Why Are White Men Touching Art?

06/02/2015 07:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

It's opening night at the gallery, and the stress level is high. Directors run around trying to appease the donors, the caterers maneuver carts through the crowded floor, and the guests flood the space and pouring through the new shows.

Meanwhile I'm stationed at my post, neck on a jittery swivel as I attempt to monitor five hundred square feet of space. My job is that of a sign, reminding all: Do Not Touch.

The main objects of concern are a set of sculptures by a black male artist from LA. Sea Pigs, as they are titled, the pieces are made of reclaimed buoys hung from the ceiling and covered in layers of acrylic medium, paper and bungee cord. Though abstract sculpture may not lend itself to written description, the point stands that the room is littered with bovine-sized sculptures dangling at shoulder height and begging to be touched.

Hour one passes with the closest incident being an elderly woman who, engrossed in her phone, nearly walks into Pig #2. But I spotted the potential incident and threw myself in her path.

Soon though, another hazard approaches. He's white in his mid-forties and approaching a pig with unusual interest. Though he's standing closer to the sculpture than the prescribed distance of arms' length, he appears deeply invested, and I don't want to interrupt his observation.

But then he lifts his hand, palming the side of the sculpture and shoving it. When I walk up to him and inform him not to touch the art, he smirks and walks away, leaving the sculpture to swing about the room, a wrecking ball that will likely sell for more than my year's pay.

Having worked two years in these galleries, I've come to see instances like these as less of a stressful surprise and more of a perennial nuisance. As a white man myself, I'm hesitant to cast blanket aspersions on my own kind; however, the fact stands that the only adults who I've witnessed intentionally handling the art have been white, straight-presenting males.

But why?

One idea I find particularly relevant to this phenomenon is the trend of manspreading.

What the New York Times described as the "lay-it-all-out sitting style that more than a few men see as their inalienable underground right," manspreading is a derisive descriptor for the way that men tend to take up two, and often more, seats with their spread legs, forcing other passengers to either stand and suffer or compress themselves to sit.

The popularization of the term seems to have originated with blogs such as Men Taking Up Too Much Space On The Train. This blog--near totally comprised of photos submitted by readers--presents a crowdsourced account of men on public transportation who take up more than their fair share of room. Sometimes, they've occupied the adjacent seat with bags while other photos show men reclined across entire benches. Most though, depict men sitting slouched with splayed legs, encroaching upon nearby passengers and often forcing them to stand.

Apart from photos, anonymous criticism comprises the remainder of content, and while some of the detractors take issue with the photographing of various men without their consent to being photographed, most concern themselves with genitals.

Some examples:

"this is a matter of anatomy"

"try being 6foot 4inches and having a massive pair of balls between your legs."

"men have balls. they can't close their legs otherwise it really, really hurts"

The general sentiment being that someone with testicles cannot comfortably sit close-legged.

In response, editor MTUTMSotT blankets these opponents as men defending their balls. Compiling these criticisms into Men Defending Their Balls: A Superpoem, MTUTMSotT snarkily reduces all condemnation--quite literally--to the thought that male genitalia grants the right to occupy extra seats. Implicit in this notion is the idea that men, aware or not, feel it their due to consume more space than women.

Manspreading seems less a conscious act than one that demonstrates a lack of awareness and consideration. Still, the enraged male response to the growing awareness of the trend demonstrates the ways that men, while ignorant to privilege, will fight to preserve it.

A recent trend in contemporary art has been the embracing of marginalized voices, particularly those of women and black Americans. Should we treat space for expression in a similar way that we do physical space, then the incorporation of these marginalized perspectives can be thought of as competing with those of white men.

These new voices, either critical of or wholly uninterested in conditions of white maleness, create a space that neither surrenders nor makes itself accessible to white men. Though on a subway car, the man can blithely occupy as much space as he wishes with little objection, an art museum presents a different environment.

Walking into the museum, the white man becomes disenfranchised by no longer holding exclusive possession of the space. He sees the works of black artists, reads the wall text detailing themes of African Diaspora, the process of othering and the desperation of reinvention, but he fails to locate these themes within the work. He turns to his wife who, while no less perplexed by the show than him, is more willing to entertain the idea of this art not being tailored to her sensibility.

He makes a remark about the sad state of art today.

When a white man touches a painting, he is in effect rallying against the idea that something will not bend to make itself accessible to him. He is airing his frustration that something so symbolic of intellect could evade him. He is confronted by the thought that something once exclusive to his kind is gradually being infiltrated. He realizes that there may no longer be surplus space for his expansion and concludes that the best way to come to terms with such a thought is to dismiss it at its source.