Art Here and Now
Daring creativity happening now around the world
“Please Don’t Touch the (Touchable) Art.”

I’ve had friends who collected Star Wars toys and kept them in the original packaging to protect their value. This certainly protects the monetary value, but doesn’t it deprive you of getting everything out of that toy it was created for? If you want to spark your imagination, have a fun afternoon, and play with your friends, you need to rip open that package and start shooting storm troopers and levitating x-wings. It’s almost impossible to experience all the joy, fun, creativity and bonding with friends those toy-makers intended if you leave the toys in their package.

For much of the art in the world, you can look at it or listen to it and get everything the artist intended. It doesn’t matter if most paintings are behind glass, you can still see it just fine and get the full effect. Like a baseball card collector who keeps his cards in plastic sleeves, you can still see the cards just fine and enjoy them to their full effect. Their monetary value is still protected too.

But more and more contemporary art is created by artists who intend you to play with it. The full meaning and experience of the work requires you to interact, contributing your ideas and sometimes even physically building what the work becomes. This work needs to be touched for it to have any significant form, emotion and meaning.

Most museums and galleries are the stewards of the art in their collections. All objects are treated as historic artifacts, and must be maintained, restored, protected and studied. Museums must also protect all the money they’ve invested in building and maintaining the collection. Insurers, donors and the community, also understandably want to protect their own investments. Insurance rates may go up if art isn’t thoroughly protected from accidents, wear and theft. Many museums and galleries sometimes borrow work from other organizations. Obviously they want to return any work leant to them in the same condition it arrived, and want the same for their own work that’s been let out into the world.

Unfortunately, for that growing collection of contemporary artwork that gets its primary meaning, emotion and significance from interacting with it, keeping it locked behind glass isn’t good enough. Most museums and galleries have not caught up to this idea, even though this type of work has existed for almost a hundred years. All objects, regardless of the artist’s intent, are treated the same.

I first noticed this when I attended a Yoko Ono retrospective in the ’90s. In most of her work, Yoko gives direct instructions to be completed, sometimes completely in the reader’s imagination, other times interacting with objects she’s made. In this exhibition, though, there were guards and watchers in each room who would stop anyone from touching anything, even when Yoko’s instructions told you to. One example is Play It By Trust, a long table with 10 completely white chessboards. In Montreal, 2009, it happened as it should:

Yoko Ono’s idea of license, the setting up of a situation where others could complete a work of art instead of the artist, was a radical departure from the existing concept of the role of the artist. – Jon Hendricks

Yoko Ono’s work continues to cause interaction problems for museums. In August of this year, the Seattle Art Museum fired a security guard who interacted with Painting to Hammer a Nail In, a piece which asks you to hammer a nail into the painting. On the wall next to the painting was this text placed by the museum, along with a box of nails:

Museum visitors are invited to pound a nail into this painting. Like so
much of the work in this exhibition, while the idea might at first seem a
destructive, physically aggressive act against the accepted traditions of
painting and museums in general, in the end the concept opens up new
potentials for painting, and for bringing others besides the artist into
the creative act.

Yoko Ono herself poetically states her intentions.

What I’m trying to do is make something happen by throwing a pebble into the water and creating ripples…I don’t want to control the ripples. – Yoko Ono

In 1957, Paris, a group of “reactionary nihilist intellectuals” stormed a Dada exhibition and grabbed Man Ray’s piece titled Object to Destroy. They threw it on the ground and shot it with a pistol before police arrived and arrested them for doing just as the title commanded. Time Magazine wrote about the incident at the time in The Theater: Battle of the Nihilists.

How do we know what’s allowed and what isn’t? Should we do what the artist tells us or follow the rules of a museum? Who gets to decide? A simple, direct solution is presented by The Onion in Struggling Museum Now Allowing Patrons To Touch Paintings:

“Though it contains more than two million pieces and represents a profound legacy of artistic achievement, most people remain completely indifferent to our museum,” Met director Thomas P. Campbell said. “So we decided to try something a little different and give visitors a chance to experience our timeless works of art up close and personal.”

“You can’t grasp the brilliance of a great painting just by looking at it,” said Phil Brehm, 32, who acknowledged that he hadn’t set foot inside a museum since a mandatory field trip in high school. “To truly appreciate fine art, you need to be able to run your fingers over its surface and explore its range of textures.”

“Or just rub your face all over it, like I do,” Brehm added.

Of course, In the real world, I hope for a middle ground. Museums need to determine which pieces derive a large part of their meaning and significance from interaction. For these pieces, the museum’s primary purpose should no longer be to simply protect their objects. They must protect the full artistic experience, so that people can feel for themselves the art’s purpose and meaning.

One museum that gets this is the Tate Modern. I visited several years ago and found the five-story swirly-slide by artist Carsten Höller. Laughter echoed around the large room as people slid down the tubes.

In 1971, the Tate exhibited a very interactive artwork, Bodyspacemotionthings, by artist Robert Morris. After only four days, and many splinters and bruises, the artwork was broken by all the interaction and then closed. Last May, a new version of the work was exhibited, and this is what it looked like:

Even knowing the potential for destruction, possibly higher insurance rates and injured patrons, Tate did it anyway.

So what’s the answer? And why should we care?

I forgot to mention that I had lots of Star Wars toys when I was growing up. I played with them all the time. They ended up with broken arms, unrecognizable dog-chewed heads, peeling paint and caked-in mud. Every dent and scrape added more to their made-up history in my imagination, making them even more fun and interesting. Today, I no longer have them. If I did, I certainly couldn’t sell them for any money. No one would want them.

I don’t want irreplaceable, important parts of our history destroyed. But in the museum’s Star Wars collector zeal, preserving every piece of art behind plastic and glass, we lose the art’s spirit, we lose it’s importance, the very reason it’s worth collecting to begin with. And the people visiting this work are disconnected from it. They don’t get it, shrug and move on. This is the very work that has the most potential to deeply connect with people in our modern world.

I think there must be a middle way.
Maybe museums can have artists build two copies of each work. One to protect for value and history, the other to take out of the box, to get dirty and broken. That’s what the most passionate toy collectors do.

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posted by Trout Monfalco