Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Sleepwalker of Wellesley

First, here's the story: A lifelike sculpture of a near-naked man apparently sleepwalking appeared on the lawn of the all-female campus of Wellesley College, and some students petitioned to have the sculpture removed, as it is a "trigger," which is code for "brings up memories or fear of a sexual assault." You can read the full story here.


The reactions to the sculpture and to the student petition to have it removed have ranged all over the map. One piece in the Wall Street Journal compared the petition to have the sculpture removed to the criticism of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," which seemed a stretch. Oh, those feminists and their whole "anti-rape" thing.

It sure does seem like these students have issued forth reflexive, predictable outrage in their response to the sculpture. I get the eyeball-rolling: "We're women, and we're tough! But make the scary plastic man go away." Young feminists often portray themselves as fragile in ways that their foremothers would find appalling, coming across as nearly Victorian in their sensibilities. After you hide that sculpture, Jeeves, do cover up the piano legs.

In fact, the students' reaction to the sculpture seems so silly that I can't help but think it's perhaps not quite accurate. I'd like to hear them defend their own criticism. It may be a case of political correctness gone awry, but we may be getting a straw man version of their viewpoint. Let's hear their best defense.

And yes, they do need to defend themselves. Nobody gets a free pass on being offended, not when speech is at stake. If you're going to silence expression or shut down art, you had better have a good reason. "It offends me" is simply not a good enough reason. If it were, nobody could ever leave their house or speak aloud an opinion. We have to be a little thicker-skinned when it comes to tolerating things that make us uncomfortable; the world is not here to make you feel safe and happy.

It is also worth asking why the sculptor chose to put this work on this particular campus, and in such a public location. It's not inside (which is where the petitioners would have it), it's outside and in full view. It's difficult to ignore. Was he trying to provoke this exact reaction? That would be interesting, if unkind. Is unkind art acceptable? How would we feel about placing a white-hooded sculpture on the campus of Morehouse College? Would it matter if that sculptor was white? Does it matter that the artist who made the Sleepwalker is male? Does it also matter that the sculptor, Tony Matelli, says his artwork was about male vulnerability?

For the moment, the petitioners have failed, and the statue is set to remain on campus until the summer. The university's president issued a statement that the Sleepwalker "has started an impassioned conversation about art, gender, sexuality, and individual experience, both on campus and on social media." It is interesting that what some see as sexual-assault-by-art, and others see as feminist censorship, others see as "an impassioned conversation." I suppose that's one way to describe it.

What do you think?

8 comments:

  1. The creation of impassioned discussion is part of artwork. A piece is most successful if it has a life of its own. This one does. If it is removed or if it remains, that is part of the effect. It makes a comment upon the aesthetic response of the time. What I've learned from artists is there is ideally a point at which they divorce themselves from a work and learn from its independent and autonomous vitality. Fascinating example, Stephanie.

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    1. "What I've learned from artists is there is ideally a point at which they divorce themselves from a work and learn from its independent and autonomous vitality." I really like this, Geo. It reminds me of having a kid: you may think it's yours, but in the end, that's an independent person who can go one of many, many ways. I remember reading some writer's observation that art is only about 30% complete when the author writes "The End." The other 70% happens between the audience and the work. It's dynamic; a different relationship with each reader, and a changing effect over time.

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  2. Tough issue to make any black or white judgment. I think the public display makes a difference, thinking here of Mapplethorpe's works. If his photo's or other works were displayed in a public place the free speech argument wouldn't have held up as well.

    I have two daughters, one approaching middle age. Both would describe themselves as feminists, both are capable of expressing outrage about things they find offensive, both can see the difference between a genuine attempt at art, and something that is not. If they find it offensive, they wouldn't describe their position as something due to 'fragility', nor would I. Someone isn't 'fragile' because they find something offensive.

    I find it curious that Wellesley, on of the "Sister Schools" and one of the few women's-only colleges left, was the site the artist picked, and the school accepted. Being a public display, I wonder what the reaction would be if it was in a suburban or any neighborhood with families.

    Comparing it to putting a KKK statue on the campus of Morehouse or Howard is a bit of a stretch, in that one is blatantly offensive, and the other offensive through association, largely because of where it is. A KKK statue would be offensive wherever it is, this one seemed poor judgement on where it is displayed.

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    1. That's a very thoughtful response, thanks for sharing it. Your point about fragility/offense is especially well taken. Offense certainly isn't always a measure of (or indicative of) fragility. But sometimes it is. Although actually, if I had to write this again, I might choose a different word: I seem to be conflating "offense" with "fear" here, and the petition reflects more the latter, doesn't it?

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  3. "and the other offensive through association, largely because of where it is"

    It's a bit depressing that the association is basically that males are abusers. Male amongst women? Like a fox in a chicken coup! Statistically of course it's true, but sexism does swing both ways. In a context where women often became victims it then becomes natural to assume men are often or naturally abusers. I guess plenty are, but it does leave the rest tarnished with a stain that won't wash out.

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    1. It does seem noteworthy that a depiction of a man in a highly vulnerable state is still seen as predatory.

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  4. What do I think? I think calling a plastic statue of a man in his tighty whities "art" is a bit of a stretch, and to place said "art" in a prominent place at an all-girls' school is a tad in-your-face offensive. I can't imagine why the school agreed to it. Whether or not seeing it on display actually triggers a gut fear reaction in some women over prior abuse isn't for me to say, but I do say that particular piece of "art" doesn't even come close to being aesthetically pleasing or uplifting. Not to me, anyway.

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    1. The spouse and I were wondering as well what the decision-making was behind this piece in this place. What was that meeting like? "Madame President, I'd like to stick a half-naked realistic man statue on your all-female campus." "Ooh lovely! Carry on then, good sir."

      I do think art is not always or necessarily pleasing. Art can be in-your-face, discomfiting, insulting, and aggravating. There's a place for that, but perhaps not somewhere people can't avoid it.

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