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  • The Victorian Postmodern
  • Jason Camlot
John Kucich and Dianne F. Sadoff, eds., Victorian Afterlife: Postmodern Culture Rewrites the Nineteenth Century. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000.

Consider the following “true” story as an exemplum for approaching the idea of the Victorian postmodern: in the mid-1990s, artist and critic Todd Alden asked 400 art collectors to deliver to him canned samples of their feces for an art show. The idea for the show, as explained in the letter he sent to the collectors, was to represent “a historical rethinking of the Italian artist Piero Manzoni’s epoch-making work, Merda d’artista,” in which Manzoni “produced, conserved, and tinned ninety cans of his own feces, which he sold by the ounce, based on that day’s price of gold” (Alden 23). Alden noted that cans of Manzoni’s shit, which found few buyers back in 1961 when the work was first “made,” were “now being sold for as much as $75,000”; he proposed to make some of the cans he collected available for sale, and, further, “as a courtesy, each collector/producer [would] be offered the option to retain one of his/her ‘own’ cans at an amount that is one half of the initial offering price” (24). In May 1996, Alden’s display featuring eighty-one such cans was scheduled to open in Manhattan, but the New York Observer revealed Alden’s claim to be a hoax since only one collector had actually contributed as instructed. Now, the briefest consideration of Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s notion that “consumption absolute is the end, crown, and perfection of production” (217) in relation to Todd Alden’s proposal for Collector’s Shit will reveal how distant a postmodern notion of critique is from that of the nineteenth-century critic of culture and especially from the life-centered conceptions of culture and value promoted by the likes of Ruskin and William Morris.

Ruskin continues, in the passage cited above, to say that “wise consumption is a far more difficult art than wise production” (217), and the Ruskinian question that arises in relation to Alden’s art proposal is how does one best consume it (in Ruskin’s sense, meaning use it, employ it, live with it—promote life with it)? The initial answer is that the act of purchasing it is the sole means of consumption available in this particular transaction. Subsequently one can only own it, have it, but not live with it in any other way. Admittedly such passive ownership does represent a means of action, for the “collectors” (with their single bargain-tins) and especially the artist/owner himself, in owning the tins, are actually “sitting on them” as investments that they hope will rise in monetary value over a period of time. Value here depends almost exclusively upon the second of the two conditions that John Stuart Mill deemed necessary for a thing to have any value in exchange, that is, the “difficulty in its attainment” (544), and it is upon this principle that the limited edition, the autographed novel, or the signed can of feces will bring its monetary return, or so the collector hopes. I say that the cans’ value depends upon this condition almost exclusively because, although the first of Mill’s two conditions for a thing to have value in exchange (“it must be of some use”) may seem glaringly absent from such an object, the counterargument may be made that the tins (hoax or not) are responsible for a valuable chain of critical thoughts about art, value, utility, culture, and history. The apparent uselessness of the tins of feces is arguably useful in that it leads one to consider the relationship between use value and exchange value, and in doing so it brings us to one of the key conundrums arising in an attempt to theorize the relationship between a Victorian past and a postmodern present. That is, it is often the distinction between an artifact’s inherent value (of which shit, no matter whose it is, has little to none now, although it was worth something in the time of Henry Mayhew’s “pure”-finders and mudlarks [142; 155]) and...

Additional Information

ISSN
1053-1920
Launched on MUSE
2002-09-01
Open Access
No
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