Free speech and bad art at Wellesley

Wake up!!!

Wake up!!!

Have any of you been following the fracas over the temporary installation of Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” statue on the Wellesley College campus?  Lenore Skenazy published a faux-outraged commentary in the Wall Street Journal that summarizes the controversy and predictably makes fun of the campus feminists who object to the statue, rather than questioning the aesthetic judgment of the art museum director who decided to put up this crummy piece of art in the first place:

“Wellesley should be a safe place for their students, not a triggering one,” wrote one petition-signer, as if the statue actually made the campus dangerous. That’s a brand-new way of looking at—and trying to legislate—the world. So I checked in with Robert Shibley, senior vice president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, about the Wellesley panic. “It’s the idea that any kind of discomfort is a form of assault,” he noted.

Once we equate making people feel bad with actually attacking them, free expression is basically obsolete, since anything a person does, makes or says could be interpreted as abuse.

Lisa Fischman, director of the art museum on campus, wrote an open letter to students explaining that, to her, the Matelli statue depicts a vulnerable, pathetic stranger. (He’s sleepwalking in his skivvies in the snow, after all.) But to the petition-signers, her point of view is apparently not worthy. One wrote that Ms. Fischman’s letter, like the sculpture itself, “should occupy a less intrusive place.”

Yet another wrote: “A school endorsing the decision to expose its female students to this . . . violates civil rights laws.” I’ll stop quoting these petition-signers now—their words are triggering some of my own fears.

Since when is it a “civil right” not to feel disturbed by a piece of art? And who gets to decide which art we chuck? You don’t like the “Sleepwalker,” but I don’t like “Winged Victory.” It stirs scary thoughts of decapitation. Dear Louvre, please stash that headless gal in the attic.

Yes, it’s over-the-top to describe an inanimate piece of sculpture as an assault.  But it’s also ridiculous to say that questioning Fischman’s judgment assaults liberty of speech as well.  (They submitted a petition; they didn’t occupy the museum and hold her at gunpoint in her office until she had the sculpture removed.  What the hell–it was a good effort to try to sell more copies of Skenazy’s four-year old book!)

I taught at Wellesley for one semester after I finished my Ph.D.  It’s a bucolic, sheltered campus, a lovely place to work and learn.  It features a pond on one edge of campus surrounded by woods with a trail that’s used by runners and walkers.  I can imagine going out for a run on a cold, late-winter afternoon and being initially surprised and perhaps scared by a life-size statue of a man in tightie whities, but I agree that’s no reason to protest the statue or demand its removal.

I think it should be removed on the basis of its aesthetic offense.  I find it ugly, crude, and not provocative of anything other than disgust.  It’s completely banal, but if we’re to be subjected to banal public art like this, can we at least get sculptures of people we actually might not mind seeing in their underpants?  Seriously! 

The protesters should have attacked Matelli’s statue the way that campus wags have always had their way with questionable art on their campuses:  by decorating it (not vandalizing it) and making it their own.  They could put clothes on the poor man, or at least contribute some scarves, mittens, and hats to his cause.  The campus fiber arts enthusiasts could knit him a giant union suit and dress him in it overnight.  They could have a fundraiser for the local homeless shelter by asking students to contribute $5 for the honor of helping to dress him up.  Most former girls like dolls–treat him like their own life-sized Chatty Charlie and dress him up according to the season, holiday, or campus event?

What do you think?  Is Matelli’s sculpture defensible on artistic grounds?  Do the protesters have a point?  (700 of them signed the petition, and whatever you think of Wellesley women, they’re neither stupid nor are they shrinking violets, regardless of Skenazy’s attempts to stereotype them.)

16 thoughts on “Free speech and bad art at Wellesley

  1. I sort of weirdly like that piece and how it’s displayed. I think it raises really good questions about what art is, and how framing (or refusing framing by sticking it outside without a sign or something identifying and fixing it) works to create art as art.

    Further, I don’t think that art has to be beautiful or that the bodies represented have to be “people we actually might not mind seeing in their underpants.” (I fear I may have misread your words here, and that you’ve intended something that challenges the way bodies are represented?) I think art that challenges us to rethink how we appreciate “beauty” in bodies is good, whether those bodies represent men or women. There’s something very intriguing in this statue in how it represents, say, the little pot belly, the splotchy skin tones; it’s unidealized, and unromanticized.

    That said, I totally agree that students could respond fruitfully by appropriating the space/statue as art in other ways, dressing it, putting an orange cone on the head, and so forth.

    (One of my classes discussed this a bit in talking about how framing works for lit, and how hard it can be to read lit that isn’t framed in the ways we’re accustomed to.)


  2. My crack about people we’d like to see in their underpants was just to note that this guy is far from the masculine ideal: IOW, if we have to look at a guy in his underpants, can’t we have a better looking one than this one?

    The art world and the media have already put on display a very wide range of male body types. Fat, overweight, or just funny looking men are represented in movies as serious characters (Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, James Gandolfini, etc.), not just comic characters (Melissa McCarthy. . . and Melissa McCarthy). I’d be more inclined to see a less-than-ideal nearly-nude female form as more provocative of conversations about art, given the very narrow range of female body types we see in the media and in art.


  3. The serious objections I’ve seen to the piece have to do with just what you’ve alluded to, Historiann — women being out running, or walking, or whatever, alone, and coming upon this piece of art unexpectedly. The thing is, it is very realistic, and it does depict a man who is at least somewhat sexualized, and not in a good way.

    Imagine this was an actual man, dressed like this, looming at you out of the dark, and you were alone. What goes through your mind?

    I mean, yes, relatively soon you realize it’s art, and not a killer/rapist. But for those few moments — 10 or 20 seconds — if you’re many women (and I am one of them) you’re sick with terror.

    Maybe you’re not one of those women. Maybe you’ve never been threatened with, or experienced rape. I don’t know. But for a lot of us, rape isn’t art. It isn’t a game, or something we can treat as a thought-puzzle.

    And yes, I imagine this is the *point* of this piece of art, to raise these very questions. So all right, fine, leave it up. But I’m saying I can see why these students are upset, and I think Skenazy, who frankly has no idea what women deal with in this area, should shut his pie-hole.


  4. And p.s. I still think neo-realism or hyper-realism or whatever this is is boring, whatever the sex or body type the sculpture is.

    I will freely admit that sculpture is probably the least interesting kind of art to me, so I’m probably not a completely fair judge. Painting and photography are 100x more interesting and thought-provoking to me, but that’s a personal & not an aesthetic judgment.

    (I blame all of the bad public art in this country, 98% of which is bad sculpture.)


  5. To be less rude, I’m pleased she has no triggering issues, but to dismiss the experience of others as if that experience is trivial and unworthy of consideration is a typical tactic of the empowered.

    My objection — mainly — is not with her argument. It’s with how she treats opposition as silly. No. What they are experiencing is not silly and it’s not trivial.


  6. delagar, you’re right to note that “fear” or “terror” are different emotional reactions than “offended,” and the way that Skenazy wants to frame the controversy don’t permit us to appreciate these differences.

    I suppose those protesting the sculpture could ask if provoking fear is the purpose of art? What about a sculpture of an assault in-progress: would that be OK to install on a college campus? What about a rape? Are there any limits on provocation?

    This is why I think appropriating and domesticating Charlie is a good idea. Wrap him up like the Michelin Man! Make it contest–let different dorms have a week in turn and then vote. That would make Charlie into a public art project, thus fulfilling the art museum director’s putative goals and also make the sculpture less threatening or scary to victims of sexual assault.

    Plus: I just think this sculpture was a weird choice for Wellesley, as well as bad art.


  7. Here’s a link to the petition, which I should emphasize does not say that the sculpture should be banished from campus. It merely asks that the statue be put inside the Davis Museum rather than remain outside.

    How putting a sculpture indoors is somehow a threat to free speech and free art is a mystery to me. Also: petitions are the essence of free speech and have no power to “silence” anyone.


  8. I love you, Historiann. “[C]an we at least get sculptures of people we actually might not mind seeing in their underpants? Seriously!” was my first thought on seeing that thing. Closely followed by, “I’ll believe it’s art when I see the equivalent woman in a sculpture.”

    Art can be revolting because it’s trying to make a point. But just being an eyesore doesn’t make something art.

    As for the triggering issues, there’s something there that really offends me. I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly what it is. I mean, if you want to start an examination of why a photorealistic guy in Y-fronts doing nothing is a problem, you need to be triggering men. Not women. They’ve thought about it forever already. This stupid-looking statue does nothing for that.


  9. I think it raises really good questions about what art is, and how framing (or refusing framing by sticking it outside without a sign or something identifying and fixing it) works to create art as art.

    That gimmick has been done over and over and over before, and with a lot more panache than this.


  10. Not seeing the Fruit of the Loom man myself, I’ll just accept others opinions. Objection to art surprises no one. People talking back to art isn’t new. Happily, there are no cut and dry rules about art, so some wild and others rejoice.

    As for the kerfuffle, both sides seem to me downright ridiculous.


  11. Campus-situated sculpture is a pretty sorry sub-genre. Penn tends to have little knock-down knock-offs of actual sculptures better seen in their real versions. Like the Picasso mini-flamingo study for the actual one in Chicago, an odd choice to put outside a Design school, or worse, the teeny-weenie “Love” model that you can see for real not two miles away. And then there are the ones that they disappear for a decade or more, before installing in front of a new building, like “We Lost,” which has popped up in front of the Nano-Tech center, after languishing in a warehouse for years. That’s a place where they should have done a shrink-down version, wouldn’t you think? On the other hand, who can not like the ones that the little kids like year in and year out, such as “Split Button,” in front of the former library, or even the cutesy “Ben-on-a-Bench” up the walk a ways?

    Whew, my first sculpture review. When you’re stalling, you’ll write anything!


  12. My mon (a Wellesley grad) and I (not a Wellesley grad) had an argument about this sculpture. We both agreed it was ugly, but disagreed over its purpose and even the definition of art. Mom in the end thinks art should be pretty, since I’m a dutiful daughter (to a point) I decided not to push that and ask if Rembrandt’s painting of Lucretia killing herself was pretty. I think clothing it and organizing a fundraiser for the homeless around it is a great idea.


  13. Nobody would have paid a lick of attention to this exhibit if they hadn’t deliberately provoked outrage and upset by posting a disturbing piece outside where it was guaranteed to provoke reaction.

    I’m sorry, but an artist or a curator who resorts to gimmicks to inspire interest is not hitting the mark as far as I’m concerned. Move the banal piece inside and stop pretending it’s anything but a publicity stunt for a ho-hum exhibit!


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