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Sleepwalking through Wellesley

8 mins read

Students at Wellesley, a prestigious women’s liberal arts college, had mixed reactions to a sculpture found wandering outside of the confines of its exhibit. “Sleepwalker” is a painted bronze statue by modern artist Tony Matelli. The statue is an uncanny, hyper-realistic depiction of a sleepwalking man — bald and pudgy and wearing only his underwear — and is a part of Matelli’s art exhibit New Gravity, found at Wellesley’s Davis Museum. “Sleepwalker,” unlike the other pieces, was displayed outside.

Hundreds of students at the college signed a petition asking the administration to remove the statue from its outdoor location on the grounds that it “has become a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for some members of [the] campus community.” Personally, I think that removing the statue would be a bad idea on principle, though the college administration has shown no signs of doing so. The call for that action to be taken is something I find troubling.

Many people have raised a question as to why the statue was placed on an all-women’s campus — some even implying nefarious, sexist motives behind it. That is just silly. It probably would have been placed outside at any gallery had the location allowed it, and the fact that Wellesley’s gallery ended up hosting it is arbitrary and fairly opportune in regards to the symbolism of the piece. “Sleepwalker” being a sculpture of a man probably had more to do with nudity taboos than anything else. There is a female “Sleepwalker” as well, bare-chested like her male counterpart. Would the piece be fine if she were displayed outside instead of the man?

Then there’s the larger problem of it being a trigger for some of the students. I don’t want to sound insensitive. Sufferers of abuse and psychological trauma have my greatest sympathies, but it’s not sensible — or fair — to ask those around you to walk on eggshells when there’s practically an infinite number of things that could potentially be a trigger for someone somewhere. And it’s even more unrealistic to ask this of art culture.

Deliberate insensitivity or spitefulness is one thing, but I don’t think  “Sleepwalker” is an example of that. The women at Wellesley have seen men before. Chances are, thanks to beaches and television, if nothing else, they’ve seen a man who wasn’t fully clothed. It’s an innocuous image. The only thing odd about it is the placement, which certainly isn’t a surprise to them now and wasn’t a surprise for very long.

This brings me to the controversy last year regarding a pro-choice art display at the University of Cincinnati. There were eleven billboard sized photos of vaginas posted around the campus, impossible to just skirt around and definitely making a significant number of students extremely uncomfortable. But the intended message of the photos overruled how people felt about it. I’d like to know what the women at Wellesley thought about that alienating and uncomfortable art display.

Art is about perception, and no one perception is better than any other. If this sculpture were placed in another location, around people with different perspectives and experiences, they might see it as a commentary on mental illness or on America’s view of the male body. The fact that some people perceived it as a threat because of traumatic past experiences is obviously a terrible thing, and I’m not going to dispute that. But a piece of art isn’t supposed to shoulder the burden of the personal issues that viewers carry with them, and it shouldn’t be treated as a catalyst for that burden either.

By asking to have “Sleepwalker” placed back inside the gallery, the students not only obscure the intention of the piece but also hold one perception of the sculpture above all the others.

If a group of people has the most morbid, worst possible interpretation of something, in this case, equating the image of a sleepwalking man with that of an assaulter — that doesn’t mean that their interpretation is “right” or that it should be listened to and granted more credence than all others. Compared to the rest of Matelli’s work, ‘Sleepwalker’ is extraordinarily normal and benign.

If someone feels overtly threatened or violated by a sculpture, that person should seek some kind of help from friends or a professional because that’s just not a healthy reaction to have. What they shouldn’t do is call for the removal of whatever it was that made them feel that way. It sets a terrible precedent: If a piece of art makes us feel anything other than good, provokes a personal reaction we didn’t expect, it should be gotten rid of. It’s the same mentality that leads to schools banning “ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because its use of slurs could possibly encourage racism and makes people very uncomfortable.

Why was the “Sleepwalker” placed outdoors in the first place? It’s to garner more publicity for the gallery, yes. All artists want publicity. But it has its own purpose outside of that. The sculpture was made to be lost. The man is where he clearly doesn’t belong, utterly out of place and vulnerable. It’s the image of an ill-equipped human being stumbling, exposed and dazed, through a foot of snow. It wasn’t made to be inside of a gallery, and it wasn’t made to make people feel nice. Art isn’t made to conform to the sensitivities of individual perceptions, no matter how negative or unfortunate they may be — nor should it be required to.

2 Comments

  1. I’m curious as to why you chose to write this piece. The only relevance I see to Swarthmore is that it discusses reactions to sexual assault. It therefore reads like an attack on survivors activists at Swarthmore, who are maligned every time they call out some aspect of campus life as problematic. Regardless of the intent, you wrote this in a hostile and demeaning way. Some examples:

    “Many people have raised a question as to why the statue was placed on an all-women’s campus — some even implying nefarious, sexist motives behind it. That is just silly.” Who are you to say that women on a different campus, who you presumably have never met, are “silly” in questioning this statue? Did you consult with any of them in writing this piece?

    “Would the piece be fine if she were displayed outside instead of the man?” So are you saying that it is sexist against men to criticize this display? I don’t know what students at Wellesley would say about a woman being displayed instead, but even if there is a difference it isn’t surprising. If you saw a half-naked man in the dark on the campus of a Women’s college, wouldn’t that bring different thoughts to your mind than a a half-naked woman? The majority of sexual assaults (particularly by strangers) are perpetrated by men against women–so it is reasonable that a man would be a trigger for more people, especially at a Women’s college.

    “Then there’s the larger problem of it being a trigger for some of the students. I don’t want to sound insensitive. Sufferers of abuse and psychological trauma have my greatest sympathies, but it’s not sensible — or fair — to ask those around you to walk on eggshells when there’s practically an infinite number of things that could potentially be a trigger for someone somewhere.” It’s true that there is a potentially infinite number of things that could trigger someone. But survivors do not ask that other people “walk on eggshells” to accomplish the impossible task of avoiding triggers. Let’s take Valentine’s Day as an example. This is a triggering day for many people, including some survivors (particularly survivors of intimate partner violence) and some queer people. But you don’t see people protesting Valentine’s Day, despite the fact that it upsets them. The issue is that this piece of art is triggering to a lot of students–which I’m sure was obvious to the artist, given the apparent intent of placing the piece outside to make it startling. And all that aside, please leave out your condescending “greatest sympathies” if you aren’t going actually listen to survivors.

    “This brings me to the controversy last year regarding a pro-choice art display at the University of Cincinnati. There were eleven billboard sized photos of vaginas posted around the campus, impossible to just skirt around and definitely making a significant number of students extremely uncomfortable. But the intended message of the photos overruled how people felt about it. I’d like to know what the women at Wellesley thought about that alienating and uncomfortable art display.” Why is this paragraph even here? It has absolutely no connection to the rest of what you are writing. The only purpose it serves is to choose an issue that you stereotype Wellesley students as supporting–a pro-choice art display–and then call them out on their hypocrisy… despite the fact that they had nothing to do with this other display and have never mentioned it in discussing “Sleepwalker.” You just created a straw (wo)man to attack.

    And finally, “If someone feels overtly threatened or violated by a sculpture, that person should seek some kind of help from friends or a professional because that’s just not a healthy reaction to have.” What possessed you to write that sentence? It is condescending, it is demeaning, it is sanist, and it betrays a complete lack of understand of what it means to be a survivor.

    In sum, you need to examine who you are really talking to in this piece and what you are really saying to them.

  2. Bravo, Briana, for having the courage to state your views, despite the caterwauling of identity politicos such as Mr. Nilsson. As a woman, I am embarrassed at the need to install fainting couches at equal intervals throughout our campuses to accommodate women who just cannot handle life in general. Kudos to Swarthmore for publishing this; it is surprising but encouraging.

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