SCANDALIZED FEBRUARY 5, 2014
Other than their male professors whom, by and large, they adore, Wellesley students are not used to having men on campus. But an inanimate naked man—a statue—has caused an uproar at my alma mater. The statue is a white man in his underwear, sleepwalking with arms outstretched. It is part of an art exhibit featuring sculptor Tony Matelli at the college's Davis Museum.
The sleepwalker has incited nervy indignation among some 300 students, who have started a petition on Change.org, asking college president H. Kim Bottomly to have the statue removed. "[T]his highly lifelike sculpture has, within just a few hours of its outdoor installation, become a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for many members of our campus community," says the petition. "While it may appear humorous, or thought-provoking to some, it has already become a source of undue stress for many Wellesley College students, the majority of whom live, study, and work in this space."
Davis Museum director Lisa Fischman wrote on Wellesley College's official website that the sculpture was meant to do what art does best: start a conversation. "We placed the Sleepwalker on the roadside just beyond the Davis to connect the exhibition—within the museum—to the campus world beyond," Fischman wrote, also posting it on Change.org as her response to the petition. "I love the idea of art escaping the museum and muddling the line between what we expect to be inside (art) and what we expect to be outside (life)."
Fischman is saying, in the most gracious and conciliatory terms, that art is meant to excite, shock, unruffle. It is meant to make you "think." (Shocking!) But the students who have signed the petition will have none of it. As art history major Annie Wong told a local newspaper, “I think art's intention is to confront, but not assault, and people can see this as assaulting."
How exactly does an inanimate statue assault? I am sympathetic to the students who are limiting their argument to statements of discomfort. Fair enough. But then again, it is a work of art. If Tracy Emin's "My Bed"—a 1999 installation featuring a bed stained with bodily secretions, surrounded by used condoms and blood-stained underwear—were to be recreated for Wellesley, in the snow, would that make the students uncomfortable? Would they start a petition demanding that the bed was "assaulting" them? Most of the viewers who went to see Emin’s “My Bed” weren’t turning their noses at the unseemly stains on her underwear; rather, they were considering a woman’s starkly frank appraisal of the mess in her life. It wasn’t about them, in other words. Wellesley women have exploded all manner of boundaries in the realms of politics, art, and literature. For its students to look at a piece of art and have the knee-jerk reaction, “This offends me,” is not very progressive. It’s solipsistic.
In many of the comments, students have talked about the power of the "white, male body to disturb and discomfit." Yes, the initial sight of a nearly naked man is disturbing, but why should it continue to unsettle and cause offense after everyone on campus has learnt that this is a statue of a sleepwalker? Are students really so threatened by an inanimate form? To be honest, if the statue was of Leonardo DiCapario (white, male, privileged) sleepwalking with a smile on his face, I have a feeling the statue would amuse.
As my friend Fatima Burney, a Wellesley alum currently pursuing a Ph.D. at UCLA, put it to me: “I've never been a fan of this particular brand of Wellesley student that sees Wellesley as some sort of sanctuary. It's an institution of learning and it belongs in the realest of the real world. I actually find the art piece quite engaging and endearing.” Fatima is referring to a type of “Wendy” Wellesley—the college’s own humorous moniker—of a student who is earnest, intelligent, and almost always Deeply Offended By This or That.
And as English professor Sarah Wall-Randell told a local newspaper: "I find it disturbing, but in a good way. I think it's meant to be off-putting—it's a schlumpy guy in underpants in all-women environment." Amen. And it's not even a schlumpy guy. It's a piece of stone. When I told a friend, a student at a liberal arts college in Karachi, of the “controversy,” she said: “They’re crying about a statue that has hurt their feelings. Boo. We’re not even allowed to put up statues.”
Mira Sethi is a writer living in Pakistan.