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Maurizio Cattelan banana artwork, Comedian (2019)
Maurizio Cattelan, Comedian (2019Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin

Court of a peel: the Art Basel banana faces fresh controversy

A California artist claims that Maurizio Cattelan stole the idea for his divisive banana artwork, Comedian (2019)

Maurizio Cattelan’s divisive banana is back in the news. First taped to the wall at Miami Art Basel in 2019, the $120,000 piece of fruit has been on a slippery slope ever since, wrapped up in a bunch of controversies that range from Epstein truther conspiracies, to acts of performance art and vandalism (someone ate it lol). The latest dispute, however, sees it at the centre of a new legal battle, with another artist claiming that Cattelan stole his groundbreaking idea of… duct-taping a banana to a wall.

In case you’re not completely caught up with the banana saga, a quick refresher: Cattelan’s Comedian (2019) basically appears as a real banana and duct tape, but the conceptual artwork actually consists of a certificate of authenticity and installation instructions, which dictate how the said banana should be properly displayed.

After two editions of the piece sold for $120,000 at Miami Art Basel, Comedian made Cattelan the most talked-about star of that year’s art fair, drawing even more attention when performance artist David Datuna plucked it off the wall and ate it. (“It’s very delicious,” he said – read his side of the story here.) As a result, the banana was removed, and another artist-slash-vandal decided that the vacant wall was ripe for another artistic statement, scrawling: “Epstien [sic] didn’t kill himself” on the Perrotin gallery booth.

Luckily, Cattelan seems pretty thick-skinned, and both escaped any criminal charges. In the meantime, his banana artwork also landed in the esteemed Guggenheim collection, while Damien Hirst was forced to fashion his own, after being told he wasn’t allowed to buy one.

Cattelan himself is now under the spotlight, however, as the California-based artist Joe Morford has been granted permission to take him to court for alleged plagiarism. Apparently, the renowned artist stole the idea from Morford’s 2000 work Banana and Orange, which, to be fair, features a very similar concept: a banana and an orange taped onto a green background with silver duct tape.

I did this in 2000. But some dude steals my junk and pimps it for 120K+ in 2019,” wrote Morford after the Art Basel fiasco, yellow with envy. “Plagiarism much?”

According to a federal judge in the Southern District of Florida, Morford might just be right. The judge notes that “he sufficiently alleges that there is similarity in the (few) protected elements” for the case to move forward. Of course, this also depends on whether the Court considers Comedian to be an original artwork, instead of just a piece of fruit taped to a wall, which it apparently does, thanks to its “absurd and farcical nature”, which meets the “minimal degree of creativity”.

If the fruity dispute does reach court, the legal battle will take place in Miami, where (CNN reports), judge Robert N. Scola Jr. has already rejected Cattelan’s motion to dismiss the case. Morford is seeking damages over $390,000 – the total cost of the three editions of Comedian that Cattelan sold – plus expenses.

“Thankfully for the Court, the question of whether a banana taped to a wall can be art is more a metaphysical question,” Scola said in his ruling. “But the legal question before the Court may be just as difficult – did Morford sufficiently allege that Cattelan’s banana infringes his banana?”

That remains to be seen. It will also be interesting to see if Morford will get the compensation he’s after, considering his much lower profile than Maurizio Cattelan (after all, no one cared about his banana back in 2000). Maybe the two artists can find a way to divide the profits – a banana split, if you will – although Cattelan would likely launch an a-peel. OK sorry, I’m done now.