Art at its Limits

What is art? The simplest answer to that question is anything that we decide to call art, but there are limits, which are constantly being pushed and challenged. Andy Warhol painted cans of Campbell soup, the most basic of American commodities, when the art world was used to more exalted subjects. Before him Marcel Duchamp displayed a porcelain urinal as a comment on the absurdities of modern art.

Recently another boundary was crossed when someone ate a $120,000 banana that was taped to the wall of an art gallery in Miami. The performance artist who ate the installation posted a video of the act and pronounced the piece of art “delicious”. The taped banana, which is called “Comedian” by its creator, the artist Maurizio Cattelan, follows in the path of Warhol and Duchamp, but adding an interrogation of the notion of impermanency to the debate on art. After all, a banana, unlike a painting or sculpture, will begin to rot after a few days. Can that truly be art?

Now the Israeli author Etgar Karet has his own take on the commodified piece of art. An Israeli bakery in New York, called Breads, is selling “Karet Cake”, a special dessert, created with his input, wrapped in a new short story he wrote just for the project. Karet specializes in the absurd, such as his story “Kneller’s Happy Campers”, about an afterlife populated by people who have killed themselves, later turned into a movie called Wristcutters: A Love Story.

This isn’t the first time Karet has been involved in quirky artistic ventures. He once lived in what was billed as the world’s skinniest house, an apartment built in Warsaw on a plot between two buildings and only 4 feet wide at its widest point. Karet likes to test the limits, both of living and of storytelling.

We will certainly never answer the question what is art, but it is fun to watch artists challenge our expectations. Like a younger generation of Israeli writers, Karet is less tied to the Jewish literary tradition than his processors, even if his language is Hebrew. He writes not for Jews steeped in the Bible and Rabbinic literature, but for an international readership, including New Yorkers willing to pay $18 for a piece of cake, albeit one that includes a brand new story by a great writer.

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