Article by Michael J. Prokopow

P
ondering the changing relationship between art and commerce, Andy Warhol, the onetime window-dresser turned artist, filmmaker, society fixture and rapacious yet discerning collector, offered the insightful opinion that one day in the not too distant future, “all museums will be department stores and all department stores will be museums.” Typical of Warhol’s cynical pronouncements in matters of taste and consumerism, the idea that the institutions that traditionally stewarded cultural patrimony and the places selling cheap things to the middling and lower classes would reverse roles was prescient.

It implied that the contents of the Metropolitan Museum of Art would be available for purchase and the laden, eventually forgettable showrooms of Sears and Macy’s and countless other retail establishments would become solemn galleries replete with curatorial labels and stanchions. What it suggested about the deep changes occurring in North America around the consumption of culture (and, by extension, the culture of consumption) went much farther at the same time by questioning the very existence of museums as guardians of elite culture. It also suggested that the shopping mall, as a type of animated vitrine, contained greater social truths.

At the heart of Warhol’s comment is an awareness that the lines between museums and retail stores, the material realizations of middle class desire, were becoming increasingly blurred. Whereas there had long existed carefully maintained divisions between the purpose and work of museums and the purpose and work of stores, at some point in the late decades of the twentieth century, the relevance of the former had been eclipsed (or at least undermined) by the proliferation and availability of the latter. Of course, Warhol’s comment was offered not as an absolute, but as a provocative idea about social change. It is difficult not to react to the implications of these remarks. Either one laments the implied decline of the traditional museum or one embraces the idea of ever-enhanced shopping understood in North America as what most people want.

But Warhol’s sociological and aesthetic insight notwithstanding, his comment about museums as department stores and department stores as museums also addressed what he recognized to be more immediate questions about the changing nature of objects in late capitalism. In particular, he was aware of the ways in which the mass-produced came to define modern life and that the making and acquisition of objects raised questions about how society might represent itself in museums, the traditional repositories of collective memory. Yet if one can get past the notion that culture is under attack with the growth of consumerism then the idea of selling the objects of culture usually found in museums is not so difficult to accept.

Indeed, in the context of the decorative arts and
what in the new millennium is broadly and often imprecisely
called “design,” there are two important trajectories
that can be followed. The fi rst concerns the idea of
what might be described as how postmodernity’s suspicion
of categories and hierarchies promoted a type of
cross-pollination of once distinctly separate forms. The
second trajectory concerns the dominant role of consumption
in North American life; that all aspects of social
existence seem to revolve around shopping and the purchase
of things. The result is that the act of acquisition,
whether by museums or individuals can be regarded as
the production of culture in and of itself. The central
role that consumerism plays in everyday life and the old
defi nitions of mandate and presentation that once distinguished
the museum from the retail establishment,
have been remade and the principles and practices that
at one point differentiated the museum from the mall
have met in the middle. Thus high-end retail shops now
mimic galleries just as museums have begun to imitate
retail practices. They have had to operate as an excursion
in search of entertainment where cultural enrichment
plays a secondary role. The successful contemporary
museum increasingly looks to the department store
experience and the televisual model of “info-tainment.”
To be relevant, new structures, in the thinking of some,
need to have buildings motivated by the “edifi ce complex”
of “starchitects.” They need blockbuster exhibitions,
each one bigger and better than the last in the
manner of Cirque du Soleil. Chic restaurants, coffee
bars and members’ lounges where one can relax with
cappuccinos and the ever-dependable glass of Pinot
Grigio create an ambiance appropriate to the culture of
consumerism, while the gift shop is full of things that
may or may not have any relevance to the museum, and
stands at the exit to satisfy the impulse to buy. Where
else to acquire a reproduction Old Kingdom turquoise
faience hippopotamus or a necktie with Egon Schiele’s
The Kiss or some high style design object that would furnish
an empty niche at home.
In many ways, the promotion of design, as both an
aesthetic and commercial enterprise has long been the
mainstay of certain museums. The South Kensington
Museum in London in 1852 and the subsequent establishment
of other such museum collections dedicated to
the documentation of industrialization like the Museum
of Applied Art in Vienna (1862), the Museum of Art and
Design in Copenhagen (1890) and the Architecture
Department within MoMA in New York (1929), all promoted
the concept of design in its many applications.
These collections turned on recognition of the relationship
between industrial production and the material
transmission of values.

Image: Large Crown Jar 2008
heyday design, 7.75 x 3.5cm diameter
Slip cast porcelain
Photograph: ©heyday design
Courtesy of MADE