In 2007, Sotheby’s
auctioned a can of artist’s shit*
for 180,000 dollars.
“Sophisticated,” “cultured” types
clamored to buy a tin of shit
an auction house called “Art.”
In the “market place of ideas”
no one demurred
that a thousand hungry kids
could eat all winter
on the money a jackass paid
for another jackass’s shit!
In our turvy world of razzmatazz,,
“A little learning is a dang’rous thing”
and most of what we “know”
we do not know,
(or know by rote,
or from a meme picked up like a virus
from an infected lover).
“Test axioms on the pulses,” Keats advised–
(with the usual genius-disregard
for others being as wise as he.
(“Axiom? What’s axiom?”)
Against this moral turpitude
where anything that sells is “art,”
and leggy girls sell “news” between
a pharmaceutical haze and sheen,
the soul struggles not to be subsumed
by tawdry trinkets of acknowledgment.
“The true poet,” Owen wrote,
“must be a witness,” sound alarms.
(He watched men retch and writhe
from mustard gas.
He wrote it down, then died
just short of Armistice.)
“Listen!” the sanctimonious judge intones
“has the same letters as…”–solemnly intoning—
“silent!” she concludes,
berating the perplexed defendant,
seeking to expound,
I want to say, “tinsel, also….”
Every concession to fraudulence
abominates the soul,
chips at our humanity
and we become
cheap, plastic chips
on a Roulette table wagered
for 30 silver pieces.
Day by day we weave
a web of lies
and demos plays 2nd fiddle
because the final score’s a riddle
only the Conductor knows;
or…if we have the will,
obsessions of the sickened mind,
and all chicanery,
a web of diamond beads—
each reflecting each;
(if we have the will
and minds to learn
and will to heal),
testing diamonds on the glass of fashion,
universal diamond beads
(Author’s note: Earlier versions of this poem appeared at Dissident Voice and The Smirking Chimp in 2013.)
Was the poet being simply naughty? The story behind what seems like a bad joke, and it is.
Click on the orange button to examine the back story.
* Artist’s Shit (Italian: Merda d’artista) is a 1961 artwork by the Italian artist Piero Manzoni. The work consists of 90 tin cans, each filled with 30 grams (1.1 oz) of faeces, and measuring 4.8 by 6.5 centimetres (1.9 in × 2.6 in), with a label in Italian, English, French, and German stating:
Contents 30 gr net
Produced and tinned
in May 1961
Value & Content
A tin was sold for €124,000 at Sotheby’s on May 23, 2007; in October 2008 tin 83 was offered for sale at Sotheby’s with an estimate of £50–70,000. It sold for £97,250. On October 16, 2015, tin 54 was sold at Christies for £182,500. In August 2016, at an art auction in Milan, one of the tins sold for a new world record of €275,000, including auction fees. The tins were originally to be valued according to their equivalent weight in gold – $37 each in 1961 – with the price fluctuating according to the market.
One of Manzoni’s friends, the artist Agostino Bonalumi, claimed that the tins are full not of faeces but plaster. The cans are steel, and thus cannot be x-rayed or scanned to determine the contents, and opening a can would cause it to lose its value; thus, the true contents of Artist’s Shit are unknown. Bernard Bazile exhibited an opened can of Artist’s Shit in 1989, titling it Opened can of Piero Manzoni (French: Boite ouverte de Piero Manzoni). The can contained an unidentifiable, wrapped object, which Bazile did not open. There are rumors that some cans have exploded and that there is one can within the can.
Origins & inspiration?
At the time the piece was created, Manzoni was producing works that explored the relationship between art production and human production, Artist’s Breath (“Fiato d’artista”), a series of balloons filled with his own breath, being an example.
Manzoni’s father, who owned a cannery, is said to have once told his artist son: “Your work is shit.”
In December 1961, Manzoni wrote in a letter to his friend Ben Vautier:
I should like all artists to sell their fingerprints, or else stage competitions to see who can draw the longest line or sell their 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 is really his.
Manzoni died of myocardial infarction in his Milan studio in 1963, barely 29 years of age.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License
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