Please Don’t Touch the Art by Arvin Ramgoolam

Please Don’t Touch the Art

I lay my palm flat on the rough canvas of speckled paint, thick and coarse from Jackson Pollack’s abuse. A security guard at the Boston gallery should have grabbed my neck. A spotlight should have shone down on me. Alarms with a cage dropping down on me. Nothing. The hall was empty, the guards were away, and I stood calmly with my hand against one of America’s greatest pieces of modern art. As I removed my hand and looked around, in the calm cool silence, I felt electrified. Magically imbued with the ferocity of Pollack, I had the intimate knowledge of every drop of paint on that canvas. I felt I had practically stolen this from the museum, taken it for a stroll and returned it. I reached out and touched the painting again, saying goodbye.

It became an addiction. I traveled the country searching for revered works of art. At the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit in New Mexico I touched her petals and traced her smooth lines before anyone could notice. In between great works, I stopped in smaller galleries of local artists that may, one day, a hundred years in the future, a million years from now, might have their own art in a museum. In Mexico City, I became an international art violator, touching the paintings of Frida Kahlo. Being locked away in a hot, dusty Mexican prison, leaving the oils of my hands all over the priceless art was enough to leave me with the rush I craved. Perhaps in that unseen future, an art historian will examine 20th century paintings in a cramped basement under his futuristic computer and see the outline of a hand on a Botero piece. Thinking nothing of it, he will discount it as the work of a shoddy curator with little regard for great art. Then he will find another hand-print, and another. His life’s purpose will be to uncover my trail across the country and eventually the world.

The priceless painting will become even more sought after having been touched by this mysterious, long gone, appreciator of art. My unfortunate legacy will be to make the art I’ve violated my own immortality. People around the world owning priceless pieces of art will pay to have their paintings inspected and sigh when they find out my ghostly hand never came near it. Some might even try to fake my work. Papers and books will be written and talk about the choices I made in the art I touched. Some might argue I didn’t care. Some might argue that I loved works with expressions or postmodernist styles or even saw things in art no one else saw. Perhaps it was my own neuroses that prevented me from creating my own works of art but forced me to seek out and touch other artists’ work. Or maybe the art historian will simply pick up a q-tip, dip it in distilled water and erase my fucking stupidity from history.

At the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, The Hallucinogenic Toreador is a huge canvas, depicting a myriad of pseudo-Christian images on a surreal plain. Guards are lax during this weekday, the crowds are nearly absent. A few tourists and their children walk around looking perplexed. Oblivious to the scale and depth of the mind of Dali they have just stepped into. The parents walk around in the air conditioning fanning themselves with tour pamphlets, never reading them, just browsing through this place on their way to or from Disney World. They leave and my work begins. The only thing separating me from the masterpiece is a velvet rope I step over. There isn’t a guard in sight. I am my own cat burglar who steals nothing but a touch. I reach out with my palm open and wet my lips, a junkie anticipating his next fix. A voice behind me whispers, “Sir, please don’t touch the art.”

I suddenly imagine handcuffs, a judge, jail, a record, bars. I freeze, lower my hand and step back. The guard walks away, his footsteps quieted by the carpet. I gulp and blink, wondering what happened. Moments from orgasm and I have nothing. My fix remains unsatisfied. Watching the guard walk away I want to yell and fill the frozen silence with my voice telling him that this is my right and responsibility to all artists. This is my homage to them, to connect with them, with greatness. I remain silent. I want to tell him off, tell him he knows nothing of the art he protects. Yet silence is still around us as he stops to look at another painting. Then he looks at Dali’s Angel of Victory and smiles at me. “Great place to work you know,” he says confiding in me. “I can understand why kids might want to touch it, just draws you in.” He looks contemplatively at the sculpture. My anger fades as he takes me on a personal tour. Finally returning to the one I was about to add to my collection of violations. “This thing is so big, you almost feel like you’re in it, walking into this desert. Kids, most of them are on acid or something when they come here and always try to step into it.” He motions as if he is about to fall in himself. “I always have to tell them to stop. But I don’t blame them.”

He looks at me and back to the painting as I take a step back. He continues to stare. I take another step and pivot to leave. Walking out of the museum I think about the guard, in those quiet afternoons when no one is in the museum. I know that he opens his palms and lays his hands all over the future and laughs at anyone else that tries to take his place in history.


Please dont touch the art


Arvin Ramgoolam is the 2020 recipient of the Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship from One Story Magazine. He is the owner and operator of Townie Books and Rumors Coffee and Tea House in Crested Butte, Colorado. When not writing or working, he is recreating with his dog in the Colorado backcountry.


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