Arts Curriculum

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.


From Disrepect to Iconoclasm

Untitled, 1998. Polyester resin, paint, fabric, and leather, 217.2 x 139.7 x 59.7 cm. Edition of 2. Photo: Thomas Greisel

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 commentary about the commodification of culture crystallized in an intervention at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, in 1998 where Cattelan explored the concept of the artist as mascot. He identified Pablo Picasso as the museum’s most famous artist since he is often 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 large molded head mask and the artist’s striped boatneck shirt occupied the galleries. This Picasso behaved like an amusement-park mascot, greeting crowds, posing for photographs, and signing autographs. The presence of the iconic character called attention to the fact that MoMA, like other major tourist attractions, is an international cultural destination and engages in self-promotion, from logo-stamped merchandise to affiliations with iconic individuals. The performance also highlighted the phenomenon of the glorified celebrity artist and the degree to which art history idolizes such figures.

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.

Maurizio Cattelan

Untitled, 1998. Polyester resin, paint, fabric, and leather, 217.2 x 139.7 x 59.7 cm. Edition of 2. Photo: Thomas Greisel

  • 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.
Untitled, 1998. Polyester resin, paint, fabric, and leather, 217.2 x 139.7 x 59.7 cm. Edition of 2. Photo: Thomas Greisel



  • Although Cattelan admits that his relationship to museums is symbiotic since 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 ‘artistic’ Disneylands. 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 artists and curators is to deconstruct those strategies, to resist their logic, 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 unexpected. Irony is defined as “a manner of organizing a work so as to give full expression to contradictory or complementary impulses, 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). Brainstorm other mismatches of character and setting and share the possibilities 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 research these traditions and share them with the class.
    Social Studies