The Accessibility of Art: Who Gets to Touch Art . . . and Women

A touch art exhibit at the Getty Villa raises concerns in the era of #metoo. There are better ways to make art tactile.

In the Getty Villa in Malibu stands a statue just asking to be touched (literally — the sign says Please Touch!). Near the far end of the Outer Peristyle, away from the main part of the museum so people don’t get overly handsy around the original art, the touch art piece is a 20th-century reproduction of Antonio Canova’s Hope Venus (1820) depicting a mostly naked woman turning away from the viewer, attempting to cover up. Her body language suggests she does not want to be looked at or touched, yet the museumgoer is invited to do both.

touch art

Photo by Rasputina2 via Flickr

The museum frames the conversation around the display’s benefits to patrons with vision loss, who are often left out of the museum experience. While making art accessible to everyone is crucial, the exhibit is problematic because it encourages the museumgoer to touch a woman who obviously doesn’t want to be touched, suggesting that the voyeur’s gaze and touch are more important than the autonomy of the depicted woman.

Handling a naked woman (and then asking her to grant wishes via prayer tags, further centering the patron’s needs) does not have to be a part of the touch art experience. An inclusive environment can accommodate people with vision loss as well as women and survivors of sexual assault.

One survivor, R. Vasquez, described how triggering it was for her to encounter the statue during her Getty Villa visit. “There in front of my eyes was a woman, covering her vagina, trying to cover her breasts while everything else of hers is exposed, looking at her victimizer, and being surrounded by nonchalant onlookers…. It mirrored a sad reality, since these same onlookers are reminded of the importance to not touch any other piece in the museum on the same sign that encouraged touching her. It triggered in me then what it still triggers now: that mothers, sisters, daughters, friends and every female in this country are subject to the delights [and] control…of men. How many women held that face in Congress? What of all the powerful women in entertainment dethroned by some guy’s sexual desire?”

The voyeuristic male gaze is ubiquitous in art and society (see the Amazons in Wonder Woman vs. The Justice League), so much so that we mistakenly think the subjective view is actually objective. It’s no wonder, then, that the Getty Villa didn’t see any problem inviting people to touch a statue depicting a naked woman who obviously does not want to be touched back in 2009 when it was installed, years before the Weinstein-triggered avalanche of sexual harassment and abuse stories came pouring out. Rape culture — the normalization of sexual violence in society — may be nothing new, but treating it seriously is.

The history of who gets to touch art — and women, for that matter — is largely related to power. According to Art, Museums and Touch by Fiona Candlin, the first museums in Western culture opened in the Renaissance era and were small private collections of art and objects, or curiosity cabinets, where touching art was the norm. Most of the people who visited early museums were wealthy and/or knew the wealthy people who owned the collection. Public museums allowed patrons to touch the art until the 18th century, when the logistics associated with larger numbers of people, including clumsiness and accumulations of dirt and grease from hands, made this unfeasible. Then museums switched to the model we have today, with very few people besides experts handling the art unless it was created to be interactive. This distanced art from the average museumgoer, again allowing closer interactions only for the privileged few.

At the same time, this is when art and philosophy (à la Kant and others) began to value the visual above the other senses. Touch became associated with the visceral experience and considered too lowbrow to be trusted. Touch art was discouraged as a medium and viewed differently depending on who was doing the touching and who was being touched. For instance, the artist does the painting, sculpting, touching. He is the one who creates, the unseen narrator who decides what we see. And the viewer sees and touches what the artist creates. So the viewer and artist have all the power, and the subject — often the nude female body — becomes the object.

Photo by Marlayna Glynn Brown via Flickr

Until recently in Western art, little regard was given to art forms that didn’t emphasize the visual, so relatively few examples of interactive art garnered attention in the elite museum world. As discussed in the project Beyond the Aesthetic Gaze, the art of other cultures — like Navajo sand paintings and African sculptures made to be used as ritual objects — has long engaged all the senses, encouraging participation and engagement. This is an important distinction in style, purpose and effect. Interaction breeds understanding and empathy, while distance can lead to dissociation and objectification.

As a digital media lab intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ezgi Ucar created a multisensory museum project in 2014. Ucar described the way the user connects with interactive and multisensory art. “On top of being fully immersed in the experience, the participants feel more engaged and in some way more important because their touch or other sensory input creates a change in the piece of art, even if it’s very minimal or momentary. The feeling of being an active part of the experience engages them in a deeper level of interest and focus that could not be reached with them simply looking at an object from a distance. Being encouraged to touch, smell, interact with the art gives the feeling of inclusion in the experience.”

The current touch art trend began 20 years ago as a way to include people with vision loss in the museum experience. The kind of touch art displayed in exhibits and fairs around the world include three-dimensional touchable interpretations of famous paintings, images made from screws (like the work of Andrew Myers below), sculptures and mediums like smoke and water. There are also touch tours, with docents leading participants around the museum to touch preapproved objects and narrating what they are touching as they feel them.

While touch art is often presented with an emphasis on accessibility for people with vision loss, it opens possibilities for all. Everyone learns through touch, and multisensory forms of interaction are no less important than vision when it comes to experiencing art. Discouraging all kinds of touch in art ignores our need to hold things and the fact that many will touch art even when we’re not supposed to, as this study suggests.

There are many advantages to touch and other types of interactive art pieces, but they can be designed irresponsibly.

“The key in doing an interactive art exhibition responsibly is to think deeply about what you are encouraging people to do,” said Ucar. “We cannot predict what interactive art in the age of technology can lead to, but the best way to be responsible about the effects is to think about any potential destruction that encouragement can cause inside or outside the exhibition setting. It is important to make sure the art piece does not ‘normalize’ a destructive action for the participant just because it is allowed in a specific interactive art experience.”

The touch statue at the Getty Villa normalizes inflicting unwanted touch. Touch usually creates a connection to art, but not when it appears we’re being encouraged to touch someone against their will. This harkens back to the way Western art viewed touch as a baser compulsion rather than another mode of learning.

But touch art doesn’t have to be a sculpture of a nearly naked woman turning away from the voyeur’s gaze or hands. It can be a raised vase, cup or painting or a reproduction of a clothed bust or statue. It can be an outstretched hand or an encircling pair of arms welcoming an embrace. Most importantly, touch is not something we must do, nor is touch something we are owed. Touch is a privilege, in both the art world and the world at large. end


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