Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The man in whitey-tighties--

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.

You know, I'm glad when people are talking about art in any of its forms, but sometimes that conversation leads into the strangest places. I won't get into that--what's the use? I read the news this morning, all the time thinking about Orwell and Solzhenitsyn, and so I know quite well there is no use in arguing with some of the absurd things said about the sculpture.

Instead, I want to think about the sculpture and see what it is without being influenced by what has been said about the piece and without even having a notion that politically correct thought still rules our world and tells us what to say. I want to think my own thoughts and come to my own conclusions without one jot of influence from the outer world.

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.

What does it mean to show someone walking in sleep?

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.

Myriad-minded art

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.


  1. Marly, this is a beautiful post.
    I find the sculpture to be alarmingly good. Some get stuck on 'alarming' because the artist has been able to accent man's vulnerability. I like that he does this so well.
    The 'good' is unnoticed by some who are afraid of vulnerability, I think.

    Thank goodness Michelangelo's 'David' was not placed on campus. The male body (and particularly clad in tightie whities) is a terrible thing to have to witness.

  2. This morning I was thinking about how there might--might--be an objective reality, but none of us sees it. We interpret it, each of us in a different way, each of us living in a subjective reality of our own making. Some of us interpret the world before we even see it. Maybe most of us do. I was thinking about the impossibility of two people having the same experience when reading the same novel, but it works just as well with this sculpture of the poor guy sleepwalking.

    It seems that what most people see, when they look at the world, is their own fear and prejudice reflected back at them. We go sallying forth each day, ready and willin' to be outraged. Our outrage comforts us, strangely.

    Thanks for the level-headed look at this piece of art. Is nobody discussing the snowman, though?

  3. Paul,

    It is very interesting that the vulnerable part is so ignored, so far... Things get in the way of seeing, whether you are a journalist or a student.

    You are fast! I was just feeding SPAM to the Balrogs, and here you are.

  4. Scott,

    Yes, that's what I see--people putting on various colored shades or blinkers... They belong to a group, and that group has purple blinkers. Or this one has pink. Or that one, green. Endlessly on. But some groups are more dominant and vocal and demanding than others.

    To see accurately appears to be the hardest thing in the world for human beings to do.

    I picked the snowman because some reacted with whimsy!

  5. Thanks for this post (with photo!). I had never heard of this sculpture or any surrounding kerfuffle. I am a sequestered juror drinking foil-packet cocoa in my hotel room. My first thoughts of him were along the vulnerable/pathetic/foolish lines. And yet there might be a brave sort of foolery in him. Arms outstretched, imploring, trusting. I could not see from the photo that his eyes are (presumably) closed. I also wonder how differently I might react to him without the (coordinated with his tighty-whities!) snow and charming snowperson counterpoint. Do I dare now go look up the conversations?

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed this. It seems to me that the figure may be seen as objectionable, because in true human fashion, those who find it so are simply projecting their own selves onto an external form.

    I remember on one occasion walking through the town in which I then lived, and looking (really looking)into the faces of those passing by me. I cannot recall seeing one person awake, alive; sleepwalkers through life!

  7. Alisa,

    Yes, now that you have your own thoughts! I like the addition of foolery... but then the idea of the Fool is very important to me.

  8. Tom,

    Well, that's certainly what Thoreau saw when he walked about town or fields! Although I expect every day is a mixture for even the most awake...

    Certainly that explanation can work. I also think that being inculcated with ideas that you then apply to life may be a source as well--rather than coming up with your own ideas. College in our day continually risks becoming a place where one is to pay to be indoctrinated in the correct ideas.

  9. Characteristically thoughtful post, Marly.
    I think the snow especially emphasizes the nakedness. It is no doubt alarming because the young, beautiful, lively students are reminded of their own vulnerability and mortality and the fact that the beautiful young men they admire now will be like this one day not so long down the road.
    I don't know where the umbrage some viewers have taken to this sculpture comes from... certainly not from the actual work itself.
    And pairing it with Thoreau is a piece of genius.

  10. Robbi,

    Mmm, the snow is helpful! Yes, it's an image that promises youth things it does not desire...

    Thoreau is always ready to say an appropriate piece, I think!

  11. I agree with all of this (especially the great Thoreau reference), except for your use of the term "political correctness," a nearly meaningless put-down whose shelf-life long ago expired. I tend to agree with Amanda Marcotte's more compassionate (but not sympathetic) treatment of the protesters: "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."

  12. Dave,

    I'm afraid that when I used the word "still" about political correctness, it was because I think it still with us, though often put down as a term. I am well aware that it is frequently condemned as no longer useful. However, the mode is still with us. Still. Trade it for whatever description you like, though... it'll mean the same. Though it is an unattractive and out-of-fashion term, certainly.

    And oh, yes, the students are young (though not all the people being quoted online are) and exploring what many things mean. My own children are the same age and a little older and a little younger. I have plenty of sympathy with the explorations of youth, but I don't think that means giving up on good sense. Youth is not assisted by never coming up against resistance, is it?

    You know, I think compassion does not exclude seeing accurately and saying what one sees.In my opinion, the only people who I give little compassion to here are the journalists who toss around "zombie" in regard to the sculpture and ought to know better--and even there, it's a bit teasing. It's journalists who shaped this story, you know, and who in my opinion take neither the students nor the art with complete seriousness.

    Aside from that, I'll just say that compassion is not a soft thing only. Because compassion and love without seeing accurately is just a bowl of blancmange with sugar dumped on top.

    Hmm, the above is a little less tactful than my usual.

    Good cheer, anyway!

  13. Just to clarify: I don't object to "political correctness" because the phenomenon it purports to describe has gone away. On the contrary, it is nearly all-pervasive. I object because it seemingly situates within a left-right political discourse something that transcends partisan politics: Americans' general sense that there's some sort of right not to be offended by anything ever, which the right deploys as often as the left -- and anyone else who feels like playing the victim card. This was crystallized for me years ago when I read Bob Geldolf's biography. It turns out the reason his band The Boomtown Rats never got big here the way they did in the UK was that their hit single, "I Hate Mondays," was based on the story of a mentally disturbed woman who shot a bunch of people, and when asked why she did it, said "I hate Mondays!" Her parents threatened to sue the record company, and radio stations across the country pulled the song from rotation, afraid of giving offense.

  14. Hah! That's really fascinating...

    Of course, if that had happened more recently, they would have just redone the thing somehow--like Scholastic swapping out "The Philosopher's Stone" for "The Sorceror's Stone" because it's thought that Americans are too ignorant to have ever heard of alchemy. (>.<)

    I'm relieved that you think it all-pervasive. Though I didn't really think you had gone soft-headed! So what terminology would you use, Dave?

    1. A character in the 80s comic strip Bloom County coined the term "offensensitivity." Maybe that would do?

    2. Too many syllables! I think we ought to make up our own word that has a pinch of absurdity and captures the idea as well... But I'm cleaning house and so have no ideas except the deep desire to be done!

      Perhaps it ought to end in "skite," though. Offenskite?

    3. I have dropped "politically correct" in your honor. I do think it's a kind of shorthand that still works, but I hate the term.

  15. Fascianting, excellent post and comments! Can't really add anything not already said. Just wondering how much art education some of these young women have had... are they still in the "art must be pretty' and not requiring any deeper thinking" phase? The 'daddy' figure might be on the mark for some of them.

  16. Hi Marja-Leena,

    It's hard to say, given the large amounts of publicity but small "meat" to the articles. I expect some interviews that come out of all this may be more informative.

    One of my painter friends wrote on facebook: "I want to think my own thoughts and come to my own conclusions without one jot of influence from the outer world." Alas, t'isn't possible. But we can approach this ideal by not reading all the glop in the press about the sculpture. Then you will be influence only by what you yourself have experienced in your life. And that is plenty!

    So perhaps the "glop" in the press is as much at fault as small arts education. And actually I suppose young journalists these days won't have much--it's been axed in so many places.

    1. p. s. Elsewhere, I've also gotten a couple of comments about the reactions of students possibly being traumatic, and some of the students in articles have suggested that as a possibility--as though women in general were to be protected from their possible emotional reactions to art and life. I find that astounding. (What year is it?) If women as a whole have to be protected from a piece of painted bronze, what don't they need protection from?

      I don't believe that young women as a class are that fragile and emotional and weak. And any young woman who is will have far more trouble with real people and human encounters than with a sculpture, and needs to get some ongoing, caring, competent psychological help that deals with the past and the present. Aren't these attitudes toward women that we're trying to leave behind, rather than promoting--that women are hyper-emotional, special beings who need coddling?

      Anybody have thoughts on this?

  17. What an interesting posting -- and an interesting array of comments! I offer this: does the artist's choice of the sculpture's placement (on a women's campus) suggest something about the artist's tongue-in-cheek tweeking of women's sensibilities? The reactions of "viewers" is more significant (and amusing) than the sculpture itself. Surely that was the artist's intent. Or is my thesis too sexist?

    1. I'm sure that the artist or the curator or both wanted to stir the flames! I wish that we had a brighter, broader look at responses than what journalists collect in a casual way.

      Also, I think it was clever to make place a sculpture outside but where it could be seen from the solo show inside--it blurs the line between art and life in a way that is especially curious in the case of a hyper-realist. And, of course, was probably effective in drawing in students and others to see the main show.

  18. There is much to be said about the word "show" in terms of its use with art displays. I will leave that to the philosophers of art.

    1. I expect you could do as well as any philosopher of art, R. T.!

  19. Yes! What is with those Chinese salesmen that find their way into your comments? Then they wind up in my mailbox.

    1. Mine are eaten by Balrogs! But I expect a few must escape and hide in your mailbox.

  20. Must add that I awoke sometime in the pale flannel hours of this morning with this sculpted underwear man in my mind. In that shadow time, I could see his shadow side: pervy and groping. Wondering how it hadn't occurred to me before. (Still haven't read the commentary, though.)
    In bright daylight, I don't *believe* in either reading, but this flipped view seems to support some idea of it all depending on one's lens.

    1. The ideal, of course, is to use one's eyes, but many things are stored in our brains...

    2. However, it's the same as in all the arts--many permutations of readings, many ways of seeing. But some that are not supported by the work and are hence, well, wrong. Now to know which those are...

  21. I loved the comment,
    "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 have seen this piece, but not read much of the commentary. In hearing of some of the objections, I'm stunned. How is this innocuous sculpture threatening in any way to the delicate sensibilities of the young women at Wellesley? How does seeing this offend anyone? It feels to me like we've stepped back into the 19th century where women needed to be protected from unseemly sights such as men wearing unflattering underwear.

    Let me suggest this sight is probably not foreign to most, if not all of them.

    I'm really amazed. Maybe the zombie apocalypse is raging and its primary symptom is unthinking prudishness.

    1. Hi Anonymous--

      Glad you were pleased by that!

      Yes, I have found much of this strange. It's interesting to me that only men (so far) have been a bit reproving to me... The point seems to be that a small minority of young women may have suffered sexual attack (or something) at the hands of the opposite sex, and so the sculpture is a "trigger" for their unrest. And that, I feel, is treating womankind in general as a pretty soppy substance. While one feels sympathy for anyone who has suffered anything, anywhere, life does not need to stop because of it. Life goes on whether we will or no, and help can be obtained, particularly among the private school bodies of America.

      I'm far more concerned at what's happening in Syria, say, than the drama of a young woman receiving a privileged education.

  22. I think this is a staggeringly beautiful piece of work, and I'm nonplussed by people who find it ugly, unsettling or threatening. For me, it encompasses vulnerability.

    A great work of art should have the power to provoke a multitude of diverse responses, and I find it deeply disturbing when people think they have the right to try to veto a work that they personally dislike. If it was left to those who condemn without bothering to try to understand, we would live in a world of Disney-fied banality.

    I'm always staggered by how the dumb and opinionated feel free to share their prejudices and stupidity. Perhaps I'm being harsh to this work's detractors, but for me there has to be more to art that to be blandly 'acceptable'.

  23. Come now, Clive. You say that a work of art ought to provoke a multitude of diverse responses, but you feel free to denigrate some who respond as being dumb, opinionated, prejudiced, and stupid. Call me simple-minded, but I recognize unintended irony when I see it.

    1. I said that I object to people sharing their prejudices. If I don't like a work of art, I walk away from it. I don't try to be the thought police, I don't make comments to harm the artist, and I certainly don't try to ban it.

      Public art is suffering from a sense that there has to be a consensus of favour, and it's deeply damaging to the creative impulse. I've seen so many 'committees' make a pig's ear of commissioning public artworks, and so when a challenging new work, like this one, actually makes it into a public space, I applaud it. I can see that the press threw propellant onto the fire with their 'zombie' quips, and they no doubt encouraged negative comments to create headlines. Perhaps you're right and there was 'irony' in the responses to the work. I can't be sure of that, though I'd prefer your scenario because it would be better than anyone saying such a thing and actually meaning it. But alas, I have heard such nonsense levelled at serious artworks, and they were not irony.

      I shouldn't have engaged in this debate. I'm an artist. I know the sheer anguish and graft that goes into bringing any creation into the light of day, and I know how wounded I've been by those who have occasionally levelled a quip to be clever, or aired a personal prejudice calculated to damage the perception of an artwork. Some artists have thick skins and don't care. My skin is thin. When the barbs come, they really wound. Which is why I stick to my studio, and don't enter into the arena of commissioned works for public spaces. Apologies. I seem to have mislaid my sense of humour this evening.

  24. Oh, I've just re-read your comment, RT, and I see that I misinterpreted what you wrote. You meant that there was unintended irony in me accusing someone of being stupid because they made a stupid comment about an artwork. Well, you have a point. You're certainly right that I know as little about them as they know about art.

  25. I thought you were being unintentionally ironic.

  26. Oh, I missed the tempest in the proverbial tea cup (tea cup being my blog.) I've been under the weather with cold and cough, and not paying attention... Good to see people conversing without me, though!

    The idea of "consensus of favor" is flattening, isn't it? I think it strikes all the arts these days. Banality, condemning without trying to understand... It reminds me of one of the Amazon reviewers (what do they call the ones who do the most reviews?) who turned out to be an out-of-work used car salesman. "The New Yorker" did a piece about him. Then one day I found a "Catherwood" review by him! Although I can imagine a car salesman who loves fiction and is capable of handling something a little off-kilter, this review was pretty much what I imagined such a person's reviews to be.

    Clive, you have done commissions though--church spaces, at least? Was that equally as tough?

    I always tell people to fire away, that I have tough skin. But all it means really is that I think I can survive, that I've come this far without keeling over.

  27. The first commission, the Annunciation (The Virgin of the Goldfinches) at Llandaff Cathedral, got a tough reception inasmuch that some clergy weren't happy about the iconography. Was there anything significant in the fact that the Virgin's shoulder-strap had fallen? Why did I paint her wearing red, and was Angel Gabriel about to smite her? It went on and on. There was interest (anxiety/suspicion) about my stance on faith. In fact many doubts and criticisms from a very few detractors. But a few detractors can make quite a lot of noise and fuss.

    Luckily there were those who defended it, quite a few of them articulate, open-minded and quietly reasoning. The Dean in post when the Annunciation was acquired.. a man definitely supportive of the work... was adamant that if we made sure the painting was seen, the congregation would live with it from day to day, and eventually take ownership of it. And that's pretty much what happened.

    When I was commissioned to paint the woman caught in adultery (Christ Writes in the Dust) for the Methodist Art Collection, I dealt only with one of the trustees who had selected me, and with the eminent Methodist theologian who was funding the commission. We had one meeting, he and I, at the outset, during which we shared ideas. Thereafter I was left to my own devices and he was unswervingly supportive. But during the time I was working on the painting, I posted preparatory drawings at the Artlog (my blog) and received a letter in the post about it that expressed outrage at the way I was representing the woman in a too-tight dress riding up to show her knickers, all buckling legs and kitten-heels, bent double, tied at the wrists, haltered with a noose and dragged by the crowd. I wanted to paint a woman at whom everyone could point a self-righteous finger of accusation, not some repentant beauty ennobled by contrition. But the letter-writer, who was someone I know well, and who I respect, told me I was being misogynistic and had totally mis-read the story. He wrote that while he had always supported my work, he thought I had now lost the plot. He wrote: 'Have you gone quite mad?' That pulled me up sharp. I stopped work at the easel, stung by the accusations and anxious that I'd made a bad call for those who'd entrusted me with the task. Self-doubt can be a horrible thing for someone who works in as isolated a way as I do.

    I wrote to the trustee to ask advice, and thanks to him I was deluged with letters from many who had seen the studies for the painting and professed admiration for the progress of the project. Bolstered by that support, I continued my task. I'd never doubted my own interpretation, but I had worried that I was opening the collection and its trustees to criticism. Luckily, they were made of stern stuff.

    Since its completion the painting has toured almost non-stop, and I've been impressed by the insights of those who've seen it and contacted me about it.

    There will always be those who get an artwork and those who don't. But what I find most disturbing, is when people offer opinions from a point of anger or outrage, without bothering to think very hard about the issues, about what the artwork might be trying to say or about the time and commitment it took to produce it. A slowly-wrought, painfully birthed-work can get an instant and aggressive response that makes the making-of-its-way-in-the-world both hard and hazardous. Perhaps it's empowering for those who step up to the microphone to shout 'I don't get this, and what's more I think it's rubbish and should be taken down!' I don't know what to call that, apart from aggressive, opinionated though ill-informed... ignorant. Such responses can and do have an impact, and sometimes all that unhesitating negative energy can do a lot of damage. There can be casualties. We should be clear that freedom of speech comes with personal responsibility.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.