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A few months ago, I interviewed a person who touched this painting. That’s right. He put his finger right on it in order to point something out to me. More about this transgressive act later.

Today I watched as the painting handlers (those hardy young men who drill holes in museum walls, pick up paintings worth millions of dollars, and hang them) took down a painting by Bazille and replaced it with one by Monet. If it weren’t for the fact that I have seen this happen numerous times this year I would still believe that fairies hang paintings at night, but the fact is that real people wearing (real) blue gloves take down and put up real paintings, almost in the same way that you did in your college dorm with your poster of Gene Simmons and Kiss (except you probably weren’t wearing blue gloves). Previously, I fantasized about having an Art Institute badge to hang around my neck so I could go in and out of the doors in certain galleries; doors so discreet that one is sometimes startled when they open and someone walks out, but now if I win the Art Institute’s Be Whoever You Want to Be For a Day prize I think I’ll choose paint handler.

What is it about seeing a person handle a painting that causes visitors in a museum to drop what they’re doing and gather around the roped-off area to watch? The most obvious reason could be called the thrill of the touch: we see someone doing what we aren’t allowed to do. The paint handlers are like priests, touching sacred relics in a holy spectacle that we must be contented simply to watch. Or, is it that by coming off the wall and being handled the painting is in fact desacralized for a moment? Physically, a painting is not dissimilar from a piece of furniture or a lamp that can be moved around from one spot to another. A painting is an object that has been touched by various people (first and foremost by the artist), has been in studios and homes, has changed places many times, and has most likely traveled long distances. I think that this is why we are so intrigued when a work comes off the wall: we are breathless by its objectness, something that only minutes earlier seemed intangible and eternal is part of the space that we occupy everyday.

Now I would like to come back to Amare, a recent immigrant, whom I interviewed a few months ago. Amare was studying economics in Ethiopia when he learned that he won a green card in the United States Green Card Lottery (which differs from the 1948 classic that we all read in public schools where the winner is stoned to death by the community). Amare now lives in a Chicago suburb where he is a dental assistant. He had taken the train in to spend the entire day at the Art Institute.

After our interview, Amare wanted to show me some of the paintings he had particularly liked. We started downstairs in the African collection where he showed me the Miracles of Mary, a beautiful 158 page bound manuscript from 17th century Ethiopia. Next, we looked at Francisco de Zurbaràn’s The Crucifixion. Amare pointed out how Zurbaràn had painted Christ’s feet resting on a slight ledge, a small detail that he thought added a degree of realism to the painting.

The Amare Tour ended in the Dutch room, gallery 213, in front of Trompe l’Oeil Still Life with a Flower Garland and a Curtain (pictured above). I have admired this painting many times before: it is an uncanny coup of verisimilitude, the blue satin curtain is so lifelike that one is tempted to try and pull it to the side to see more of the painting. Then, it happened. Amare, wanting to point out a detail, touched the painting with his finger. I was so shocked, so taken aback, that before I knew it the most absurd utterance came out of my mouth (it was like a sneeze, totally involuntary): “Don’t do that! They might arrest you!” What (other than the fact that George Bush was still president) would have made me say such a thing? And who was “they”? The guards? James Cuno, the museum director, and his administrative assistant? Amare looked at me, his brown, soulful eyes full of terror, and I immediately realized the profound stupidity of what I had said. I quickly corrected myself: “I mean, you aren’t supposed to touch paintings in a museum; you’ll get yelled at.” There. That made more sense. Luckily for Amare the guard hadn’t seen him (though she would probably have been calmer and less hyperbolic than I). Besides, it is hard to imagine a section in the Cook County Jail for painting touchers (and if there were one, those poor guys wouldn’t get much respect).

Amare and I parted ways in gallery 213. Later on, I got to thinking about my reaction and realized that mixed up in it was a  teeny, tiny bit of envy, even of awe (like what I felt when Tod called our English teacher an asshole, for he truly was one, though I would never, ever have said it). Amare had touched a 17th century Dutch painting, something I would never do. His finger had met the surface where the painter, some three hundred years ago, had applied the paint. The closest I’ll ever get is perhaps, one day, hoisting a gilded frame to its place, and that only if I plan my strategy carefully. I’m thinking of the fourteen year old boy who recently dressed up as a Chicago policemen and spent a giddy six hours riding around in a police car before getting busted. I know where to buy blue gloves, but I wonder where I can get one of those blue work jackets with my name embroidered on it?

Addendum: while writing, I googled “penitentiary, Cook County” to find out its exact name and read this most unusual statement on the homepage: “Going to jail can be a scary experience. However, with the right information, you can feel better prepared for the day to day experiences of jail. CookCoJail.com provides you with information from actual ex-inmates. […] While we can’t promise jail won’t still be hard, we can hope that the information you find here will help you make the transition as easy as possible.” It doesn’t sound much different than going off to college, does it?

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