From Disrepect to Iconoclasm
I never purposely decide to create a scandal, to provoke. . . . Images sometimes manage to anticipate the future, and maybe that’s what scandalizes the public— not to recognize themselves in what they see.
Cattelan’s early reputation in the art world as a troublemaker was fostered by his seeming lack of respect for all forms of authority. His initial admission that his art focused on “the ironicdisobedient- childish aspects of [his] personality” has extended into a long-standing professional impertinence. His work can be viewed as moving from one act of insubordination to another, with each project exhibiting increasing amounts of complexity.
An example of Cattelan’s humorous
about the commodification of
culture crystallized in an intervention
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, in
Cattelan explored the concept of
the artist as mascot. He identified
as the museum’s most famous artist since he
hailed as the father of modernism and is
well represented in its
collection. For the run of
the show, an actor dressed as Picasso in a
molded head mask and the artist’s striped boatneck
occupied the galleries. This Picasso
behaved like an amusement-park
greeting crowds, posing for photographs, and
autographs. The presence of the iconic
character called attention to
the fact that
MoMA, like other major tourist attractions,
international cultural destination and
engages in self-promotion,
merchandise to affiliations with iconic
The performance also highlighted
the phenomenon of the glorified
and the degree to which art history idolizes
This performative work (the show’s only element) exposed what by the mid-1990s had become a growing correlation between museums and entertainment centers, where content is geared toward the lowest common denominator. The presence of Cattelan’s Picasso as a friendly face, an inviting host, resembled those cartoon characters come-tolife at Disneyland, an emblem for lowbrow, wholesome amusement. Cattelan recognized his own complicity in the phenomenon: the more popular his own exhibition (and it was much loved by the public), the greater the risk to the museum and the artist of seeming to “dumb down” their content to a point of no return.
- As a class, look carefully at this photograph. What do you notice? What aspects of it seem familiar? Are there parts of it that are puzzling?
- One usually sees this type of large puppet as a cartoon character at an amusement park or a team mascot at a sports match. Instead Cattlelan has created a puppet of Pablo Picasso, the most famous modern artist, cavorting around MoMA. How does changing the character and setting influence the impact and meaning of this work?
- Cattlelan expressed surprise that the museum was willing to go along with his idea. Have students imagine they are the exhibition curator and Cattelan proposes this project. What would their responses be? What concerns might they have about providing a space for this work?
- Cattlelan has admitted that his works are rooted in “the ironic-disobedient-childish aspects of [his] personality.” Does this work embody any of these characteristics? Explain.
Cattelan admits that his relationship to museums is
they help further his career as an artist, they have
not escaped his
caustic, probing wit. “Contemporary art will
never achieve the
audience of football, pop music or television,
so I think we should
stop comparing its possible area of influence
to that of big
mass-media events. New buildings such as the
Museo Guggenheim in
Bilbao, as well as many recent
international exhibitions, play inside
the logic of the spectacle;
they attract a large number of people as
Today, sensationalism has replaced the
critic’s knowledge of
reality; the laws of the market are stronger
than the efforts to
fight against singular thought. We live in the
empire of marketing,
spectacle and seduction, so one of the roles of
curators is to deconstruct those strategies, to resist
to use them, and/or find new means of activism against
them” (“I Want to Be Famous—Strategies for Successful Living: Interview
with Barbara Casavecchia 1999,” in Bonami, Spector, Vanderlinden, and
Gioni, Maurizio Cattelan, pp. 133–36).
In the statement above, and in his work, Cattelan criticizes museums for embracing commercial marketing strategies to attract visitors. Does your class agree or disagree with Cattelan’s point of view?
- The irony of Untitled (1998) is caused by encountering the
Irony is defined as “a manner of organizing a work
so as to give
full expression to contradictory or complementary
attitudes, etc., especially as a means of indicating
detachment from a
subject, theme, or emotion” (Dictionary.com, s.v. “Irony,” accessed
September 28, 2011, http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/irony).
other mismatches of character and setting and share the
as a class.
English Language Arts
- Although Cattelan is clearly
referencing the animated characters
that one encounters at a theme
park or sporting event, large
puppets are not only used in commercial
ventures, but also as
part of religious and cultural festivals and
processions around the
world, including those in Brazil, India,
Mexico, and Vietnam. In
Cattelan’s native Italy, the town of
Viareggio holds an annual
carnival that features papier-mâché floats,
and oversized puppets
that parade along the promenade. Students can
traditions and share them with the class.