In 1961, responding to Pop Art and the general rise of the global consumer, Piero Manzoni put together 90 30-gram cans and labeled them Artist’s Shit in English, French, Italian and German, and signed his name on the top. Whether the cans actually contain the artist’s shit is irrelevant; I’m not sure anyone has really been tempted to quell their curiosity. We don’t know what the work of art is made of, we just have to trust the label. Putting excrements in a can wasn’t the only thing that distinguished the Italian artist; he set the price of each can at its weight in gold. The viewer questions the can as art and rethinks the concept of consumer value. Manzoni joined the ranks of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol in confronting the new consumer reality and the place of art within it.
On May 23, Sotheby’s sold one of Manzoni’s cans for 124,000 euro (~US$ 165,500) at its auction to an unidentified European collector. While selling at double the reserve price (the hidden minimum price needed to be reached by the bidder), the value of the cans has risen because approximately half the cans have exploded.
Over his lifetime Manzoni created works ranging from thumprinted hardboiled eggs, signed living people (including Umberto Eco) as well as the earlier and more traditional works on canvas. Artist’s Shit was one of Manzoni’s final works and created a stir.
And the fact that this can of ‘excrement’ has sold today for an exorbitant amount of money only further solidifies the questionable nature of art as commodity. While Manzoni’s work created a stir in the 60s, 45 years later the art of the past has just been annexed into the canon of avant-garde art, receding to the back ranks. The institution of art continues, and buying a can of shit isn’t unheard of.