Editor-At-Large: And you want to charge me to look at that?

We've been told shopping is the new sex, but what are museums?
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The Independent Online

We've been told shopping is the new sex, but what are museums? In their race for customers, have they not become superstores where you can get a fix of easy-to-assimilate contemporary culture at a knock-down rate, complete with books, postcards, T-shirts, mugs and television tie-ins?

We've been told shopping is the new sex, but what are museums? In their race for customers, have they not become superstores where you can get a fix of easy-to-assimilate contemporary culture at a knock-down rate, complete with books, postcards, T-shirts, mugs and television tie-ins?

Instead of loyalty cards, you can be a patron or a member, and you can meet artists and get special offers. The latest shows at the V&A, the Royal Academy, Tate Britain, the National Gallery and the Barbican confirm how readily they are stepping into the world of Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's. Rem Koolhaas, the world's most fashionable architect, delivered his giant tome on shopping just in time for last Christmas. Trendy coffee tables must have been groaning with this style bible come Boxing Day. He told us shops can be artistic places on a par with cathedrals, and museum directors have realised that "shop till you drop" can be their mantra, too.

The Royal Academy recently came up with "The Galleries Show" concept. Forget about having a theme, a scholarly thesis or a historical context: a room was given to a group of commercial galleries to display their wares. Price lists weren't on the walls, but when it closed, you can bet dealers were totting up score-cards. This lazy exercise was the art equivalent of a schlepp around the boutiques of Hoxton, bargain hunting for up-and-coming designers.

Next, the V&A has decided to mimic Top Shop with its appalling Versace show, in which garments are stuck on nasty mannequins. The shop's window designers would have achieved a more stylish result. This is an exhibition without any context whatsoever, a marketing exercise threadbare of any educative notion. It will be full of ogling punters learning nothing about craftsmanship or Gianni Versace's historical references. The clothes look tawdry when they are not moving on a human form. This is a blatantly valuable showcase for a commercial clothing company. Nothing wrong with that. But why are we being charged admission?

At the Barbican, David LaChapelle's photographs have been called vulgar, tacky and repulsive, but I urge you to see them. The man is a genius at transforming pop icons from Blondie and Bowie to Britney. He gives them a pink plastic sheen, surrounds them with trailer-trash, and the result is the cleverest bit of marketing around. LaChapelle understands perfectly the gorgeousness of shopping, and in his case the commodities on sale are pop stars.

Down under

At least at LaChapelle's exhibition the concept of shopping is taken to a new level of sophistication. This is not the case with the National Gallery's latest desperate effort: the work of Rolf Harris. Like the latest clothing range from M&S, this has a TV tie-in, with a BBC1 series and a book on sale. I know the man gets ratings, but so does Michael Parkinson. Are we to expect raffia mats made by Parkie to go on sale at the Design Museum, or perhaps a retrospective of Frank Skinner's Hawaiian shirts at the Lowry Centre?

A year ago, if you'd told me Rolf Harris would be exhibiting his vulgar daubings at Britain's most scholarly gallery, I would never have believed you. But now museums are like the Premiership, run by people who have to hit visitor targets, achieve volume of income, and consequently nothing challenging will be on offer for long. You can hardly accuse Tate Britain of throwing down the gauntlet with its chocolate-box show of Gainsboroughs which opened last week. It's a non-threatening effort, complete with captions telling you what to think.

Final proof of the cross-over between shopping and scholarship comes with the news that the Tate Gallery in Liverpool will be staging a exhibition entitled "Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture", opening just before Christmas. The catalogue is well researched, with essays tracing our complex relationship with retailing, from the birth of beautiful department stores such as Bon Marché in Paris, through to the faceless malls of today. The 240 exhibits range from historical photograhs of shop fronts to major installations by important artists such as Christo, Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, all of whom have had a long fascination with advertising and consumerism.

Fashionable artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons are both represented with major pieces inspired by shopping, and there are plans to reconstruct a supermarket in the galleries. It can be only a matter of time before Sainsbury's will be selling Rolf Harris prints along with Marc Quinn mini sculptures at check-outs. And what will the Tate and the V&A put on their walls then?

Palace police

Now the Prince of Wales wields his power in new and ominous ways. A letter has gone to charities of which he is patron, telling them he will only support new buildings by architects of whom he approves. This is taking patronage too far. His primary role, I would have thought, was to attract donations, offer support at public functions and raise the profile of the cause, not attach artistic strings to promote his pet cultural agenda.

The new Street-Porter home is under construction, designed by the up-and-coming architect David Adjaye. I'm sure Mr Adjaye's cool glass constructions would be totally out of favour with our heir to the throne, who clearly favours the neo-classical style of a bygone era. But then, luckily, I'm not a pensioner needing to live in an alms-house. Prince Charities will be reluctant to criticise the Royal Family, but Charles is over-stepping the mark by insisting we continue to build as if we still lived in the 18th century.

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Finally, Lord Archer runs a publishing empire from jail and Lynn Barber, a distinguished writer, decides to visit the convicted child molester Jonathan King to hear how his appeal is going. Has there ever been a time when famous people behind bars have had easier access to the media?

I loathe Jonathan King. He is a bully, pure and simple. His magazine, Tip Sheet, which he flaunts as a worthwhile contribution to the pop industry, has gone bust. When I worked for the BBC and he wrote a column in The Sun, I suffered a stream of lies about my work for years. All because I cancelled a programme he made, at the instruction of the channel controller. If he can behave that revoltingly to a middle-aged woman, I imagine it was pretty easy for him to cajole little boys to do what he wanted. Can we please have a media blackout on the thoughts of prisoners Archer and King?

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