I’ll have mine with warm butterscotch and extra maraschino cherries, please. (Photo by C-M.)
I love art merch. Seriously, I can’t get enough of it. At any museum, in addition to exploring the art, I always allot enough time to make a thorough inspection of the gift store. It’s all part of the bigger picture, really. If art in our culture is often reduced to the vacuous acquisition of shining objects, then the gift shops embody this sentiment on a grand, populist scale. And like Black Friday at Macy’s, it’s often a free-for-all.
So, just in time for the holiday shopping season, I’ve outlined the three reasons why art merch deserves our utmost veneration:
- Gift store inventory reveals more about a museum than any art hung in the galleries. A museum shop full of nothing but incomprehensible exhibit catalogues tells me, “We’re a serious, academic place, where all water cooler conversation takes place in German.” (Case in point: the Mies Van der Rohe pavilion in Barcelona.) But, if I see erasers, scarves, jewelry, coffee mugs and key chains, I know that this is an institution with an ample marketing department that is determined to appeal to a very wide audience — and vacuum their wallets in the process. (Hello, Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
- Art merch can be sublimely absurd. Not just the physical objects — such as this Andy Warhol banana split bowl ($14.95 at the Whitney) — but the process that went into creating them. At some point, a bunch of people got together, in a conference room, and had a meeting about this. They asked themselves, “What can we do with this priceless screen print of a banana?” And they decided that it wouldn’t work as cuff links or a stationery set, but it’d be just perfect as a receptacle for ice cream and nuts. Then, someone said, “We can include a matching spoon.” And everyone around the table replied, “Ooooh, of course, the matching spoon!” All so a tourist on winter break in New York could go, “Check it out, Marge… It’s a Warhol banana split holder with a matching spoon…” It’s like a giant conceptual art piece. Created by some licensing company in Beijing.
- The merch is often more fascinating than the art itself. I’m not talking about Impressionist notepads and Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired key chains. Those are done. I’m talking about stuff that is tasteless with a high degree of planning and premeditation: shorts with David‘s dong, Guernica coffee mugs and Frida Kahlo socks. It takes imagination to say, “Hey, let’s get Schnabel to put one of his doodles on a beach towel!” Or, “What if Barry McGee did sunglasses?” Or, better yet, “Let’s put Boticelli’s Venus on a couch.” Not to mention that this stuff is all highly utilitarian. I can sit on it, wear it, and use it to dry my damp derriere on the beach. And that, my friends, is an art. Even if it never takes place in a gallery.