I describe a recent touch tour I took at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and suggest that since sighted visitors do not enjoy the opportunity to touch works of art, museums should collect the observations of blind visitors to expand cultural knowledge by including tactile aesthetics.
"I wish everyone could do this," I said to my docent.
I was on a touch tour for the blind at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I had my hands on a bronze head by Henri Matisse. It was one of the four pieces IN his Jeannette series, produced between 1910 and 1916, and named for Jeanne Vaderin the woman who served as model. It was a cold January day at the bitter end of the holiday season, so the gallery was crowded with visitors. Many of them, as I could tell from brief snippets of overheard conversations, were Europeans. But apparently there were a sufficient number who were fluent enough in English that I felt a ripple of interest in my immediate vicinity. I sensed that some of them shared my sentiment and wished that they too could touch the sculpture. At the same time, I felt the docent stiffen, and sure enough, she instantly rattled off the familiar speech about the fragility of works of art, and the need to preserve them for posterity. So only a privileged few get to touch them.
While in the realm of wishful thinking, I admit that I also wished that I didn't have to wear the disposable plastic gloves—really hand-shaped baggies—that most museums require now. I concede that they are an improvement over the cotton gloves that used to be standard, because they allow for a finer grain perception of texture and temperature. But they're still not as good as going bare-handed. For one thing, they made my hands sweat. Periodically I had to peel them off and dry my hands on my jeans. There used to be a good deal of debate about which materials actually are damaged by the natural oils on even the cleanest human fingertips. But now the rule seems to be that it's better to be safe than sorry. Everybody wears the gloves. And gloves or no gloves, there are many works that are deemed too fragile to be touched at all. I knew better than to argue these points. My docent had her instructions. I took what I could get.
As is the custom, I arranged for this tour via the museum's website two weeks in advance of my visit. At the scheduled time, I met my docent at the information desk downstairs. We had a brief discussion about my interests, knowledge and background and made a plan of action. Since it was the second day of January, we decided to skip the outdoor sculpture garden and focus on some pieces in the permanent collection indoors.
In the perfect world of my wishful imagination, I would be more spontaneous in my museum-going. Ideally, there would be a crew of docents perpetually on site, ready to go whenever a blind person happened to show up. Of course I recognize the impracticality of this plan. Given the available choices, I prefer the option of a personal docent to give a tour during regular museum hours as opposed to special tours for large groups scheduled during days when the museum is closed to the public. I'd rather not be segregated in that way. And the advantage of a personal docent rather than a group tour is the ability to customize the tour. In the elevator going upstairs, my docent and I continued our exchange of personal information. She was a graduate student in art history finishing her dissertation. We discussed her topic. I told her that I am a writer and English professor, and that my parents were both visual artists. I already knew a lot about art, in particular modern art. I spent a good deal of my childhood at MOMA and the other New York City museums. I confess that I even engaged in some shameless name-dropping, mentioning several mid-century American artists who were in my parents' circle, whose work was on display in this very museum. I wanted my docent to know that she didn't have to start from scratch. She got the point. She was intelligent, energetic and a very fast talker. The fast talking came in handy as there was a lot of ground to cover. She was also very experienced. She had given tours to all sorts of groups and individuals, both blind and sighted, from school children to potential exhibit sponsors. She included the comments of some of these people in our conversation as we moved from gallery to gallery. I admired the way she amended and enhanced her usual script in response to my observations and comments. We adopted a natural give and take as we went along. This was more of a dialogue than a lecture.
There are, of course, considerable logistical challenges posed by a tour conducted during regular museum hours. In each gallery, my docent had to locate the guard, show her museum badge, and explain what she was doing. Given the crowds, she needed to maneuver us to a place near enough to each work so that I could actually reach them while still hearing her. More importantly, she had to be vigilant to dissuade the other people present from following my example and laying their hands on these works of art. On some touch tours in the past, I have been asked to refrain from touching until a group of school children has passed through the room. It's one thing to ask adults to refrain from doing what I'm doing; it's nearly impossible and possibly cruel to deprive children of this pleasure.
So there we were with these heads by Matisse. The docent told me that these sculptures were a way for the artist to work out ideas about abstraction for painting. In modifying the heads from the fairly naturalistic early ones to the highly abstracted later ones he was making three dimensional forms that would help him figure out how to flatten them into two dimensional projections. I found this fascinating. I was exploring the final head in the series which is the most abstracted. As I cupped my palms around the massive protrusions of the head's coiffeur, I had the sensation that my hands were resting more or less where the artist's hands had once rested, in the clay versions which preceded the cast bronzes. As I understand it, one of the many pleasures of looking at art is the sensation that in standing before the painting or sculpture one assumes the exact position where the artist must have stood in making the work. One has the illusion of viewing the work, as it were, through the artist's eyes. Here, I had the analogous pleasure of feeling a distant relative of the artist's habtic sensation as he molded the forms. This is why I wish everyone could do this. I felt I was not only in touch with the artist, but feeling something that probably is not apparent to the eyes alone.
In my head, I was trying to work out how the artist would have translated these sensations into the necessary eye-to-hand instructions which would allow him to draft a similarly abstracted portrait on canvas. I scanned my memories for some sort of similar experience. All I could come up with was a memory of the difficult mental exercise required when I first learned to type Braille on a Perkins brailler. The six dots of the Braille cell which are configured as two columns of three dots are split up from the bottom center to create a horizontal line of buttons on the Braille keyboard. Learning which combination of buttons to press to create the required character was at first a matter of imaginatively moving my fingers from the horizontal alignment of the keyboard, to the vertical orientation of the dots in the character I wanted to create.
I said some of this to my docent, attempting to articulate this idea about translation. In the case of my learning Braille it was translating from the horizontal to the vertical. For Matisse, it was the more complex task of translating these three-dimensional forms to two-dimensional images. My docent and I had a brief, rather esoteric discussion of tactile versus visual perception. The point is always made that touch is sequential while vision is comprehensive and instantaneous. The hand must move over and around an object, while the eye can take it in at a glance. I refuted this, showing her how I could wrap my palms and fingers over and around considerable chunks of the form. My point was that my habtic exploration was not merely to trace the form's outline with my fingertips, but to envelope the three-dimensional volumes with my palms and fingers. Then I described for her the art class exercise called "Blind Contour Drawing," where the student endeavors to move her eye sequentially around the contours of the object she is drawing, and to move her hand holding the charcoal in the same sequence to create the drawing without looking at it. I was making the point that while the eye seeks the outline of the object, the hand does not. The hand embraces the object in its multi-faceted complexity.
Then we moved on to ideas about abstraction. The first two heads in the series are more or less representational. The features of the face are in a naturalistic arrangement and proportion. But in the later ones, the different features are simplified and their scale relative to each other is radically distorted.
"Does it still feel like a head?" my docent asked me. I think she really wanted to know. Although part of her training to be a touch tour docent gave her the opportunity to don the gloves and do the touching, she admitted that it had been a while. And since the training, after numerous tours with individuals and groups, she now had many questions about the experience.
Then someone took my picture. In fact, I was aware that several people in our immediate vicinity had their phones out and were aiming them at me.
I was temporarily distracted. What exactly were they taking a picture of here? Was it that they also wished they could do what I was doing and so opted for the next best thing—a picture of what they wished they could do? Then I wondered about the future of these images. Had my docent and I become an example of performance art here at the museum? Will these images be posted on Facebook pages and personal travel blogs with some comment about the novelty of seeing this blind woman touching this bronze by Matisse, right here at MOMA? "What will those Americans think of next?" And what will these images say about what the photographers thought I was getting out of this experience?
One thing I know for sure, touching this sculpture did not create an image of it in my mind's eye. I didn't have the foggiest idea what this thing might look like. Even with the more representational early heads, I couldn't say for certain how closely the sculpture might resemble the head of a living woman. In fact, I can't say that I have much of a mind's eye. My imagination is not particularly visual. I know blind people who are better able to create mental images. For me, the point of this touch tour had nothing to do with that.
Unfortunately, in stereotypical and unthinking understandings about sensory perception, touch is described as occupying a less lofty, less intellectual rung of the hierarchy of the senses. Touch is not only associated with sensuality, even sexuality, but also with the emotions. We talk about our feelings, our touching sentiments. So in the photos of me touching these heads was there an expectation that my experience was primarily emotional? In order to make a good photo for these people, should I have tried to squeeze out a couple of tears?
To me, this was very heady stuff. The experience was intensely intellectual—sweaty hands and all. If any of these people behind their camera phones were listening, they might have learned something about three-dimensional versus two-dimensional representation, about visual versus haptic sensation, and a number of other things. Still, I didn't really mind being photographed doing this. It could have been a kind of public service. Someone who knows someone who is blind or visually impaired might see one of these photos and be inspired to arrange a touch tour at MOMA or at another museum elsewhere in the world.
In the meantime, my docent and I kept talking. We exchanged our ideas. Her knowledge enriched my experience. And I'd like to believe that my articulation of my experience added to her knowledge of this work. We became a part of each other's future script.
When people witness a touch tour in progress, at the very least it functions as a kind of advertisement about available services, and raises awareness that blind and visually impaired people can have a meaningful aesthetic, intellectual and emotional experience in the museum. The next step then, for museum patrons, and for museum service providers is to recognize that the people who avail themselves of these services have something to give back. Since everyone does not get to touch the art, as much as they might want to, there is a value in hearing what we—the privileged few—have to say about it. The tactile aspect of sculpture is seldom mentioned by art historians and critics. Isn't it a shame to waste the insights of those of us who have this privilege? For this reason, museum art educators should move beyond the mission of producing a pre-packaged narrative for a passive audience. There needs to be an expectation that the blind people on the tour have something to contribute to cultural knowledge beyond gratitude for this gift of inclusion. In other words, we can hope that the future of museum programs for blind people will entail an effort to collect and document our responses to the exceptional access we enjoy. Thus touch tours for the blind can become more than just a novelty or second-best solution, but a way to enlarge everyone's experience of art.
Georgina Kleege teaches creative writing and disability studies in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. Her recent books include Sight Unseen and Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller.