It’s difficult to explain the odd sensation that hit me when I first saw a man I didn’t recognize walking around my women’s college campus. I had been enrolled for a few months when he passed me on the quad, and I remember pausing for a moment and staring at him, feeling as if something was out of place. I quickly gathered my wits about me and moved on with my life, but I still remember that feeling of “What is he doing here? What does he want?”
So I can imagine how students at Wellesley College are feeling about the presence of “Sleepwalker,” a sculpture of a white male in his underwear, reaching out at them in a prominent space on campus, placed there as a part of an art exhibit. I, like them, would probably find it creepy and unsettling. I can understand how someone would feel that unexpectedly seeing a semi-naked male body could bring on apprehension, fear, and even flashbacks (also called “triggering”) in sexual assault victims, for whom that unchosen exposure might hit a little too close to home.
As an alumna of a women’s college, rest assured: I understand where the Wellesley petitioners are coming from.
But they are still wrong.
Forcing the “Sleepwalker” statue to move from the campus into the museum is nothing less than censorship. As the Wellesley petitioners themselves imply, art depends greatly on context. “Sleepwalker” appearing outside, in the snow, on campus, evokes certain kinds of responses. It “says” something particular, something more particular at a women’s college. If it were to be moved into the museum, its “message” would invariably change, because the context has changed. Saying it can exist there but not outside is tantamount to telling the artist what he can or cannot say on campus. This is censorship.
The Wellesley petitioners respond that certain messages and artistic expression should not take precedence over the comfort and safety of the people who live on campus. I agree that safety should be a priority, but it is unclear to me how this sculpture could possibly present an actual, physical threat to others. No one’s safety is actually in jeopardy here.
The more serious point, however, is the idea that students “have a right to feel comfortable [t]here.” Here too, the Wellesley petitioners are gravely mistaken.
We do not have the right to feel comfortable. That is not a right that people possess under Wellesley’s Student Handbook or the United States Constitution. The right to be comfortable or free from emotional discomfort doesn’t exist under law. The right to free speech and artistic expression does, and it should not be infringed.
What if an art student wanted to sculpt a representation of their sexual assault and wanted to display it so that it would allow people to connect with assault victims and perhaps treat the issue differently? That would almost certainly trigger sexual assault victims. Should that be censored? How about this art installation at California State University that is intended to raise awareness of sex trafficking? Sometimes, that art disturbs is the whole point.
If we allowed censorship of art (or writing or music) because it makes people feel uncomfortable, there would be no right to expression at all. If we made “discomfort” or “creepiness” a factor in barring expression, much of the world’s art would never have even been created. To censor one work of art because it upsets people sets a dangerous precedent at Wellesley, one that should disturb students more than a sculpture of a half-naked man on the quad.