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Touching The Art
One of Andy Warhol’s famous soup cansvia @touchingtheart

This Instagram account breaks major museum etiquette by touching the art

We speak to the anonymous account holders about what drives their urge to ignore the art world’s number one rule

Recently, I was on a two-hour tour of the Weisman Foundation in Los Angeles. Everything was going great until an hour-and-a-half in, a visibly tired older lady put her palms behind her back and leant against a large bronze sculpture. A collective gasp and a stern look from the tour guide quickly reminded us that touching the art was (!) absolutely (!) forbidden (!) We looked on aghast as two marks left by her hands appeared. 

The reasons for the art world’s blanket ban on any human contact with art is pretty obvious; art is often expensive, precious, and/or old. The general mentality is to respect these rules, but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to touch it. In fact, it kinda makes us want to touch it more. Which is why when I came across @touchingtheart – an Instagram of photos where a finger, sometimes, more boldly, an open palm – touches an artwork, I couldn’t help but be intrigued. From Gerhard Richter at Dresden’s Albertinum Museum to Warhol at Art Berlin Fair, seeing an anonymous finger shatter the number one art world etiquette is strangely addictive and darkly humorous. To find out what drives this urge, I reached out to the anonymous account holders via email.

“It is interesting that such a minimal gesture can be so controversial and generate such diverse reactions” – Touching The Art

Why do you think it’s so exciting to see photos of people touching art?

Touching The Art: We think it starts with the excitement of the risk that comes with touching artwork, knowing that it is forbidden. But after doing this for a while, we realised that when you get in trouble for touching, for example, “a tennis ball” at a gallery, the whole thing becomes absurd and humorous. By touching the works, you are crossing an invisible barrier that in the context of a gallery or museum becomes a performative act, because only in the context of contemporary art, touching an everyday object labelled as art can be considered forbidden.

As we carried out the action in different exhibition spaces, the questioning of the fictitious limit that determines the importance of the work began to become evident. Classical works of art have an intrinsic value determined by their history, technique, and antiquity. In relation to contemporary works of art, we realised that their value is due to speculation factors within the medium, and that when we touched them, we were crossing the invisible barrier that determines the relevance attributed to art objects, being that these may be constituted by everyday or industrial materials that are not normally considered of value, but since they are part of a work of art they acquire it automatically. In this way, we realised that with the gesture of touching these works of contemporary art, we were sort of relativising an invisible barrier constructed merely by speculation.

In a way, it can be considered exciting simply for crossing that boundary between the spectator and the work. On the other hand, it is interesting that such a minimal gesture can be so controversial and generate such diverse reactions.

When did you first begin touching art?

Touching The Art: It was in 2017, we touched a piece from José Dávila at Köenig Galerie in Berlin. One of us was standing next to the work and the other just said “touch it” and took a picture. We have previous memories of touching artworks together, but this is the first official record we have. We took the photo down because it ruined our anonymity.

Why did you begin the account, and when did you realise it could become a thing?

Touching The Art: It was that same day. We were at home after visiting the exhibition and we thought “Let’s create an account just for this picture since there is an Instagram account for everything”. We don’t consider this being “a thing”. At that time, we just kept doing it since we were living in Berlin and we visited galleries frequently. It gave another feel to the whole gallery tour thing. It started to get really interesting when we got feedback from the actual artists and galleries we visited. Then random people started to respond to the account and began sending their own contributions. 

How do you choose which art to touch?

Touching The Art: Honestly, the process is pretty random. We started touching artists we were interested in, or exhibitions we encounter by chance. Now we choose which exhibitions we want to touch, or see who is showing where, and plan the photo a little further. We know people respond better to artists like Picasso or Gerhard Richter, but we feel like posting all kinds of artists gives it a better dynamic.

What has been the response to the account?

Touching The Art: We have gotten love and hate, and we expected that. We are aware that this is borderline reckless, but at the same time, we never had specific intentions or goals with the account.

We believe that people, who respond positively, identify with this questioning of speculation in art and by the sense of humour that runs through all the images we have posted. The action involves two elements; first by the childish tone, almost a mischievous gesture of simply touching something that should not be, and on the other hand the critical interest that can trigger the action in the art world.

Obviously, we have also received negative feedback. The worst response we ever got was an article that was published after posting a touch we received from a friend in Hamburg. The museum took the time to produce an extensive article criticising Touching The Art for fear that this account would generate potential behaviour determined by a trend. This has never been our goal, but it is reasonable in the age of viral information that something like this could happen.

Have you gotten in trouble?

Touching The Art: Yes, so many times. We have activated many museums’ alarms; we have been followed by several guards and received countless nagging from gallery interns. People that send us submissions have told us that they have gotten kicked out of galleries and museums.

What would be the holy grail of artworks to touch?

Touching The Art: We have two that come to mind. We would love to touch the hand of the Infanta Margaret Theresa of “Las Meninas” by Diego Velázquez since it is basically unreachable (we’ve tried), or maybe “My Bed” from Tracey Emin. Also, any work from Dante Gabriel Rossetti would be a dream.

Follow Touching The Art here