Sometimes I like conceptual art. Like this piece above by Manzoni: the base of the world. The base of the world! It stands on nothing but thin air. It’s clever, but it’s a bit of a one liner. And after you tease out its implications — groundlessness, the world itself as a work of creation — there’s not much else, and the work itself is a bit boring. The limits of the concept impose themselves, and then a piece’s unidimensionality spells its own ruin. It becomes “cute” or “trite.”
Othertimes though a piece becomes more interesting inspite of itself. Like another one by Manzoni, “Artist’s Shit.” The gag for this one was a bit more performative than that of the base of the world: Manzoni collected his shit and then split it into 30g specimens, divided into 90 cans. He labeled each can with its contents, and then sold each for its weight in gold. Ho ho! The art world’s luminaries understand this as a comment on commodification and reification of the artist’s product — explicitly here, his solid waste. But this doesn’t really comprehend what’s going on; or it only grasps part of it. Because while there is certainly something like commodification going on here, strictly speaking our 90 cans of Manzoni’s solid waste are not commodities proper. If there were, someone else could have shat in a can and sold it for its weight in silver, and thereby driven Manzoni out of, as it were, the shit business.
So there is something else at play in the sale of art in the upper reaches. Those that shell out 50,000 GBP for a 30g, oxidized tin of what very well might be shit are after something other than commodities, and the amount they pay for something is caught up in far more complex process than its costs of production — even in the most simple picture. To get at this would require looking at the complex sequence of events and choices that lends a certain artist the aura or cachet that makes his or her work appear as a constant store of value — the rich do not spend upwards of a 100,000 dollars on one of Manzoni’s tins only to debase it by opening it up to find out just what is inside.
Commodification and reification are presupposed in the production of works like “Artist’s Shit.” But they are not what the work is about, even on a functional level. In order for the art world to function, in its semi-autonomous way, over and above the more basic and brutal labor-market, a given amount of liquidity has to be transfered to the buyers and devotees that make it up, and this transfer is effected by the motor of commodity-production. Of course this is the case. But this is not sufficient for a given art-object to be vaulted into Sotheby’s ambit. A peculiar anticipation of an object’s continued value, in spite of being a bit of shit, or a heap of junk, is what allows Manzoni’s tins to function as art. Hence there is little irony in the fact that people buy it, or a pissoir, despite both being recepticles of human waste. Not only are the buyers playing a role within a specific social milieu where there is a status attached to owning a bit of Manzoni, they are anticipating future worth.
This does not mean, either, that anything can be art. It means that almost nothing can. So you have to wonder who the joke is on.