On the Wellesley campus, the Davis Museum is showing an exhibit of sculptor Tony Matelli’s work, including the above statue set up outside the museum. A student objected to this, on the grounds that the statue could potentially be “triggering,” and started a petition to move “Sleepwalker” inside the museum.
From the petition:
We also stand firm that art, particularly outdoor art installations, are valuable parts of our community. We welcome outdoor art that is provocative without being a site of unnecessary distress…
Although to bring Frederick Douglass up in this context is rhetorical overkill – he had much more crucial fish to fry – I just can’t help but be reminded of this quote from Douglass:
Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.
It’s good to think about how public art affects all members of the community. But I still disagree with the petition. The cost to art, and the art-loving public, of insisting that no public art that could even hypothetically cause distress should ever be seen is too high. And the list of things that are potential triggers is simply too long – a friend of mine has PTSD that can be triggered by teddy bears, for instance, and Dylan Farrow finds it difficult to look at toy trains. I don’t say this to make fun of my friend, or of Farrow. The suffering they experience is real, but trying to remove all potential triggers from public art would essentially require removing all public art.
Our new Awareness Culture has done a lot of good in the world, especially when it comes to forcing us to acknowledge issues that affect people in the minority. It’s because of Awareness Culture that we rightly call Blurred Lines sexist, Paula Deen racist, and keep our pronouns straight when talking about transgender people.
But the problem with Awareness Culture is the expectation that once offended – or, in most cases, once a hypothetical offensiveness has been identified – the world must immediately act to make the “bad thing” disappear. There’s something spoiled about our knee-jerk reaction to abolish anything that could be considered even remotely insensitive. The message is, “it’s possible that someone somewhere might feel momentarily bad because of this, so get rid of it right this second! And by the way, you’re an asshole if you don’t agree.”
Although I agree with the above quote, at other times Alter’s rhetoric soars high above reasonableness – i.e., “It’s the refrain of a generation of sheltered children who grew up to insist on sheltering themselves as adults,” as if the people who have signed this petition represent their entire generation. In fact, lots of young people in the area have been responding to “Sleepwalker” in other ways, such as taking selfies, starting a twitter feed from the Sleepwalker, and building it a snow friend. (See also “Boobtube”‘s take on it.). And anytime you find yourself typing “Soviet-level censorship” about campus activists circulating a petition, you’re in serious need of a chill pill mixed liberally with some perspective wine.
But for true silliness, we need to turn to the right-wing libertarian Reason site. Zenon Evans, in “Is Wellesley’s Underwear-Clad Statue Too Scary For Free Speech?,” writes:
So, she started a petition demanding the university stick Sleepwalker inside the museum, away from the public eye. 722 people, about one-third the school’s student population, have signed.
Wow, that sure makes it sound like a third of the student population signed the petition! But, actually, the change.org petition doesn’t have any way of limiting signers to students. The “recent signatures” feature on the petition page lists where the signatures are coming from, and (currently at least) not one of the recent signatures are from Wellesley. Of course, it’s possible that someone who lists themselves as being from Texas is nonetheless a current Wellesley student. It’s also possible someone listed as from Wellesley isn’t a student. I have no way of knowing whether or not the people signing are Wellesley students, and neither does Mr. Evans.
But that’s a minor point. My major complaint is that Evans – who calls the petition an attempt to “censor” the statue – and whoever wrote the headline seem to have no idea what free speech is. It is not an affront to free speech for a Wellesley student to start a petition asking the administration to move a piece of public art. On the contrary, it’s hard to imagine any free speech regime which would not include students starting petitions regarding all sorts of public matters. Conservatives really don’t seem to understand that freedom of speech does not include freedom from criticism.
Amanda Marcotte, not for the first time, has the most sensible take I’ve seen:
I’m sure this story is on its way to a conservative media outlet near you, where some white, privileged man in tighty-whities will roll his eyes about the hysterical feminists, which, in this case, well—good call. Still, one thing I’ve been trying to keep in mind is that the women getting wound up about the statue are really young and just starting to explore the identity of “feminist.” College is a time for taking everything too far, from drinking beer to sports fandom to sexual drama to using your fancy new vocabulary words picked up in women’s studies courses. Which doesn’t mean that one should refrain from having a laugh over this, of course. Let’s hope Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are taking careful notes for the next season of Portlandia.