Photographs from Bernard Bazile’s The Owners, taken 1999–2003 one
Photographs from Bernard Bazile’s The Owners, taken 1999–2003
From L to R: Lucius Grisebach (Neues Museum, Nürnberg), Lila and Gilbert Silverman, Guiseppe Manzoni Di Chiosca, Luigi Lucchetti

‘Your work is shit’ – the Italian artist Piero Manzoni was allegedly told by his father. In response to this slur, he came up with the idea of canning his own excrement as a work of art. Merda d’artista 1961 was made into an edition of 90. A neat riposte considering his father owned a canning factory. John Miller on the excremental value in Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista – sold in cans by weight at gold’s daily market price (becoming literally worth its weight in gold).

If you stuck a piece of shit on the wall, it would be all the same to them as long as someone told them the shit was worth money. That’s the nouveau-riche approach
Andrea Fraser, performance script for May I Help You?

Fraser’s statement issues from the mouth of a supposed patrician, a woman who might serve on a museum’s board of directors. Hers is a provocation meant to distinguish between old money and new, between those with a vast store of cultural capital and those in the business of acquiring as much as they can in the shortest time possible. For the patrician, the acquisitive efficiency of the nouveau riche is odious because the very prospect of ready exchangeability jeopardises longstanding traditions of cultural inheritance. This efficiency, as such, produces a relative indifference to deeply ingrained aesthetic experience. Curiously, her rhetorical substitution of shit for art recapitulates the logic of Piero Manzoni’s legendary work Merda d’artista 1961, a provocation of an entirely different order.

Photographs from Bernard Bazile’s The Owners, taken 1999–2003 two
Photographs from Bernard Bazile’s The Owners, taken 1999–2003
From L to R: Alfred Pacquement (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris), Elena Geuna, Cesare Caini, Giuseppe Zechillo

Merda d’artista is an edition of 90 signed and numbered works that Manzoni said he made from his own excrement. Each is a 30-gram can of shit, measuring 4.8 x 6.5 cm, “freshly preserved, produced and tinned”, as stated on the label. This information appears in Italian, French, German and English, against a background pattern produced by repeating the artist’s name in block letters. Because Manzoni sold each can by weight at gold’s daily market price, the shit literally became worth its weight in gold. In retrospect, this has proved to be a bargain. At $35.20 (£18.07) per ounce – the price at which the London Gold Pool (an international consortium of central banks) wanted to fix the precious metal – a tin originally would have cost about $37. That was 1961. Thirty years later, Sotheby’s auctioned one for $67,000. Then, the price of gold had climbed to $374 per ounce. If Manzoni’s initial pricing scheme still held, it should have cost only $395.77. In other words, in 1991 Merda d’artista had outperformed gold in price by more than 70 times. 

Ordinarily, prices serve to objectify value. More precisely, most people believe that prices objectify value. Alternately, objectifying value becomes the operative function of prices, regardless of whether people believe in them or not. Is the process of objectification, however, in itself objective? Merda d’artista is a clear enough gesture, but its recourse to exchange value puts a far less tractable host of metaphysical capers into play. Consider gold – an international medium for exchange since 1500BC. Perhaps because it serves almost exclusively as an emblem of value, the economist John Maynard Keynes once called the precious metal a “barbarous relic”. No doubt, he distrusted its irrational, even libidinal, allure, but to say that it is barbarous amounts to a no less troubling disavowal. For example, it was politicians and economists, not barbarians per se, who drew up the Bretton Woods Agreement to regulate the international monetary system in the wake of the Second World War. One of the agreement’s key provisions stipulated that countries fix their national currencies to an exchange rate indexed to gold – supervised by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). What this suggests, at the very least, is that value has become a negotiated property, even if the basis for such negotiation is not entirely rationalisable. Therein lies the rub, namely the politicisation of value within political economy. Curiously, just one year before Manzoni produced Merda d’artista, the price of gold spiked at $40 per ounce – up about $5 from its usual level; this came at a time when fluctuations of just a few pennies made headlines. Thus, in 1961, at the behest of the US Federal Reserve, the London Gold Pool formed to help to stabilise prices – and Manzoni in turn used them, nominally, to ascribe an exact value to his multiples.

Photographs from Bernard Bazile’s The Owners, taken 1999–2003 three
Photographs from Bernard Bazile’s The Owners, taken 1999–2003
From L to R: Andrea Caratsch, Peppino Di Bernardo, Brigit Damgaard, Bruno Bischofberger

Merda d’artista’s exactitude breaks with the universalist tone of Manzoni’s manifestos, wherein, for example, he called for art “to sink its roots to the origins before man and to discover the primary myths of humanity”. In contrast, the prosaic wording on the can’s label – “freshly preserved, produced and tinned” – suggests much more. For example, what does freshly preserved mean in the end? Ordinarily, fresh and preserved are antonyms, even if keeping food (relatively) fresh is the aim of preservation. The order is also curious. It suggests that the artist preserved his excrement even before he produced and tinned it. Moreover, how does preserving differ from canning, anyway? At the very least, this redundant anti-chronology underscores Manzoni’s pointed conflation of production and waste. To be fair, he ultimately did engage a primary myth, though perhaps one of inhumanity, to paraphrase Keynes: that of the commodity fetish. To do so, he came up with a novelty item not far removed from whoopee cushions, hand buzzers and plastic vomit. Supposedly, he made this work in response to a taunt from his father: “Your work is shit.” Since his father ran a factory that produced canned meats, Manzoni, in effect, paid him back in kind. Thus, what distinguishes Merda d’artista from the whoopee cushion is, not surprisingly, discourse. It is a gesture, not an industrial product – even if it presents itself otherwise.

Artist/critic Brian O’Doherty calls gestures “a form of invention”. He says the formal content of a gesture consists of its “aptness, economy and grace”. A gesture is didactic to the degree that it teaches “by irony and epigram, by cunning and by shock”. All these qualities derive from its poetic compression. As such, even though Manzoni spent much of his artistic career honing a reductivist literalism, one can easily read metaphors into Merda d’artista. For example, since Sigmund Freud understood art making as a sublimated anal drive, according to him, all artworks have an overdetermined relationship to faeces. In the infantile imagination, faeces, the first thing a child produces, also counts as a primordial gift. The obverse of this may be Karl Marx’s declaration that under capitalism even the greatest artwork is worth only so many tons of manure. Accordingly, in Manzoni’s constellation, the can interrupts the primordial nature of his gift. Add to all this, alchemy. Also add an antiexpressionist polemic: that which literally comes from the artist’s interior turns out not to be revelatory, but repellent. Thus, it must be contained.

The technique of canning implies ersatz culture and ersatz cuisine, reflected in phrases such as canned laughter. Even so, few have ventured to open one of Manzoni’s multiples – Tate prudently describes its copy (Number 4, acquired in 2000) as “tin can with paper wrapping with unidentified contents”. Someone who did open one was the artist Bernard Bazile, who showed it as a work of his own, titled Boite ouverte de Piero Manzoni 1989, at the Centre Georges Pompidou. Bazile only opened the can slightly, revealing an unidentifiable, wrapped object. Thus, the mystery remains. The internet, for its part, abounds with rumours of anything from one to “half the cans in the edition” leaking or exploding. One source even reports that X-rays have revealed a can within the can. Oddly enough, the literalism of this work lends credence to its metaphorical potential.

Although Manzoni famously worked in competition with Yves Klein, the most significant precedents for Merda d’artista lie within specific Marcel Duchamp works, such as Air de Paris (50cc of Paris Air) 1919, Monte Carlo Bond (1924), or Objet d’ard (1951). Drawing from these, Manzoni ingeniously synthesised literal, economic scatological elements in an entirely new work. Accordingly, Merda d’artista enacts its greatest violence not on the art object, but instead on the discourse in which it is ensconced. His gesture anticipates that criticality will become a recursive guarantor of value. He began by literalising his father’s taunt, by taking a metaphor at face value. He went from being someone who, oedipally, “did not give a shit” to self-realisation as a “shit giver” – or a shit seller, to be precise. Curiously, not giving a shit means apathy; giving shit, aggression. In this connection, selling counts as aggression. The artist’s shit begins like that of anyone else: not only worthless, but also disgusting. Next, Manzoni declares his shit an artwork, thus valorising it. He makes the valorisation explicit by equating the value of shit with that of gold. Through these acts, his literalism becomes paradoxical.The shit is no longer valued as “a thing in itself “, but as something that results from a social process of packaging and re-contextualisation. As the price differential between gold and Merda d’artista has gone on to prove, linking it to gold did not ultimately establish the value of the work. Instead, it was the gesture of linking it to gold. Consequently, just as shit metaphorically contaminates the process of valuation (be it that of art or gold), so marketability in turn contaminates critique by instrumentalising it. In this same vein, artist Coco Fusco cites a performance by the Cuban artist Alexis Esquivel that also exposes the cynicism of instrumentalised critique:

 [H]e sat in the middle of the Plaza Vieja on a tiny wooden stool, next to a display shelf for crafts. The shelf was virtually empty, except for one large ceramic statue of a corpulent black woman in a flowered dress with exaggeratedly Negroid features. As soon as a spectator arrived, Esquivel would launch into somewhat pedantic discourse about the sculpture [it depicts the most marginal of those oppressed by slavery and racism], and, why, despite its outward similarity to many others sold in flea markets throughout Havana, his was actually more valuable because of its ‘ideological charge’.

While Esquivel targeted the socialist rhetoric of an older generation, Manzoni seemingly anticipated what would become a connection between conceptual art and capitalist information economy. While Esquivel never sold his ceramic statuette, Manzoni’s Merda d’artista certainly established itself, for better or worse, as a collectable. Yet both artists ultimately target representational systems (which include the critical discourse that describes them) as relatively abstracted, free-floating entities. This certainly is a precondition of pop culture, where the consumption of the image rivals the consumption of the thing itself - if such a dichotomy can still hold. Oddly enough, since no one reportedly has identified definitively what lies within Manzoni’s cans, this ostensible transmogrification by critique may be nothing more than a chimera, yet it reflects rules that we all live by, like it or not.

Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista purchased in 2000, is on view at Tate Modern.