To touch a work of Art

Raymond Duchamp-Villon
Raymond Duchamp-Villon, “Le cheval majeur” (1914)

I am working through ideas about tactility, touch, and tactile media for my book. I am gathering notes and research on sensual, tactile media. Marshall McLuhan’s invocation of the tactility of television which pushes at the boundaries of what we perceive as tactile. McLuhan’s provocative and sensual metaphor of a massaging of the senses by media. I am thinking, too, of the ways in which digital media are today inviting us to touch. So much so that I have heard several times parents tell versions of the same story of a young child trying in vain to stroke a non-touch surface to life, quickly disappointed in its unresponsiveness. They have been trained well by their iPads and iPhones…

One of the most forbidden things one can do in an art museum (apart from stealing or defiling the art) is touch the artwork. Museum guards, signs, ropes and physical barriers, all of them say one thing: Do not touch! (a problem of its own, how to survey the whole gallery: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_gallery_problem). The purely visual exploration and education of the modern age have taken over from the religious adoration and veneration of religious icons which demanded touch, to be in contact with the holy. The reaching hands – in the thousands – that have made hard stone surfaces smooth over the centuries (Kaaba, the Wailing Wall, relics everywhere reverently touched, kissed). In the modern art museum, touch and interaction can perhaps appear in relation to a particular art work, a performative piece, but more likely such frivolities are left for the natural science museums that seek to explain through experimentation.

When I see the hard, yet glistening surfaces of those beautiful forms by Picasso, Jean Arp, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Otto Freundlich, even the fragile looking Giacomettis or Brancusi’s sweet sleeping bronze heads, I know that they could stand the touch of hundreds, even thousands of hands.

I know, too, that this is not allowed. On a recent visit to a modern art museum that I have visited many times, I could not shake the feeling of wanting to touch. It had not been such an urge before; this day it took all my selfcontrol to keep from reaching out to touch everything I saw. The empty rooms of an early Wednesday morning became an invitation to private engagement, a quiet dialogue with those wondrous shapes of stone,  bronze, and plaster.

I confess. In an unwatched moment, I walked toward the sculpture, determined to touch it en passant. I could feel my hand hanging still unnaturally by my side, the fingers stretching out to meet the surface of the blackened bronze. How thrilling to let the tips of my fingers trace along its cool, smooth surface for just a few seconds! My eyes diverted, concentrating on everything else around me in case someone was watching. But really my whole physical being was focused on that touch, that momentary link between the sculpture and I, between its cool metal and my warm skin. This is a confession, then. Of how I one day touched a sculpture at a modern art museum and the profound impact that this one stolen moment had on me. How exquisite it was, how sensual. The forbidden may certainly have had a part in the thrill, but the physical sensation and emotion that ensued were unsullied by such tawdry kicks. The touch itself was enough. Now, I want to do it again..

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