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The Intriguing Tale of Piero Manzoni's 'Artist's Shit' and the Nature of Art

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

It is the first time that I have come across 'Artist's shit'.

I don't know much about it. I remember the first question that came into my mind was: what is art? How does the art market work?

Can 'la merda d'artista' be considered a work of art? Is there any irony behind the work of the Italian artist Piero Manzoni?

The work of the Italian artist Piero Manzoni is clever and consists of 90 tin cans, each reportedly filled with 30 grams of feces, with a label in Italian, English, French, and German stating: Artist's Shit Contents 30 gr net Freshly preserved Produced and tinned in May 1961

La merda d'Artista, Piero Manzoni
La merda d'Artista, Piero Manzoni

© Merda d'artista - Piero Manzoni -2007

At that time, Manzoni was producing artwork that explored the relationship between art production and human production. His earlier work called 'Artist's Breath' (Fiato d' Artista) was a series of balloons filled with his own breath. His father considered his work as 'shit,' and Manzoni considered feces as his own creation.

Once Manzoni said: “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.”

Another friend, Enrico Baj, said that the cans were meant as an act of defiant mockery of the art world, artists, and art criticism. Brilliant!

What is the value of this artwork?

In May 2007, a tin was sold for €124,000 at Sotheby's. 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. The cans are made of steel, they 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. Critics of modern art will at least applaud the irony.

The Tate Gallery has paid £22,300 of public money for a work that is, quite literally, a load of excrement. Each can contained 30 grams of his feces, and Manzoni sold it for the same price as if it were gold.

The price paid by the Tate for its merda - £745 per gram - exceeds, however, the £550 that the contents of the tin would cost if they were made of 24-carat gold. He was an incredibly important international artist. What he was doing with this work was looking at a lot of issues that are pertinent to 20th-century art, like authorship and the production of art. It was a seminal work.

Manzoni died at the age of just 29, within two years of creating his tinned art. He was a hard drinker, and his alcohol consumption led to him suffering from a liver condition. The cans were sealed according to industrial standards and then circulated to museums around the world.

In addition to the Tate, both the Pompidou Museum in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York have bought cans since. At least 45 of the original 90 cans have exploded, however, which is exactly what Manzoni intended. Soon after he created the cans, he told a friend, "I hope these cans explode in the vitrines of the collectors." The Tate Gallery says that it has had no such problems, so far. Maybe it will be next.

Afterwards, it was discovered that Piero Manzoni filled his cans not with Merda d'Artista but with plaster. Does that matter? Does the concept still stand? Or should the Tate get rid of their investment fast?

The idea still matters; the mystery is still there, that suspense that is behind all stories made the idea brilliant art. Keeping the viewer in suspense is part of a subversive humor.

Does it matter? Does it matter if Manzoni's tins do not contain Merda d'Artista? It's actually a more serious question than you might think because it concerns what kind of authenticity is necessary in art and what is contingent.

Similarly, would it matter if the condoms on Tracey Emin's bed had not seen active service in the artist's love life?

It's an intriguing question since, surely, much of the interest in and value of Emin's self-revelatory work relies on the presumed authenticity of the sex life she discloses in her work. Her condoms must be real, or we would be entitled to be quite cross. Or would we?

Either way, if there is an afterlife, Piero Manzoni surely must be enjoying the fact that the art world remains just as ludicrous as when he sought to expose it nearly five decades ago.

What is art? How do we determine its monetary value? What makes an artist's work valuable? I know it may be a basic question in the philosophy of aesthetics. In a few words, we ask, 'how do we determine what is defined as art?

I found some quotes that illustrate what art is:

Rene Magritte, 'Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.

Frank Lloyd Wright, "Art is a discovery and development of elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms suitable for human use."

Thomas Merton, "Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time."

Pablo Picasso, "The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls."

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, "All art is but an imitation of nature."

Edgar Degas, "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see."

Jean Sibelius, "Art is the signature of civilizations."

Leo Tolstoy, "Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them."

Art can be thought of as a symbol of what it means to be human, manifested in physical form for others to see and interpret. It can serve as a symbol for something that is tangible, or for a thought, an emotion, a feeling, or a concept.

Through peaceful means, it can convey the full spectrum of the human experience. Perhaps that is why it is so important. Surely, the whole thing of art and money is ridiculous.

The value of a painting at auction is not necessarily the value of a painting. It is the value of two people bidding against each other because they really want the painting. It is a matter of power and nothing else. Art is sacred.


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