15 Dec 2021

Look Don't Touch (Notes on Art and Haptic Compulsion)

 Image credit: Raul Arboleda / AFP / Getty Images
Touching objects is surely a vital activity. But just as green grocers don't like you handling the fruit and veg, so gallery owners seem to have a real problem with people touching works of art on display. 
Obviously, there are practical reasons for this; dirt particles and perspiration on the hands can stain or, over time, cause serious damage to the surface of a sculpture, for example, which it might be difficult (or even impossible) to repair. Whilst porous materials, such as wood or stone, are particularly vulnerable, even works made of bronze or stainless steel, are not entirely immune to damage. 
Thus, in public art museums the world over there are signs reading do not touch, white boundary lines marked on the floor, and security guards lurking nearby to ensure people keep their distance. The curators want the public to engage with the art and be inspired by it, but they want them to do so with their eyes whilst keeping their filthy paws off. 
Oh, and just to be clear, kissing statues is also strictly forbidden and very much frowned upon.   
Practical concerns aside, there are clearly other issues at play here; aesthetics is founded upon an ideal of detachment and enforcement of the golden rule of look don't touch. Nietzsche, however, mocks this ability to gaze upon beauty apparently free of all desire as immaculate perception and suggests that objective contemplation is very often a disguised form of emasculated leering: click here for a post in which I discuss this. 
We see this aesthetic idealism expressed in Byung-Chul Han's 2015 work Die Errettung des Schönen (trans. rather prosaically in English as Saving Beauty (2018)), where he writes disapprovingly of Jeff Koons's sculptures on the grounds that their ultra-smooth surfaces not only reflect a social imperative lacking in all negativity, but cause "a 'haptic compulsion' to touch them, even the desire to suck them" [1].
Han writes: 
"It is the positivity of smoothness alone that causes the haptic compulsion. It invites the observer to take an attitude without distance, to touch. An aesthetic judgement, however, presupposes a contemplative distance. The art of the smooth abolishes such distance." [2]     
Like Hegel, Byung-Chul Han wants art to be meaningful and that requires visual appreciation. For sight, along with hearing, is a theoretical sense that allows us to interpret, judge, and reflect upon a work. Smelling, tasting, or touching an object might inform us of its material reality and sensible qualities, but won't enable us to make profound sense of it as an artwork. 
And like Roland Barthes, Byung-Chul Han believes the sense of touch to be "'the most demystifying of all senses, unlike sight which is the most magical'" [3]. Why? Because whilst the latter preserves distance, the former negates it. To touch an object is to demystify it and make it available for enjoyment and consumption: "The sense of touch destroys the negativity of what is wholly other. It secularizes what it touches." [4]
For Han, Jeff Koons's seamless sculptures may embody "a perfect and optimized surface without depth and shallows" [5], but so do soap bubbles made of air and emptiness and as any West Ham fan will tell you, there's no real salvation to be found in blowing bubbles ...  
The problem is, whilst I might agree with many aspects of Han's critique of smoothness, I'm a little more ambivalent on the subject than him (and I also like the work of Jeff Koons, as discussed in a recent post: click here).
Further, it seems to me that professor of museum studies, Fiona Candlin, is right to call for a radical rethinking of aesthetics as it has traditionally been conceived and to challenge the idea of art museums as sites of visual learning. In her 2010 study, Art, Museums and Touch, Candlin demonstrates that touch was - and remains - of crucial importance within the history, theory, practice, and appreciation of art, whilst, at the same time, contesting ideas of touch as an unmediated and uncomplex (i.e., primitive and inferior) mode of discovery [6].     
Having spent many years investigating why visitors to galleries and museums often can't help reaching out to (illicitly) touch exhibits, Candlin shows just how common this is. Whether those moonlike philosophers who wish us all to simply gaze upon life like it or not, the fact is many people want to physically touch objects they admire and don't like to think of art as something out of bounds and out of reach (nor do they wish to creep around a gallery speaking in hushed tones as if in a church surrounded by sacred relics).
Ultimately, perhaps this haptic compulsion is not a sign of an obsessive disorder, nor the mark of a philistine, but, rather a form of resistance to an overly visual (virtual) world. And perhaps sculptures today should be exhibited in darkened rooms where visitors in blindfolds are invited to feel their way around, physically interacting with objects and one another, groping their way into a future democracy; the democracy of touch [7].         
[1] Byung-Chul Han, Saving Beauty, trans. Daniel Steuer, (Polity Press, 2018), p. 3.  

[2] Ibid.

[3] Roland Barthes writing in Mythologies, quoted by Byung-Chul Han in Saving Beauty, p. 4.

[4] Byung-Chul an, Saving Beauty, p.  4.
[5] Ibid

[6] See Fiona Candlin, Art, Museums and Touch, (Manchester University Press, 2010).  
[7] The democracy of touch is an idea found in D. H. Lawrence's late work. I have written several posts discussing the idea; click here, for example, or here
      Interestingly, however, Lawrence isn't always pro-touch; see for example what he says in Chapter X of Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922) about "hands exploiting the sensual body, in feeling, in fingering, and in masturbation". 
      As for aesthetics, whilst Lawrence doesn't feel the English are devoid of feeling for the plastic arts, he does believe them to be full of fear for the body and that this fear distorts their vision and instinctive-intuitive consciousness. Thus it is, says Lawrence, that even those intellectuals and critics who get an ecstatic thrill from looking at artworks are "only undergoing a cerebral excitation" and remain essentially unmoved and untouched. See 'Introduction to These Paintings', in Late Essays and Articles, ed. James T. Boulton, (Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 182-217. The line I quote from is on p. 190.    

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