Every few years a work of art comes along to remind the greater public of what they have suspected all along, that artists are nothing but charlatans. Most recently this mantle has passed into the hands of Maurizio Cattelan; his perishable, garden-variety banana insolently duct taped onto a gallery wall—total cost of production: under £3.00. He sold two for £90,000 each. How are we supposed to respond to such blatant absurdity? Are we expected to revere this fruit as we would a meticulously crafted sculpture? Cattelan’s Comedian (2019) was destined to become the subject of ridicule and outrage. Behold—another fraud taking advantage of those with more money than sense. These instances serve as a concrete reminder that the art world has irredeemably lost its way—this isn’t art, this is hopeless. Cattelan himself, in an appropriate analogy for his working process created a toilet made of gold—and who could forget Tracy Emin’s My Bed (1998), Piero Manzoni’s cans of Artist’s Shit (1961) and of course the grandfather of the lot, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). The irreverence these artists appear to show towards an artistic ideal is rooted in a long tradition of critique through subversion, in fact, we can note many instances where these same methods have been used to call out post-modernism and the greater art world.
Consider the published biography of artist Nat Tate; a literary hoax released in 1998. At the time of its publication writer William Boyd greatly encouraged the belief that the biography was authentic. The opening event was held in Jeff Koons’ studio, where David Bowie (who was in on the hoax) read out passages of the book to some of the biggest names in the New York art scene. As the story goes, Nat Tate (named after the National Gallery and Tate Modern) was an abstract expressionist who came to prominence in the 1950’s, he sold fairly well but was relatively unknown. In his later life he suffered severe depression, bought back all his artworks, destroyed them and then jumped off a bridge.
In 1964 a chimpanzee’s paintings were exhibited under the name Pierre Brassau, to favourable reviews “Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer”. Earlier still, we have the hoax art movement Disumbrationism, created in 1924 by writer Paul Jordan-Smith. Upset that his wife’s realist paintings had been rejected, he decided to pick up a paintbrush for the first time to expose the establishment for the sham he perceived it to be. He painted a series of dreadful artworks to surprisingly positive reviews: “Pavel Jerdanowich (his pseudonym) is not satisfied to follow the beaten path […] his spirit delights in intoxication, and he is a prey to aesthetic agonies which are not experienced without suffering” .
Subverting from within is not a new concept. It’s peculiar, however, that the very tools used to undermine post-modernism are often the same ones that demonstrate its effectiveness. It seems easily forgotten that the movement emerged from such acts of subversion. When Duchamp presented his urinal, it was to test the principles of the exhibition panel, in signing the urinal ‘R.Mutt’ we see an early example of a fictive artist used as critique. The progenitors of post-modernism did not demand their work be revered, in fact, many were working in direct resistance to these cultural hierarchies. Those involved in Dada would protest the farce of the modern world; building a collective based on the renunciation of high culture. While the Futurists aimed to antagonise audience members, rousing them to a misdirected mobilisation. None of these events began with the intention of being accepted canonically as art, they were active attempts to ridicule, disrupt, democratise or undermine various aspects of modernist society.
Dada and Futurism were intimately tied to literature and theatre, within these movements art was seen as just another mode of expression. However, when considered against the versatility of speech and performance, it was clear that the visual arts had been historically restricted as a means of communication. Why couldn’t an artwork follow the examples of language? Why could it not be nonsensical, obscene, ironic, create its own narratives or even lie? Indeed if we accepted similar restrictions to our everyday language, all spoken sentiments would require strict selection for grace, poetry and integrity. These early collectives weren’t precious about the history of art, and it was precisely this defiance that allowed the visual to assimilate with other elements of culture. This amalgam of influences helped create the expanded arts we know today—democratising the entire process along the way.
It is through this backdrop of literature and institutional commentary that Leonid Vail: A Retrospective (1883-1945) was created. Leonid Vail is a fictive artist, whose retrospective toured as an authentic exhibition between 2016-2019. It purports to chronicle the life and work of a deceased Russian artist—his biography loosely based on that of Wassily Kandinsky, Walter Benjamin and Leon Trotsky. The project explores narrativization, perception and authenticity, demonstrating how readily narratives and symbols can be taken to be legitimate, particularly when placed in a context of authority (museums, news outlets etc.) This echoes a larger conversation about truth, set in a society that is increasingly aware of social narratives and the existence of other worlds.
As we cannot step outside context, the understanding of any sign or situation is already an interpretation; a corruption. The very idea of high culture or institutionally regulated expression—while perhaps comforting—is ultimately absurd and proves itself to be the most vulgar fiction imaginable. I’ll take a duct taped banana any day.