flirtation with absurdity can cultivate a healthy sense of irony. Irony helps keep the mind supple by understanding the fragility of the forms of existence. A sense of irony reflects an awareness of the fragile balance of order and disorder and an understanding that we never get something for nothing.   

All traditional art has an element of irony insofar as all art understands there to be a tension between the work of art and reality, a tension between the surface world of appearances and distinctions and the greater whole. But, an irony which presumes no underlying reality is an irony unmoored from reality. This is an absolute irony. Anti-art has come to embody an absolute irony.

The anti-art acolytes of a beatified Andy Warhol confuse his banality with profundity.

No artist is presumed to embody this absolute irony of anti-art more than Andy Warhol. He famously said: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings, my films and me, and there I am. There is nothing behind it.” Andy Warhol is the Chauncey Gardiner of anti-art, and, arguably, he didn’t have an ironic bone in his body; he simply tells the truth as he sees it.  

The anti-art acolytes of a beatified Andy Warhol confuse his banality with profundity. They encase themselves in a prophylaxis of irony presuming to protect themselves from the “bourgeois” sin of actually taking experiential reality seriously. They seem to actually believe that the Bizarro-speak of absolute irony transforms their own banality into profundity. This absolute irony, this hyper-awareness of the illusory nature of all forms, pushed to its limits resembles obliviousness, idiocy and ultimately naïveté. This is an irony, which presumes to see through everything and ends up seeing nothing at all.  

So again, why does anti-art persist? Every kind of art, Nietzsche observes, tells us something about the artist and, in turn, something about the civilization that sustains such art. An art of disconnectedness reflects a civilization of disconnectedness. A civilization which is so powerful at controlling and manipulating nature has no apparent need to articulate a relationship to nature. A civilization which presumes we can get something from nothing supports and celebrates a kind of art which, in effect, reveals and affirms nothing.

Anti-art is, then, the tip of a civilizational iceberg. The persistence of anti-art is merely one manifestation of a way of thinking that presumes reality can be subverted, broken down into pieces, and reconstituted as we please. When all forms appear as arbitrary or self-serving, then nature and history are merely raw materials. We don’t participate in reality; we fabricate reality. Reality is our idea. Which is to say, reality, like everything else, is a choice, a commodity. Society itself is a ready-made, which can be remade from nothing.  

When Arthur Danto pronounced “the End of Art” in 1984, arguably what he was doing was acknowledging that the transcendent powers of the human imagination had been rendered impotent and absorbed into the greater economic order of disorder. Which is to say, the human imagination has been doomed to irony. Anti-artists propagate ways of thinking that reflect and reinforce a sense of fragmentation and a larger economy of disconnectedness. Anti-artists are the propagandist and performers for the disconnected universe. Far from subverting the greater commercial and social order, they reinforce a fragmented kind of thinking best adapted to that order. They are apparently ironical about everything but themselves.

Anti-artists have even figured out how to capitalize on our fragmented psyches while presuming to maintain their own innocence. “I can’t wait to make really bad art and get away with it,” pronounces a youthful “rebellious” Damien Hirst. Decoding this Bizarro-speak means that he can’t wait to do exactly what he’s expected to do and get handsomely compensated. Anti-artists are celebrated and paid large sums of money by those most invested in a fragmented universe, those most abstracted from the world of conflict and connectedness. It’s no coincidence that anti-art reflects and justifies the world of urban intellectuals and cosmopolitan capitalists.  

A Return to Earthly Things

Our anti-art artists, experts, and educators tell us one thing, but reality increasingly appears to be telling us something else. Anti-art does, indeed, address an aspect of our modern experience, but it declines to look at the whole. We, as individuals and as a civilization, live on the “razor’s edge” of order and disorder, and it was once the role of artists and poets to articulate how it all interconnected. Today, our anti- artists apparently have nothing to say and would convince us there is nothing to know.

Our art has been dehumanized, but we remain human. Even those who presume to do the opposite of all earthly things always seem to end up doing some kind of earthly thing. Anti-artists—just like the rest of us—live in a world of relationships, which sustain life. Artists who affirm a fragmented, meaningless universe are affirming a reality which even they themselves in their daily lives do not actually experience. No doubt Maurizio Cattelan eats food on plates, defecates in toilets, puts his pants on one leg at a time, says hello when arriving, goodbye when leaving: No one actually lives by negation, absurdity, or disorder. Every twelve year old knows: Bizarros are not—and never can be—real.

Chris Augusta is an artist living in Maine.

6 thoughts on “Maurizio Cattelan and When Art “Ridicules Art Itself”

  1. No matter how far we abstract from the machine that generates us we remain tightly bound to that machine.

      1. Actually, I was just being facetious to try and get a humorous response from the author. Clearly the subject material of this essay is way beyond the political. I imagine that if I were the author of an essay as coherent and beautifully articulated as this one, I would get some thoughtful responses responses, and since there were none I further imagined the author would find it ironic and humorous that the only response he initially received was some inane and bias political statement. I was going to ask the question is Donald Trump an upside down porcelain urinal but thought it would be a bit over the top and too fresh.

        1. Feel free to be over the top. Does Donald Trump’s hair qualify as a “readt made”?. Actually, as I tried to suggest, it’s more the progressive who seem to believe society is one more ready made.

    1. Trump asked to borrow a Van Gogh from the Guggenheim and was offered Cattelan’s ‘America’—the notorious golden toilet—instead. He turned it down.

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