Why Art Is Bananas
As global markets collapse, contemporary art -- even the absurd -- keeps increasing in value.
Here in North America, prominent black curators such as New York City's Kellie Jones, and black collectors such as Jay-Z and Toronto-based Kenneth Montague, represent a new generation's rearticulation of how to accumulate wealth, cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal noted on a recent episode of his webcast, Left of Black. "You can buy two cars, or you can buy a Basquiat," Neal said.
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.
No doubt Nazareth's rotting bananas will make it into the 60 Minutes report. According to the catalog description, "Nazareth's 'Banana Market/Art Market' questions the dynamics of the art market and the art fair as a space for transactions and raises questions about the relationship between cultural value and retail price."
Right. Art Market. Banana Market. What's the difference? That's basically what my wise mother said, but in much more, um, direct terms. But could Nazareth also be seen as mocking the hands that handle actual fruit, which are hard, calloused and rarely called "genius"? I don't know, but when I saw the twinkle of mischief in Nazareth's eye, I saw the work of the classic trickster.
That is what is so wonderful about contemporary fine art. It is unsettling. It pushes buttons. It opens a space for you to think, be, see.
Besides, life can't get any more ridiculous than a President Rick "Oops" Perry. By comparison, I'd say the long-term outlook for the value of autographed bananas looks pretty bright.
Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.