The great Yuletide consumer potlatch has been a distinctly muted affair in our understimulated, recession-battered economy. The Elmos and Wiis of flusher times seem to mock us, in that garish mechanical way of theirs, from across the chasm that we created, when all that was solid-not least the multileveraged roofs over our heads-melted into air. And all that’s to say nothing, of course, of the high-end dosh that, in a perfect world, would punctuate another productive year of giddy pelf-procuring. So how best to honor the complex holiday mandates of pecuniary display in such a chastened new order? High-end-shopping Financial Times blogger Lucia Van der Post has just the thing: Culture-shopping!
To be sure, like all decent flaunting these days, culture shopping is a Euro-affectation. Discernment, after all, is arguably the last distinguishing trait of the British aristocracy, and happily, the hard-pressed lead institutions of the Sceptered Isle’s culture industry have long been hawking their wares in the mass consumer marketplace, following the lead of the lavish country estates boxed up and auctioned off in the Thatcher age.
In fact, as Van der Post notes, the market’s become so clogged with worthy dispensaries of cultural artifacts that “few of us could ever manage to visit a few of them.” Enter, of course, the Internet, with a nimble, aggregating site called CultureLabel, which “does the visiting, the curating, and the editing for us,” van der Post writes. “Tap into it and you’ll find a host of possible presents, each one with some real connection to the institution it comes from.”
Sure enough, once you toggle over and start tapping, you find the site boasts the kind of brute efficiency that would send Walter Benjamin into a far deeper funk than those he was already prone to-briskly laying out all the cultural institutions in question under a “Brands” menu heading. Fittingly, the “Keep Calm and Carry On” wartime poster that enjoyed a faddish revival during the global meltdown has its own perch here, as do a host of more venerable franchises, from the Royal Academy of the Arts, the Tate Gallery and the British Museum.
And of course there are edgier outlets like the Baltic Gallery and the reliably evil Saatchi concession, depending on how high the tolerance for self-deconstructing gift statements may run among your family and friends. Sadly, the icon for the Imperial War Museum only carries a “Coming Soon” logo, so your jingoist uncle will once again have to hunt his own souvenirs somewhere in the provinces.
Really, though, it’s the individual shopping entries that capture the culture hoarder’s imagination. It’s puzzling to reflect, for instance, that the British Museum offers a “Hermes foot” for £35, but in a disappointing lapse of irony-minded marketing, has apparently yet to produce a facsimile of the chair where that poor excitable sop Karl Marx famously composed Das Kapital. The Bodleian Library at Oxford does have its own chair for sale (at a fairly steep £725), but the rest of the catalog seems like a cheesy afterthought, from the “Music for Book Lovers CD” to something called the “High Jinks! Handy Bag”-which, being British and all, is far less dirty than it sounds. You have your choice of a child’s chain-mail vest (£9.85) or Charles Darwin cufflinks (£12.85) at the shabby-genteel English Heritage portal, but wouldn’t the real money be in carving out some more discreet market share in landed estates, or at least O.B.E. titles? How much can they set you back, after all, if Elton John’s got one?
And in the tradition of status-aspirational publications everywhere, let us leave you with that warming thought for the 2009 holiday season. Merry Christmas to Awl, and to Awl a good knight.