He’s not quite the Mona Lisa.
A statue of a middle-aged man – sleepwalking in just his underwear – was installed outdoors on a university campus in Massachusetts last week.
Art doesn’t need to be as predictable as the Mona Lisa, simply delivering the expected. Art should spur thought. It should surprise and delight.
But if your work instead leaves viewers fearful or disgusted, then you’ve missed your mark as an artist.
Within hours of the statue’s placement, students started an online petition to have it removed. It has been described by those who have signed the petition as “threatening” and even “traumatizing.”
By this weekend, there were 750 names on the petition at change.org calling on the college to move the statue inside. The number of petitioners suggests these folks are not acting on a whim or are a handful of prudes bothered by the sight of underwear.
Keeping in mind that Wellesley College has only female students and the stress caused by the statue becomes quite understandable. It should be moved indoors – where some of the same artist’s other works are on display – so students and others can go and see it if they so choose. Leaving it outdoors means people who are disturbed by the half-naked man have to see it as they pass by.
Sculptor Tony Matelli told a newspaper that the sleepwalking man is being misconstrued. According to The Boston Globe, Matelli says the sculpture is meant to present the idea of misplacement, abandon and “of being asleep at the wheel.”
But if his work is not having the intended effect on viewers, then he’s done a poor job or the piece is in the wrong location and being viewed out of context.
“I thought the reaction would be empathy,” he said.
Matelli should support a relocation of the statue if he wants people to understand his work. Being allowed to place a work outside the main exhibition of his works is a potential bonus, like having a billboard outside a retail store. A well-chosen piece of art on the outside could draw viewers inside.
Instead the sleepwalking man and his tighty-whitey underwear are turning people off.
And Matelli seems amused instead of concerned about both his reputation and the negative emotions his statue is evoking. He told a reporter he couldn’t be happier with the reactions.
The college administration has so far declined to move the statue, which is confusing given that schools always need customers – new students – and in a competitive market can’t afford to make headlines about how the management doesn’t care much about current students’ feelings.
One might think the school’s administrators are sleepwalking through the controversy.
Above: A statue of a man sleepwalking in his underpants is surrounded by snow on the campus of Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Mass., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. The sculpture entitled “Sleepwalker” is part of an exhibit by sculptor Tony Matelli at the college’s Davis Museum.
Image: AP Photo/Steven Senne