When Hillary Clinton was a student at Wellesley College, activism consisted of protesting the Vietnam War and marching for civil rights. Today, Wellesley students are up in arms over a hyperrealistic sculpture of a man sleepwalking outdoors in his underwear. They have taken to the internet, signing a petition on the website change.org, often under the cover of anonymity, to demand that the “inappropriate and potentially harmful” sculpture be moved indoors to the University Museum, where a concurrent exhibition of sculptor Tony Matelli’s work is taking place. Verbally lynching a vulnerable, voiceless effigy, they equate emotional appeals with deliberate, democratic discourse. In advocating censorship, these students are betraying the legacy of rational debate and political involvement forged by generations of women and promoting a fearful, isolationist, attitude toward symbolic speech.
Wellesley College should not and cannot give into these demands if it wants to maintain its’ commitment to progressive values and critical thinking.
Opponents of the sculpture use fear and hyperbole as persuasive tools. They deceptively label the artwork as a threat to students’ well being by invoking male nudity as a source of violence against women. The petition, started by junior Zoe Magid and signed by well over 800 supporters so far, contends that the all-female institution is wrong to force students to interact with the artwork in public. Magid, who described herself a as “Masshole for Life and Proud Feminist” on Twitter, argues that the sculpture is an “inappropriate and potentially harmful addition to the community.” The petition fails to differentiate between a naked human being and a nude statue, identifying the figure as a negative force primarily because he is “nearly naked.” Clothed male bodies and nearly naked female bodies, it seems, are not threats. Nearly naked male bodies, and their representations, on the other hand, always and inevitable invoke connotation of rape. As such, they do not belong in public. The shivering male body is clearly out-of-place and thus behaving badly – one student commentator claims that the subject is “creepy,” viewing sleepwalking as inherently aggressive when in fact, this sleep disorder consists largely of benign activities. Negative responses range from simple dislike to a not-so-veiled threat buried in the petition’s comments. The President of National Student Coalition Against Rape, Tucker Reed, warns Wellesley’s president that “someone might file a federal civil rights complaint against her school,” should the sculpture remain outdoors. Such tactics project the fear felt by victims of violence onto anyone they disagree with.
The petition rejects dialogue and debate, suggesting that all interpretations of the artwork are equally valid and deserving of our respect. Evidently, not giving equal credence to the feelings of disturbed students and the responses of other community members amounts to disrespect. The petition identifies the artwork as an undue source of “fear and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault” for sensitive students, making exaggerated claims about the work’s inherent emotional content. As art historian Catherine Grout observes, “it is not enough for art to confront reality, it reveals what is real”1 about our world; in this case, according to petitioners, sexual violence and powerlessness. A trigger is a device used to release or activate a mechanism; an artwork can be an emotional trigger if it short circuits our ability to reason and then prevents us from responding using our critical thinking skills. For a student with an eating disorder, the sight of other students chowing down on midnight snacks might be equally troubling, but it is doubtful that a university would ban vending machines for fear of offending community members with troubled relationships to food. As anyone, male or female, who has ever felt vulnerable to sexual assault can attest, these feelings are real and powerful. The petition betrays these very feelings by equating sacrificing the sculpture with sustaining campus safety. Protecting victims from confronting their pain, however tangential the link between the alleged trigger and their experiences, becomes a reason to clamp down on the artist’s liberty of expression and to codify ever more thoroughly what bodies and what behaviors do not belong in public spaces. While crime victims do deserve our empathy, their fears should not be the basis for public policies that seek to sanitize public spaces, removing all potential sources of conflict.
Removing the sculpture restricts what can appear in public. Magid believes that the school should respect those who feel “triggered, disturbed, or bothered” by removing the artwork from its’ current location. By definition, public space is political; property rights and usage rights determined by governments and historical precedent govern what makes a space public, who can use it, and how. Those who wish to shape, expand, or shrink definitions of what belongs in public spaces can challenge these norms through activism. The naysayers have gotten the most press, with articles in various newspapers in the US and abroad, by seeking to regulate public spaces and the symbolic speech within them. Other community members have embraced and photographed the work in a playful manner, expanding views on what belongs in public. Lisa Fischman, director of the Davis Museum, claims the ambiguous passive persona “provokes dialogue” that is particularly valuable in a University setting. By extending its’ exhibition outdoors, the museum shows that art can and should have a wider role in the community, beyond the white walls of the gallery. The artist Agnes Denes agrees, defining public art as a principled “invasion” of areas of daily life2. Petition supporters, on the other hand, promote a narrow view of art’s proper place and subject manner. If the Matelli’s sculpture is moved indoors, the public-at-large will no longer experience it “involuntarily” and survivors of violence will be able to carry on in a safe, protective, bubble of an environment that eschews controversy. This elitist view denies victims’ capacity to overcome trauma. It implies that critical art is incompatible with public spaces and should be reserved for the select few; those audience members who set out to visit art museums. Petition signers claim that conflicting visions of reality should be kept safely out of common areas and our day-to-day life. However as critic Jane Rendell reminds us, are provides “tools for self-reflection, critical thinking and social change,”3 vital to a thriving civil society.
Protestors want to “protect” the public by controlling representation of naked male bodies in public spaces. In doing so, they trample on real hard-fought freedoms of expression and create a precedent for restrictions on the activism of real bodies of living protestors in public spaces. As art critic Claire Bishop writes, “a fully functioning democracy is not one in which all antagonisms have disappeared, but one in which new political frontiers are constantly being drawn and brought into debate.”4 The petition dismisses art’s capacity to promote social change by suggesting that art should please students, imploring the University to consult them before displaying new work and implying the customer is always right. However, according to political scientist Chantal Mouffe, “critical artistic practices can disrupt the smooth image that corporate capitalism is trying to spread, bringing to the fore its repressive character.” 5 They remind us why emotions should not dictate how public spaces are used. In 1957, the federal government imposed forced desegregation on Little Rock Central High School students despite emotional resistance to mixed education based on racism and fears of violence. If the college wants to support public art that stimulates dialogue, it has every right to do so. The “public” place on which the statue sits in fact belongs to Wellesley College, which can decide to manage its’ property as it sees fit. By maintaining the sculpture where it stands, the University fosters civic discourse and takes a stand against censorship.
When the petition authors claim to “welcome outdoor art that is provocative without being a site of unnecessary distress,” they are practicing doublespeak. Either the artwork is provocative or it isn’t. Personal “distress” is highly individual and changes over time and cannot constitute the basis for a political claim to public space. Works that are purely decorative, affirming traditional values without shocking the public, remain acceptable for Matelli’s critics. On the other hand, critical art that asks what bodies belong in which spaces and why, should not be shown in public. Such questions are evidently best left to the private sphere or addressed within the safe confines of the art museum. Rather that addressing real issues related to our rights to public space, the petition supports a Band-Aid solution to social problems, blaming a sculpture for a climate of fear, instead of addressing the root causes of sexual violence.