Sunday, June 22, 2008
On Defense of the "Rocky Statue" Outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art
It's the eye of the tiger, it's the cream of the fight
The inspiration for this "essay" arrived after reading William Pym's "Vanishing Point" in the most-recent publishing of MegaWords Magazine. Towards the end of the essay which might be described as an argument for change (with heavy tinges of nostalgia) in the art world, Pym compares Social Consciousness, a Jacob Epstein sculpture of 1954 (located at the museum's western entrance), to the boxer statue to the right of the famous museum steps when you are facing the east entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Pym writes "It's [Social Consciousness] worth loving, though, as much as beefy Rocky is worth immediately vandalizing."
(Before I start down this path I'd like to say I like Pym's essay , which has all the loveliness of a meandering Sunday afternoon walk after drinking too much really good coffee. I agree with him about youth and art, but I don't think rock-star upstarts are a new thing. I think they have always been around and you can't stop youth from wanting life and wanting it fast. Art has always had a nasty habit of overlooking what is really good while the artist is still alive.)
I can't in all honesty argue for the aesthic beauty of the boxer statue (as I wouldn't for Social Consciousness), I do however, think it would be a travesty to deface it. To the majority of the persons who visit or live in Philadelphia the Philadelphia Museum of Art has no value besides the steps at it's eastern entrance. The reason these steps have meaning for so many is that a fictional boxer, played by Sylvester Stallone, and named Rocky Balboa, climbed them while training to achieve his goals in life. It is a film, that despite any short-comings as cinema, has inspired many.
Risin' up to the challenge of our rival
Now I want to tell you a story; I teach art classes through a non-profit program that serves many of Philadelphia's low-income public schools. During one of my residencies I was able to help facilitate a field trip to the PMA for a group of little 5th graders. This was a great bunch, but as you may expect from our city's public schools, not-so-well-behaved and segregated in the northeast--they didn't much make it out to the "nicer" parts of town. When we pulled up to the front steps of the art museum in our Yellow Bird every single one of those kids was excited. They exited the bus and ran up the steps in an ecclesiastical fervor, even the fat ones. It isn't easy to get that group of kids excited or united in a single purpose.
I think if you had asked them, many of the kids would admit to never having seen a Rocky movie, or ask you "What's that Miss?" That's the aura Rocky has given to the steps of the PMA. It's powerful. So powerful that when my mother came to visit me in Philadelphia for the first time (I'm from Ohio) she said the only thing that she really wanted to see were the steps Rocky ran up and did I know where to find those?
Is it such a bad thing? Do we, as artists, have to bemoan popular culture so much? Do we have to make serious all black boxes or sculptures of space aliens holding up malnorished men? Do these things really speak to people where it counts? I don't think the current trend, which is to embrace popular culture and mass appeal, is such a bad one. I think the trend exhibits an artist's willingness to be "real". I don't usually go here, but now I must; most people in this world don't have time to wail about what's happening to art or even about social unjustice, most people need a way to pull themselves out of the gutter.
And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night
Whatever I may think of Rocky or his short-comings as a role-model there is no doubt that the metaphor of climbing a large amount of steps to reach your goal is a great one. The fact that (often unacknowledged) your goal is to reach the entrance of a wonderful collection of art, some of the best man has to offer, is even better.
Placing the boxer statue beside the steps might be a little over-the-top and unnecessary (and yes, it is basically, an ad for a movie, but since when are ads not art?) for those of us who have what is known among us as "good taste" but I'm willing to bet that to many people it's a reassuring marker that they have, indeed, reached the correct spot. That yes, they are at the steps Rocky surmounted and they too can now surmount the obstacle. If this statue is a form of thank you to the Rocky franchise then I think the franchise deserves it. Visiters to the shrine might even stroll around to the west entrance, avoiding wedding parties and various photo-ops as they go, and accidentally happen upon Social Consciousness as I did with a friend visiting from Kentucky. If you are into art and you read up on it a little you might enjoy Social Consciousness and give it total nerd points, but if you are like my friend you might simply proclaim "That's depressing."
In closing, think what you want. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all of that, but don't vandalize the Rocky statue. That's just wrong.
And he's watchin' us all in the eye of the tiger