When Shit Got Pricier Than Gold: Manzoni’s Excremental Alchemy

The canvas of painting history painted a lustrous picture of the wonders of the brush.

Art connoisseurs, real and otherwise, regularly paid obeisance and sang paeans to vivid masterpieces. Rising wealth in recent decades meant that many of these wonders came to be viewed as an investment class. Picasso and Rembrandt now adorned the walls of wealthy patrons; who almost unanimously, liked to think of themselves as connoisseurs.

To the art cynic, however, artists and painters seemed masters at profound conceptual mumbo-jumbo. A few lines here, a few there, random gobs of colour strewn carelessly, with great care, on canvas often resulted in a masterpiece that fetched a fortune. The naysayer was brushed off, ironically, by the artist, on the grounds of utter ignorance at appreciating beauty. The cynics, however, made some of the artists pause and ponder about the state of affairs.

Veiled irreverence had always been a potent tool in a provocateur’s arsenal. A snide remark on his apparent ineptness as a painter from one of his own set off reactive impulses in Italian brushman Piero Manzoni; who rather inadvertently through his actions taught the world an entertaining lesson on the values of popular delusion.

Stung by criticism, Manzoni decided to carry out a real-time experiment. In 1961, he put art connoisseurs to the test by filling 90 tin cans filled with an ounce each; of his valuable excrement and christened his ‘artwork’, Artist’s Shit. The action, rather harmless in intention, turned into a vivid parody of art in subsequent years.

Manzoni intended each can to be priced equal to the prevailing price of Gold by weight. The price of each can would vary according to the fluctuating price of Gold. In 1961, this valued Manzoni’s finely preserved faeces at $37 each, a princely amount for a thing of shitty value.

Shit was worth as much as Gold.

Given his stature among art appreciators, Manzoni’s cans gained in allure with the passage of time. A piece of art was, of course, theoretically priceless, in the eyes of art lovers. Several regime changing events occured in the 1970s, which resulted in Gold’s value fluctuating with gay abandon since. Manzoni’s cans came into their own.

30 years after the cans came into being, art auctioneer Sotheby’s auctioned one can for a rather eye-popping $67,000. The price of Gold meanwhile, poor commodity, had soared to only $375/ounce. Manzoni’s faeces changed hands at 170 times their ‘fair’ price. Rational humans were in the act.

Shit had got pricier than Gold.

But, rationalisation has always been a ready elixir to our actions. Of course, Manzoni’s faeces were in short supply (he died an untimely death). More of it could simply not be created, unless someone volunteered to sit in.

A thing of scarcity value only becomes more (in)valuable with time. Then in 2007, Sotheby auctioned one can…for a monumental $163,000. Gold, meanwhile, after a stellar rally, had only managed to reach $650/ounce. In keeping with the spirit of the recession, another can changed hands for $157,000 in October 2008, at the onset of the financial crisis. Gold managed to inch up to $780/ounce.

After fetching 250 times the price of Gold in 2007, humans demonstrated their natural rationality by remembering the recession and Manzoni’s excrement fell out of favour, somewhat.

Shit was priced at only 200 times the price of Gold. 


Manzoni's Shit

Some felt that Manzoni’s parody on rationality and consumerism had left a bad odour, not-so-ironically, on human beings. Yet others felt that humans had displayed acute understanding of scarcity value.

We humans had learnt our lesson.

Or had we?

21 thoughts on “When Shit Got Pricier Than Gold: Manzoni’s Excremental Alchemy

    1. I find it quite amusing that we have come to love and revere something that is just like everything else. There are things rarer than gold (platinum, saffron), for instance, but they just don’t make the cut. We humans are an entertaining species indeed.

  1. This reminds me how diamonds (especially large diamond engagement rings) are so sought after among certain females, which was initiated by the businesses falsely claiming diamonds last forever, etc. For diamonds….the bigger the better? Diamonds are not a rare stone, this is another example of blind consumers spending money on something impractical.

  2. This reminds me how diamonds (especially large diamond engagement rings) are so sought after among certain females, which was initiated by the businesses falsely claiming diamonds last forever, etc. For diamonds….the bigger the better? Diamonds are not a rare stone, this is another example of blind consumers spending money on something impractical..

      1. Richard, taking advantage of your more advantageous vantage point, I shall await your response, before sharing my thoughts!

      2. Indoctrination

        Ivan Pavlov


        Subliminal marketing

        It seems there is a consensus among some, which says the “general populace” is unable to think critically; that they are unable to form their own opinions. I agree, to a limited extent.

        It’s not so much that people are unable to think critically but that they have been trained not to.
        So the consensus is partially correct inasmuch as the capacity for critical thinking in the general populace has been disabled, to a greater of lesser degree, by the forces of indoctrination.

        We are subjected to this training from cradle to grave, in every aspect of our lives; social, economical, political, intellectual, spiritual, et cetera and so forth and so on, ad nauseum. Some of us are far more susceptible than others.

        “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
        Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928

    1. Agree with you, Frances.

      I also feel, though, that you need two hands to clap. Demand exists because of supply, and vice versa. It is a circular arrangement. People want to consume, with an eye on one’s neighbour’s consumption, and you have eager companies ready to oblige.

      As much as I dislike sounding philosophical, I am unsurprised at this phase of evolution (attaching importance to not-so-practical outlets).

    1. As some think, the concept of hoard-and-control is as old as metals itself!

      PS: Glad to hear from you, Eric! Hope you’ve been well. Time for me to dust off my WP lethargy and get reading.

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