When Maurizio Cattelan taped a banana to a wall and priced it at $120,000, he sparked an age-old debate about what constitutes art.
In its absurdity, the Italian artist’s three-part work “Comedian” tapped into conceptual art’s rich tradition of interrogating our definitions of creativity.
Of course, that may well have been the point. And perhaps, as Marcel Duchamp’s urinal proved over a century ago, contentious artworks may only draw their value from the debate – or publicity – they generate, rather than the material sum of their parts.
Here are eight other examples of works that show how the line between prankster and genius may only be a matter of success.
Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”
Consisting of a urinal bought at hardware store and placed on a pedestal, 1917’s “Fountain” fundamentally reshaped contemporary ideas of artistic value. The work was first submitted by Marcel Duchamp – who signed it using the pseudonym R. Mutt – to an unjudged New York exhibition that only required entrants pay a fee to have their art shown.
The work was kept out of sight at the show, though it has been debated ever since. In 2004, a survey of art experts named it modern art’s most influential work.
The best-known of Duchamp’s so-called readymades, “Fountain” was one of a number of different everyday objects that he declared to be works of art. The fate of the original remains unknown, though the artist produced a number of replicas later on in his career – one of which sold for more than $1.7 at an auction in in 1999.
Yoko Ono’s “Apple”
More than five decades before Maurizio Cattelan started taping bananas to walls, Japanese artist Yoko Ono exhibited an apple on an acrylic glass pedestal. A brass plaque beneath the fruit simply read “Apple.”
The 1966 artwork is, however, better known for its role in one of the 20th century’s most famous marriages. Amused by the artwork and its £200 price tag, John Lennon famously took a bite as he walked around Ono’s show at London’s Indica Gallery the day before its opening.
“He just grabbed it and bit it and looked at me like, you know, ‘There!’ you know?” she later recalled. “I was so furious, I didn’t know what to say.”
Tracey Emin’s “My Bed”
Arguably the most notorious artwork to ever be shortlisted for the UK’s prestigious Turner Prize, Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” sparked heated debate about the boundaries of contemporary art.
The work consisted of Emin’s unmade bed, which was strewn with body fluids and surrounded with trash and debris – including condoms and unwashed underwear. It was created following an episode of depression and heavy drinking, during which the artist had stayed in the bed for days.
While its value as art remains contentious, the work’s monetary value has surged since its creation in 1998. Once sold to businessman and collector Charles Saatchi for a reported £150,000, “My Bed” went under the hammer for more than £2.5 million ($4.3 million) at Christie’s London in 2014.
Banksy’s “Love is in the Bin”
Moments after Banksy’s “Girl with Balloon” sold at auction in 2018, the artwork famously “self-destructed” at Sotheby’s in London. Catching onlookers – and the art world – by surprise, the anonymous street artist had equipped the painting’s frame with a shredding mechanism that was activated shortly after the hammer dropped.
Banksy later renamed the painting “Love is in the Bin.” And despite its partial destruction, the winning bidder proceeded with the £1.04 million ($1.4 million) purchase, amid speculation that the artwork’s value may, in fact, rise as a result.
Four months later, it went on show at Germany’s Frieder Burda Museum, which reported “stiff competition” in becoming the first institution to display the work.
Robert Rauschenberg’s portrait of Iris Clert
Iris Clert was the Greek owner of a Parisian art gallery that hosted the works of several influential artists during its run between 1955 and 1971. In 1961, Iris had the idea of commissioning a portrait of herself to an number of artists, to exhibit at her gallery.
In response to the request, Robert Rauschenberg – a powerful force in American art history who spent his time as a painter, performer, designer, sculptor and printmaker, among other things – playfully sent a telegram, which read: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert If I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.”
The work, rooted in Neo-Dadaism and absurdist humor, defied all conventions of portraiture for a start, and offered layers of interpretation as the artist didn’t definitively “say so” and expressed himself as “I,” which the reader could also interpret as themselves.
Maurizio Cattelan’s “America”
This functioning, 18-karat solid gold toilet that Cattelan first installed at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2016, has become even more notorious in 2019 after it was stolen from Blenheim Place, a country house in England where it was exhibited on loan.
The piece, cast in a foundry in Florence and designed to resemble the regular toilets of the Guggenheim, is made with over 100 kilos of gold and worth millions. In its first public exhibit, over 100,000 people queued up to use it.
Since it was stolen, three arrests have been made, but the artwork is still at large.
Roelof Louw’s “Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges)”
This sculpture by South African artist Roelof Louw, first exhibited in 1967, is made of fresh oranges, replenished each time the piece is shown and stacked in a pyramidal shape over a square wooden frame. There are about 6,000 of them in the sculpture, and visitors are invited to take one, effectively participating in the artwork.
It has been on display several times and most recently in 2016 at London’s Tate Gallery, where it was regularly refilled as well as monitored for rotting fruit.
Nat Tate’s “Bridge No 114”
This painting, sold at auction by Sotheby’s in 2011 for £7,250 (about $9,500), was one of only 18 surviving works by Nat Tate, an artist who had tragically committed suicide in 1960 – or at least the story goes, because he wasn’t, in fact, real.