Is The Art World Obsessed With Making Us Feel Bad?

Maurizio Cattelan is usually “dismissed as a prankster,” per the press release for his new show at Gagosian in New York. That’s because he duct-taped a banana to a wall and sold it for $120,000, made a sculpture of an asteroid hitting the pope, and—for his last New York show, a 2011 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum—dangled his art from the rotunda’s ceiling, making it hard to get a good look and leaving viewers wanting more.

The same press release insists that he is in fact “a deeply political artist,” and the evidence is supposed to be the new work in his Gagosian debut. There, in Chelsea, you find a 68-foot modular metal work, plated in 24-karat gold and “modified by” bullets. (Holes abound.) Titled Sunday (2024), it offers very on-the-nose commentary about gun violence in America—“a condition from which privilege affords no defense,” the release claims.

In front of the wall, there’s a marble figure lying on a bench, slowly leaking water onto the floor—Cattelan’s “first fountain.” Entering the gallery, you are greeted by the hooded figure’s backside. Given all the bullet holes, you might expect the water to represent blood, or maybe tears. But when you walk around to face the figure’s front, you find him—fly undone, dick in hand—urinating all over the floor. It’s a classic Cattelan gotcha moment. How many people like this one (who happens to be modeled on the artist’s late friend), sleeping in public, possibly adjacent to urine, did you tune out on your way to Gagosian?

Does all this mean we are supposed to think that the banana-taper has turned over a new leaf, that he’s now tender and sincere? I wouldn’t ordinarily even entertain the idea, but in mind of his recent work in Venice, where Cattelan painted a mural on a women’s prison for the Biennale, I find it harder to dismiss. There, in grayscale, he painted the soles of cadaverous feet, à la Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ (circa 1483), at building size. The intervention was part of the Holy See pavilion, a group show held inside the prison. Cattelan’s sober contribution, being on the exterior, was the only work not visible to the prisoners inside. What does it mean? I admit, I continue to wonder every day.

That work, titled Father, is a counterpart to Mother, Cattelan’s 1999 Biennale performance during which viewers watched an ascetic get buried under sand, with only his praying hands poking through at the end. Cattelan loves an ascetic—or, more accurately, a masochist. Time and again, he seems to be taking bets that his viewers love masochism, too.

Cattelan is right: the art world is obsessed with work that makes us feel shitty about ourselves, as if enduring difficult truths makes us more righteous. (The man was raised Catholic, after all.) Plenty of art today shows us how terrible the world is, and we eat it up. Cattelan knows this, and will gladly take the opportunity to play sadist. Case in point: At a party once, he began a conversation by asking me and my partner how often we fight; his numerous interrogatives grew only more antagonizing from there.

At Gagosian, he found a way to make his sadism politically correct, annoyingly so. Sure, his subjects—gun violence and homelessness—are irrefutably important. But Cattelan’s installation amounts to a pair of tacky one-liners that tell us what we already know, just in a more expensive way.

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Cattelan’s bet that art viewers are a bunch of masochists has paid off: the press release claims that he is “the most famous Italian artist since Caravaggio.” I rolled my eyes when reading this at first, before conceding that it’s also probably true. And annoy me as he does, I still eagerly await Cattelan’s next move. I just hope it’s funnier.

Image: View of Maurizio Cattelan’s 2024 exhibition “Sunday” at Gagosian, New York.

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