I don’t know if this has attracted much attention outside Massachusetts, but in the news yesterday was the controversy over a statue at Wellesley College that depicts a remarkably lifelike sleepwalking man clad only in his underwear. The painted bronze statue, “Sleepwalker” by Tony Matelli, is part of a solo show at Wellesley’s Davis Gallery. It has been placed outdoors on the Wellesley campus and has moved hundreds of students to sign a petition demanding its removal on the grounds that it is triggering memories of sexual assault for some students.
(Photo from the Wellesley Report)
It is important to first emphasize that the man is not naked. He is wearing underpants. His genitals are not visible, or even suggested. His eyes are shut, and as the name of the artwork itself suggests, he is unconscious – he is asleep. He is not taking any deliberate action. Matelli stated to the Boston Globe, “Everyone brings to a work of art their own interpretation, their own history and their own baggage.” And that’s precisely what art is meant to do – interact with your unique mind, with all its history and experiences, and make you think, even if it draws you out of your comfort zone. And while nobody will deny that sexual assault is a horrible thing, I strongly believe this call for the removal of the statue on the grounds of what memories it evokes in some viewers is inappropriate.
One complaint I’ve read about the statue’s placement is that it is intrusive. If somebody is walking across part of the Wellesley campus, they see it – they can’t avoid it the way they could if it was inside the gallery. Fair enough, but public art is all over the United States, much of it referencing war, which by its very nature is a traumatic act. Furthermore, the link between the intrusiveness of public placement and the “triggering” of traumatic memory is tenuous at best when you consider that the man depicted by this statue is less blatantly sexually suggestive than, say, a billboard of David Beckham advertising underwear – and advertising is incredibly intrusive. You can’t escape advertising in American society unless you lock yourself inside with no TV, radio, newspapers, or magazines. That doesn’t mean we ban advertising underwear on the grounds that it is by its very nature sexual and in public, and all things sexual could serve as reminders of sexual violence. If an image in the public eye is disturbing, you must avert your eyes, not place curtains over the rest of the world.
David Beckham for H&M: massive advertising image of a fully conscious man in his underpants. More sexual. Not violent.
Let’s be clear, sexual violence is a horrible, life-altering thing. Nobody is denying that. But it is just one of many terrible things that can happen to a person in the course of an average life. Some people survive getting viciously mauled by dangerous dogs. Their experience is undoubtedly traumatic and they may be triggered every time they see a large dog being walked by its owner or running free in a park. Yet, The world does not owe them a dog-free town in which to live. Gun crime is a sad fact of life in America, yet images of guns are pervasive in this culture and are not going anywhere. I have my own disturbing anxieties, and guess what, they’re my problem. Over many years, as I have grown older, I have learned to deal with them. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve learned the world doesn’t owe me a comfortable existence. Why? Because they’re my problems and part of my life story, not other people’s. I don’t expect everybody to read my mind and know exactly what sets me off, because the world doesn’t work like that. It can’t work like that. It’s impossible, unless we all walk around with dry-erase boards around our necks on which we constantly update our feelings, like a real-world Twitter. And even if we were to do something so absurd, what exactly would we be achieving? What actionable course would come out of it?
We all have our traumas, but the world does not revolve around any of us. None of us. The world does not owe you an existence free of offense. The world does not owe you consensus. An environment in which every step is taken to sanitize expression to the level of no possible offensiveness is a world without free expression, a world without art. It is a world suitable only for children, who lack the capacity for critical thinking. Because once you start sanitizing, you can’t stop. Everything is potentially triggering to somebody. But guess what, life is triggering. Life is painful and sad and part of growing up is learning to cope with really, really unpleasant things. People mature with experience and they have to be mentally stimulated to do so. For better and for worse. The truth is that some people in this world are men, and some men sleep in their underwear, and a statue depicting a male sleepwalker in his underwear may offend some people the same way that any other work of art could offend anybody. One form of offense should not be privileged above another when the reason for that offense stems from personal interpretation rather than any blatant characteristic depicted in the artwork itself.
Or, in short: this argument is not about sexual assault.
This argument is not about sexual assault because this is a statue that, at face value, has nothing to do with sexual assault.
All the artist can control is that face value. The rest is up to the viewer.
Of course, because art is open to interpretation, it is perfectly valid if you are reminded of sexual assault while viewing the statue. Everybody is entitled to interpretation. What everybody is NOT entitled to is to force that interpretation upon others, especially when there is no blatant sexuality in the artwork. If the man had a visible penis? Yes, that would change things. But he doesn’t have a visible penis. He’s wearing underwear. Because some people sleep in their underwear. And he’s sleepwalking. We know he’s sleepwalking because the title of the artwork says so. That much, we know. Everything else is personal interpretation – and personal interpretation is just that. Personal. Your own. Thinking back to when I was in college, I’m pretty sure that it was in the Illiad that sleep was said to be the brother of death. I can look at this statue and think about the person being suspended somewhere between life and death. Death is an incredibly unsettling thought. But that doesn’t mean I can make it, or this artwork, go away. If traumatic memories are so pervasive and disturbing in somebody’s life that the sight of this statue will have a severe adverse impact, then that requires a level of professional help that should be made available, affordable, and unstigmatized. The statue isn’t the issue – the trauma is. Removing a work of art doesn’t get rid of PTSD. The statue that triggered you today could be the news story you overhear tomorrow, or the picture in the paper that you couldn’t avoid. We don’t treat diabetes by ridding the world of sugar – we give insulin to people who need it and tell them how to control their diet. Same principle. Treat the root cause of the anxiety and panic rather than bleach the public realm.
Another argument I have heard is that it is particularly distasteful that this artwork depicting a man in his underpants has been installed at a women’s college. I don’t have time for that. Going to a women’s college does not mean you will not be exposed to the sex that comprises roughly half this planet’s population. Higher education exists to expand your experience of the world, not constrain it. (That is precisely the reason I never even entertained the possibility of applying to a women’s college back when I was 17. I wanted a university that reflected the world a bit more accurately than shutting out half the population, and on a more personal level, I got satisfaction from beating the boys on an equal playing field.) If you want to go to Wellesley or Smith or Barnard, that’s fine, that’s up to you. But don’t expect to keep imagery that reflects the rest of society out. If you want to be completely cloistered, you’ll have to become a nun. And even then, you’ll have to interact with men.
If this controversy gets people talking about sexual assault, that is undoubtedly a good thing – there needs to be more action against rape on college campuses and I think we can all agree on that. But that doesn’t mean somebody’s artwork should be a casualty when it does not depict rape. Also, it should be noted that this is not the only sleepwalker statue Tony Matelli has created. He has one of a woman in her underwear. If this had been installed at Wellesley instead of the male version, we would probably be talking about the sexual objectification of women rather than traumatic memories of rape. (Hell, in many parts of American the statue probably couldn’t even be shown in public because REALISTIC FEMALE NIPPLES EQUAL HORRIBLY WORLD-DESTROYING OBSCENITY don’t you know…but that’s another story) And that would be just as good a debate as this one, but it still wouldn’t be grounds for removing the statue.
I anticipate I will be accused of having no sympathy, of victim-blaming. It is not victim blaming to suggest that the world cannot anticipate, and then cater to, your every emotion. It is no more victim-blaming than it would be for me to insist that, say, I have the right to walk down a public street where at one point in time an entirely different young white woman with dark hair committed an act of horrible injustice against somebody living there. Might my action trigger horrible memories for somebody? Sure. Should I be expected to know what goes on in other people’s minds? No. Should I change my life because an innocuous act could offend somebody? Of course not. And neither should Tony Matelli lock up his visual art, which is meant for open-air display, because somebody’s interpretation might trigger unpleasant memories. Nowhere in the history of humankind has a life been free from pain or offense. Societies come to a consensus about what is beyond the pale – those blatant images of abuse, gore, exploitation, what have you. And for those images where there are grey areas, we have debates. Removal of artwork because it could potentially be interpreted a certain way – potentially being the key word, because there is nothing sexually explicit about it – shuts down debate. Nobody is policing your feelings by stating that the world can’t always reflect your feelings and that public art is part of that world. Supporting victims of sexual violence includes believing them when they say they were raped, helping them in whatever way possible when they’re involved with law enforcement, offering support when they need it, being an ear to listen when they want to speak, and teaching young people that no means no. It does not include shutting out the world because something might be interpreted in a certain way. In short, you do not get justice for anybody by getting rid of a statue of a sleepwalking man in his underpants. Sanitize everything for everyone, anticipating every possibility for offense, and you’re left with nothing at all.
Finally, I want to leave you with images of artworks that will live forever in the pantheon of human creativity precisely because the memories they evoke are so painful:
We do not hide Picasso’s “Guernica” or Goya’s “The Third of May” from survivors of war, locked away where they cannot possibly trigger horrible memories. We keep them on public display because we may learn from them and the emotions they evoke. Art, whether creating it or viewing it, can also function to help people come to terms with traumatic pasts, whether individual (as the victims of trauma) or collectively (as a people who have been harmed, harmed others, or had harm done in our name). We do not treat adults as if they are made of glass, terrified they may crumble if exposed to challenge. To borrow from First Amendment law, we do not reduce a population of adults to that which is suitable to children. Those artworks are powerful precisely because they stir up strong emotions, and we would be a lesser species without them. We can use the controversy at Wellesley as an opportunity to discuss the problem of campus rape, but we can do that without removing an artwork that does not even depict rape or any kind of sexual act. We do not reduce culture to what is completely literal because to do so is an insult to our minds, which want to look at the world abstractly and interpret it in different ways. And some of those interpretations are unpleasant. That’s part of life. Life is pain, life is suffering, and yes, life is unfair. But we keep living it for a reason.
UPDATE, MARCH 5th: Jill Filipovic, in the Guardian, has called time on the overuse of “trigger warnings.” I think her piece is brilliant, especially how it highlights the way people shut down reasonable discussion and debate by pointing to potential trauma. What the over-use of trigger warnings mean is that if you proceed with engaging in “triggering” material, such as assigning a great work of literature like “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achibe, you suddenly become an aggressor because you didn’t give into the demand of someone who claimed to be speaking for the oppressed and downtrodden, and thus you make somebody a victim. This becomes a huge slippery slope in academia, where students can complain about unfair treatment by professors. Can you imagine the lawsuits? “Professor X forced me into the psychological trauma of reading this book, or else I would fail the class, even after I pointed out why it is problematic.” It sounds ridiculous, but just wait…
And, y’know what? I’m going to say it: Not everybody is a victim. We don’t need to define ourselves as victims. I read “Things Fall Apart” when I was 15 and so did my entire high school class and somehow we survived without any trauma. As a young woman I’m tired of being treated as if I can’t deal with anything more controversial than a slice of bread or see beyond my own experiences. Trigger warning: I’m asking you to thicken your skin.