To the editors:
I’m just going to state the obvious now: Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” statue has gotten our campus a lot of media attention.
One of the great joys of art is its ability to evoke emotion. Each student has his/her/their own unique perspective on Matelli’s work, shaped by years of life experience. To expect a piece to be universally adored by a campus of 2,300 students is simply unrealistic. Art should not be judged simply on the basis of its aesthetic value, but also on its ability to provoke self-reflection and honest discourse. Good art can do both of those things without being conventionally “pretty.” Even if you find “Sleepwalker” “ugly” or “creepy,” chances are you’ve still considered it and discussed it. In that sense, the statue has done its job of challenging perceptions and exploring ideas with others.
As for arguments against the statue’s effect on students’ mental health, I again take issue. As a long-time sufferer of mental illness and a survivor of sexual abuse, I consider myself especially sensitive to issues of courtesy and respect when it comes to any sort of information which could potentially trigger a traumatized reaction. When I hear the claim, however, that the statue is “potentially triggering,” I can’t help but wonder: if Matelli’s piece, featuring a man in his underwear, could have this effect, what’s preventing someone from experiencing the same reaction upon viewing, say, Michaelangelo’s “David,” which is fully nude? There’s a fine line between keeping a campus safe and censoring oneself into sterility.
Finally, a note about the dog—have you seen it? On the west side of Clapp Library, Matelli’s other outdoor installation has also received criticism for being “dangerous.” Many students have described the piece to me as a “rabid dog” somewhere around the lake. The apparent concern is that pedestrians will become frightened by the statue while running around the lake. Upon hearing these concerns, I visited the statue myself, not ten feet from the library. While this is my personal interpretation of Matelli’s piece, there was no evidence that the dog was rabid. Wearing a harness, he appeared to me instead as perhaps a seeing-eye dog, lost and in search of its owner.
For these reasons, I applaud Tony Matelli for his startling, comical and hopeful work. I also appreciate that the Davis Museum and the College were willing to take the leap of exhibiting Matelli’s art, because they know the value of art, as well as the dangers of excessive self-censorship. The Davis is encouraging students to reflect, talk and question. Even if you find Matelli’s work unnerving, strange or just plain ugly, it’s still art—art that’s done a damn good job of its intended purpose.
Claire Verbeck ‘16