December 27, 2019

The White Cube in London showcases contemporary works in what is, quite literally, a white cube; the Musée d’Orsay in Paris holds the largest collection of impressionist masterpieces in a historical railway station; the Singapore Art Museum is housed in a restored 19th century mission school and exhibits regional artists. Galleries and museums around the world vary in the way they display art. And along with them, you’ll find signs that say, “Please do not touch the artworks.” Apart from the explicit prohibitions, there are often implicit ones such as tapes on the floor in front of paintings—wordless reminders to stand behind the demarcated line, just like our experiences at train stations and airports.

There are good reasons why we should not touch artworks. Many artworks simply wouldn’t survive. Our hands contain oils that react to the surfaces of sculpture and paintings, corroding and lessening their life expectancy. Given the sheer volume of people visiting some of the popular museums such as MoMA—as many as 2.5 million visitors in a single year—it’s little wonder we need signs and museum staff to remind people to keep their hands to themselves. Older paintings, in particular, need more conservation precaution, as they are often brittle and fragile. The Admonitions Scroll (a masterpiece of early Chinese figure painting from the 5th to 7th century AD) is displayed to the public at the British Museum for only six weeks per year.

We’re prohibited from touching artworks even when conservation is less of a concern. British sculptor Antony Gormley’s recent exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London is a prime example. Gormley is known for his outdoor installations, including Event Horizon (2007), which consisted of 31 life-size casts of his body, installed on top of prominent buildings in London and New York City. In a piece titled Another Place (1997), Gormley installed a hundred similar casts on Crosby Beach, near Liverpool. Given that his installations are constantly exposed to the elements and even partially submerged in saltwater, the “Please do not touch” signs on every wall seem incongruous.

Adding to the mix is our pervasive impulse to disregard rules. Museum staff have to repeatedly caution people to refrain from touching because that is how we are wired to instinctively interact with the world. When we were babies, our first and primary way of interaction is not visual or verbal, but tactile. Touch is such an integral part of how we connect and make sense of our surroundings that, despite norms and etiquette, we still catch ourselves breaking the rules. In fact, there’s a website dedicated to photos of people touching artworks in museums. Scrolling through its pages, I found it endearing that these individuals behave like children in a candy shop where they can’t seem to help themselves.

Physical distance both embodies and reinforces the emotional and psychological gulf between us and artworks. That is why certain artworks are looked upon as rarefied objects—often eliciting confusion, apathy, or derision, but not personal engagement. This confusion tends to happen in contemporary art; viral stories about blank canvases fetching astronomic prices lead people to question the legitimacy of contemporary art or join the dismissive choruses of even-a-5-year-old-can-do-this. While “What is art” is an open, metaphysical question, for most people the pragmatic measure is simply based on what is being displayed in galleries and museums.

When we step into a museum, however, the setting often does not encourage us to examine the art. The act would require us to engage deeply, pay close attention, and come to our own conclusions. Instead, we typically stand behind a little rope for a minute and read a placard about what it means or represents. Placing artworks on a pedestal protects them physically from damage but also figuratively from questions of legitimacy about whether they are valuable or artistic. The distance is intimidating, making us feel as though we don’t know enough to say anything about what we see right before us. But someone has already decided that what we are looking at is a work of art. Even if we think that the emperor has no clothes, we take a selfie and move on rather than risk looking uncultured.

For most of my life, I didn’t care about art at all. I knew there was such a thing as “art”, since I read enough about Picasso on Wikipedia to answer English essay prompts in school and I’d gone to the Singapore Art Museum once. But none of them had any tangible existence in my life—it was hard to be genuinely interested in something that didn’t feel real. The source of apathy is distance and separation. Going to a Yayoi Kusama exhibition doesn’t change our relationship with art precisely because it feels like a special occasion. In contrast, art is demystified when it becomes part of everyday life. In Florence, for example, running into artworks is a quotidian experience as the city is sprinkled with sculptures and statues.

I’ve learnt that art can be interesting and enriching like Olafur Eliasson’s glacier melt series that hits home the effects of climate change by documenting how Iceland’s glaciers have changed dramatically from 1999 to 2019. Conversely, I’ve also seen my fair share of blank canvas that left me scratching my head. Art is truly one of the most subjective and personal experiences there is, but unfortunately, most of us come to know and interact with art from a distance. Both literally, as we’re kept at arm’s length and figuratively, as we see it first through the lens of someone else’s interpretation. The next time you’re in a museum or gallery, close the distance between yourself and the artwork. Walk past the texts on the wall that tell you what to think or how to engage with your surroundings. You might like it, or not. You might be confused. You might not know if you feel anything. You might even think it’s rubbish. After all, who’s to say that you’re wrong?