To put shopping in perspective, imagine it is the end of the world — you’re supposed to think ahead at new year, aren’t you? — and that the whole lot of us are up there before our God, trying to explain why we enjoy frittering away our earnings on the compulsive purchase of things we don’t need. It makes us happy, we explain. It doesn’t do any harm, we continue. It keeps the economy buoyant, pipes up the suit at the back.
The Almighty listens to all this and, with a sweep of his arm, indicates a huge expanse of stubbly mud that stretches as far as the eye can see in every direction. That used to be the Amazon basin, he murmurs gravely, before you began making furniture out of it. Next, he ushers before us a malnourished 10-year-old from Pakistan, who has worked in an American sportswear factory, sewing logos onto trainers, since she was five. For his finale, he opens the door to a cage and liberates a battery hen that a well-known supermarket chain has been rearing specially for the new-year lunch market. The hen stumbles out of its cage, falls flat on its beak and dies of a heart attack, too heavy to support its own steroid-induced superweight on legs that have never before been used for walking. So it does no harm, he booms. So it keeps you happy.
The truth of it is that if the Almighty chose to underline for us the iniquitous consequences of our addiction to shopping, he could be there for ever. What’s interesting — what a prickly display devoted to the relationship between art and shopping at Tate Liverpool clearly reveals — is how fiercely we refuse to feel any guilt about it. Personally, I would have expected art to be firmly against shopping. In matters of human dynamics, art almost always sides with the improvers and the bourgeois-bashers. But not when it reaches the checkout. When it comes to the purchase of useless goodies, art, in the 20th century, has been as guilty of inappropriate enthusiasm as the rest of us. And the reason it has maintained this uncharacteristic ambivalence is, of course, because it, too, is one of the goodies. Indeed, judged by the ratio of intrinsic uselessness to high prices, art is the king of the consumables. Thus, its opinion on matters of shopping has been fatally compromised.
Look, for instance, at Barbara Kruger, the inventor of a celebrated piece of agitprop art typography that insists, in unmissable white on red, “I shop therefore I am”. Tate Liverpool has a particularly large version of it on display at the peak of its display. It’s grabby. It appears to ridicule consumer hunger. But anyone who has bought the T-shirt or hung the poster or sent the postcard or carried the carrier bag will know that Kruger’s attack on the shopping impulse has itself metamorphosed into a bestselling item.
Two storeys of Tate Liverpool have been devoted to this unfortunate confusion. The 240 or so works on display range from early-20th-century photographs by Eugène Atget, gazing mournfully into Parisian shop windows, yearning for the tasty bits of mannequin on display in them, to a full-size re-creation of a Tesco Metro store, organised by Belgium’s Guillaume Bijl and installed in Tate Liverpool by the Tesco people themselves. They were still finishing it when I got there, just before Shopping opened to the public. With their slick dark suits and their purposeful prowling between the shelves, the Tesco Metro squad reminded me of presidential security forces checking for bombs. I had to laugh. All this melodramatic corporate seriousness devoted to the utterly useless pursuit of arranging cans on a shelf.
The artist was there as well. He, too, was dressed in slick black from head to foot, though he had long silver hair, and they didn’t. Bijl cornered me, and insisted on pointing out that it did not matter to him if this were a Tesco store or any other kind of store. What mattered was making clearer the choreography of the supermarket experience. He thought he was using the Tesco people. Poor fool. They get a huge, unmissable promotion at the centre of Tate Liverpool. He gets an ambiguous opportunity to insist upon his objectivity. I know who I’d deem to be the winner in the tussle.
An informative wall chart reveals that the Lydians invented retail shopping, and that the glazed shop window was, amazingly, introduced by the Dutch in the 17th century. Various similarities are noticed between the rise of the department store and the growth of the museum. Both nec- essitated a new kind of architecture. Both were filled with goodies, arranged in sections. Both used glass to maintain an enticing distance between you and the object of your desires.
Usefully, the display methods of the department store are shown to have had a crucial influence on the presentation strategies of modern artists. The photographs that Atget took of early Parisian shop fronts feature the same kind of relationship between you and the goodies behind the glass as the one engineered in Damien Hirst’s splendid installation Pharmacy, perhaps the single most compelling work here. Thousands of packets of medicine, arranged with clinical precision on scores of regulation white shelves, capture perfectly the rhythmic eeriness of the shopping situation. Andreas Gursky notices it as well in his great triptych of interiors of a Prada store in New York. The absurd sparsity of the Prada displays — a few black polo necks folded with anal precision on a huge grey set — offers a perfect encapsulation of fashionable blankness.
Gursky is exceptional. Most of the artists who set out to bite the hand of consumer culture find themselves being kidnapped by it instead. The surrealists deserve praise for keeping their cynicism about them in the presence of so much retail enticement. Man Ray turned to the shop-window dummy as a subject only because it succeeded in triggering such base desires in him. His picture of a Parisian mannequin with pins stuck into her nipples has been dredged out of a dark human zone located countless levels below the superficial one on which most of this show is set. Seventy years later, in contemporary Tokyo, Miwa Yanagi watches the transportation of hundreds of identical girlie mannequins around a department store, and succeeds only in returning them to the mildly unreal world of the shop window.
But it was pop art, that great welcomer of commercial textures, that played the most important role in the blurring of the divide between art and shopping. The show contains a re-creation of the famous American Supermarket of 1964, at which Warhol and Lichtenstein sold their art over the counter as if it were groceries, and sold groceries as if they were art. Was shopping elevated to the status of art? Or did art descend to the level of shopping? Either way, the two were fatally mixed into an indistinct pap.