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?

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The Art Of Rural Warfare

Agitations are the in thing this season. The voyager is witness to many a fast-unto-deaths for various causes. Some to find a solution to the centuries-old problem of corruption and others zealously requesting a separate state. Some of these efforts could be termed genuine but in most other instances, protagonists furtively tend to their grumpy stomachs every now and then, hoping to outwit peeping Toms. Peeping Toms appreciate that fasting can be a tough business; with the indulger often ending up hungry, so an occasional helping of Potato Chips dipped in tomato sauce followed by chicken biryani and tea shouldn’t be a deplorable offence.

I shall not bother the reader with necessary details such as motivation behind the demonstration and so on. Henceforth, the demonstration will be referred to as the Movement and the demonstrators, the Illuminati.

A brief introduction to the typical Art of Rural Warfare is in order though, prior to the story.

A street-war in bucolic locales begins with a tuneful jangling of the vocal chords, reminiscent of a tiger’s growl and a visible frontward coiling of the tongue, akin to an elephant’s curl of its trunk prior to attack. The Wail is expected to achieve multiple objectives of revving up one’s dormant battle instincts, striking fear in the hearts of the opponent and arousing slumbering soldiers. It is generally most useful in accomplishing the last objective. Contortions of the tongue and protruding eyes are intended to impress upon the opponent the seriousness of one’s malevolent intentions. The opponent is expected to back down at this warning but generally, in accordance with Newton’s Third Law, the opponents repay with an equal and opposite reaction. For no fault on its part, the loincloth which adorns the gents is then subject to several slaps around the thigh-area, followed by wind-mill like motion of the arms, as the warriors shadow swim above water. The body is known to join in and so do the legs in a rigorous warm-up just before commencement of battle.

Baleful voices found their way into my ears. I craned my neck in the direction of the source and discovered mace-like hands sparring with the air above and determined feet punishing the earth beneath. For a moment, the mob seemed to resemble a pack of irate mongrels. Adorned in colourful clothing and equipped with flags that emitted fluorescence, the Illuminati were self-professed flag bearers of the Movement. The group halted on an open field and on closer inspection, one discovered a range of metal accessories that are generally commonplace in gladiatorial contests. The only missing ingredient (which wasn’t missed for long) was a catalyst to flag off the drama. One wasn’t sure if the Illuminati had a definite objective that they were working towards. Not that it mattered; to them or to me.

The time-tested technique to incite a jingoist mob is a Socratic attempt at a discussion on the pros-n-cons of the issue at hand. This was the Movement. How could anyone question the prudence of such a noble activity? A Socrates regrettably committed this grave sin.

The leader of the pack – a gentleman inclined towards roundness – let out an ungentle-manly growl hoping to drill jingoism back into the fidgety mob, which looked like succumbing to reason. The snarl only succeeded in shooing real mongrels away. The air-beating resumed and the leader’s voice was lost in the debris of cacophony that had broken out. These are things that are too much for the Ego to handle. Smarting from the dismissive nonchalance with which he was greeted by the Illuminati, the leader thought it appropriate to unleash another round of verbal ammunition, this time at a higher octave.

The Illuminati seemed to quieten for a bit. Impressed, the leader stomped his feet and was beginning to consider his next move when a simpleton landed in the leader’s vast constitution. Someone had shoved the simpleton from his left, who lost balance and thought of embracing the leader for support. The latter, however, misinterpreted the simpleton’s decorous intentions. Glowering, he seized the man and decided to let his restive hands do the communication.

The simpleton felt a mace coming to an abrupt halt in his cheek. Dazed at the assault he took some moments to regain his composure. The leader, meanwhile, looked around to his sycophants for approval; nodding his head and smiling in self-congratulation. He hadn’t considered a guerrilla manoeuvre by the simpleton, though. Fleet-footed, the simpleton compensated for the great mismatch in body volume with agility that had never managed to convince the leader of its utility.

A leg, swinging like a pendulum, disappeared into the leader’s underbelly.

The protrusion around his centre of gravity prevented the leader from addressing the point of impact with his eyes. The leader’s hands, abruptly reminded of their primary responsibilities, moved involuntarily towards the gentleman’s ailing sausage, caging it in protection. It was too late. The cost of the lapse was borne by the leader, who let out a roar in pain, whirled around and sat down. In subsequent proceedings he took no further part.

The sycophants swung into action, drawing out their weapons of mass destruction. The simpleton’s camp followed and battle lines were drawn. The reflection of the sun off the metals seemed to stir a whiff of reason into the soldiers, who thought it wise to replace weapons with their hands. The sycophants turned towards their leader for a battle cry and were greeted instead with a low-frequency whine. Overcome with consternation at this sight, the sycophants decided to exact revenge.

The typical Rural Warfare setting outlined in the beginning of this story played out to near perfection. Roars rippled out in all directions, tongues curled in unison, eyes magnified to twice their normal size, thighs suffered in stoic silence and arms waved in circular motion in both camps. This proceeded for what seemed like an eternity with each side inviting the other to take first strike. Heartfelt abuses were hurled to and fro; directed first at the opponent and then invoking ancestors several generations back in time. One felt sorry for the souls who were responsible for putting these Illuminati on earth. So stinging were the abuses to the kindred clans. But the impending fisticuff remained a stillborn.

The ‘war’ threatened to be played out solely in the verbal realm. The sycophants had seen the fate of their leader and as much as they adored him, were loath to join him in pain. The simpleton’s party, meanwhile, wisely considered the mismatch in numbers, apart from the mismatch in physical bulks which was roughly 2.5:1. Both sides judiciously, but regrettably, settled for verbal warfare. As the gullets grew weary, momentum was lost and both sides menacingly cowered away, unwilling to give a quarter. The leader was escorted away by his sycophants, sausage firmly protected by the hand guards.

So, after an entertaining lag, reason had triumphed over jingoism and egos. A magnificent build-up to what promised to be a grand spectacle had fizzled out.

What about the Movement?

It didn’t matter. Either to them. Or to me.

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This is a re-run of an old post. Similar circumstances to those described above reminded HaLin of this post lost in the archival depths of Haphazard Linkages.