With lightning-quick precision, a brilliant political cartoon can summarize the follies of the day or the era, in ways that even the most economical editorial writers are unable to match. Exaggeration, speech balloons, and the traditional draftsman’s tools of line, shade, and even color are all at the disposal of the graphic satirist when it comes to lampoonery.
As the exhibition “Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York demonstrates, humorous or scathing works on paper, such as those by Goya or Daumier, can achieve a level of artistry that is far superior to that of most political cartoons found on the op-ed pages of newspapers today. Despite the fact that Leonardo’s small grotesque heads were intended to be studies off extremes in nature, rather than mocking or parodying, they seem to have set the most important precedent for the practice of caricature. Family members of the 16th-century Carracci family from Bologna first used the terms carico and caricare to describe pen drawings of bizarre human heads, which mean “to load” and “to exaggerate,” respectively. Their work helped pave the way for artists who saw that selected components could be distorted without obscuring the identity of the subject.
In the empire of the art world, Maurizio Cattelan has established himself as its court jester. It’s a prankster’s irreverence and a conceptual artist’s freedom that he seeks to disrupt the established order. With a misfit’s mischievous sense of humor, he guides us toward questioning socially ingrained norms, or identifies our darker human struggles and uncomfortable emotions. If the joke is on us or directed back at him, his work makes us laugh at our own human foibles and helps us relate to each other. Let’s take a look at the satirical art genius Maurizio Cattelan.
Maurizio Cattelan was born and raised in Padua, northern Italy. His mother worked as a maid and his father as a truck driver, and the family was financially strapped. Always an outcast, he despised school, received poor grades, and was perpetually in trouble. According to art historian Sarah Thornton, Maurizio’s mother was ill for the majority of his childhood and died in his early twenties. The artist believes she blamed him for her illness, which may have sparked his early struggles with concepts of failure and mortality that would later pervade his work.
He worked a series of unsatisfying jobs in post offices, mortuaries, and kitchens to support his family after dropping out of high school. He developed a distrust of authority and an aversion to the monotony of manual labor as a result of these early experiences. These encounters resulted in the birth of an artistic rebel. Cattelan’s sister Giada recalls how she used to be embarrassed to mention that she had a brother because he was a “lazy do-nothing artist.” Cattelan recounts his early artistic exploits in his autobiography, which mirror the outcast archetype being penned on him at the time. He drew mustaches on church statues while serving as an altar boy, which resulted in his expulsion from the parish.
Cattelan lacked a formal education in the arts. Perhaps initially motivated by a dislike for menial labor, he moved to Milan in his twenties and developed an interest in art. He was enchanted by the prestige associated with being an artist, as well as the prospect of having one’s work featured on magazine covers.
Flash Art Magazine
In 1990, he decided to forge his own cover of the then-popular FlashArt magazine. He constructed a house of cards sculpture out of FlashArt copies, which he then photographed. He then pasted this image on the front of genuine magazine copies, creating extremely convincing forgeries that he distributed through magazine stores and galleries. This launched his career, reiterating his conviction that being an artist would enable him to work for himself and be true to himself.
He moved to New York in 1993 and has alternated between living and working in New York and Milan ever since. Retaining his freedom to wing it in the art world, Cattelan quickly established himself as an artist with a strong sense of irony and humor despite his lack of an academic background. Despite the fact that his work frequently dealt with serious subjects, the art was presented in a lighthearted manner. He has always viewed himself as a worker in the art world, eschewing the reverence accorded to stereotypical or traditional artists. Since his early years, he has drawn extensively from a conceptual toolbox, utilizing a variety of mediums, forms, objects, and materials to express his underlying messages. Oftentimes in his early work, the message of the work was more important than the finished piece. Cattelan’s first work was a framed self-portrait in 1989 titled Lessico Familiare (Family Syntax), in which he is depicted forming a Hand Heart over his naked chest. His work frequently relied on simple puns or subverted clichéd situations, such as substituting animals for people in sculptural tableaux.
Cattelan is constantly concerned that his work will be rejected, saying, “You don’t want to see your work because you might discover that you don’t like it.” This persistent fear of failure was prominently displayed in a series of artworks about avoiding making anything.
In 1989, he closed the gallery and hung a sign on the door that read, “Torno subito,” or “Turn around immediately,” due to his fear of an unsuccessful solo show (“Be back soon”). The Guggenheim’s Nancy Spector, Deputy Director, refers to these as “performative escape routes.” His contribution to an exhibition at the Castello di Rivara near Turin, Italy, in 1992 was a rope off knotted bed sheets dangling from an open window, as if he had just fled the scene.
The following year, he rented out his Venice Biennale space to an advertising agency, which set up a perfume billboard with the title slogan Working Is a Bad Job. In 1996, he even went so far as to take the contents of another artist’s show from a nearby gallery without permission and pass them off as his own, until he was forced to return the work by the police. Another Fucking Readymade was the amusing title of the effort.
Cattelan’s social circle and relationships are also influenced by minimalism. Many of his family members, friends, colleagues, and romantic partners have noted that he likes to be alone and does not appreciate getting close to or being intimate with a large number of people. Cattelan is known to be enigmatic and slippery in public, dancing between the same emotional extremes he depicts in his artwork from sad depressive to class clown in a matter of moments. Perhaps his otherwise sparse personal life is due to his need to always be “on” in social situations, as the human embodiment of his artistic ideals, which spurs constantly shifting gears.
Cattelan’s career took a significant turn when he met Maurizio Bonami, Director of the Venice Biennale. They became fast friends, mostly because they were both Italian immigrants navigating the New York art world, and in part because they lived on the same East Village street. Cattelan was given a prominent place in the 1993 Biennale by Bonami.
He began working with hyperrealist sculpture around the turn of the millennium. Artists who work in Hyperrealism (also known as Photorealism when used in painting) create convincing simulations of objects, figures, and situations while also including elements that are unlikely to exist in reality. They create a convincing false reality in this way. Duane Hanson and Ron Mueck were two other hyperrealist sculptors who came before Cattelan, but both of them used fiberglass, whereas Cattelan uses wax.
Many hyperrealist works act as social commentary and Cattelan’s sculptures, indeed present strong social critique. When he uses religious and historical figures in his hyper-realist sculptures, they’ve been called blasphemous and offensive because of the way they’re depicted.
Despite causing considerable controversy with his satirical critique of the art world and of society in general, Cattelan was able to captivate rather than enrage his audience and his peers for the most part with his satirical critique. He did indeed draw long lines of well-behaved visitors to his America sculpture, a working solid-gold toilet that was installed in a restroom at the Guggenheim from 2016 to 2017, which sparked an outpouring of positive feedback on social media. A restroom at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England, was where the artwork was stolen in 2019. The artwork, which is estimated to be worth more than $4 million, had been on display at the time of the theft.
Banana: Art Basel, Miami (2019)
Meanwhile, the conceptual piece Comedian, which was on display at the 2019 Art Basel Miami, an annual international art fair, created quite a stir when it was unveiled. Simply consisting of a banana that had been taped to a wall, the work was bought and sold three times, for a total of $120,00 to $150,000 each time. The apparent dissonance between the ephemeral object and the high price it demanded sparked long-running debates about what constitutes art.
Satire Art; Morbid Sense of Humor
Cattelan has always refused to be referred to as an artist-provocateur, despite the fact that the title is appropriate. Instead, he asserts that he is merely reflecting society, and in fact, he considers himself more of an “art worker” than an artist in the traditional sense. In fact, he doesn’t always create his own work, and much of the time his work is a concoction of nothing more than fleeting actions or statements from others.
Cattelan’s work is replete with allusions to the concepts of failure and mortality. His investigations into these more serious themes of the human condition, on the other hand, are laced with a morbid sense of humor that serves to lighten the mood overall. Which makes him the perfect subject for satire art.