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.)