Fifty years ago this month, the artist Piero Manzoni produced 90 cans of Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit). He labeled and numbered his most fundamental work and sold it by weight at the current market’s price for gold. The Tate Modern has Number 4 (but then everyone really got number 2)—“something intimate, really personal to the artist,” Manzoni wrote in a letter to a fellow artist.
In the alchemy of life, the treasure hides in the roots of the tree and the spirit gold truly is in the fundament, the shit of all we, at least at first glance, do not want. Thus our fear, our shame, our feelings of unwantedness and inadequacy surely must contain treasure ripe for transformation. Karma says that first we must completely accept the shit life brings and only after that can transformation be set free to occur.
It’s good to write about shit, partly because shit is interesting and also because it packs so such great comic portent in its throwaway insouciance. In its fertilizing potentiality and arresting smell and appearance, shit is a perfect symbol to work our way past symbols into direct experience, universal experience; it’s also so intimately intertwined with parenting as to be, if not profound, at least fundamental.
Our kids’ first poop, dark and clingy meconium, emerges from our little Buddhas as if they had gestated alongside the La Brea woman in some primordial tar pit, trailing skid-marks of bogs and swamps as much as clouds of glory. And yet our kids are born without shame—completely at home with their poop, no trace of sin upon their unformed teeth much less leavings of apple skin. It’s we grown-ups who learn to judge, to wrinkle noses, to sort the gold from the poop and forever lose the deeper knowledge that they are entangled, that they are one and the same.
It’s not a turd that Ariadne tosses as we descend the labyrinth, but rather string, a golden thread, a clue—a trail that winds and wends from monsters all to lovers true.
So while we may not be rich enough to procure a can of Manzoni’s original number 2, we can certainly make our own artisinal masterpieces by virtue of some fiber and a good book to read while nature does Her magic.
My point, cribbing from Taro Gomi: Everyone Poops; but more importantly, perhaps, that everyone is poop, risen out of the fundament and come to life by mysterious forces, and thus everyone is also gold. More importantly still, we are all entangled in this gold-shit matrix, our parenting attempts to protect and nurture, perhaps secret strivings to turn raw material into superstars, compound fear that we will be/are already failures of some sort. But also possible: a gentle rain coaxing us just to trust and let plants grow.
Manzoni was a canner of Truth, but like canned laughter, it tries to fill in where something is missing. We don’t need each other’s shit; we don’t need our kids’ shit (and boy are they quick to give it to us), but perhaps we need to learn a little magic, that of consciousness by which our very worst feelings may be re-visioned and refined into fundamental opportunities to connect with each other, in the fellowship of recognition that just as we all poop, we all fear, we all cry (at least on the inside), we all get angry… and we all feel, all dream, all wish for playful abundance, trust and community, intimacy and fun if only the game can grow robust enough to balm the wounded cynics, robust enough to welcome them into the only game in Our Town: reality; a town where roses grow, not despite but because of shit, and where the lotus roots squishy in the mire.
Thus, when practically everyone is talking about the war on terror, I find myself thinking about the good side of shit. Would we make a war on shit? What did shit do to us? Where would we be without it?
Ultimately, you can’t really conclude much about shit. Another reason to hold it in high esteem. As I seek the end of words as symbols and words as attempts to connect; the end of words as business and the end of words as commerce, I arrive at the simplistic thought that long before there was word one, and long before there was the can, there was shit.
The Tao Te Ching suggests that we be like water, preferring low places and thus being above all things. Perhaps the same can be said of shit.
Here’s to keeping it real, and to finding value in what just is (rather than in what we might seek to represent, symbolize or sell).