by Naina Singh
The rules of art appreciation are inherently contradictory: while a painting’s origins lie in the physicality and tactility of an artist applying paint onto a canvas and the marvels of sculpture are crafted out of the careful chiseling of a block of marble, what we view in museums and galleries is strictly forbidden from our touch. Understandably, this tactile barrier is a necessity; otherwise, the preservation of an artwork would be compromised, even made impossible.
Nevertheless, the concept of touch has played an integral role in the mythical histories of many forms of art. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the myth of Pygmalion tells the tale of a sculptor who carves a statue so beautiful that he falls in love with his own creation – a beautiful yet lifeless woman of marble. His caresses and kisses are eventually returned when the goddess Venus intervenes, and his sculpture magically comes to life.
On Painting (De pictura), a treatise written by the Italian Renaissance polymath Leon Battista Alberti, refers to the tale of Narcissus in praise of painting:
“For this reason, I say among my friends that Narcissus who was changed into a flower, according to the poets, was the inventor of painting. Since painting is already the flower of every art, the story of Narcissus is most to the point. What else can you call painting but a similar embracing with art of what is presented on the surface of the water in the fountain?” (http://www.noteaccess.com/Texts/Alberti/2.htm)
In the case of Narcissus, his reflection in the pool of water, when touched, would dissolve in a wave of ripples. As the scholar Andrea Bolland writes, “Alberti is distinguishing the pure visuality of painting, its unotuchability, as its hallmark – that quality that separates it from other, more tactile arts, such as sculpture.”[i]
To touch a painting may shatter its illusion, its poetic distance, and crosses boundaries of etiquette and perhaps even morality. Yet today, we are no longer concerned with the morality of touch, for we live in the increasingly tactile world of the iPhone, the iPad, the Galaxy tab. Our fingers are a gateway to the world of information, and to our sense of connectedness. And with the phenomenon of the “slide-to-unlock,” we have begun to use our senses to understand and appreciate works of art, without undermining the concepts of conservation and preservation. We have begun to appreciate art through apps!
Nowadays, art can be explored using the sense of touch without compromising our integrity or damaging the artwork. For instance, in Artfinder’s app on John Constable’s oil sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum, we “can zoom to show each of the sketches in their incredible painterly detail, and follow Constable’s progress from Suffolk, to London and Brighton.” Artfinder has also collaborated with various other museums to create apps that augment and physically sensitize the viewing experience. The way we engage with visual art appears to be shifting, specifically shifting towards the touch.
Consequently, more and more museums are now incorporating the sense of touch into what was hitherto seen as a predominantly visual and contemplative experience. Last summer, in the exhibition titled “Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910-1912”, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art provided visitors with iPads that were “equipped with a specially developed iCubist application to scrutinize and delve deeply into four key paintings.” The app also allowed visitors to “deconstruct a cubist composition and attempt to put it back together.” The iCubist app developed for the Santa Barbara Museum of Art demonstrates how the sense of touch, in unison with our sense of sight, can help demystify a movement such as Cubism.
An ongoing exhibition at the Walters Museum in Baltimore is exploring the appeal of touch, not through apps, but through Renaissance Statuettes. Titled Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture: Exploring the Appeal of Renaissance Statuettes, the exhibition “explores the implications of tactile perception for enjoying sculpture by melding the research of a Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist studying how the brain reacts to tactile stimuli and a Walters curator interested in the increased appreciation of tactility as an aspect of European Renaissance art.” In the exhibition, visitors can actually hold, touch, and feel replicas of Renaissance Statuettes, and later “register their preferences through touch pads.” (http://thewalters.org/news/releases/pressdetail.aspx?e_id=333)
Perhaps the iPhone is our modern day statuette, which we have come to admire for its sleek design, and for its aesthetic appeal. And with the rise of apps, maybe we are like Narcissus, looking into the luminous digital pool before our eyes, compelled to reach for the painting we see in pixilated form. Unlike Narcissus, however, we have overcome that bothersome conundrum of how to touch it.