In 1960, the Italian artist Piero Manzoni made an artwork.
It was called “Merda d’Artiste” (The Artist’s Shit).
The artwork comprised several sealed cans.
Each containing 30 grams of the artist’s faeces.
The idea was that the price of the artwork would always be directly linked to the price of gold.
And it would rise as the price of gold rose.
It seems pretty obvious to us that Manzoni was poking fun at the art establishment.
“Look, the experts can’t tell shit from art.”
And, to be fair, that is a pretty good joke.
But you can’t parody people who are beyond parody.
At the time Manzoni created that artwork, the price of gold was $1.12 a gram.
Which meant that each can of his faeces would cost $33.60.
Of course, we all know only a lunatic or a moron would pay thirty dollars for a can of shit.
That was the joke.
But the experts didn’t see it as a joke, they bought it.
Manzoni thought they were mad because they’d never be able to sell it.
As the price of gold rose, who would pay the same for a can of excrement?
Well, when it comes to experts, truth is beyond parody.
The problem wasn’t that the price of excrement couldn’t keep pace with the price of gold.
Quite the reverse.
The problem was the cost of Manzoni’s excrement rose faster than the price of gold.
In 2007 the price of gold was $28.94 per gram.
So thirty grams of gold was worth $870.
In that same year, a thirty gram can of Manzoni’s faeces sold in America for $80,000.
Roughly a hundred times the value of gold.
Now obviously the person who bought that can wasn’t actually paying eighty grand for a small tin of faeces.
That in itself is worthless.
Every human being produces that every day of their life.
So what were they buying?
What was worth a hundred times the cost of gold?
Were they buying proof of their status?
To show they could throw away eighty grand on a joke?
Were they buying proof of how cultured they were?
To show they possessed a daring, controversial artwork?
Whatever they were buying it wasn’t the physical object.
It was something the physical object represented to the experts.
Something that was exactly the opposite of what the artist intended.
He made the artwork to prove how stupid they were.
Then they paid a fortune for it to prove how cultured and intelligent they were.
They didn’t even try to understand anyone else’s reality.
They just changed it to fit their reality instead.
This is what experts do.
A few years back I went to an exhibition of Piero Manzoni’s art at The Serpentine Gallery.
In pride of place, at the centre of the exhibition, was a piece called “Stand Here: You Are Art”.
It was a small plinth with three steps leading up to it.
It was meant for the viewer to stand on.
The point being that, instead of just observing art, you would be observed by other people.
Other people would regard you as art, and you would know what it felt like to be a piece of art.
You’re on the plinth, you’re a piece of art.
You’re off the plinth, you’re just another person looking at art.
It calls into question what art is.
It shows us that art only exists in the minds of the people involved.
It doesn’t exist in reality, just in the mind.
But the most disturbing thing about this piece wasn’t anything the artist had done.
It was what the gallery had done with Manzoni’s art.
They had erected a cordon, a length of felt rope, all the way round the plinth.
So no one could get close enough to touch it, let alone stand on it.
So the empty plinth was now the work of art everyone was looking at.
Again, exactly the opposite of what the artist intended.
The art wasn’t the plinth.
The art was supposed to be whoever was standing on the plinth.
It’s not difficult.
But the experts managed to totally miss the point.
What they did was the equivalent buying a painting by Picasso.
Then throwing the painting away and exhibiting the frame.
Maybe the real question in Manzoni’s art is more about us.
Why do we consider fools to be experts?