By SRUTHI NARAYANAN ’14
Having found a spotlight in editorials all across the globe, Tony Matelli’s recently installed “Sleepwalker” statue is reaching national levels of infamy. The statue—for any students who somehow have managed to avoid seeing it—is a white male figure, clad only in a pair of briefs, his arms outstretched in dazed sleep. He is blind to his surroundings on Munger Meadow and to the discussions that he has sparked: discussions regarding art and its context in a community, as well as censorship and freedom of expression.
However, the more important discussion that the Wellesley community needs to have is about students’ reactions to the statue and a perceived invasion of Wellesley’s safe space.
The vast majority of Wellesley’s students had no idea that “Sleepwalker” was coming to campus, let alone that he would find himself in such a high-traffic location. It was this lack of student consent, more so than any other problem one could have with the installation, that prompted a cry of distress from students. In a petition drafted by several Wellesley students on Change.org, many students have expressed emotions ranging from discomfort to disgust, shock and triggering anxiety brought on by the hyperrealism of the statue and its potentially threatening nature. Senior Art Director at the Davis Museum Lisa Fischman responded to students with an art lesson. As she stated in a comment on the petition, “Sleepwalker” was placed in Munger Meadow as a way of connecting the exhibit with the campus as a whole and in the hopes of sparking discussion among students.
However well-intentioned and apologetic Fischman may have been in her response to students, the artistic merit of the sculpture is not the point at hand. Additionally, whether or not students should be reacting based on the emotions that they very much are having isn’t the point either. Rather, it is the dismissal and invalidation of students’ discomfort that warrants attention and begs consideration. To do anything else is to display an extraordinary lack of empathy for our fellows in the Wellesley community. It is concerning and saddening that the vast majority of those attempting to speak on behalf of Wellesley’s students are missing this essential point. No one is contesting Fischman on her comment that “Art provokes dialogue, and discourse is the core of education.” Students are, however, fighting for their right to choose whether or not they want to engage in such a discourse.
The media had quite the field day warping students’ agitation into sensationalized news stories. Buzzfeed blanketed the entire situation with a large yellow “LOL” sticker; Perez Hilton tickled himself silly with a truly original pun regarding the statue’s “erection” on campus; and a whole host of supposedly reputable news sources described students as being “scared” and “freaked out” by the sculpture. Such articles have trivialized the community’s negative feelings regarding the issue, portraying Wellesley’s students as mere “Women Who Will Overreact” and transforming a serious situation into a humorous media tidbit about prudish and easily-scandalized women.
No one has the right to force students to justify reactions they may be having to “Sleepwalker.” Furthermore, it is a true shame that students may feel pressured to defend their emotions in the face of accusations that they are overreacting or that they don’t understand art. When Mira Sethi, a writer for New Republic and a Wellesley alumna, wrote off Wellesley’s students as being “Deeply Offended By This or That” with reactions that are “mostly-idiotic” and “solipsistic,” she essentially told students upset by the statue to suck it up. In the process, she and others like her have exhibited an extreme lack of human compassion.
Tony Matelli even commented on the issue in an interview in the New York Times, saying that students who were triggered by the statue “need to seek sympathy…need to seek help.” Clearly he has a point, as students are apparently and unfortunately unable to find sympathy from those who continue to support and protect the sculpture without regard to students’ mental health.
Students are not asking that the statue be destroyed or removed entirely from Wellesley’s campus. Students are only asking that “Sleepwalker” be relocated to a more private spot, like the Davis Museum, where viewing the statue and engaging in a dialogue about art can be a conscious choice instead of a forced visual assault. Hopefully the administrators and directors at the Davis Museum will reverse their decision to make “Sleepwalker” a public display, instead of continuing to attempt to justify it with misplaced discussions of art, expression and the male body. Doing so will allow students to exercise a degree of control over a situation currently renders them largely powerless.
“Sleepwalker” can perhaps be forgiven for his sightlessness, on the grounds that he is asleep. We must then ask what excuses others have for exercising the same kind of blindness towards the Wellesley community, and hope that those responsible for the statue’s installation eventually open their eyes.