Museum Gift Shops: Well if you’re going in that direction anyway…

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New Museum gift shop, 2016, image taken by author

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New Museum gift shop, 2016, image taken by author

I really wanted to title this entry “Exit Through the Gift Shop” which would, consequently, also be the preferred title of my PhD Thesis (if I were getting a PhD), except Banksy already used it for a movie. Basically, I’m obsessed with museum gift shops: the art books, the surreal sales atmosphere, the knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, reproductions, jewelry, etc. There’s a little bit of everything in a good museum gift shop and they are often so conveniently (and in an obvious marketing strategy) located at the end of special exhibitions or near the museum exit. Of course, not all museum gift shops are great, some only have art books and logo merchandise, others only have weirdly camp objects, some are clearly directed towards children or the elderly. However, despite my obsession – or perhaps the reason behind it – museum gift shops are also a bit disturbing to me: definitively capitalistic and surreally kitsch in their miniaturization, reproduction, and dissemination of fine art imagery. For example, how many times have you seen Van Gogh’s Starry Night reproduced on a coffee mug, mouse pad, puzzle, or really anything you could imagine a reproduction being printed on? There is also, of course, the print reproductions that are offered at varying levels of size, quality, and thus, cost…these are not as kitsch – they aren’t cutesy, hip, collectible, or vastly different from the original – but they do go against two of the major components of a work of art (namely a singular work of art like a painting) which are “authenticity” and intentionality.

When used from an art historical, academic perspective, “authenticity” typically refers to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” hence the scare quotes. This essay discusses the uniqueness inherent to a traditional work of art where only one object is produced. This is the case in painting, tapestries, antiques, antique furniture, and many sculptures. However, around the time that Benjamin was living and thinking and angst-ing, about a lot of stuff (I love him, he’s brilliant, but he has “Twilight” level angst going on sometimes), photography was becoming a big thing and was being used in unique ways by artists, like Man Ray. Benjamin began to question the authenticity of works of art that are created by a medium that is inherently reproducible: photographs, prints, sculptures created by a mold, etc. When you see these today, they are usually offered in editions and the cost is closely related to the number of editions available, the quality of said editions (for example, print quality tends to go downhill as more are made; the woodblock or plate starts to degrade, so earlier editions are more expensive and often preferable), and if the edition was created posthumously or during the artist’s lifetime by the artist. It’s still an issue both in the market and academically. On the market, singular works are priced higher and often considered more valuable by those who don’t specifically seek out prints and photographs. Academically, you still see art historians citing Benjamin, writing about authenticity and “aura,” and this particular essay is assigned at some point in almost every degree program for the history of art. The shove of the piece is that unique works have an “aura” based on their life. Since it is a singular work, the object in question has a life-like experience from its creation in the artist’s studio, to its viewing, through its various owners (private, public, etc.), and in whatever else it has experienced. Further, each person who views it brings their own perspectives, opinions, and experiences to the work. Every article written on it and exhibition it is included in (which of course brings it into contact with other works of art) adds to its “aura.” It soaks these experiences up like a sponge and carries them around; this is part of the reason why most articles and museums will include a provenance (or history of ownership and exhibition). Benjamin questioned whether an inherently reproducible work of art could have an aura since there is no one piece but instead several nearly identical pieces that go on through different lives. He then began to question the relevance of auras and authenticity in the modern age (keep in mind Benjamin lived through the two world wars in Germany and emigrated to France and Spain, so he was greatly influenced by the world’s first industrialized war and the social and cultural take-over of technology). Benjamin was never decidedly saying whether or not any of this was good or bad, that kind of final (almost biblical) judgement wasn’t his jive. Instead he seemed to be laying out what he saw, discussing it and its effects, and pondering on the changes occurring and what they could mean for the future of art, culture, and human society.

This is one of the things that fascinates me about the museum gift shop. Museums are defined as institutions that house and protect art and provide a space for the general public to view and be educated about art, history, and human culture. A statement along these lines can be found in almost any museum’s mission statement and is also what the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) uses as the starting point for many of their rules and regulations concerning the museums that are members of the AAM. The more global International Council of Museums (ICOM) also uses similar language. However, museums are often put in a bind when the question of funding comes up. The collection itself is seen as nearly sacred and it is frowned upon to sell works from the collection unless (and this is in infrequent cases) the sale goes directly into purchasing new artworks that will “improve” the collection. But, most museums don’t make enough money off of entry fees, sales, grants, and endowments alone. Trustees play a large part in this, their deep pockets are often called upon to finance shows, purchase works, and allow for renovations. Still, museums are always looking for new ways to bring money in since they are not inexpensive institutions to run. This is where the gift shop comes in. Sales on everything from prints to houseware to books to toys are made and bear the name of whatever illustrious institution is peddling them for a heinous mark-up. What confuses me, though, is also what really pulls me in. While museums are not allowed to use their collections as a financial buoy, they do have free reign to use reproductions of the works they own (with a few exceptions). Here, they go crazy and plaster images taken from the masterpieces of their collection all over everything and sell them as souvenirs, collectibles, and generally unnecessary but highly desirable commodities (I could go way deep into Marx, Simmel, and Lukacs here, but I’ll spare you).

Don’t get me wrong, I love this stuff, not only because it bears the image of my favorite works of art, but also because these objects are interesting things unto themselves. What does it mean for the original artwork that it is being miniaturized, kitschitized, and reproduced ad infinitum for mass consumption by the masses who have probably never even read a book about said work or the artist who created it? What does this mean for the artist’s creative intentions; what would Van Gogh say (the man who cut off an ear in a fit of passion…or epilepsy [depending on who you’re asking])? Then, with smart phones and selfies and social media, the images are further reproduced and disseminated on individuals’ accounts. How many people have seen the selfies taken by Beyoncé and Jay Z at the Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa? This 21st C image has become iconic just like the image that they were pictured in front of; this is the definition of meta! But what does this mean for the art? Does it demean it, cause it lose meaning, bastardize it? Do endless reproduction (which often, like in the game of telephone, lead to a distortion of information) take away from the original work of art or does it just add to the artwork’s life and aura? Personally, I think only time can tell on that front, but for now I think it’s good that mass culture is taking an interest in art, even if it’s only through celebrities. Art is meant to speak, be seen, make change, and educate. The artist’s intentions, further, can never be kept once the work leaves the studio. People will see what they want and think what they think, taking their own experiences and perceptions to the object and projecting them all over it. It is a visual medium, so spreading its picture can only add to it (be it good or bad – didn’t someone once say that all press is good press, anyway?).

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Neue Galerie gift shop, 2016, image taken by author

Beyond this though, and the part that begins to disturb me much more than the reproduction and commoditization, is the inevitable kitschitization. “Kitsch” is one of those weird words that no one seems to have a solid definition of. It’s originally German and made its way into daily English usage like so many other foreign words, picking up both slang and academic meaning. My favorite definition of kitsch, however, comes from Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”: “kitsch in the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” So, this endless repetition, miniaturization, and “purification” of art through a selection of what is “appropriate” or desirable for mass consumption – its kitschitization through the museum gift shop by making it everyday, collectible, and safe – is really a lie. The reproducers and the consumers pretend to revere the art image, and this desire to take it home in a functional or collectible format for everyday use or gifting vies with the belief that art lovers would actually want their art in such a format. In reality, if we view kitsch in Kundera’s terms, as the denial of shit and the baseness of humanity, then this kitschitization of great art is the destruction and denial of said art. Great art is itself an individual, grossly private, uncensored, human, personal excrement of the mind, soul, and body. By kitschitizing these masterpieces, we water them down and remove the inherently base human desire to share the self (no matter how grotesque or perverted) and instead make each individual work a mass-produced commodity that is a degraded version of its original intention. When Munch’s The Scream – a poignant work of angst, emotion, and anxiety (nothing if not a silent scream of a depraved state of higher intelligence) – is reduced to being reproduced onto t-shirts, coffee mugs, mouse pads, what-have-you, what becomes of it? It is no longer a meaningful demand for attention or productive thought but just another image watered down by repetition and simplification. Because, at this point, it is truly removed from the human being that created it.

Art – which may be one of the few classifications of objects that is not reified but is almost human – at this point truly becomes an object, becomes reified, through this reproduction that is not only a reproduction, but further, a base change of format and meaning. It loses its touch with humanity (both of the creator and the viewer) that made it great, that made it art. If art is the admittance of everything that is unacceptable to human existence, and kitsch is the denial of that same thing, where does that leave gift shops and the museums (the self-same protectors of cultural heritage) that create, house, and sell them? Basically a pimp whoring out art (though that may be a bit harsh). Nonetheless, I love these gift shops. Surrounded by so much useless shiny shit, I want it all. Like Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot,” I do not pay for Nastassya nor do I try to have sex with her. I do, however, remain fixated in her presence unable to truly judge what is happening and what it means (but maybe the meaning of this can best be explained by Simmel: “it is not our task either to accuse or to pardon, but only to understand”). Perhaps, though, it is this very dichotomy (the contradiction in both my feelings and my argument) that when paired makes the brilliance of the original shine all the brighter, the intention all the clearer, when placed next to its shallow imitator, its hollow twin, its doppelgänger. The reproduction in this form is all surface. When we buy gift shop collectibles, we don’t want to look deeper for an inner truth but instead look to the surface to see what we can find there; it both withholds and reveals.

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New Museum gift shop, 2016, image taken by author

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