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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sleepwalking Through Fire

So finally, I’m weighing in on the Change.org petition to remove Tony Matelli’s statue, Sleepwalker, installed as part of a temporary exhibition on the campus of my alma mater, Wellesley College. According to the students behind the petition, the statue is an "inappropriate and potentially harmful addition to our community," and the Sleepwalker "has become a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault."

I don’t mean to devalue the actual violent reactions of sexual assault victims to the statue. But I seriously wonder if there have been such reactions, or whether the response is more about the possibility of these reactions transpiring. I know Wellesley to be full of conscientious people who bend over backwards not to offend. I also know from personal experience that just because something has happened to you, doesn’t necessarily mean each time you see something similar, a bad reaction is triggered. Many of us are able to separate out our personal experiences from things that are going on around us. And really, when you think about it, don’t we have to do this to survive? We can’t expect life to accommodate all our various issues.

I’m all for an Ivory Tower education, but one cannot turn one’s back entirely on the real world, and certainly not on the world of ideas. To censure artistic expression attacks the very foundation of, not only of an institution like Wellesley, but also of our free society itself.

The fact that the statue is both ugly and portrays a nearly naked man is no doubt irksome to many who chose Wellesley because of its Arcadian campus and commitment to women’s education and issues, and I’m sure he’s a particularly offensive eyesore to Wellesley’s Lesbian population. But is that a reason to justify censorship? And won’t this become a non-issue as repeated viewings desensitize people to the statue’s power to offend?

Naturally, Duane Hansen’s name has come up in regard to Sleepwalker and while Hansen who made a career out of depicting similarly unattractive people in a superrealist way, with the exception of his earlier violent, socially engaged tableaux, his work is rooted in a recreation and ironic exaltation of the banal. Sleepwalker has an added frisson that puts it in a different realm entirely. This comes partly from the fact the subject is doing something completely out of the ordinary—the show it’s part of, New Gravity, focuses on temporal and spatial, and in this case, I would argue, psychic ambivalence. But of course, its real power comes from the incongruity of its placement. Encountering it here on this women’s campus, and a particularly beautiful one at that, is strange, startling and also darkly funny. To not see the levity in this piece is to miss a very big part of it.

To me the statue is the opposite of menacing. This rather schlubby guy is depicted at his most vulnerable. (All the more so in those first weeks of February when he was knee deep in snow.) He’s bald, he’s got a paunch and he’s wearing droopy underpants. He’s also asleep. Yes, he could be a zombie I suppose, but a rapist? He’s too inert for that.

I’m not quite sure how it’s conveyed, but there’s a comfortably middle class aura about him. Like he’s a lawyer or accountant who sleep-wandered out of his nearby suburban bedroom onto Wellesley’s campus. And more to the point, he’s a memento mori of sorts in this progressive hothouse of women’s education, serving as a warning: if you do not work hard and become the captains of your ship, I am your future.

You can dismiss the statue as ugly or derivative all you want, but how can anyone dispute the power of Sleepwalker given the enormous contretemps it has generated? One thing’s for sure: it’s gotten people’s attention and gotten them talking about art.

What has been noticeably absent from the dialogue is Wellesley’s long and pioneering history in the field of Modern Art. In 1926 Wellesley became the first educational institution to offer an undergraduate course on modern art, "Tradition and Revolt in Modern Painting," taught by none other than Alfred H. Barr, Jr. legendary director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. You have only to look at Wellesley’s art collection and the building in which it’s contained to grasp how deep this commitment goes. The museum, designed by internationally known Pritzker Award winner, Rafael Moneo, is a stunning structure that could easily stand in one of the world’s great cultural centers.

The students dressing the statue up remind me of the child recently caught climbing the Donald Judd at Tate Modern. It’s bratty behavior that would rightly get you banned from a museum. This is an artist’s vision and deserves respect.

I had to laugh when I read this part of the Change.org petition: “Further, we ask that in the future, the Davis Museum and the College notify us before displaying public art, especially if it is of a particularly shocking or sensitive nature.” As if. Such high-dudgeon and youthful arrogance.  I’m sure Picasso, Duchamp, Goya and Pollack are having a good chuckle about this in the great beyond.

I wonder, if the protesting students have given any thought to how they will feel when they look back on all this in thirty years time. Do they think they will be proud? Or, will it strike the mature thems as misguided and even sophomoric? One thing I know, the statue and the artist are not their enemies. There are much more important fights to fight than this, and I hope they turn their attention to those post haste.