Why Art Is Bananas

As global markets collapse, contemporary art -- even the absurd -- keeps increasing in value.

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Courtesy of ICA

"Sounds like a lot of bulls--- to me."
--My mother, reacting to the explanation of an art piece at Art Basel Miami Beach

For contemporary-art haters, Paulo Nazareth's Banana Market/Art Market installation piece was low-hanging fruit. By that I mean the Brazilian artist shipped thousands of bananas to the cavernous Miami Beach Convention Center, which plays host to one of the largest and most prestigious fine art shows in the world.

The rotting fruit spilled out of a green old-school Volkswagen bus, sweetening the air. The artist himself wandered around with dirty feet, selling autographed bananas for $10 each. When a Latina cleaning woman pushed a trash can past the bus, Nazareth bowed to her and pressed a perfectly ripe banana into her hand. She giggled, took the banana and kept pushing the trash. When I watched Nazareth break into self-satisfied smile, I thought: He must be having the time of his life, laughing at these fools trying to find meaning in a banana!

Absurd? Of course. But that is the state of things, isn't it? A black man is president. Europe is on its knees. The value of brick-and-mortar homes vanished into thin air. GOP presidential debates are making Saturday Night Live obsolete. And as world markets go into meltdown, contemporary-art values keep rising.

Over the past 10 years, for instance, fine art by Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol outperformed Standard & Poor's 500 index, according to a recent study by Artnet AG. While the S&P has fallen 1.3 percent, annual sales of contemporary art rose 35 percent from the previous year at the main 2011 auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's, a Bloomberg analysis found. "This makes investing in art much more reliable," Hans Neundorf, CEO of Artnet, told Bloomberg News.

And among the hottest emerging art markets is Nazareth's native Brazil (which just edged out Great Britain to become the world's sixth-largest economy). Art can often presage economic trends, which is why the organizers of Art Basel, which originated in Switzerland, decided to spin off a second fine art fair in Miami 10 years ago. Now, with Africa home to six of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies, we can expect a similar rise in art values on that continent and across the Diaspora.

Black people have historically been excluded from the elite, overwhelmingly white "deciders" who have drawn the line between a piece of fine art and a piece of banana. Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem spoke thoughtfully at Art Basel about the unique challenges of building institutions that can bridge that historic divide.

But of course black people have a rich history of taking that struggle and making it beautiful. When I'm walking around my neighborhood in Washington, D.C., I always smile when I see the historic marker for the Barnett-Aden Gallery, where, in 1943, a gay couple turned the first floor of their row house into the first privately owned black gallery in the United States, nurturing the careers of artists such as Elizabeth Catlett, Lois Mailou Jones, Alma Thomas and Charles White.

But in these hard times, for people of all colors and stripes, the consequences of making a bad art investment are much more catastrophic without the benefit of a trust fund. And the b.s. factor has always been one of the tensions in the art world, and one that has scared off many would-be collectors.

In 1993 Morley Safer, reporting for 60 Minutes, did an infamous attack: "Yes ... But Is It Art?" which put the art world into conniptions. At this year's Miami Art Basel, the still-crusty Safer could be seen, trying to reassess whether this year's crop are artists or practical jokers.

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