Is Wellesley’s Underwear-Clad Statue Too Scary for Free Speech?

While the students of some
universities fight their administrators to
the right to free speech, the pupils of Wellesley
College in Massachusetts are taking a contrary approach to sticking
it to the man. In response to a recently unveiled piece of art that
portrays a nearly-naked individual, some students of the all-female
liberal-arts college want to censor it because certain
interpretations may lead to mental and emotional distress.

On Wednesday, along a main thoroughfare the university installed
“Sleepwalker,” a hyper-realistic sculpture of a man stumbling in
his underwear. In a press release from the school’s Davis
Museum, one art historian explains,
“Art has the ability to invite the kinds of conversation that are
not easily available anywhere else but in the art world.
Sleepwalker can even do some of the work in sparking the kinds of
dialogue that we want to have on campus.”

Although the artwork would not likely be legally considered
indecent, let alone obscene,
student Zoe Magid is less interested in talking about it and more
interested in removing it. She believes that, “while it may appear
humorous, or thought provoking to some,” such qualities are
invalidated by others’ readings of it. Magid asserts
that the inanimate object is “a source of apprehension, fear, and
triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for some members of
our campus community.” So, she started a petition demanding the
university stick Sleepwalker inside the museum, away from the
public eye. 722 people, about one-third the school’s student
population, have signed.

Alumna Magdalena Zebracka put her John Hancock on the petition
because she believes the sculpture is mentally oppressing the
women. “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,” she

Zoe Kraus, another student, voiced a similar sentiment, assuring
that she is not “pro-censorship,” but wants
the sculpture, as well as the entire exhibit, to be removed in
favor of the work of an artist who isn’t a “well-established,
middle-aged white man.”

Amanda Marcotte of Slate
points out
that, “notably, no self-identified rape survivors
piped in to say that the statue reminded them of their own
experiences, but that didn’t hold back the tide of speculation that
it might traumatize them.”

Charlotte Alter of Time criticizes
the students for advocating “Soviet-level censorship” and “a
weirdly puritan strain of liberalism.” She touches on the dangers
of censorship and a culture that has “the expectation that once
offended – or, in most cases, once a hypothetical offensiveness has
been identified – the world must immediately act to make the ‘bad
thing’ disappear. There’s something spoiled about our knee-jerk
reaction to abolish anything that could be considered even remotely

Although Wellesley doesn’t
have a stellar
on promoting free speech, the administration will let
Sleepwalker remain. Davis Museum Director Lisa Fischman
to the petition, offering a different interpretation,
and defending the installation. “He appears vulnerable and
unaware against the snowy backdrop of the space around him… He is
profoundly passive. He is inert, as sculpture,” she writes.

Tony Matelli, the artist, was shocked by the negative response
and says
he hoped the students would feel empathy for the vulnerability of
man being portrayed.

from Hit & Run

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