Maurizio Cattelan’s Hypocrisies

View of Maurizio Cattelan’s 2024 exhibition “Sunday” at Gagosian, New York. Photo Maris Hutchinson

The conjunction of art and politics is a confusing and often compromised enterprise. The commentator Ben Davis argues that as our society regresses under the politics of neoliberalism, such art serves a “compensatory role.” Much explicitly political art is either pedantic or satirical. There’s a long history dating back to the Incoherents and Decadents, the late 19th-century artists who embraced absurdity, irrationality, and the grotesque to protest against emerging bourgeois values and the academic practice of art. They used parody, satire, the carnivalesque, as well as didactic and pedantic jokes to expose cultural ideocracies and societal flaws. This was followed by the Dadaists in the early 20th century, who expressly mixed real-world politics and provocative, anti-art gestures with the intention of undermining social and artistic conventions and setting the groundwork for a social and cultural revolution. Since then, and as an avant-garde compliment to social realism, there has grown up a tradition of the trickster artist—pranksters using absurdity, parody, and gestures to scandalize and provoke their audiences.

Playing the court jester to expose the system’s hypocrisies became a standard tactic for standup comedians and artists. This tendency came into the mainstream with the acceptance of Duchamp’s Readymade in the mid-1950s and gained popularity with the likes of such neo-Dadaists as Yves Klein, who, in the early 1960s, capitalized on letting the audience in on his conceptual jokes. This is exemplified in works like Anthropometries, where he used naked women as living brushes, directing them to roll around on stretches of canvas accompanied by a string quartet before a live audience. Such happenings soon became a norm amongst the group of international anti-art-artists who came to be known as Fluxus.

Starting with Neo-Dada and Pop in the 1960s, the prankster/provocateur impulse became more overt and commercialized as it appealed to the post-WW2 middle-class audiences who wanted high art’s challenging artistic styles and intellectual concepts simplified, streamlined, and “watered down” to be more accessible and palatable. Art and culture were being sold to this generation as an opportunity for self-improvement and cultural status. It was felt that modern art had a better chance of achieving mainstream popularity and commercial success while maintaining a veneer of intellectual respectability by allowing the middlebrow to engage with culture in a comfortable, non-threatening way. This shift made overtly provocative artworks vulnerable to being absorbed by the very system they were meant to critique while providing its audience enough distance so as not to recognize their duplicity.

This brings us to Maurizio Cattelan who includes in his bio that he was raised by a mother who was a cleaning lady and a father who was a truck driver and that he is a self-taught artist with no formal training. He is perhaps best known for his work America (2016), a fully functional solid gold toilet, or Comedian (2019), a work consisting of a ripe banana duct-taped to a wall, which immediately sold for $120,000. Before these provocations, he presented such controversial hyper-realistic, life-sized sculptures as La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour,1999), which depicts Pope John Paul II struck down by a meteorite, and Him (2001), a sculpture of a young Adolf Hitler kneeling in a repentant pose. All such works, of course, come with an implied political message, as well as exemplifying Cattelan’s wink-and-a-poke “irreverent,” prankster-like approach to serious social and political themes such as religion, the redemption of the extreme Right, or consumer fetishism.

The exhibition titled, Sunday (we are told it is a reference to Cattelan considering himself a Sunday amateur artist), is curated by the Italian art critic, curator, and writer Francesco Bonami. It is Cattelan’s first exhibition in NY in twenty years and consists of two works: a wall piece consisting of bullet-riddled and pocked-marked stainless-steel panels gilded in 24-karat gold, measuring 27 x 68 feet. In front of this is a marble 19th-century funerary-like white marble sculpture titled November. It depicts a derelict man (someone abandoned, neglected, or forsaken) lying on a bench with his pants open, his penis exposed as he urinates endlessly onto himself and the gallery floor. While the urinating figure may be seen as unsuitable for installation in a corporate lobby or boardroom, the steel panels could potentially function as decorative wall elements in such a setting. By juxtaposing these two components, Cattelan transforms both tragic subjects—gun violence and human vulnerability—into spectacles for the viewer’s examination and contemplation within the safety of the Gagosian Gallery, an elite commercial gallery catering to wealthy collectors. This opens Cattelan to the mandatory accusations of ethical and moral hypocrisy.

Seemingly, such provocative art world gestures are no longer an affront to bourgeois taste but an appeal to neo-liberal values, which demonstrates how good capitalism is at absorbing and commercializing whatever criticism is made of it. The French Situationists’ critique of the society of the spectacle in the early 1960s foreshadowed how radical gestures would be repackaged as commodities that can be easily absorbed, commercialized, and neutralized by the very networks they are intended to critique and disrupt. The Situationists, in turn, theorized that to retain a truly disruptive, counter-hegemonic position requires constant renewal of tactics and an unflinching self-critical stance. Perhaps Cattelan is aware of this paradox and the potential of his radical gestures being defanged.

According to the press release, Cattelan’s focus for this show is on the accessibility of weapons in the US and its marginalized populations. This gives him and his work a liberal guise. Yet, short of the press release, the show itself offers no such context for such a reading. If this was his intent he could have, in his own clever way included a monument to school shootings and a list of the 100 richest and poorest people in the US, instead, we are given two empty signifiers—one consisting of a marble statue of a man urinating on himself and the other a bullet-strewn metal plating gilded gold. As presented, the man may signify the indignity of being homeless, or perhaps he’s just drunk; as for the metal plates, rather than signifying violence in America, it might be thought to refer to the Latin and South American drug and gang wars, which have resulted in the present mass migration north. As such, we are left to tell our own stories. So rather than interpreting Cattelan’s exhibition as a commentary on gun culture and wealth disparity in the United States, as we have been instructed to, I have chosen to view it generously as a heavily disguised self-critical gesture. In my interpretation, I propose that Cattelan is examining how his privileged position, while giving him access to a public platform, limits his ability to critique the systems of power and wealth, except in the vaguest terms, if he is to maintain his success. As such, he stands between destitution (the figure on the bench) and the ever-present threat of violence (the bullet-riddled stainless steel plates). Subsequently, these works exemplify the challenges he faces in maintaining his privileged status without jeopardizing it.

I was going to use Santiago Sierra here as a counter to Cattelan. In the 1990s-2000s, Sierra was known for his provocative and controversial artworks, which confronted societal issues like sexual exploitation, inequality, and human rights violations. I had imagined that if he had Cattelan’s opportunity, he would have hired a homeless person to live in the gallery amongst guns and spent cartridges. Such a vulgar spectacle would have been designed to generate outrage over his exploitation of another human being’s vulnerability and desperateness. Such gestures would be aligned with Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty,” which is meant to confront viewers with the cruel realities society ignores or is shielded from. However, seemingly even Sierra’s voice has arguably been co-opted by the very systems he once sought to expose.

Yet, I came across an article about artists participating in the 2023 Paris Fashion Week, where Sierra collaborated with Balenciaga, pouring 275 cubic meters of mud from a peat bog into a massive pit inside Paris’s Parc des Expositions de Villepinte for their runway show. The mud even got onto the clothing. Seemingly, Sierra had produced a mere aesthetic provocation devoid of explicit critical intent. Yet his corporate sponsor was able to give this spectacle a critical bent. Balenciaga’s creative director stated, “The set of this show is a metaphor for digging for truth and being down to earth.” Perhaps if we wish to give Sierra the benefit of the doubt, we can imagine he took part in this event to make himself once again the target of controversy and accusations of doubt, wed moral hypocrisy to expose the excess and decadence of the world of high fashion. Or for the money.

If we don’t just write Cattelan off as a neo-liberal seeking profit wherever he can, given the circumstances, can we believe that he truly wants to be provocative, politically progressive, and confrontational? If the latter is the case, I think he could have used his privileged position to mischievously include, as a provocation, a banner calling for major art dealers he works with to divest themselves of collectors who profit from the billions of dollars in profit generated by the weapon’s industry; civil strife that has led to humanitarian crises such as in Gaza, Yemen, Sudan, Nigeria, etc.; or endless wars such as Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria. Remember. Instead, Cattelan, like other provocateur artists such as Thomas Hirschhorn, whose recent mega-production at Barbara Gladstone Gallery, Fake It, Fake It — Till You Fake It, which bemoaned the loss of the real, reminds us how difficult it is for successful artists to maintain their critical position once they have entered the institutionalized art world, and have become intertwined with the power structures of capital.*

So, while Cattelan seeks to redeem himself by generically gesturing towards his work being a commentary on gun violence and wealth disparities in the US, in actuality, he reveals his true politic by exhibiting at high-end galleries, where his work becomes part of the spectacle—just another luxury commodity for the wealthy collectors who pride themselves on being able to accommodate a work like November pissing on their floor because they are in on the joke. Cattelan and other prankster artists risk having their subversive gestures absorbed and rendered impotent by the institutional frameworks they rail against. So, the dispiriting message of such jestering mirrors the Borg’s mantra from Star Trek, “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”

*Maurizio Cattelan invited a diverse group of VIPs, including artists, gallerists, and collectors, to witness the creation of his bullet-riddled artwork “Sunday” at a clandestine shooting range in Brooklyn. Over the course of nine sessions, licensed shooters fired more than 20,000 rounds from various high-caliber firearms into large gold-plated stainless steel panels, while the guests observed from behind a soundproof glass wall. The panels, each bearing the marks of different bullet types are priced at $375,000.

Maurizio Cattelan: Sunday | Curated by Francesco Bonami, Gagosian, West 21st Street, New York, April 30–June 15, 2024 Artwork © Maurizio Cattelan

About the Writer: Saul Ostrow is an independent curator and critic. Since 1985, he has organized over 80 exhibitions in the US and abroad. His writings have appeared in art magazines, journals, catalogues, and books in the USA and Europe. In 2010, he founded along with David Goodman and Edouard Prulehiere, the not-for-profit Critical Practices Inc. as a platform for critical conversation and cultural practices. His book Formal Matters (selected and revised) published by Elective Affinities will be launched Fall, 2022. He served as Art Editor at Bomb Magazine, Co-Editor of Lusitania Press (1996-2004) and as Editor of the book series Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture (1996-2006) published by Routledge, London.

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