Wellesley’s naked older man statue is a lesson in humanity


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. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Leave aside whether this statue by artist Tony Matelli is great art, it is certainly disturbing to some of the residents of Wellesley, Mass., and perhaps some students at the elite college there. A Washington Post story cited people bothered by the lifelike statue: “Now we’re celebrating near naked statues of older men on campus? Sorry, don’t get it,” wrote one commenter on the Facebook page devoted to the college museum.

I think it more likely that the “older men” part of that sentence is more important than the “near naked” part. And that what really bothers people is the way in which this sculpture, titled “Sleepwalker,” seems to depicts a man without self-control.

Nudity, of course, is no longer shocking. People without perfect bodies who present themselves nude are a little vexing. And men who wear tighty-whities in public, and assume a stance that suggests both hypnotic detachment and sexual aggression—arms stretched out, reaching for what?—are much more disturbing than a little flash of pale skin.

Defenders of the sculpture, which is being used to tease an exhibition of Matelli’s work at the museum, cite the usual rather tiresome defense of provocative art:

“The very best works of art have the power to stimulate deeply personal emotions and to provoke unexpected new ideas, and this sculpture is no exception,” the university’s president and its museum director said Wednesday in a joint statement. They said the sculpture “has started an impassioned conversation about art, gender, sexuality, and individual experience, both on campus and on social media.”

But they are exactly right, even if the words they use make your eyes glaze over.

This statue is about gender and gender norms, and it calls attention to something not often made explicit in American culture: There is a burden of sexual expectation placed on older men too, perhaps not as burdensome as that placed on women, but a burden none the less. It’s called dignity, and it isn’t always easy to maintain.

The statue works because it shows us how easily we can undo ourselves and our reputations, if we start sleepwalking through life, unaware or unconcerned with how we look, how people read us, and how our bodies are interpreted by total strangers. Men are onstage too, all the time, in our image-obsessed society.

 

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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