OK, a question (and it is, perhaps, of the trick variety, so think carefully before answering): To one side of you is a collection of some of the greatest art ever produced, all there for the viewing and, if you play your cards right, you can even see it all for free; to the other side of you, mere feet away from the previously alluded to fine-art cornucopia, is a larger-than-life bronze, of competent but pedestrian quality, atop a pedestal and sculpted to look like an idealized, classical heroic version of the lead character in a series of hit movies – indeed, it was created as a prop for one of those films.
The question: Which one – the great art, the movie prop – would you stand in line to see and have your picture taken with?
The answer is not so obvious.
Depending on which touring shows arrive at the museum in any given year, its annual attendance hovers around 800,000 visitors. There is no official tally as to the numbers of tourists who want to see and be seen with the Rocky statue (and how many of them who never venture past the statue to enter the museum), but they are there, in queues, all day and into the night, with a curiosity and a passion that many of the museum attendees do not have; it is not uncommon to drive by the museum at midnight or later and see, out of the corner of one’s eye, the flash of a camera, and in that momentary brightening, spy groups of people standing in front of the Rocky statue, striking a similar pose to the figure’s aggressively victorious stance.
And it is impossible to know how many tourists and even city residents climb or run up the art museum’s grand steps not with an eagerness to see the new Monet show or Eakins’ “Gross Clinic,” but, rather, to emulate what has, amazingly, become a global, iconic action based on a moment from a 35-year-old movie: standing at the top, arms raised, bouncing weight from foot to foot, staring out at the Parkway below and the city spread out beyond, hearing in one’s head the trumpet-y “Rocky Theme” and saying, to one’s self or aloud, “Yo, Adrian!” You probably know what we mean.
To these people, the art museum is a mere backdrop – it has become the movie prop (the museum steps are even now referred to as the Rocky Steps – just Google it), in a supreme example of the reality-distorting power of popular culture and iconography, the defining image and the empathetic moment: we are all “Rocky,” but we are not all that Jasper Johns in the hall, or those Duchamps in the back room, and we are not all what many in the “Rocky” contingent think that that building represents: an elitism, keeping the uninitiated at arm’s length. Though this is not true – there is far more deep identification and emotion in any gallery of the museum, and a greater opportunity for life-changing sudden awareness, enlightenment and growth there than can be had by posing with the Rocky statue – it is, however, a truism, a “truthiness” felt by and strongly held by many, if not most, “regular” people.
What is it, in terms of placeness, that draws people to the Rocky statue? Is it more fascination with all things movie-ish, or does it have something like the presence of a shrine, or, in the manner of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, in Hollywood, with its collection of stars‘ hand- and footprints, is it – within its context – representative of both? Why does it attract so many when superior sculptures nearby get nary a notice? And, the question has to be asked, what is it that makes those others “superior”? Who says they are, and why? Is the Rocky statue “art”? By what definition of “art” is it not? And who says nay or yea? Does it come down to the difference between what’s good for you and what’s fun for you? Is it a flashpoint in the people’s art vs. snooty art divide? Or is it something more profound: Does the little area at the foot of the art museum steps, with the gladiator-ish bronze boxer installed there, have more placeness, make us feel better to be there, than the museum, with all its value and importance? Or is it simply a matter of context and siting: Would there be as much interest in this semi-artless creation if it had remained at the Spectrum arena, where it was ensconced for a while, or more interest had it stayed at the top of the steps, where it was positioned for the movie and then left there until enraged art aficionados booted it off, calling it an insult? In other words, are the lines of snapshooters there because the statue is there or because the steps are there, and that the steps give the statue a life that only its association with the building and its idealized vision of it in the movie can bestow? Is Rocky the draw, or is it our cultural memories? Rocky or “Rocky”? Is it actual placeness or, like a contact high, contact-placeness – the thing it’s in “contact” with being a totally fictional entity?
We heard someone say, recently, that when they have out-of-towners visit them here in Philadelphia – a city that offers venues for great theater and music and art, and sports, too – the only two places they are sure to take them are the Liberty Bell and the Rocky statue.