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?