It appears that one of the better selling items in the bookstore of the Centre Pompidou is a box set of postcards featuring images from the popular website, Stuff On My Cat, whose slogan, apparently, is "Cats + Stuff = Awesome."
This item sits on the display tables alongside books showcasing the work of Duane Hanson, Jeff Koons, and Maurizio Cattelan. I flipped through these books last night, as my wife searched for something or other in the important tomes lining the walls. I laughed at Michael Jackson and Bubbles, again; I marvelled, again, at how corpulent Americans are, according to Duane Hanson, and how much they like yard sales and barbecues. So far, the usual museum-bookstore routine. But then I picked up the Stuff On My Cat cards and was, for the first time since entering what can only be called the flagship bookstore of the contemporary artworld, genuinely transfixed. Those cats had beer cans on them! They were wearing baseball caps and trousers! Afro wigs! Potted plants! The slogan had it just right: cats, in combination with stuff, make an awesome spectacle.
But then I had this saddening realization: I didn't have to come here to do this. I could have stayed back in the apartment in Montmartre and puttered around on the internet as I usually do. I could have kept my distance from Paris altogether.
This, I think, raises a real problem for pre-internet institutions like the Centre Pompidou (whose edifice always makes me think of Duran Duran): there is simply no good reason to believe that one can find between its walls more creativity than what spontaneously bubbles up online. Who can really say they prefer Joseph Beuys to Tadjik Jimmy? I think until the 1990s it was possible to build buildings that house physical objects that are the product of some sort of human creativity, if not the same sort on which the Renaissance masters drew, and to call these buildings cultural institutions and to designate the objects inside of them as somehow special and, finally, to convince people to go to these buildings and to pay to be allowed inside. But the time for that is over, and the Centre Pompidou looks sadder than ever.
Apparently when it was built it was supposed to 'turn the museum inside out', and to symbolize this in its very architecture. There was supposed to be an 'effet Beaubourg', Jean Baudrillard declaimed, that would transform museum-going from an activity of the elite to an activity of the masses. Now the masses can go pick up a box-set of Stuff On My Cat postcards at the Beaubourg's bookstore, or they can stay home and get their dose of LOL-kitty cheer electronically. Meanwhile, the oil paintings over at the Musée d'Orsay still yield up details when studied closely that are not apparent in electronic reproduction.