davis

An open letter to Wellesley College’s Art Museum

ETA: Trigger warning for sexual assault/rape.

Dear Davis Museum and Cultural Center,

You probably don’t remember me, but I worked for you during my time at Wellesley. I was in the technology department, if you can call one full-time employee and a work-study student a department. The bulk of my job consisted of a) importing digital photographs of artwork into your new database and b) updating your website, particularly whenever there was a new exhibition on. Because of these two activities, I am extensively acquainted with the vast majority of your 10,000+ works collection, and I am also pretty familiar with special exhibits you put on between 2005 and 2009. I remember some of these being more controversial than others—for instance, your “On The Edge” exhibit definitely sparked conversations around campus when you decided to advertise by sticking postcards of this guy in every mailbox:

Zhang-Huan-meat

From Zhang Huan’s My New York, 2002

And you know what? Good for you. Personally, I hated that piece because it involved me listening to Buddhist nuns singing on an endless loop for months and months, but, hey, at least you got people talking. I had to do some work on your promotional materials sometimes, and it usually felt like shouting into the void. Most of my closest friends never even set foot in the museum, even though I worked there for all of college. And you have some great pieces, like this little Rodin, a marble Eve, which was my favorite piece in the collection:

Or this de Kooning, which I always found equal parts terrifying and intriguing:

So I get it. You’ve got this great collection, but excepting the students pursuing art and art history academically, it’s hard to get people out of the Science Library and into the museum. In part, that’s what special exhibits help do; besides bringing different, relevant art to the museum to which you might not normally have access, it encourages students to see and talk about art in a way that does not happen if you never change things up.

Now, all that said, what the fuck were you thinking?

This morning, I woke up to an email from a friend, linking me to a Gawker article about Wellesley. Normally, when I get linked to articles about Wellesley, it’s something like, “hey cool study!” or “I didn’t know that song was written by a cool Wellesley lesbian lady!”  But this email was different:

Email

Now, seeing the URL of that article immediately made me think that The Fondler was back. For those of you that didn’t attend Wellesley in 2008/2009, The Fondler was a man who would show up on east campus from time to time, and even in the depths of winter, fondle himself in front of unsuspecting students. It was a threat taken very seriously by the administration and campus police, who were always very cautious when it came to safety. Like many students, I found the whole situation to be a little laughable, but that was by and large because Wellesley always felt extremely safe to me. Looking back, I can’t believe how cavalier we all were about the whole situation, but it never felt like a real threat to me because I had such implicit trust in Wellesley’s ability to protect me. Sure enough, the guy was caught eventually, and we went on with our merry lives in the Wellesley Bubble.

So when I saw that e-mail, I thought, “oh no, not this again.” But in fact, I was way, way off. No, instead, some genius(es) at the Davis Museum had the BRILLIANT FUCKING IDEA to install this creepy, lifelike statue of a man in his underwear in the middle of a women’s college.

horrifying

SERIOUSLY, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? The fact that I saw this headline and immediately thought that some pervert was jacking off in front of students again should be some indication that SOMETHING IS AMISS HERE.

There is already a student petition to take down the statue, to which the director of the museum seems to have responded, “Tee hee, isn’t it great that we’re all talking about art, LOL!” Fuck that shit. I’m not saying that art can’t or shouldn’t be difficult or controversial or thought provoking. By all means, we need art to be hard and scary and frustrating as much as we need it to be beautiful or interesting. Have a special exhibit that challenges everything we think we know about rape or gender or racism or a million other challenging topics. Or have an exhibit that does none of those things! Art doesn’t need to have a political agenda. But what it must have is context.

Artists and museums and curators are only ever half the equation. The other half is the viewer and the milieu in which they perceive the art. As a curator, you can control the physical space in which someone views a work, but you cannot control the years and years of personal experiences and baggage that every one of us carries with us. And unfortunately, we live in a world where many young women have to carry around the specter of sexual assault and rape. In my case, given our culture and my personal history, I am never not going to view creepy, lifelike statues of men in their underwear, arms outstretched, in a way that doesn’t feel threatening to me. This, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing, if I were in a physical environment that separates the piece from my actual life—a dedicated art space, for instance. There is still a very important place in the world for art that makes us feel uncomfortable, or even anxious. But put it in the middle of my backyard, where I have no choice but to see it and interact with it on a daily basis, and then it becomes an unnecessarily aggressive act against my mental wellbeing.

Perhaps that sounds melodramatic, so let me offer a bit more context. That sculpture, placed in any vicinity of my living quarters, would give me nightmares. I know that sometimes we use hyperbole to make a point, as in, “oh this _______ is the stuff of nightmares,” but we don’t actually mean that given thing would be nightmare-inducing. No, I am saying that this sculpture would literally give me nightmares. I actively struggle with PTSD from several experiences with sexual assault, and one of my symptoms is vivid, recurring dreams wherein an unknown man chases me while I try to escape through various locked doors. There are weeks when I don’t sleep for days at a time because I’m so afraid of my own subconscious, and I live in an extremely safe, extremely locked house, far, far away from any horrifying statues of men in their underwear.

My story is by no means unique. The commonly reported statistic is that 1 out of every 6 American women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. Maybe that figure sounds high to a lot of people, but in my own experience, there is absolutely no way that number is not higher. It’s not just that sexual assault and rape are under-reported; our culture is so fucked up that many women can’t even acknowledge what are clearly non-consensual situations as rape, instead blaming themselves for having been too drunk, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I started sharing my own experiences for the first time about a year ago, and nearly every woman I’ve talked to has reciprocated with horrific stories about their own harassment, assault, or rape. As one of my good friends said the other day, “I feel so unbelievably lucky that I have made it to 28 without having anything worse happen than occasional harassment, because literally every other woman I know has had these terrible experiences [with rape and sexual assault]. Any woman I know who hasn’t, I don’t even know them well enough that they would have told me.”

Like many others, some of my most traumatic assault experiences happened during college. I’m happy to say that none of them occurred at Wellesley, and that I was lucky to always feel like Wellesley was a safe place for me. Other students may not be so fortunate, but it is the college’s responsibility to make every one of its students feel as safe as possible. Wellesley is many things to many people—a home, a place of learning, a place of work, even an art space. But first and foremost, it needs to be a place of trust, where its students, staff, and faculty feel secure. Any sort of art exhibit or academic venture that could compromise that trust needs to take a backseat to overall campus welfare.

Listen to the petition. This is not a handful of students being prude. This is not the eternal debate about what constitutes art. This is not fucking Mona Lisa Smile.

This is not a censorship issue. This is a safety issue. Move that shit inside.

Sincerely,

Alix West, ‘09

  • Lydia Emmet Winkeller

    Dear Alix – I don’t know you, as I graduated from Wellesley long before you were born (oh god what a scary thought – I don’t FEEL that old) but you have just put so incredibly perfectly what we are all thinking about this work of “art”that Wellesley has chosen to put on the path I walked so many nights going from the Library to Beebe. I did not know about “the fondler”, but in light of that, I am even MORE horrified at this choice my beloved Alma Mater has made. I loved Wellesley – I still do, and hope to god one or both of my girls will go there and get to experience the wonder that is Wellesley (both my sons go to Vassar, their father’s alma mater, so it seems only fair!). I, too, have been a victim of sexual assault, nothing too horrific, not rape, but assault nonetheless. I wonder if there is a woman alive that hasn’t experienced something – a man rubbing against them in a subway getting his rocks off, someone in a bar grabbing her inappropriately, a date saying “but I bought you dinner, you owe me!”. And this statue, in our safe haven, just elicits a visceral reaction in us. Not to mention that I don’t find it appealing in any way, but that is my personal opinion. My taste runs more to the Rodin, to contemporary artists like Andrew Wyeth, Peter Hurd, Peter Vought. I come from a family of artists – mostly portrait painters – Lydia Field Emmet, Rosina Emmet Sherwood, Ellen Emmet Rand, Jane Emmet DeGlenn – so that’s the type of art I enjoy more. Which doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate something that causes me to pause and think. But not this. There is no need for this on Wellesley’s campus. And there is no need for the artist, a pretentious ass, on our campus either – for him to come right out and say that anyone who finds his sculpture disturbing needs psychological help is nauseating.
    Anyway, I hope some day to meet you, as you are clearly an extraordinary young woman. The Class of ’81 salutes you!

  • Carol Savage

    FANTASTIC!! Thank you Alix for saying it so well! Carol Savage ’81

  • http://greanerpastures.wordpress.com/ Brin

    Wow, great post. I hope they listened to you. Really listened.