The fancy Art Basel art fair in Miami sold a remarkable item for $120,000 in December 2019: an actual ripe banana duct taped to a wall.
The “work of art” called “Comedian” was produced by a famous Italian artist. The Perrotin gallery which featured the work stated that the work “offers insight [into] how we assign worth and what kind of objects we value.”
For the thinking individual, the insight is clear: in modern times, we defer to “experts” who put significant money behind ideas, regardless how patently foolish. The fact that an artist represented by an art dealer would feature a work at a large art fair and have someone pay a tremendous sum to purchase the work, seals the deal that this must be serious art. Any individual who would observe the stupidity of the scene would be mocked rather than the other way around as the experts and market have spoken.
Perhaps when this concept was broached by Marcel Duchamp one hundred years ago, the notion of challenging our idea of “art” was novel and thought-provoking. But we’ve already done that. Does this work cover any new ground?
Is this work “Comedian” a joke on society which doesn’t get the opportunity to either ponder or laugh at the exhibition as it cannot fathom stripping the experts of their anointed titles? Is it the masochism we must endure to belong to the elite club? “I want to be in this community of the sophisticated, so will nod as a dutiful supplicant. Yes, we can see that art can take different forms. Yes, we can see that people value items differently. Yes, everything can be art, everything can be beautiful, everything can be valuable. Shame on me for being judgmental to view art as art and beauty as beauty. I hope that I didn’t say any of that aloud as thinking in such manner would exclude me from the very club I wish to join.”
OR… perhaps it’s the exact opposite: the experts are telling us – begging us – to no longer believe them. The masses will spend money as pleases them; the art dealers will feed the masses as they need to make a living too. And the artist, well he’s in on the joke. He named the artwork “Comedian” because he knows that people slipping on a banana peel is low brow humor, just as the work is a cheap poke at the art world and all of us that want to be a part of it.
Either way, pondering art and value is two sides of the same auction paddle. It’s a discussion that the art world has already rehashed for one hundred years.
No. This work is new for the post-2015 world, in which social media reigns. The goal is no longer art, it is popularity. Something that can be liked, shared and retweeted is the essence of value.
Society no longer values beauty or talent or experience. It wants the joke. A quick hit of something to laugh at, to share.
Consider that the United States voted a complete political novice to the presidency in 2016. Americans decided that they had too many politicians named Bush and Clinton already. Out with experience and in with the brash entertainer. Society reached a point that the number of Twitter followers is a better proxy for what the country craves, more than policy. Kim Kardashian for VP in 2020.
The “Comedian” was neither art nor beautiful nor “inherently” worth $120,000; it was simply Tweet-worthy. The artist and the purchaser got value from the work because the masses shared the picture and story repeatedly. As such, the answer to Perrotin gallery’s proposition had a range of answers: the value ascribed to items in a capitalistic society is based on the one outlier who pays the highest price, but also factors the wide attention of the public.
In the search for popularity, experts abdicate their leadership roles. They are now mere “influencers” who peddle their brands and platforms.
The echo chamber becomes a perfectly designed loop where the tastes of the masses is endorsed by their “experts” which in turn make the masses feel wonderful. The platforms become elevated by these same Twits who Tweet, encouraging more of the same.
Why actually lead and educate, when the re-tweets come so fast and furious?
The situation of experts abdicating their positions based on knowledge and experience is not confined to the art world. Today’s religious leadership is being led by the masses as well.
Religious leaders do not talk about religion, a subject in which they are theoretically theological experts. Instead, they focus on politics, as that is what their congregants (read audience) really want to hear.
Consider the Union of Reform Judaism which had its biennial in December 2019. A main focus of the multi-day affair was to discuss reparations for American slavery. The rabbi leading the charge did not quote Leviticus nor the Talmud nor any rabbinic sages like Rashi or Rambam. He quoted Ta-Nehisi Coates, a Black atheist, to make his point.
There is a wide swath of American Jews who relate to Judaism only through the prism of peoplehood and not through the orientation of reading of the bible. As many non-Orthodox streams of Judaism do not believe in God, they view the bible as merely a divinely-inspired text written with the patriarchal philosophy of thousands of years ago. They have therefore comfortably shifted their prayer books and devotion to modern liberal artists like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. Their values begin with political figures and opinions such as from Michelle Obama’s book, and then consider Judaism. Religion is redefined in their political image.
Like the provocateurs in the art world who questioned what makes art “art,” Reform Judaism of 100 years ago asked people to consider what makes Judaism “Judaism”?
Both questions have matured over one hundred-plus years, and like the art world, Judaism has its own “Comedian” for the world of social media and popularity: it’s called “Tikkun Olam.”
The leaders of the Reform movement are marketing Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world, to the rowdy receptive audience of liberals – Jews and non-Jews alike. These potential pew-sitters are highly engaged in politics – particularly since Donald Trump entered politics in 2015 – so they meet their congregants there on the political battlefield. The reformed rabbis know what the progressive crowd cherishes – “Social Justice” – and the clergy repeats back to the parishioners their own political credo with the blessing that it’s kosher. It’s an inversion of the old teacher-student model, where the teacher no longer educates the ill-informed student about Judaism, rather the teacher must learn and incorporate the students’ passions and find an anchor in the bible. Such is the activity of a movement trying to stop its rapidly declining numbers.
Both Value (as in art) and Values (from religion) as currently determined by the bold fringe and loud masses of a post-2015 politically-charged and social media-connected world are seemingly disconnected from historic teachings and knowledge.
Traditionalists are aghast and will have none of it, while the progressives welcome the change as they seize the day from the prior generation.
Traditionalists see the taped banana as an object of interest but not art, just as Tikkun Olam is an appealing notion but not Judaism. Being neither art nor religion does not mean they have no value, but are not characteristic.
Liberals see things in reverse, where value defines everything. For them, Tikkun Olam is the essence of Judaism; a taped banana is bold art.
Both the non-Orthodox progressive leaders and the Orthodox traditional leaders will give their targeted audience their want, so they can manage the chaos of a charged and changing world. But the traditionalists will be leading with the knowledge of experts over thousands of years, while the modernists will be leading with values of the masses at the moment.
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