|Source: WHDH, New York Daily News|
Let's talk some more about the man in whitey-tighties on the Wellesley campus. Because I somehow don't think that we've been talking about the right things when we talk about that man, created by Tony Matelli, maker of hyper-realistic sculptures.
In fact, I will look at the sculpture from several different angles. In all of these, I'll try not to be reductive. The chiding comments I've seen about the piece tend toward a not-very-rigorous feminist, academic response and reduce the sculpture to something very narrow, and they certainly don't show art can be myriad in its implications. They attempt to deprive the sculpture of any mystery or strangeness.
Here is a sleepwalker. In my head is a great deal on the subject from a man who insisted on living on his own terms, Henry David Thoreau. I like him, prickly fellow though he is. He's one of my many soul mates in the arts, even though he wouldn't particularly want me to feel so. "Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me," he says. We need "infinite expectation of the dawn," lest we be like most people, the "sleepers" of the rail bed that modernity and industrialization race over:
If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon. And when they run over a man that is walking in his sleep, a supernumerary sleeper in the wrong position, and wake him up, they suddenly stop the cars, and make a hue and cry about it, as if this were an exception. I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.So we have a sculpture of a man, and he is asleep but helpless, hands out. Well, "sleepwalking through life" is a familiar idea. Sleepwalkers have long been an image of a kind of lost shamble through the days that is not uncommon but sad; sometimes sleepwalking can describe a passage in life in which one feels lost and uncertain. The sculpture portrays a man who is, indeed, sleepwalking through the busy--and, we hope, awake--life going on around him, as well as sleepwalking through his own life. Thinking of Thoreau, we can hope that he is struggling to walk, to get somewhere, to wake up!
If I consider the idea of sleepwalking, I tend to see that the figure is, in fact, a pitiable figure, one of those people Thoreau wished to wake. But that's not the only way of looking at the sculpture.
Side note on Thoreau and young women
Interestingly, Thoreau found that young women were among the very few who "improved their time" in the woods and found something worth the search. They were not biased; they were free and curious and could enjoy surprise, even if it was the small beauty of a colored leaf. Why do I mention it? Because there has been a radical gap between those on campus who react whimsically to the statue and those who are outraged, and that is . . . interesting.
Zombies side note
I notice that journalists can't help comparing the figure to a zombie. I suppose this is a natural enough result of the stance, but it's silly to let zombie fashion get in the way of your eyesight and your brain, which has not yet been eaten. I'm not a fan of the way journalists have shaped the story and don't think it has done much good for Wellesley women or for art.
What does his physical appearance say?
Details of the figure's appearance just might have something to say to us. The Matelli sculpture is a bit paunchy, isn't he? No washboard abs here. The man's not fashionably shaven-headed but a victim (everybody's a victim of something these days) of male pattern baldness. Despite what has been said by those who peer through the lens of political correctness, he is not a frightening shape but a more pathetic one, vulnerable and naked. He wears whitey-tighties and so is clearly out of fashion, even when he goes bed. It's hard to determine his exact age in many photographs because his face is slack with sleep, but he appears to be in the zone of middle-age. His hands look older than the rest of him and are a more accurate gauge.
More than simply a target as "white male," he's an Everyman groping his way, betrayed to our gaze in his semi-nakedness.
Unfashionable side note
So why is the unfashionable so threatening to the young women of Wellesley--the fashionable, the trendy, the young and hip, the cutting edge, the future of our world? What any answer implies is that the unfashionable stands for things that are directly opposed to the fashionable. Different values. Different virtues. Differences. A gap.
How does the sculpture relate to its world?
Another way of seeing depends on context (although it relates to the idea of the unfashionable.) I'm thinking about where the artist chose to place him and what that choice might mean.
Set in the context of a women's college campus, who is he most like? Not the young women. Nor, I would hope, like their professors, though not every teacher is awake. No doubt one or two (I hope no more!) are sleepwalking.
But the Matelli man invokes one thing more than anything else. Parents. He is most like the average, unfashionable, mildly paunchy, balding everyman called Daddy, the man who climbs on the treadmill of labor every day and struggles along with his wife to pay a child's daunting bills for annual tuition and room and board at a private American college in A. D. 2014. (Sure, parents are varied in class and race, and some students are on scholarship. Yet he's still Everyman, exposed in all his and our mortal vulnerability.) For some daughter he may even be a nemesis like Plath's "marble-heavy" Daddy, "ghastly statue with one gray toe." But it's no surprise that he's a shock, an abomination, a trigger: he's our very own.
A piece of art is, or should be, suggestible. In whatever form it appears (and whether you like it or not), art is not a thing to tame, to tie down, to reduce. Allow the work to have as much wildness and as much myriad-minded meaning as it can win for itself--the amount will vary, depending on the artist.
Matelli notes that students are "misconstruing" his work. Misunderstandings about art occur daily, hourly, constantly, though they don't usually make the national news. This curious instance reminds me that Yeats asked of university students protesting against literature in his own country, "Where, where but here have Pride and Truth, / That long to give themselves for wage, / To shake their wicked sides at youth / Restraining reckless middle-age?" Where? Here.