What are they on about?

6th October 2000 at 01:00
David Newnham wants to know why he can't just reach out and touch

I don't understand. Why can I not touch the sculptures? I know there's a notice by the entrance that forbids such oafish behaviour. But whatever happened to Cool Britannia?

A man with a walkie-talkie and a goatee beard is swooping on anyone who so much as extends a little finger, and snapping at them:"Don't touch!" He has a full-time job on his hands, this finger fascist.

So I ask him. Why not? What harm will it do? It will damage the works, he says. By touching the sculptures, I will injure them.

Listen, I say, because his eyes are off patrolling the gallery again, hoping to catch the merest hint of an intention to touch. Listen. This thing is made of granite, that one of steel. Carborundum and tungsten might scratch them. The fiery furnace might soften them. But my finger?

"It's the sweat," he says, breaking off to bark at a woman whose hand is moving towards a rounded knob of basalt. "We have to think of future generations."

Setting aside this charge of clamminess, I mutter something about the patina of age. In the back of my ind, the word "palimpsest", offers its services, but I refrain from using it for fear of making myself look even more ridiculous.

Oh yes. The goateed attendant has me down as a Philistine; a child who must put every new toy in his mouth; a Doubting Thomas who cannot trust his eyes.

But, if you ask me, it is his boss the curator who is behaving like a superstitious primitive. Curators and creators have little in common.

Me, I'm on the side of the artists. They appreciate the roughness of rust and the silken strength of well-turned travertine. Gravity grabs them and texture turns them on. Which is why their works reach out and grab you by the hand.

I'm not about to finger Turner's watercolours and I wouldn't dream of poking a sticky digit into Meret Oppenheim's furry cup and saucer (well, I might dream of it). But art galleries, for all their white walls, are not temples, and sculptures are not sacred relics. And anyone who thinks a lump of rock will be defiled by my finger must be touched in the head.

I put this to the man with the goatee, but he is already calling into his walkie-talkie..


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