sleep

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 cell and they’ll be there in two minutes to remove him.     

But if he isn’t flesh and blood but, instead, an über-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 this 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. Not only is he off-putting and unattractive, but 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? Taking “Underpants Man” down? That’s not vandalism, it’s a Performance Piece! Matelli is expressing himself with “Underpants Man”? You can Express Yourselves right back.

• Unmoor the dude and move him inside yourself. All you’ll need is a group of strong, motivated Lacrosse players and a few power tools and you‘re good to go!   

• Install him in the gallery. If they put him back outside, move him back to the gallery. (You can call this particular work of Conceptual Art “Don’t Mess With Feminists.”)  

• Better yet, move him into the college president’s private bathroom. Let’s see how much she enjoys encountering “Underpants Man” over and over again as she goes about her daily life.  

 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 blond wig and some make-up. 

• 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. 

• I’ve got two words for you—spray paint. Paint him blue. Or Black. Paint him like a rainbow. Paint him with your school colors, and write GO BLUE CREW! on his ass. 

• Or slap a Groucho Marx mask on his face and paint a slogan on his butt: “Where The Hell Did I Put My Pants?” “Beam Me Up, Scottie.” Or “If You See Something, Say Something.”

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 break the law by defacing public property (however repellent). But countering art with art? Not a bad idea.  

Why not get a bunch of motivated art students together, construct your own über-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. 

 

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  • Victor May 18, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    I don’t know whether or not the artist or the administration intended to hurt anyone, but not complying with demands to have the sculpture removed shows that they don’t care that individuals are suffering because of it. Any art that could be construed as hurtful to even one person should not be displayed where everyone can see it – If an artwork isn’t pleasing and acceptable to everyone, then why have it out where it could possibly challenge, inconvenience, offend, or hurt somebody? Leave that stuff in galleries for the kind of people that choose to attend them. Art is dangerous and should be treated as such. Containing deviant art for the good of the status quo is a time-honored tradition and I’m glad to see there are so many people out there fighting the Good Fight to prevent these students from being disturbed while they study hard for careers in the … Liberal…Arts….??? Hold on a minute! Who is monitoring these women to be sure that none of these future Liberal Artists are harboring potentially hurtful, deviant ideas themselves?

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  • Stephen March 23, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    Love the article – funny, and a nice move into more direct social commentary. I’m on the side of the offended students. This is not controlling curatorial discretion in a gallery people can visit or not as they wish, this is a “teachable moment” that could be alarming and scary for many. (FWIW, I think most guys would be disturbed by the view of a naked middle aged dude too . . . . haha). Another idea: every time someone sees a disturbing naked middle age dude, ring the blue light alarm all campuses have and call the police. It would be interesting to see how long the college wants to put up with that! As a note, some years ago Federal employees spent years protesting the imposition of a huge Richard Serra arc that blocked movement across the plaza – huge, long, rusty, tall. The push-back from the cultural elite was that they were ignorant and boorish and needed a good whipping . . . . oops, I meant teachable moment. Well, they finally won and it was removed. I’m for the same here!

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  • abeidler March 23, 2014 at 11:52 am

    Ha! this is a tricky one! As an artist and art academic I abhore any form of censorship and have seen plenty of people offended by the unusual questions asked by contemporary art in my day.

    We have just had a case here in Georgia where the college President stepped in and had work removed from the new gallery at Kennesaw University. The work refered to racist letters written by the woman who gave her land for the university. Many people in Atlanta were outraged that the work was removed and there was a massive protest. The work will be reinstalled, but no apologies are forthcoming.

    As a feminist I also wonder if the piece at Wellesly also turns the tables on centuries of women being shown naked or semi-naked by artists in museums all over the world. This practice generated hundreds of PhD dissertations and books discussing “the male gaze” during the 1990’s.

    All that said, I imagine an academic mortar board superglued to his head would be interesting to see.

    As you, Roz, I just love eading your stuff!!

    xox, Anne

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  • Roz Warren March 23, 2014 at 10:22 am

    Richard Bready, I’ll do just that. Thanks for the suggestion.

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  • Richard Bready March 23, 2014 at 12:05 am

    . . . If you want to DO SOMETHING, send a check to the Wellesley Center for Women and explain that you are using your expressive freedom to tell them you think their college president is a coward and a moron. You’ll get a nice letter back.

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  • Roz Warren March 22, 2014 at 9:29 pm

    “To be hurtful purposefully is to be immoral.” Exactly.

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  • Kelly March 22, 2014 at 9:08 pm

    Love it! That sort of response is right up my alley. Ii would love to see the college presidents face when she walks into her bathroom and sees that guy.

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  • Sharon Greenthal March 22, 2014 at 7:10 pm

    It reminds me of an unfortunate encounter on the way to the bathroom at a friend’s house when I was in junior high, and her dad was also heading that way…in the middle of the night. I still have flashbacks of him in his baggy, ugly boxers.

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  • Ruth Nathan March 22, 2014 at 6:41 pm

    Simply put, you are right to express what you have. Go girls, in the name of counter-artist-rebellion. It’s hard to believe the college would insist on such a statue. Of course, this will be a cause celeb for “democracy,” whatever. And, this, too, is right, in its own way. But it’s a bit like yelling “fire” in a theater. The fine line is, indeed, fine. So what separates? Certainly it has something to do with compassion. Bottom line, that’s it. To be hurtful purposefully is to be immoral. Even when what’s done isn’t meant as purposeful aggressions, when recognized thought needs to be expanded. If I were to see this, after, let’s say having been raped by my father or, better yet, a professor, well, campus life would be difficult. Professors are rather known for their attraction to young, female students. I’ve experienced that. Let’s be open to compassion and understanding. To comity–considerate behavior by others.

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  • Judy Hartstone March 22, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    It’s unfortunate that the very rational suggestion of moving the insensitive “art” indoors was rejected. What if a live human male, dressed as Mr Tighty-Whities, posed next to the statue — or even elsewhere on campus — and claimed it was performance art, would he be allowed to remain in place? And I don’t think the issue is that it’s an all-women’s campus; it wouldn’t be appropriate in any outdoor location where people might feel threatened and violated. I understand this comes under freedom of expression and art, but you can’t yell “fire” in a theater and call it performance art. There are standards, and compassion should be one of them.

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  • Stacia Friedman March 22, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    The purpose of art is to provoke – culturally, politically, socially. If Underpants Man has female colleges students debating its merits, then its done its job. Anything that gets them to life their eyes off their Iphones, Ipads and Kindles is fine with me! And, hey, if it makes them think twice before having a tryst with an older, married professor – all the better.

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  • bill March 22, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    Not all art is defensible. (If you agree with that statement, no proof is necessary; if you disagree, no proof will suffice.)

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  • Mark Lowe March 22, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    Wonderful!

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  • roz warren March 22, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    Some great ideas here! THANKS for the comments. Glad you like the essay. It was fun to write. (And –if you believe it — my editor actually deleted some of my more over-the-top suggestions.)(And she was 100% right. Thank God(dess) for good editors.)

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  • Stacey Gustafson March 22, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    That statue is way too alarming. It is definitely asked to be messed with. How about fake boobs and lipstick? Ora whack with a bat?

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  • Walker Thornton March 22, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    I’m liking the tutu idea myself….figuratively speaking of course, since that’s where we are here!

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  • Gail Gottlieb March 22, 2014 at 11:39 am

    As a former college president, I would be responding to my students. Free speech is one thing, assault by association quite another. And if you put him in my private loo, I would have had a very hard time going about my daily life, or business! Looking for my checkbook now…

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  • hillsmom March 22, 2014 at 10:54 am

    Not to worry Roz,you are absolutely off the hook legally speaking. Tee Hee 😎

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  • Roz Warren March 22, 2014 at 10:44 am

    Hillsmom I’m so glad you liked the piece! But let me repeat for the record that the ONLY “revenge of the feminists” scenario I am actually advocating is the last one. (Putting up a “companion statue.”) The rest of the suggestions are mere fantasy.

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  • hillsmom March 22, 2014 at 10:16 am

    What a hoot! Please let us know if any of those great ideas are acted on. Perhaps the “Old Grads” will descend onto the campus with vengeance in mind.

    Thanks for a good laugh!

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  • Suzanne Fluhr (Boomeresque) March 22, 2014 at 9:44 am

    Would an artist’s depiction of a rape in the middle of a women’s college campus be a teachable moment? How about an artistic swastika on the campus Jewish Center? Roz, I happen to know that before you were a mild-mannered librarian/humor writer, you were a lawyer. One thing we learn in law school is that it’s all about drawing lines and “slippery slopes”.

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  • Helene Cohen Bludman March 22, 2014 at 9:36 am

    This would be hilarious if it weren’t so disturbing. What the eff were they thinking? Oh if I were a Wellesley student … I cackle at the thought of what I might do …

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  • Roz Warren March 22, 2014 at 9:21 am

    Emily, thanks so much for your comment. I’m so grateful to Womens Voices for letting me rant! Glad I could make you laugh.

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  • Emily Kelting March 22, 2014 at 8:01 am

    Too, too funny Roz! I laughed my way all the way through this one–especially your “artistic” solutions of undermining “Underpants Man.” Seriously, it is shameful that the hoo-haas at Wellesley aren’t listening to the students who feel that “Underpants Man” is threatening and inappropriate on an all-women’s campus, and won’t get him out of there. The idea of putting him in the college president’s bathroom is the best yet.

    Great piece!

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  • Bonnie Moore March 22, 2014 at 7:12 am

    Love This! Its absolutely true…why is a naked man in his underwear art? It definitely needs a counter-art response!

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