Don’t touch!” Just about the first thing one learns about visiting art museums is that anything but visual contact with the works on display is absolutely forbidden. There are many variations on how this restriction is announced, ranging from polite requests, such as the discreet “Please do not touch the works of art,” to earnest, detailed explanations of the harmful effects of the invisible salts and oils present on even the cleanest of hands on even the sturdiest of art materials. We are frequently told—and just about all of us who care about art are convinced—that the long-term preservation of paintings, sculptures, and works on paper for the enjoyment and instruction of everyone depends upon our exerting restraint and keeping our hands off. It’s an example of voluntarily subsuming personal wishes for the greater good that would gladden the heart of Isaiah Berlin. Yet we also know that in the past—and even in...


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