Piero Manzoni : exploring the economics of artistic aura

As anyone who has an interest in post-war art will probably know, Piero Manzoni (1933 – 1963) is mostly known for one of the most provocative gestures in the history of art, the famed Merda d’Artista (1961), or “artist’s shit”.  It consists of ninety cans of – supposedly – his own faeces, tinned in small cans very similar to those in the “K Rations” of World War II or the “C Rations” used by American soldiers in Vietnam. The label states in four languages – Italian, German, English and French – the following: “Artist’s Shit, contents 30gr net, freshly preserved, produced and tinned in May 1961”. Each can is numbered, and was signed by the artist in front of a notary. Manzoni set the price at the then equivalent price of gold for 30g. The can’s diameter is 6.5 cm, its height 4.8 cm.

Artist’s Shit is not the only case of Manzoni proposing to capture an artist’s fluids, or excrements. In 1959, he proposed Corpo d’Aria (Air Body), in practice inflatable balloons with a small tripod, of which 45 copies were made and sold for 30,000 lira each, but at a higher price if the air was to be blown into the balloon by an artist. The price was to be 250 lira per litre of “artist’s breath”, knowing that roughly 260 litres were required per balloon. There are traces of an intent to do the same with artist’s blood, but it was not realized. Manzoni’s work belongs to an entirely different world than the terrifying and disgustingly sublime work of David Nebreda, or the attempted aesthetics of repulsion by Andres Serrano in the Shit series of photographs (2007), two notable examples of the presence of faeces in contemporary art. What is striking perhaps is the word itself, “shit”. Had he used the word “excrement”, or “faeces”, the striking power of the object-event would have been less. Beyond this word, one should also consider that excrements was always viewed as a metaphor of the lowest, the basest of things, what has no value whatsoever as it is rejected, dispensed of, eliminated by the body as that where there is nothing left to use. And, importantly, it stinks: the smell compels us to establish a distance, proves the worthlessness of the thing. Despite that, it is something personal: it comes from the body of a particular animal, it is the disgusting side of the intimate.

Manzoni’s gesture is an obvious invitation to reflect on the aura of art, on the replacement of the object by the artist himself as the focus of art, on the authority or group that designates an object as being art, on the relationship between art and form, on the question of visibility or invisibility in art… and the list could go on. Rarely has any object – and even less such an utterly banal, mediocre one, been able to trigger so many important questions and debates. And I would be tempted to qualify these objects as “object-events”, considering that they cannot be summarized by the small can and its modest label alone. To some extent, this is indeed an event that continues to unfold until this day, as a recurring question, as the catalyst of a discussion between the object, the community of artists, and the public.  

The most obvious connotation is of course that of the relic, which consists either of a fragment of the body (e.g. the tooth of the Buddha, today in Kandy, Sri Lanka), or something which the worshipped person touched or used and is symbolically inseparable of him (the Cross, the Veronica, the Holy Shroud…). As noted by Camille Paulhan in his useful essay on Manzoni, Jacques-Alban-Simon Collin de Plancy, in his Critical Dictionary of relics and miraculous images (1821), mentions the Holy Tears of Christ and the sweat of Saint Michael as relics, both bodily fluids rather than bones or other types of solid fragments. The blood of San Gennaro is known by every Italian. And of course, the most famous of all relics should be mentioned, the Holy Grail; although it is a mythical relic, its symbolic power has been and remains colossal. There is no explicit reminder in Manzoni’s words of the tradition of relics, which are a phenomenon mostly relevant to Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. What we are discussing here is not a comparison of Manzoni’s shit with the clavicle of St Andrew or the ulna of St Peter, as what is sacred is certainly not Manzoni himself, but a moment in the intellectual history of humanity, and paradoxically a moment when art is desecrated by a form of exhaustion, which compels it to an endless exploration of new territories. Manzoni’s shit could indeed be read as the relic of desecration, and that does have a profound importance, a prophetic importance, in terms of anthropology.

From the perspective of value, this object-event is a play on the impact of doubt, a situation which it does share with relics, as correctly noted by Paulhan. A relic proven to be an imposture would de facto lose any symbolic value, it would fail to embody sanctity, to attract devotion. It would be nothing. During centuries, and until modern tools of carbon dating came to exist, relics were protected by the difficulty of proof; they still are, as long as they date back to the right period in history. This situation of relative uncertainty is replicated in the case of Manzoni by the sealed can, and the dilemma which is artificially created in order to achieve such replication. Doubt, or uncertainty, is in this particular case the artefact itself. For this very reason, the parallel with relics is not fully relevant: the possibility of the presence of “fake” bodily contents in all or some cans is part of Manzoni’s work; a fake relic is just a fake, a nothing.   

I would like to explore a little more the relationships between market price versus symbolic price versus value, and in particular the disturbance which doubt, doubt built into the work, brings into this equation.

The price of gold in 1961 meant that Manzoni could have sold a can at around 37$ of that time.  Today, one gram of gold is worth around 50$, which puts the can at 1,500$ according to its symbolic price, the one claimed by Manzoni. It would seem that, on an auction held in December 2016 in Milan, the can number 69, out of a private British collection, reached 275,000 Euros (305,000$), 203 times its symbolic price.

The symbolic price meant, literally, that the artist transforms anything – including its own excrements – into gold; the only thing that matters is the artist’s intervention, the sacred nature of art lies in him, in his body, not in his work. A commoner’s canned shit would not sell for a cent. As gold is a symbol of value, of kingship, of divinity, of that which is most desirable, admirable and powerful in general, this was indeed a very powerful statement.

Obviously, selling the can for anything less than its price in gold would destroy the entire argument, deny any validity to Manzoni’s claim, or provocation, imply that it is the creation, stupid, that matters.  But what if the price is higher? If Manzoni’s excrements are worth more than their weight in gold, as it actually is, does the symbol still stand? Doesn’t the price kill – overkill – the symbol, thereby reducing the value of the object, and transforming it from an artwork that questions fundamental human attitudes into a financial asset which commands a price tied to the willingness of others to buy it rather than to its importance for art history? I do not suggest that it does, but that this question is symbolically valid.

The case of the Artist’s shit is of particular interest for the economics of symbols, as here is an object which has no material value whatsoever – it costs nothing to produce, no work, talent, competence or technology is involved in its making, and it has no concrete use whatsoever – but commands a serious price of 10,000$ per gram, more than twice that of plutonium, though still far less than the best diamonds… Virtually 100% of the price escapes the economic categories of work-value or usage-value. If you look at the work as a whole, i.e. the 90 cans, you should value the asset at 27 million USD. Far less than, say, a skull painting by Basquiat. But this is another discussion.  

So that what we have here in raw form is the value which we attribute to a reified moment in history, the moment when an important question was asked (but not answered). In 2014, a hat of Napoleon picked presumably on the battlefield of Waterloo was sold for 350,000 Euros, while another one purchased by a Korean gentleman reached the record of 1.8 million Euros. One could image that the helmet of Alexander the Great at Gaugamela would reach a multiple of that, if proven authentic. What is in that price? Glory, epics, the greatest narratives of human history, made present at least to some degree. Let us guess that the tie of Donald Trump on election day, or the shoes of Boris Johnson on Brexit day, will not surpass by much their level in the shop they were bought from. The epics, i.e. the transfiguration of the individual into a hero, is just not there.

A letter by Albert Einstein reached 400,000$ in 2018. The great breakthroughs of the human mind are also made present indirectly through the manuscript: this is precisely the way an icon operates: it retains something of the divinity, it summons – invites… – the divinity into the image by the operation of faith. The icons which we are discussing summon the genius of humans – that which touches upon something confusingly felt as higher than the mere human, or at least that which is the worthiest in humanity – into the object. That is why such a price is paid for such icons: the privilege of being in the immediate presence of the highest summits of human achievements or feats. Whether or not they are so does not matter: history is present to us as a narrative rather than a concatenation of facts. Narrative is what exalts facts, charges them with symbolic energy.

Achrome

In the more modest example of Manzoni, we are nevertheless facing an important moment in the history of art, the moment when a crucial set of questions were asked, not only by Manzoni of course; a moment which is permanently re-enacted through this iconic object. It would be nonsensical to consider the Artist’s Shit in isolation, without reference to the history of 20th century art and the violent questioning of art’s nature by Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) or by Klein’s Monochromes, but also in isolation of Manzoni’s own previous works, including the Achromes and Corpo d’Aria. In 1957, he started making Achromes which consist of one square meter canvases soaked in kaolin and wrinkled or folded in ripples, and produced a large number of them, more than 600. With the Achromes, the artist intended to remove any “artistic” gesture from the work: he applied no colour, used no brush or other tool, leaving the surface to the chance effects of drying kaolin or plaster, with natural light as the true “actor” that reveals what there is to be seen, permanently changing depending on the source, angle, intensity and other qualities of light. In a sense, the artist effaces himself. Hence the apparent paradox of Artist’s Shit which suggests that the value of a work of art henceforward lies entirely in the fact that the maker of a work is an artist – or is acknowledged as being an artist, this important point is left open – before he actually makes the work by a process which may even be purely mechanical, biological, or left to chance, or consisting in the god-like designation of a pre-existing object such as in the case of the ready-made. Clearly, what is valued is not the gesture, the talent: none was required in these examples. It is the fiat (“let there be”). And fiat is the essence of divinity. Now, this is not so simple: if an anonymous accountant in Turin had put his excrements in a tin box, and attempted to sell them for the price of gold with provocative intentions, chances are that an ambulance would have rapidly been on its way, or that people would have merely shrugged. Why? Because he is not an artist. Social groups agree, informally, that certain individuals are endowed with certain powers on their behalf. Shamans are one example. Artists another.

Let us elaborate a little on the economics of Artist’s Shit, and assume – leaving echography, spectrograms and the like on the sides for the moment – that one of these cans is opened. Two situations may occur: either the contents are consistent with Manzoni’s words, or not. If they are  consistent, would such revelation destroy the value of the opened can versus the sealed ones ? Would knowledge come in contrast with enjoyment in a new version of Eve’s apple… and would such knowledge enhance the value of the remaining 89 cans? This is hard to tell for sure, as part of the value rests in the uncertainty which surrounds the contents. If the experiment was made, it would alter forever the work, depriving us of any reference case against which to measure the outcome. Presumably, by increasing the scarcity of the object and removing uncertainty as to the contents of any particular can, one may assume that the proof obtained from one can enhances the value of all the others, although Manzoni may in theory have filled them differently, and probably has.

If the contents of the opened can differs from the label, then the situation becomes more complex; this would necessarily reflect an intention of the artist, a “provocation within the provocation”, with Manzoni meaning that the economic and symbolic value lies in your belief that something of his body is there, in other words that you treat the can as containing a relic. If you realize that the clavicle of St Paul is that of a commoner who lived next door, you will cease immediately to consider it a relic and feel fooled. If Manzoni’s excrements are replaced with those of a dog, however, the outcome is different because this fact brings to the fore new questions which it was the intention of Manzoni to raise, and are to be treated an intrinsic part of his work. Chances are that these new questions are too abstract, to far-fetched to trigger the same interest in the object, the same devotion to the object. Perhaps all cans will have lost part of their value as a result, and millions will have suddenly evaporated from collectors’ pockets, the icon being degraded into a joke by Manzoni post mortem. But this is not certain until tested.

Some facts may help us answer these intriguing questions. In 1989, Bernard Bazile, a French artist born in 1952, asked his gallerist Roger Pailhas to purchase can number 5, so that he may open it in public, as a performance. The intent was, in the jargon of the time, to “reinvest” Manzoni’s work. If anyone can think of an emptier “concept” than reinvest, other than re-appropriate which is more or less synonymous, I predict that he will become a millionaire in “likes”. These words mean anything from “inspire oneself from” to “use as a material”, and from “exploit” to “plagiarize”… Unfortunately, they have the become the bread-and-butter of curatorship and art criticism, as they dispense the author from any further thought.  By “reinvesting” Manzoni’s gesture, Bazile made an interesting and bold move. In fact, Bazile is now mostly known for that particular initiative.

What was inside the can? Another, smaller can (“scatolina” in Italian). So that the uncertainty is not quite lifted, and it is obvious that Manzoni either tried to minimize the possibility and inconvenience of any leakage, or thought about the possibility that an owner would yield to the temptation, and thus created an additional psychological obstacle. Of course, it is possible to open the smaller can, but the psychological barrier is now higher; and in fact, Bazile did not open it. The price of that particular opened can seems to have risen in that auction with respect to the market for non-opened cans.

Can number 5 is not any can, as it is the one which belonged to the French artist Ben (Ben Vautier), a friend of Manzoni, to whom the artist had sent a letter in December 1961 stating:  “I would like all artists to sell their fingerprints, or else stage competitions to see who can draw the longest line, or sell their own shit in tins. The fingerprint is the only sign of the personality that can be accepted: if collectors want something intimate, really personal to the artist, there’s the artist’s own shit, that really belongs to him”. It is also worth noting that Manzoni’s father owner a cannery, and would have told him, according to John Miller’s presentation for the Tate, that his work is “shit”… Enter the Psychoanalyst.

Cleverly, Bazile made an enquiry and asked many of the owners of an Artist’s Shit can about the circumstances of their purchase, the meaning they attributed to the work, their intention to keep it or sell it… All of them seem to have been obsessed by the content, or rather the mystery of the content.

Some of these cans seem to have leaked; a museum in Denmark is said to have been sued by a collector who had lent the work for display in 1994, which resulted in a leakage. The museum was accused of having been negligent in exposing the can to excessive temperatures, a fact confirmed by the court which decided on 250,000 Danish crowns compensation, the implicit value of the partly desacrated object…

One could suspect that, by selling or distributing the 90 cans to 90 different collectors, the value of each one of them would depend on the behaviour of each collector and their ability to interact with one another, a variant of the “prisoner’s dilemma”: the value of the first opened can may increase, but that is true only for the opened one, as it becomes inhabited by the additional symbolic value of the opening event, of the revelation. All other cans may lose value if the contents of the opened one are not as stated by the artist on the label. The “opener” himself is faced with a minor dilemma, mostly of a symbolic nature: he may lose (perhaps) if the contents are disappointing, but will benefit otherwise. The others, the “non-openers”, will lose more in the first instance, and make little or nothing in the latter case, they are passive “price takers”. The economic risk of the first “opener” is less than that of all other owners, which should make it certain that somebody will open a can. Each owner/collector was exposed to a gesture by the first “opener”, a gesture he could not control; this could indeed have triggered a race to open, so as to avoid being at the mercy of any other collector, as the risk incurred by the first opener himself is limited. Of course, the lost value would not be merely economic, considering that for most of these collectors a few tens of thousands of Euros is probably an irrelevant amount. The loss would be symbolic and psychological, the sum of what they had previously thought about the object, as there is nothing to see. Why did it take 26 years after the death of Manzoni to open a can? The object was defended by its aura as an art work, by the lingering idea of the sacredness of art, despite what it actually is, and despite the fact that the “to open or not to open” dilemma is embedded in the work since the outset. It was protected by the psychological investment of each collector in the works of his collection, which make these works a part of their personal life history. It was also defended by the fact that there was limited room to play as the main beneficiary is the first opener, as we will discuss, while the next openers could well be net losers, mere imitators.

Because the first opener was himself an artist, he could overcome these barriers in the sense that the spectacular nature of this public gesture ensured him, irrespective of any economic consequences, of a high symbolic profit. The higher the stature of the artist, however, the lesser the impact: a can opened by Joseph Beuys or Anish Kapoor would have changed nothing to their reputation and destiny as artists, adding perhaps some publicity, but at the risk of some adverse judgemental impact resulting from their gesture. The opening by a relatively minor artist transformed on the contrary his gesture in his masterstroke. Logic tells us that it should have been opened by a relatively minor artist, and so it was. 

A second fact of interest is the recent, and highly publicized, “self-destruction” of Banksy’s Girl with Balloon at the Sotheby’s auction held on 5th October 2018. As the world knows from every possible corner of the internet, a mechanism inserted in the frame shredded this canvas just after it was purchased for 1.4 million dollars. The shredded canvas was itself a copy of an image spray-painted on a London wall. After this event, the painting was re-named Love is in the Bin; it is now estimated – who knows until it is sold – that the work is worth double the price at the hammer. As the happy purchaser said, « When the hammer came down last week and the work was shredded, I was at first shocked, but gradually I began to realize that I would end up with my own piece of art history. » This event answers the question of the singularity, not in the trivial sense of an art work which is reproduced in several copies, or several versions of the same original idea, but in the sense of an art work which becomes a singular event from the perspective of art history, or the history of thought or History in general. An object-event, precisely. Just as the hat worn by Napoleon on the field of Austerlitz or Waterloo must be worth more than its exact replica worn during his exile on Elba. Of course, the event in itself is a rather crude form of publicity, premeditated by the artist as a resounding (and most certainly remunerative) “coup”, and any elucubration about art as destruction as well as creation is just ex-post chatting. But that is irrelevant: in this particular case it is the event which matters, not the meaning projected by this or that critic.

This discussion could be summarized by a small diagram, which will be familiar to anyone interested in game theory.

As suggested by the “experiment” of Bazile, the opening of one can will strongly increase its value if the outcome is either an absence of definitive proof or, probably, a confirmation of Manzoni’s statement. Because the number of cans remaining sealed is reduced – in this case by 1/90th – their scarcity will have increased and the “aura” will have been in a way reinforced by the positive outcome; therefore, one could expect some increase in the value of all the cans. Hence this opening of one can benefits all collectors, leading to a move from the top left-hand corner to the top right-hand corner in the diagram. The arrow symbolizes the temptation of Collector A to make a move that will increase the symbolic and economic value of its own can. This line of thought would be supported by the auction prices for Manzoni’s Artist’s shit, which have increased in the last twenty years or so, despite the opening by Bazile.

If all collectors opened their can, the work of Manzoni – including this fundamental component of uncertainty – would be destroyed; the value of each can would drop to a small amount (bottom right corner). This creates a reluctance to open the cans, and this reluctance protects, in a sense, Collector A who can reasonably feel that he will not be imitated, at least not by more than one or two others. Indeed, if all collectors but one opened their respective can, the last owner of a sealed can would probably see its value jump even more (bottom left corner), while the value of the opened cans would have plummeted, but perhaps still benefiting a little from the remaining aura of the sealed one. 

Now if, contrary to what has been observed until now, a collector opened its can and it was shown to contain some other material, say dog’s faeces, the situation could change, but we are not quite sure with what outcome. One could expect that the price of the remaining cans would decrease, as the market would suspect that perhaps some are indeed “real”, i.e. containing Manzoni’s “fluids” and some a form of trap, of “original fake”. Then the diagram could look like this (from the starting point which is that of all other collectors in the top right corner of the previous diagram):

Because the opening of the can by Collector B (we assume that Collector A is the owner of can number 5, already opened) would carry no benefit to the remaining owners of sealed cans, but a rather a loss, and would have dented the “aura” of the object (nobody likes to be taken for a fool, even if that is part of the artwork) including at the expense of Collector B who is anyway not the first opener any more, there could be a temptation for some other collectors to open their own can in the hope of demonstrating that their own particular can contains “genuine stuff”, and to pre-empt the move by yet more collectors. We assume that immediately after Collector B has opened his can, the market price for sealed cans settles close below where this Collector B sale price left it, as this new opening is not a unique event any more, and it contains the “germs” or more openings that will destabilize any price expectations.

Three markets would thus emerge: one for “opened genuine”, one for “opened fake”, and one for “sealed”. If the latter commands prices which are below the one of “opened genuine”, averaging a level reflecting more or less the “opened genuine” market price modified by the mathematical expectancy of “genuine” versus “fake”, all cans will ultimately be opened but a few, leading to the bottom left corner. Should the market feel that the uncertainty built into the work by Manzoni himself represent a significant part of the value, the sealed cans may still command a premium. It is possible that the value of the first can to be opened and proven “fake” will remain a little above that or other “opened fakes”, precisely because it is the first one and therefore attaching some “history” to each numbered can, but that cannot be taken for granted. It is also possible that those cans that will have belonged from the outset to close friends of Manzoni, or famous people, will command a higher price than the others, thereby introducing an additional form of aura, an additional layer of authenticity, as a ruse of the market to support the overall value of Manzoni’s 90 cans.

Ultimately, Manzoni’s work has the potential to change from being a question about the origin of the  value placed on artworks since Duchamp’s gesture to becoming the unfolding history of a series of dilemmas evolving through time and market events, driven by owners’ interests, greed, assumptions, symbolic projections…

The transformation of what is base into “gold”, i.e. enlightenment, is the very purpose of alchemy, which apart from being a primitive attempt at chemistry, was most importantly and during many centuries a metaphor of spiritual transformation, shared by many forms of spirituality: one only needs refer to Fulcanelli and Canseliet in the 20th century. Manzoni metaphorically transformed the basest – excrements- into gold; not through any transmutation but through the art market, by succeeding to inject the aura of an unrepeatable event into an object. At first reading the message could be that the fundamental purpose of art is – or perhaps was – similar to that of alchemy, a purpose of elevation, with great artists in the role of true alchemists, but such transformation has been degraded from the realm of the spirit to that of desires by the operation of the market, a market which is now the alchemist’s crucible. And what is the market, if not the place where all desires (including material and symbolic needs of course) end up clearing in our present culture? This would however be superficial, if left at that. Because if the market is indeed where the gold coins are minted, it is still the artist’s gesture, idea, coming into play, which provides the gold. What is perhaps new is that this gold cannot be thought independently from the desires embedded in the market, which decides whether it is gold or not, for how long, and how many coins you can mint with it. The market has provided the opportunity of “alchemic” transformations which would have otherwise been unlikely to occur. In the case of Artist’s Shit, the auction process itself has progressively become part ofthe artwork, whether or not Manzoni thought of it. Manzoni is among the first to have attempted, with such amazingly simple means, an exploration of this change in the age-old alchemic process of art, and among the first to have embedded the passing of time in this exploration which remains open-ended to this day.   

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