At Wellesley College, a hundred women have signed a letter of protest about a highly realistic sculpture by the artist Tony Matelli that's appeared outdoors on campus, the Boston Globe is reporting.
A representative for some of the protesting women says he's disturbing for women who've been raped, molested, assaulted sexually. People on the other side say some art is naturally disturbing to some people.
This is a tough one. People are already slinging around Tweets mocking the women protesters, telling them not to go to Florence, ha ha, et cetera. But this guy's not a classical sculpture in the vein of either Michelangelo's (idealized) David, or Donatello's (come-hither) David. In pictures, it looks like there's something pointedly monstrous and zombie-like about him, blank-minded, liable to do anything—yet liable for nothing, since he's not even conscious. When you look at it that way, you can see him as a predator. And from there the feeling easily wanders into the territory of rape, the most difficult violent crime of all to report, the crime that lets the greatest number of perpetrators just wander away mindlessly.
And you think, A museum at a women's college would probably have to be obtuse not to foresee that there might be some reaction to planting on the lawn a guy in his underwear who looks like he's out to get you.
Then again, the museum director clearly sees the man on the other side of the spectrum of potential danger: as vulnerable, in danger, not a perp but a would-be victim. In a defense of the piece, she describes how he's by the roadside, wandering. It's a classic case of differences in interpretation, these opposites. I can't say what he's like. I haven't come across him except in pictures, and he really seems to vary according to the picture. In this picture below, he looks a little pathetic, lost.
Courtesy of the artist and the Davis Museum
It's a good thing when people are empowered to call out horrors like being attacked for sex and forced into sex, and people are getting more and more comfortable doing that. Now what happens when art stumbles into the fray of a good thing?
The museum's original explanation of Matelli's work, written before the protests began, describes it in terms of "discursive use of time," "existential equivalents," and "profound reorientations of perspective." But the effect seems more basic in this case than those highminded ideas sound. It hardly matters that movie animators and sculptors like Duane Hanson have crossed this terrain many times—this is still the uncanny valley. March people through the uncanny valley and you invite them to blur the line between life and art, real and remembered.
At the same time, I'm not sure I see how taking down this art is a real statement or action against rape culture. How do you draw the line? A probably unanswerable question I wish I could know the answer to: What about the art would have to change for it not to be upsetting? If his arms were down? Is it the near-nudity? Is it something else we don't know about, something having to do with inside campus knowledge or the placement of the sculpture or the way it's being presented and talked about? I'm not advocating that art should be committee-edited—speaking of disturbing ideas—but I am advocating ongoing conversation, and maybe even responsive actions that do more than merely remove or destroy. As for next time: I think it's possible to anticipate a reaction like this one, especially in this context. But every environment is different, and every time another time. Can you really control for reactions when you're presenting art? Knowing curators and artists, I know there is plenty of self-censorship before anything even gets out there. What's being controlled for already? It is strange to use the word "control" in relation to art, but the idea that art is some flail-around free zone is not true, either. These kinds of conversations always draw out extremes, when the areas in between are far more interesting.
You'll remember the case of Ben Beres's print at Cornish in 2012. He made a print using the full names of many female Seattle artists, each name printed under a generic pair of cartoon breasts, and it was removed from an exhibition by the college after faculty members whose names were included (without their consent) said they'd feel sexually harassed if it was on display in their workplace. That was a very different case in many ways, and in some ways a simpler one: people's actual names used, their actual private workplace, laws that govern such things.
But it again brought art and politics into conflict. The discussion it engendered was the work of art that was communally created; that dialogue was a more powerful cultural force than the single piece itself, and more art will come out of that, too, if it hasn't already.