The Inverted Commodity

Currently at the Barbican Centre in London it is on view an exhibition that features the objects that artists like Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Peter Blake, etc, have been collecting through the course of their career. Nevertheless the interesting part of the exhibit is the shop.

By nature I am been always fascinated by museum shops: for their commercial nature that targets museum’s revenues, shops disintegrate the experience of looking at art. By selling representation, imitation and gadgetization of the displayed work – believed to be “original” – shops perfectly integrate artworks in the social paradigm of consumeristic capitalist society. As defined by Marx via the relationship between use value and exchange value, shop items become commodities, as their value is related to the market.

By keeping this in mind I visited the shop. What I saw passed for miles my expectation.

The main body of the exhibitions features objects which are, in the 90% of the cases, kitsch, cheap and, sometimes, ugly copies of “original”; they are items that anyone can find in the little markets on the streets (with few exceptions like Damien Hirst’s stuff animals). If looked from the Marxist commodity’s point of view, the value of this “original copies” is very low. Nevertheless for the artist/collector these objects are very valuable for the kind of meaning he or she gives them under the act of collecting.

In the museum shop there is a completely different scenario, which happens when looking at the price tag of the copy of the copy. Indeed the environmental condition of the shop looks at different parameters; the image and form of the same low value object is on sale with a price which is almost 9 times the original copy’s one.

Visitors’s fetish passion for souvenirs is the trigger of such paradoxical mechanism, by which an original commodity, transformed by the artist in a kind of artwork, suddenly becomes a valuable object. Once the “late commodity” is displayed in the gallery, it becomes “officially” part of the world of art; hence the syllogistic paradox of contemporary society takes shape, by the consumeristic mechanism fed by the cult of the fetish. Indeed the magic operated by consumerism makes the copy of the copy of the original a valuable item, because of the capitalist syllogism based on the narrative conveyed by the exchange value. Suddenly these original copies are portrayed as “unique” and “original”, thus the shop souvenir copy’s value can be sold at gallery price.

At this point I would be curious to see the Dulwich Gallery exhibit, which celebrates the value of the copy, but if it happens to be at the Barbican Centre, please visit the shop of the “Magnificent Obsession: The Artist Collector” exhibit.

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