The Value of a Good Toilet Story

This text was originally written and was published at Commons Machinery

Everybody loves a good story. The stories we tell each other not only entertain us, but also create value and importance. For example, the value of a piece of artwork is greatly enhanced by having a good story. In collector’s circles, this is known as the work’s provenance.

A quick look at Wikipedia explains that provenance “is the chronology of the ownership, custody or location of a historical object.” Provenance can create a value much greater than the object itself. How can I demonstrate this? By using some uncommon toilets.

The first toilet was a rather ornate (in my opinion) piece of white porcelain with blue vine patterns. The toilet was expected to fetch the incredible price of 1000 GBP. Quite a lot for a used, old, human waste receptacle, however, the final auction price was almost 10 times that amount. The reason for this mad interest was the fact that for three years the toilet had shared a house in Berkshire – with John Lennon.

Another of my favorite toilet stories is about Marcel Duchamp’s incredible work of art, The Fountain. Technically this is not about a toilet since the piece is a urinal…but I still think it fits the toilet story theme.

Marcel Duchamp scandalized the art world when he submitted a urinal signed “R Mutt” to the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. The committee, despite the rules stating that all works would be displayed, rejected the work, entitled “Fountain”. Duchamp had his fun. But the work gained in popularity and became an important piece. Despite losing the original urinal, Duchamp commissioned several (signed and unsigned) replicas that are now proudly displayed in museums around the world.

Think about it. A factory-made urinal is displayed with a fictitious signature. It is eventually lost but replicas are made which are revered as great art. There are signed replicas that are valuable; there are unsigned replicas (just a urinal) that are valuable. Then there are the exact same urinals hanging in old pubs that drunken people pee in.

The value of a thing is not only in the thing itself. The value of the thing is in the story we tell. Sometimes the story becomes more important than the thing. The importance of attribution is the ability to ensure that the thing and the story remain connected. The goal of Commons Machinery is to ensure that cultural artifacts on the net do not lose their connections and their values.

 

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