caroline f. riley
Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1889-1890, detail
image courtesy | Van Gogh Museum
During Van Gogh’s prolific ten year career he produced over two thousand works of art. This number includes nine hundred paintings and one thousand one hundred drawings and sketchings. Despite selling only one work of art during his lifetime, Van Gogh sustains his legacy as one of the most celebrated artists by contemporary society. His unique painterly style and life story has since made his works some of the most replicated in the history of art. Van Gogh prints, jewelry, stationary, kitchenware and luxury items litter museum gift shops and online stores, made readily available for purchase anywhere in the world. This commercialization of fine art becomes a paradox in itself. By assigning an everyday function to these works of art they become an object for use. Thus, losing their artistic significance and becoming another commodity, for disposal. This process was recently expedited on August 3rd, 2018, through a partnership between the clothing company Vans and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
The Van Gogh Museum has increasingly sought out opportunities for capital gain outside of the experience of viewing Van Gogh’s works. As stated on the museum’s annual report, “the Van Gogh Museum traditionally secures its revenue from ticket sales, its own events and activities, governmental subsidies, donations from private benefactors and, problematically, partnerships with the business world. To an increasing extent, the museum also relies on commercial activities.” The first floor gift shop offers visitors myriad souvenirs for purchase celebrating their favorite works in the collection. Museum patrons, or any art lover, can now enjoy the works in the collection with a twist: functionality. These entities negate the original purpose of Van Gogh’s work; a purely aesthetic experience.
Vans x Van Gogh Museum, campaign photograph
image courtesy | Vans
In 2018, The Van Gogh Museum announced its partnership with the popular clothing company Vans to release a line of iconic slip-on sneakers inspired by works in the museum’s collection. Visitor favorites from the museum’s collection such as Skull, Almond Blossom, Sunflowers and Van Gogh’s self-portrait are digitally printed onto the canvas upper of the shoes, packaged, ordered online and shipped right to the consumer’s home. Due to the overwhelming popularity, the collection is currently sold out on the Vans website, but is still available for purchase at select locations and third-party wholesale retailers.
These shoes embody the current trend of bringing fashion and fine art together. The Vans x Van Gogh Museum collaboration is not the first of its nature. Last year, Louis Vuitton and Jeff Koons introduced a collaboration entitled “Masters,” in which iconic examples of Western oil painting were reproduced on the sides of handbags and backpacks. The acquisition of a “Masters” bag offers consumers the opportunity to, in a sense, possess the artwork itself.
The price of the Vans x Van Gogh Museum collaboration is significantly lower than that of “Masters” handbag. However, both of these collaborations alienate consumers from their products in different ways. The “Masters” collaboration estranges potential buyers as a result of the cost. Louis Vuitton is, of course, well known for its astronomical costs, in fact, for the most popular style in the “Masters” collection, clients can expect a $2,800 price tag. However, the Van Gogh Vans alienate the consumer by obscuring the product of Van Gogh’s labor. Both pairings of high art and commercial product divorce consumers from the original artists. The art, the fundamental aspect of the designs themselves, is disguised in the form of another everyday object. The shoes blend into the life of the consumer and the artistry is ignored. The availability of the shoes filters them into the mainstream and they become a trend, and people begin to want them because they are in vogue, not because of their representations of the illustrious career of Van Gogh. Following the pattern of elitism, the shoes themselves transform into symbols of status, and are sought after for what they signify socially.
Louis Vuitton x Jeff Koons, campaign photograph
image courtesy | Louis Vuitton
In 1987, Sunflowers sold at auction for a record $39.3 million dollars to two anonymous bidders. Today, the value has tripled. Cynthia Freeland addresses this issue in the fourth chapter of But is it Art?, writing:
The irony was grotesque in light of [Van Gogh’s] own poverty and despair over being unable to sell works during his lifetime. The thought that a work like the Mona Lisa is ‘priceless’ makes it difficult to see and appreciate as art (when one is lucky enough to get a second to stand before it). Can we ever again see Van Gogh’s works as art rather than as huge dollar signs?
Assigning a monetary value in the tens of millions to a piece of art inevitably changes it in the process. The piece can no longer be assessed on artistic merit alone. A monetary value this high transforms the art into a symbol of status. Thus, this collection of Vans obscures the labor of the artist in favor of the social value they project.
However, the Van Gogh Museum is no stranger to capitalizing on their namesakes’ art and legacy. The museum’s website is extremely transparent about their development strategies. Their mission statement, outlined in their strategic plan for 2018-2020, reads, “The Van Gogh Museum makes the life and work of Vincent van Gogh and the art of his time accessible and reaches as many people as possible in order to enrich and inspire them.” Directly below the mission, the museum’s core values states, “The Van Gogh Museum is leading, excellent and inspiring. These core values function as an ethical compass and are at the heart of corporate culture at the museum.”
Absent from this mission statement and core values are any type of learning outcomes for the visitor. The art is indeed accessible, boasting a seventeen euro ticket cost (free for minors), as a result of the relationship it shares with corporate culture. The branding of these works of art in the collection grant recognition, thus more “accessibility” to the visitor or everyday consumer. However, the focus of the museum has shifted from a place of learning and meditation to a place of consumption, as shown by their ever popular collaborations. A positive museum experience is no longer about the connections formed between the art and visitors during their trip, it becomes about the photos they took of themselves with works and the items accumulated in the gift shop. The museum visit can not stand on its own as a positive experience, it must be supplemented with tangible takeaways in order to feel meaningful.
The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands
image courtesy | MyLittleAdventure
By giving these works of art an everyday use, what was once available to only an elite demographic––through the purchase of expensive oil paintings––is now attainable by all. This accessibility is inspiring, but the methods in practice are questionable. Distribution of items through e-commerce distances the consumer from the artistic nature of the product even further, as they can purchase merchandise from anywhere in the world without having to step into the museum, or see the original piece. Connections between visitors and art no longer happen in a gallery space, they take place on a screen; thus, removing the museum from the experience altogether.
The purpose of these items makes the artistic aspect of them easier for people to ignore. Instead of being a work of art that makes the viewer feel and connect emotionally, the object becomes just another pair of dirty sneakers in the back of a closet or a broken coffee mug. On the subject of the culture industry, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer write, “For consumers the use value of art, its essence, is a fetish, and the fetish––the social valuation which they mistake for the merit of works of art––becomes its only use value, the only quality they enjoy.” Due to the popularity of Van Gogh following his death and the availability of these mass produced items, the actual works of art become objectified, and fetishized. The meaning of the artwork apart from the function is void. When art transforms into a commodity, people reject it. The meaning becomes secondary to the “use value” of the object. It is no longer an object to meditate upon, it is something to have and dispose of.
Vans x Van Gogh Museum, campaign photograph
image courtesy | Vans
Upon the release of the collection, Vans made a statement conceptualizing the purpose of the collaboration between their brand and the work of Van Gogh stating “By uniting Van Gogh’s iconic artworks with iconic Vans styles, our partnership brings Vincent’s art “Off The Wall” and into the world to a new audience outside the museum.” The goal of the partnership is to make Van Gogh’s art accessible to patrons who perhaps cannot travel to Amsterdam to see his works. This is a wonderful mission, as visitors should be able to enjoy these works of art for the emotions they trigger and the empathy they elicit. However, the commodification and commercialization of these works is troubling. The commercialization of these paintings nulls them of their original meaning and context. Monetary value replaces emotional value as the works are disassociated from their art historical context, and given yet another price tag. Vincent Van Gogh was not an interior designer, fashion designer or a shoe maker, he was an artist who wanted to depict the world as he saw it. These reappropriations of his work detract substantially from that meaning and turn them into an object completely separate from his original intention. Why is the work not enough in an aesthetic sense? The message that these companies are sending to consumers is that art is not enough in its meaning, it has to have a functional objective. Assigning a “use value” to these works of art creates an entirely different object in the process.
Select proceeds from the Vans x Van Gogh Museum collaboration will contribute to future funding and preservation of the works in the museum. The museum’s annual report boasts upwards of two million visitors annually since 2016, making it the most visited museum in the Netherlands, and one of the most visited museums in the world. Ticket revenues, special programming, private donations and e-commerce generate sufficient profit for the museum. During his lifetime, just over a century ago, Van Gogh experienced very little recognition and success. He was deeply discouraged by the lack of support for his work. Rather than benefiting a huge corporation such as Vans, Louis Vuitton or The Van Gogh Museum, the true spirit of Van Gogh’s work can be upheld by supporting artists that are producing work today.
note about the author
caroline f. riley holds a bachelor’s degree in art history and psychology from the university of massachusetts, amherst, and is currently working towards a master’s degree in modern and contemporary art, criticism, and theory. her professional interests include improving museum education, and working to ensure museum accessibility for everyone, regardless of demographic. she previously held a museum education position at the institute of contemporary art in boston, ma.
 Van Gogh Museum, 2017 Annual Report, accessed August 18, 2018, https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/organisation/annual-report.
 Francis Klines, “Van Gogh Sets Auction Record,” New York Times, March 31, 1987.
 Cynthia Freeland, But Is It Art?: An Introduction to Art Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 107.
 Van Gogh Museum, 2018-2020 Strategic Plan, accessed August 18, 2018, https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/organisation/mission-and-strategy.
 Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” The Dialectic of Enlightenment (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1944), 94-137
 “Vans Partners with the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam.” Vans USA, accessed August 18, 2018, https://www.vans.com/article_detail/vans-van-gogh-museum.html.