Barring your being ill or lost or in a Ben Stiller movie, you’ll exit a museum exhibition through the gift shop. There, you’ll see art—commoditized. By The Man. Of course, The Man has been skimming a kajillion handfuls of misplaced emeralds out of his gold dollar hot tub to purchase splashy art since before Plato perfected shadow puppetry.
But most of us live without hot tubs, so the gift shop makes art-inspired bibelots available for purchase by peons just like you and me. You may never bask in the glow of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed windows, but that doesn’t mean your neck can’t with the Museum of Modern Art’s Coonley Scarf ($60). Daniel Joseph Martinez’s “In the Rich Man’s House the Only Place to Spit is in His Face” may never grace your mantel, but you can carry the message everywhere you go with the New Museum’s “perfect durable everyday tote” ($35; the Whitney Museum rejected the artist’s proposal to inscribe this in their Madison Avenue window for the 1993 biennial, so you aren’t the only one going without). At times, a museum store simply shows its hand, such as in the Met’s 10” high cast resin copy of The Three Graces ($195). Sometimes a cigar is just a smaller cigar.
The consumer desire for art commoditized is taken a step further just outside most major museums in New York, where vendors sell paintings, drawings, and photographs. One fellow outside the Met sells an odd slew of paintings of women with wildly oversized posteriors, as if Ingres’s Odalisque sat upright and took a selfie with a fish-eye filter. I call him The Ass Man. There’s something charming about the assumption that after viewing the museum’s collection, many visitors will want some art of their own; the fact that these vendors are ubiquitous suggests this may be a somewhat successful venture. It’s almost a wonder that Thomas Kincaide Inc. doesn’t set-up shop out there. (Attn: Mr. Gagosian.)
Everyone wants something to remember the action. (The action being the art, not those rumped-up doodles I just described to you.) I’ve seen just as many folks looking overwhelmed with packages as with emotional response. Yet I don’t find it perverse: there’s something more attractive about art museum gift shop wares than the glitzy chattel we consume so voraciously. They have a glimmer of an intellectual underpinning, what with their whiff of high culture, their coy witticism, the way they’ve cornered the Wacky Aunt demographic.
So I take great pleasure in seeing what qualities a museum store’s buyers extrapolate from an exhibition and translate into buyable goods. Will MoMA offer Le Corb’s owl glasses in conjunction with their new exhibit on the architect? Can you buy swanky watches at the Frick?
But my curiosity was less buoyant when it came to Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Met. Punk, at its 1974-1976 roots, seems to defy commoditization, to dissociate an interest in aesthetics from the process of belonging through consumerism. You didn’t buy clothing to look like a punk; even Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s London shop was a statement on consumerism (right?). Might the gift shop be the ultimate eye-rolling nail in the exhibition’s backlash-ridden coffin?
You enter the Chaos to Couture giftshop to the fading gallop of a Handel chorus, the soundtrack to the museum’s final room, “DIY: Destroy” (as if there weren’t enough “The” bands to pluck music from). What you find is the following, which I will grade on a super punk scale from A to 10, 10 being “Scissors in the eye” and A being “Can we reschedule?”
Exhibition catalogue ($45). The Met’s catalogues are always ace, and this one includes an essay by Richard Hell that closes with the summation, “There’s something inherently sad about clothes in themselves, and fashion, no matter how lovely or effective. Clothes are empty.” Grade: $2 bill.
Duct tape ($8.95) and Manic Panic Hair Dye ($13.95). Barrels of duct tape, available in pink, black, white, safety pin-print, or checkerboard, and shelves of Manic Panic in the punk primary colors, so that you can punkify yourself at this very minute. These are too cloying, like they’re suggesting Punk was Hot Topic before the topic was hot. Grade: Cross-cut saw.
Skateboards ($74.95). Inexplicably, there are skateboard decks emblazoned with the exhibit’s signage, one in black and white and another in what I believe are the school colors of Bayside High. I think I’ve seen more photographs of Katharine Hepburn skateboarding than I have of punks. Grade: “We met on the dating show Catfish.”
Wall of t-shirts ($180+). Whether shredded and pinned or stenciled with snark, t-shirts are super punk. Though there is the usual screenprint of the exhibition poster on a commercial grade crewneck, there are also t-shirts from Vivienne Westwood, Rodarte, and Givenchy, the latter of which is a walloping $575. Dripping from each of these is a long chain that is a joyous silver, the color of a Tiffany’s bracelet wrapped in tinfoil. “Well, this is pretty punk,” I thought, until I realized that the chains were actually security mechanisms to keep me from (very punkly) stealing the tees. Grade: B12, as in the worst airplane seat, not the vitamin.
Punk literati starter kit. You could spend a decent amount of time in the Met’s exhibition and leave without really understanding who Richard Hell or Patti Smith are or how hard it was for Joey Ramone to find jeans that were black, let alone ones that reached his ankles (fact: Joey’s jeans were longer than all of Mickey Boardman’s necklaces strung together). Luckily, the Museum does a fantastic job of giving you all the books you’d ever need to really get the movement, including Richard Hell’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, James Wolcott’s Lucking Out, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me, and Griel Marcus’s Lipstick Traces. Grade: Palm Dog Award, the preeminent award given to canines for dramatic performance in a Cannes Film Festival flick.
Jewelry. The Met tends to hit it out of Central Park with the jewelry, pulling the coolest little nuances from works in their collection to create baubles that are high culture legit. Displayed around a $1495 silk clutch plunged with safety pins and nestled in a lucite rectangle by Charlotte Olympia are two sets of jewelry, one riffing on safety pins and the other on razors. Bracelets, necklaces, and rings are done in gold and silver and all priced below $300. I lingered for a long while over the safety pin bracelet; when I saw the pseudo-punk starter kit up front, I’d wondered why they didn’t just offer a big barrel of safety pins. But these were pins done right. Grade: These jewels were chic. Anya Phillips would’ve approved. Four lines of eyeliner, or whatever.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, as you’ll also find the requisite iPad cases, pencil pouches, shoe keychains, etc. But those are just window scarves, just totes that render art installations subway babble, just cigars. That jewelry was something else. That jewelry had a touch of The Ass Man.