I was on my way back from class when I saw him: a lifelike, nearly naked statue of a man standing on our campus. With his pale arms outstretched, he appeared to be in a deep trance; the fact that he was only in his underwear made more startling by the snow surrounding him.
The statue is Tony Matelli's "Sleepwalker," part of an exhibit at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, and it has sparked considerable outrage at our women's college. While this controversy has provided fodder for outlets looking to poke fun at a "girls school" frightened by nudity, the real issue we're concerned about is how this impacts the well-being of the students in our community.
We don't want the statue moved because we're prim and proper prudes, but because we'd rather avoid looking at a creepy, potentially triggering sculpture on our way to class. Would you want that sculpture in your backyard for the next five months?
Over 300 people have signed a Change.org petition asking for the statue to be taken down and moved to inside the museum, citing concerns that it has triggered memories of sexual assault amongst some students.
The petition states: "This highly lifelike sculpture has, within just a few hours of its outdoor installation, become a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for many members of our campus community. While it may appear humorous, or thought-provoking to some, it has already become a source of undue stress for many Wellesley College students, the majority of whom live, study, and work in this space."
In a joint statement issued Wednesday, the Director of the Davis Museum and the President of Wellesley College declared that they have no intention of removing the statue until July 20, the duration of Matelli's exhibit.
They argued that the statue "has started an impassioned conversation about art, gender, sexuality, and individual experience, both on campus and on social media."
Other students have agreed, and argued that moving the statue would be tantamount to censorship.
"Across the world, public spaces are used to display art, some of which is violent, particularly towards women. Professor Cattier Confortini mentioned the Rape of the Sabine Women in Italy, for example. Art's ability to provoke, to elicit thought and response, should not be censored by a college that often takes a stand for open-mindedness and dialogue," said junior Jordan Hannink.
However, as a college community, Wellesley's first priority should be the safety and well-being of its students. Wellesley is our home, and students have to a right to feel comfortable here. The statue presents an obvious trigger for many students, who are forced to see it outside their window before they're going to sleep, or as they're on their way to class.
"We need to be looking out for one another and thinking about what is best for the emotional, psychological, and physical safety of everyone in our community. Art in public spaces can be a powerful contribution in the lives of community members. We welcome public art with a shock factor, we just ask that the Davis Museum does not prioritize shock factor over the well being of members of our community," said a senior at the college who wishes to remain anonymous.
Further, by moving the statue inside, we can return to the intellectual conversation that the statue was meant to spark. The statue has not started a discussion on gender and sexuality, as the administration's statement claims. It has started one on how it is causing students trauma. Surely that was not the intent of the artist, or of the Davis Museum.
The statue has started to make national headlines, but it remains an issue personal to our campus. As we continue our conversation, I caution our community to remain respectful. This is a contentious topic, but it is also one that is sensitive for many students. Women are silenced enough elsewhere for supposedly "overreacting," but I know that the Wellesley community is better than that.