Undermining 'Underpants Man'

WELLESLEY - FEBRUARY 6: People look at a sculpture entitled 'Sleepwalker' on the campus of Wellesley College February 6, 2014
WELLESLEY - FEBRUARY 6: People look at a sculpture entitled 'Sleepwalker' on the campus of Wellesley College February 6, 2014 in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The sculpture is part of an exhibit by artist Tony Matelli at the college's Davis Museum, and has prompted an online student petition to have it removed due to its edgy nature. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

If a Wellesley college student, walking across campus, spots a man her father's age wearing nothing but underpants, stumbling along, eyes closed and arms outstretched, she can call the police on her call and they'll be there in two minutes to remove him.

But if he isn't flesh and blood, but, instead, an uber-realistic facsimile made of painted bronze, it's a totally different story. That's not some pervy stranger hanging around outdoors in his tighty whiteys. That's art!

Specifically, that's "Sleepwalker," a sculpture by artist Tony Matelli. The Wellesley campus is currently running a show of Matelli's work, and Underpants Man is part of the show.

"Sleepwalker," says the artist, is intended to evoke "empathy" for someone who is "lost and out of place."

I don't know about lost, but Underpants Man couldn't possibly be more out of place than on the campus of an all-women's college. Besides being off-putting and unattractive, a number of students find the sight of him alarming, reminding them of bad past encounters with other semi-naked older guys.

Concerned students asked that Underpants Man be moved indoors. When this request was turned down, two juniors began to circulate an online petition. Explaining that "Sleepwalker" was a source of "apprehension, fear and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault" for some students, they asked that the statue be relocated to the gallery where the rest of Matelli's work was on display. There, Matelli's fans could choose to enjoy it, and students repelled by it could choose to avoid it.

An appropriate response would have been an apology for being clueless and insensitive, followed by a prompt change of venue for Underpants Man.

Instead, Museum Director Lisa Fischman refused to move the statue, telling the New York Times that the situation provides the Wellesley community with a "teachable moment." College President H. Kim Bottomly backed her up, welcoming the debate about "freedom of expression and the significance of safe spaces."

And the artist himself? Matelli was "surprised and delighted" by the response. Anyone creeped out by his creation, he suggested, needed to "seek help."

Would it be okay for a real middle-aged dude to wander the campus of a women's college in his undies? I sure as hell hope not. So what makes "Sleepwalker" acceptable? I love art. But it seems to me that what this particular work of art expresses is hostility to any young woman who might not enjoy encountering a flabby, near-naked stalker as she goes about her daily life.

Had "Sleepwalker" been installed on my own college campus back in the 70s, I'm pretty sure that the radical feminist crowd I ran with back then would have quickly taken matters into our own hands and "uninstalled" him.

Although these days I am a law-abiding librarian who would never, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, counsel a college student to break the law, were I to channel the idealistic rabble-rouser I was back then, this is probably what she'd tell her sister students at Wellesley college:

Why not counter art with art? If Underpants Man cannot be moved, mess with him a little.

It's cold outside. Cover him up! Clothe him in a heavy overcoat and warm hat.

Dress him in a clown suit and attach bunches of brightly covered helium balloons to his outstretched hands.

What would Underpants Man look like in drag? Find out!

Consider him a giant Barbie doll! Try different looks for him. What about a cocktail dress? Or a tutu? Maybe a blonde wig and some makeup.

Hold a contest --the student who can make him look the most like Lady Gaga wins!

Decorate him like a Christmas tree! Put a star on his head and festoon him with lights and ornaments.

Should you hesitate, consider the words of artist Tony Matelli; "Art is open and designed to solicit responses no matter what they are."

I don't know about you, but to me, that sounds like an invitation.

If the president of the college complains, just tell her it's a "teachable moment."

That, of course, is the advice I'd have given you when I was a young, idealistic rabble-rouser. The woman I am these days would NEVER counsel a college student to deface public property (however repellant.) But countering art with art? Not a bad idea.

Why not get a bunch of motivated art students together, construct your own uber-realistic replica of a campus policewoman poised to arrest Underpants Man for public indecency and install her right next to the offending statue?

Call her "Shutting Down Sleepwalker."

Don't have the funding to make this happen? Put out a call for "Shutting Down Sleepwalker" donations. I'd be happy to write the first check.

(This essay first appeared on Womens Voices for Change.)