The Fine Art Of Shopping

Every mall rat knows that shopping is an art: finding the perfect cashmere sweater, staking out a spot early at the end- of-season shoe sale. Now a new exhibit at Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle celebrates shopping as a work of art. Called "Shopping--100 Years of Art and Commerce" (through Dec. 1, then moving to the Tate Liverpool), the show is as gratifying as an afternoon spent browsing the racks. Filled with images of consumerism by artists ranging from turn-of-the-century French photographer Eugene Atget to modern-day British bad-boy Damien Hirst, "Shopping" pointedly explores the relationship between high culture and mall culture.

That connection is stronger than ever. As more than a few sociologists have pointed out, consumerism is one of the defining social phenomena of our age, and a key source of public interaction. Throughout much of the world, shopping is no longer merely a way to fulfill essential needs but a primary leisure activity. And in the wake of September 11, shopping took on an even greater significance for Americans: it became an act of patriotism. "If you want to help New York, come and spend money," the then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani advised his countrymen. Indeed, shopping has become such a serious subject that Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas last spring edited a two-kilogram academic tome titled "The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping," which celebrates consumerism's role in history, economics and architecture. "Shopping has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, including art," says Schirn director Max Hollein.

As the Frankfurt show makes clear, the relationship works both ways. The first department stores--invented in Paris, by the way, not in New York--took their cues from the lavish art museums of their day. Stores like the Bon Marche on the Rue de Sevres were monumental, beaux-arts galleries, where the previously unknown wonders of mass production were displayed on Corinthian pedestals. From the start, the magical aura of these early malls inspired artists: for surrealists like painter Salvador Dali or photographer Man Ray, there was nothing more fascinating than the dressed-up mannequin in a store window--the idealized, female form, a modern-day Greek statue. In the 1920s, the German Bauhaus school of artists and designers found beauty in the perfectly arrayed rows of identical products, an idea pop artist Andy Warhol and others took up later when they stacked standard grocery items--boxes of Brillo pads, cans of Campbell soup--and called it art.

If products have inspired artists, so, too, have the stores that sold them. With buying and selling so central to our lives, perhaps it's only natural that the supermarket or department store has become today's equivalent of a landscape or a still life. Take pop artist Claes Oldenburg, whose plastic sculptures of meat counters and ice cream dishes are among the highlights of the Frankfurt show. Or photography's wunderkind Andreas Gursky, whose oversize pictures of supermarket shelves and Prada boutiques are almost suffocating in their depiction of the relentless onslaught of salable goods.

Among artists, architects have been the slowest to embrace the shopping craze. Traditionally most "have [had] little but contempt for retail," critic Daniel Herman writes in the "Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping." Instead, epoch-shaping architects like Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier have preferred designing schools, public housing and art museums. In doing so, they passed up their chance to shape the 20th century's biggest contribution to urbanism, Herman says. The result: look-alike department stores and unmemorable malls, or what Koolhaas calls "junkspace."

Koolhaas has certainly done his part to change that. Last year he teamed up with Miuccia Prada in Manhattan to design her Milan-based fashion company's eye-stopping SoHo branch. Widely seen as a revolution in retail design, the store combines high tech with high style: online video in the changing room shows customers alternate colors, styles and accessories; walls of glass carry sunlight deep into the store's interior; stadium-style bleachers display shoes and double as a stage. Koolhaas isn't alone: Frank Gehry has turned the nearby Issey Miyake flagship store into a miniature version of the Guggenheim Bilbao, and Frenchman Philippe Starck gave the designer treatment to Jean-Paul Gaultier's boutique on Madison Avenue.

Still, not everyone is enthusiastic about the marriage of art and shopping. Intellectuals point out that since the Renaissance, art has played a moral role, creating ideals--and questioning them. By blurring the line between art and commerce, "one of the classical roles of 20th-century art--to irritate, to criticize, to be subversive--is being sacrificed," says Walter Grasskamp, art historian at Munich's Academy of Fine Arts. Yet museums have profited hugely from mass materialism: these days they make more money from their in-house shops than from admissions tickets. To be truly subversive, in art as in modern life, one may have to follow Koolhaas's suggestion: "True luxury is not to shop." What to do with all that spare time? The Schirn offers an option as enticing as a new set of long-staple combed-cotton towels.