In studying art, one is to a certain extent always confronted with a tension between distance and proximity. On the one hand I tell my students they should intellectually distance themselves from the object of study and particularly from the artist whose rhetoric they should rather distrust. This distance, so to speak, is a necessity for doing art historical research. However, on the other hand I am suspicious of students who write papers on installation works they never visited and who aim to reconstruct an experience they never had on the basis of photographs and a catalogue. You have to see and experience the artwork yourself. Here, proximity is a necessary condition.
I could only understand the strong emotional responses Bernini’s statues received when I stood in front of them. There I started to understand why statues provoke an almost uncontrollable desire to touch them, a practice that can still be witnessed in many churches today. And what counts for statues counts for artworks and historical artefacts in general.
There is something magical in touching an old object. When I visited one of the famous ancient burial places (the so called Hunebedden) in the Dutch province of Drenthe this summer I did not only want to see the megalithic monument, I wanted to touch the stones, as if touching would bring me closer in contact with those who once erected these stones and touched them too. I had a similar experience with old documents when I was at the Vatican archives a couple of years ago. Here I was, holding and touching an old diary with my own hands (gloved though!). The fact that an increasing number of archival documents are digitalized today comes with many conveniences for researchers worldwide but somehow holding the actual diary brought me closer to the person who wrote it. In other words, even though we should be critical and distance ourselves from the objects intellectually, art history is essentially a tactile discipline relying on the contact with the materiality of the object of study.
Human contact ultimately relies on being physically close to one another and even though in most social situations it would be inappropriate to just touch someone, the possibility of touch offered by being close could well be the quintessence of human contact. Who knows? I am not a psychologist but I know the need to touch occurs whenever I am confronted with an artwork. What a pity that museums strictly forbid to actually do that although fortunately I am able to control myself. I would never actually touch an artwork when prohibited but being near the work of art and almost-touching-it, already counts. That is what is so ironic about the current situation. We have come to the point where being close to an artwork that is so skillfully modelled that it evokes similar affections as those we feel for other humans and we therefore want to touch it, appears to be safer than human touch itself.
Dr. Arthur Crucq (b. 1970) is an art historian from Leiden University where he also obtained his PhD with a dissertation on abstract patterns and representation. His research interests concern for instance seventeenth century sculpture, nineteenth century architectural theory, universal patterns in ornament, sustainable architecture and twentieth century artists’ books, as well as more theoretical and methodological topics such as the agency of artworks and the implications of using empirical methods in art history. With regard to the latter Crucq was a fellow during the winter semester of 2017-2018 at the Lab for Cognitive Research in Art History of the University of Vienna where he conducted an eye-tracking experiment on viewing perspectival paintings.