Civil Liberties

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


Daily Mail Screen Cap

While the students of some universities fight their administrators to protect 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 asks.

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 insensitive."

Although Wellesley doesn't have a stellar record on promoting free speech, the administration will let Sleepwalker remain. Davis Museum Director Lisa Fischman responded 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.