In the profile of Miuccia Prada that appeared in last week’s New Yorker, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas deconstructs and theorizes upon the nature of shopping. “Shopping,” he says, “used to be an autonomous entity with its own metabolism, but over the past twenty years it has infiltrated almost every activity known to man. Airports, churches, universities—it has become impossible to disentangle and separate the fate of these entities from shopping. They support each other, and you don’t know where one ends and the other begins.” Koolhaas hits the proverbial nail on its proverbial head.
This “entanglement” phenomenon is so pervasive that the pre-gift shop era seems distant and boring, utterly un-American. Musing on the examples cited by Koolhaas, the subtle ironies and nuanced hypocrisies of consumerist life become visible in full force. Essentially, one must not only recognize that airports have morphed into malls (at tax-payer expense), but also that the average Joe Traveler considers anything less than a sky-lit AirMall to be quaint and provincial. (Joe Traveler realizes, of course, that even if he is deprived of his W.H. Smith and Wilson’s Leather, he can always order some executive ear-and-nose-hair trimmers and monogrammed golf balls from the in-flight catalogue.) Airports are not alone, and are certainly not to blame. They simply are reflections of the culture in which we live (and shop). It is no coincidence that every single Orange Key Tour begins next to the gift shop in Frist and then ends outside the U-Store itself. Though it pains me to write it, our fair University, its arches and spires, its history and ambience, has been reduced and cheapened into nothing more than another avenue by which to sell t-shirts and lanyard keychains.
Now it’s one thing for a fashionista such as Ms. Prada to wax poetic on the rôle of the boutique as the contemporary Temple of Art and Commerce. But it is something different for Michael Graves to design teapots and tire-bouchons for Target. And therein, friends, lies my casus belli. As our culture has largely come to be defined by consumption and consumerism, our consumerism has acquired Culture.
The strikingly minimalist façade of the renovated Princeton University Art Museum is as clean and taut as a Marine Corpsman’s bed. One could bounce many a quarter off those walls. McCormick Library was extended underground, and a pair of raised, grassy knolls out front has replaced the concrete Picasso sculpture, which now sits by Spelman. (This design is surely influenced by Peter Eisenman and landscape architect Laura Olin’s acclaimed Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio). A pair of attractive banners highlights the shows within the galleries inside. Most noticeably, a lovely new glassed-in lobby serves as the museum’s entrance, or as the museum gift shop’s entrance, for there is no way to reach the galleries and collections inside without first having all sorts of wares hawked at you.
Keep in mind that museum gift shops do not sell art, they sell the idea of art, in the form of coffee table books, calendars, magnets, postcards, novelty ties, and, of course, t-shirts. By design, the gift shop experience prefaces and suffixes the art experience; the meaning and memories of the latter are devalued and subsumed, because the former is more tactile, more potable, and more interactive. Art-viewing is an inherently passive experience (unless you bring along a sketching journal), while shopping is active and engaging. And while appreciating art (not to mention understanding it) requires a broad education in both history and technique, when it comes to t-shirts, everyone is equal in his or her understanding. The omnipresent and dominating position of the University Art Museum gift shop is no accident, but a calculated reaction to our collective consumer consciousness.
Several months ago, I came across a manifesto (of sorts) written in 1961 by the painter/sculptor Claes Thure Oldenburg. “I am for an art that is smoked, like a cigarette, smells, like a pair of shoes. I am for art that flaps like a flag, or helps blow noses like a handkerchief. I am for an art that is put on and taken off, like pants, which develops holes, like socks, which is eaten, like a piece of pie…I am for the white art of refrigerators and their muscular openings and closings…I am for the art of hung, bloody rabbits and wrinkly chickens, tambourines and phonographs, and abandoned boxes tied like pharaohs.” In all honesty, this is more poetry than one artist’s raison d’être. But the art that Oldenburg seeks to (re)define is hardly the art of the Medicis and the Rothschilds, but that of the everyman, of his habits and experience. Claes is, in a sense, speaking of a degentrification and democratization of art.
Upon reëxamination forty years later, these seem to be very sage words. Art has been democratized and degentrified. The sort of popularity attained by a figure like Warhol owes much to availability of mass media and consumer culture. But these changes hath opened the Pandora’s box. In a capitalist economy, art did not trickle down for art’s sake, but to turn a profit. Indeed, with American ingenuity (and Chinese labor), the Art and Culture of Europe has been mass-produced and packaged; it is available at your nearest Target store. The customer, they say, is always right. So if Monet is popular, expect every Musée des Beaux Arts this side of Moscow to be clamoring for a special exhibition. And as you leave this special exhibition, there will be a gift shop, so you can show everyone how much you like ol’ Claude by picking a set of water-lily cufflinks and a Rouen cathedral at sunset tote bag. Then again, Koolhaas said that the “fates” of shopping and its various modes are “impossible to separate”. The Princeton University Art Museum needs patronage, of course, but money as well. And, believe it or not, tchotchkes sell. The art museum gift shop looks as if it’s here to stay.