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Wellesley Students Demand Removal Of Underwear-Clad Statue

Whatever aspect of feminism is on display at Wellesley resembles a type of chivalry, the means by which we protect the weaker sex from the cruelties of the world.

A Tony Matelli exhibit opens at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum today. But the installation of one of his pieces of art in a common area is unacceptable, according to students demanding its removal. The statue, pictured above, is of a man in underwear, sleepwalking with arms outstretched. Modern sculpture might suffer from being too abstract and too ugly but at least on the former point, this is the real deal. And perhaps because of its realism, the artist has created something quite provocative.

Perhaps too provocative.

In a move so cliched it could come from the Book of Walking Stereotypes, a Wellesley student has created a petition on Change.org demanding the statue’s removal:

President H. Kim Bottomly: Remove the uncomfortable and potentially triggering statue put up without student consent.

If you’d prefer, here’s a dramatic reading of the petition. But the bottom line is that we have triggering, micro-aggression, white privilege and a whole mess of other problems. It appears we have a major breakdown at the elite women’s school just outside of Boston.

For those unaware, “triggering” is a word you come across frequently on feminist sites. Take it away 2010 blog post from progressive feminist blog Shakesville:

A trigger is something that evokes survived trauma or ongoing disorder. For example, a person who was raped may be “triggered,” i.e. reminded of hir [sic] rape, by a graphic description of sexual assault, and that reminder may, especially if the survivor has post-traumatic stress disorder, be accompanied by anxiety, manifesting as anything ranging from mild agitation to self-mutilation to a serious panic attack.

OK, so it’s not just some student going off here against this piece of art. She’s gotten, at the time I’m looking at this, more than 200 supporters for her efforts to remove the offending art. The entire student body is only 2,400 or so students. Lisa Fischman, director of the museum, responded charitably on the Change.org site:

Thank you for your engagement and for your thoughtful response to Tony Matelli’s Sleepwalker, which was installed this afternoon on the Wellesley campus.

In a story on the dust-up at Boston.com, students reacted to the piece. This has to be my favorite line:

“I think art’s intention is to confront, but not assault, and people can see this as assaulting,” [Wellesley College senior Annie Wang, an art history major,] said.

Other students from the school Hillary Rodham Clinton attended weighed in at the petition site. Here are some of the most interesting remarks:

  • Our safe space – the only safe space for some of us – is being heavily compromised, and the fact that you are choosing to defend the statue before considering students’ comfort-levels is a shame.
  • Matelli’s statue does not speak to the power of art to inspire dialogue but rather to the power of the nearly nude, white, male body to disturb and discomfit. Even unconscious and vulnerable, he is threatening. “Arms outstretched, eyes closed,” he lumbers forward, quite literally unable to acknowledge the presence of his (in this context) largely female spectators. What a perfect representation of the world outside of Wellesley, where women and people identifying as women are often subject to a similar ambivalence. “I’m not even conscious that I’m wandering through your lady landscape,” the statue says. “I do not have to experience you. I feel about you the same way I feel about the snow. But you have to experience me, and I don’t care.”
  • What does this statue do if not remind us of the fact of male privilege every single time we pass it, every single time we think about it, every single time we are forced to acknowledge its presence. As if we need any more reminders.
  • Your claim that Sleepwalker is passive is spoken in privilege and without regard to the many students on this campus who have faced and survived assault, racism, and many other forms of violent oppression.
  • Even having seen a picture of the statue taken during the day, and even having been told where it was, it still unnerved me as I walked from the Campus Center to Tower. I could not tell whether I was looking at the statue I’d heard about or a real, potentially dangerous man wandering around until I had reached the intersection. That is a rather long time to be so needlessly stressed out.
  • The sculpture can traumatize and terrorize students on campus who deserve a safe place. To some extent, I personally see it as sexual harassment by proxy.
  • As a Wellesley alumna I am horrified that no one with decision making power at the Davis Museum stopped to consider the fear and anxiety this installation could trigger. They couldn’t have chosen a more clothed less menacing sculpture from the same exhibit to put outside? The students and larger community deserve better, they deserve consideration.
  • Wellesley of all places should understand how shocking and triggering a nearly naked man standing in the middle of campus could be. What emotions are attempting to be stirred by this art?? Hopefully not fear, as we women encounter frightening situations on a regular basis simply because of our gender. We do not need to be afraid, startled, or thought-provoked by a naked man in our safe space.

When I first started reading through these comments and the entire effort to get rid of the sleepwalker, I thought everything about it ridiculous. But as I see each mention of “triggering” and fear, I can’t help but think that whatever aspect of feminism is on display resembles something of a modern chivalry, the means by which we protect the weaker sex  from the cruelties of the world.

There’s no doubt that the “virtuous” men of previous eras would have kept Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” from assaulting fragile women on a college campus. They would have enforced rigorous codes of conduct about how to treat women sought for marriage. They would have punished men who behaved improperly. Now we have Change.org petitions and SlutWalks and Take Back The Night rallies.

Traditionalists who wonder about the appeal of these things might take heart at one of the deeper truths on display — women know that the sexes are not indistinguishable. They know that unbridled lusts can be dangerous. And they seek and desire protection from the threats of the outside world.

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