Monthly Archives: July 2012

Arms and the Men

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” mused Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, “if all those people who roam the streets of New York, talking to themselves, were paired off so that they could walk around in couples and look like they’re having a conversation?”

This line came to mind, unexpectedly, this week when the news was filled with reporting of the ham-handed official removal of a statue of Penn State fallen hero Joe Paterno from in front of the stadium in which he spent his life coaching, following a report that implicated him in the coverup of longtime child sexual abuse by one of his staff. It wasn’t so much the yanking of the bronze figure or the material facts of the case that brought Tomlin’s one-liner to mind – as far as I know, the two never met, never had anything to do with each other, and this may be the first time in print that the two have been mentioned in the same story – but rather the photo of the statue itself. Here’s a view of it, pre-excision:


I’m not much of a college-football fan, nor have I had good or bad or, really, any feelings for or against Paterno. And the statue itself veers pretty far from anything that resembles the good or meaningful art that we try to discuss here; it seems to have had aspirations of competence but succeeded only in completion. However, applying some aspect of my arslocii empathy in considering the statue, I actually started to feel sorry for it. I mean, it had spent its life viewed by perhaps millions of Penn State fans, was the center of attention, had become a campus icon … and, now, it’s whisked away to be mothballed in some Citizen Kane-ish warehouse, next to Rosebud and the Lost Ark. I wondered if it would be lonely, with no one to glad-hand to, caught in unobserved suspended animation, “We’re Number One” finger frozen in the air for nobody to see or honk an air horn at.

Then it struck me (not the statue, but an idea): The Paterno statue, in pose and style, reminds me so much of another civic figurine, this one in Philadelphia, of former top cop and mayor, Frank Rizzo, whose barrel-chested likeness appears to be hailing a cab (or, perhaps, giving to go-ahead to a firing squad) from the steps of a municipal office building. It’s a memorial that, depending on your politics, is either an imposing thing or something that has been imposing itself on the public for decades. So, I thought: Maybe, for its sake – for art’s sake, as well – Philadelphia should acquire the Paterno statue and give Rizzo a buddy. Place them near each other, facing each other, Rizzo waving to Paterno, JoePa eager to make a point to Frank – balance, symmetry, dialogue. A bit of conceptual perfection.

But, no – perfect, or more so, would be to take these two and haul them about a mile up the road where a similarly crafted statue of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky anchors a corner outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Here’s what we had to say about that in an earlier commentary.) And, always the overachiever, he has two arms up.


To make it a fore-arm foursome, how about including Chicago’s Christopher Columbus statue? Do I smell some pinochle in their future?


And, lest this thing takes on the politically-incorrect parameters of a Bunch of Italian Guys With Their Arms Up Plaza, let’s throw in this fella, just because – he hasn’t been the recipient of much sugar lately.

The question is: What is this with arms up? Is it supposed to make these guys look commanding, or vibrant – something the artists aren’t capable of doing in other, more subtle, more artful ways via their limited talents? Of course, with some laughable hyperbole, these poses harken back to classical Hellenic and Roman sculptures of soldiers, emperors and the Ancient World equivalent of power-lunch guys – as if these current honorees belong in the same pantheon. But, think of one of the most powerful of such monuments – Mount Rushmore; those heads don’t even have bodies, and look how imposing they are, and what placeness they create – perhaps because they don’t have arms up. Michelangelo’s David has an arm raised, but it is kept close, and draws the viewer in, creating a circle, a campfire of controlled intensity – you could put it in a museum, in a courtyard, in a barnyard, and it would bestow arslocii life in situ.

The fallacy of these thrust up or outward statues is that our eyes follow the energy, such as it may be, up the body, through the arm and up away from the statue and the place it sits in. In other words, these figures, by directing our eyes elsewhere, are pretty much anti-place and, despite themselves, anti-art and anti-reverential. And by showing these men (and they’re almost always men) in the acts of waving or pointing or flailing or whatever, we diminish them, either by giving no sense of what it is they’ve done to deserve our memorializing of them or by reducing their lives to the patently artificial photo-op gestures of political persona.

Good sculpture, like safe geopolitics, needn’t be an arms race.

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Lost and Found: A River Runs Near It

Walks in the woods. There are surprises to be discovered, archaeological remnants from before your time. Sure, in the city there are those empty places and spaces appearing to be in a state of once-was or still-becoming, decaying before your eyes, but those are so hard-surfaced that the structure still dominates. In places where there is more of a tipped ratio of nature to nurture, there can be amazing interplay as plant-life incorporates whatever it encounters into its own tapestry. It is that moment in which nature owns the thing again, when a built structure is subsumed by life and growth, that arslocii occurs. The human-built structure comes alive, is animated by the resurgence of living things being incorporated into its rigid, seemingly indestructible framework.


Case in point: a faerie-like construction of a lost fountain in a wooded glen. That it is there at all is wondrous, to be sure. That it has such a magical formal shape and well-designed purpose is uncanny. It is not your typically boxy form, like that of a dwelling; it is round in a mostly square world. Its curving outer wall encircles a central island, creating a moat that is spanned by diminutive arched bridges and small scale stairways. And then, after nature has judiciously devoured and decorated it with woodland aplomb, it becomes a hybrid, surprising and awesome. The trees have grown out of the island, breaking through the concrete and stonework but retaining the overall concept of the original design. It is difficult to tell now what is original and what isn’t, the merging is so deeply woven.

The moss, carefully applied, dappled and dabbed, lightly washed here and impasto’ed there – the surfaces become a coral reef in a bay, colorful barnacles on a shipwreck. A forgotten Japanese garden scattered in the forest. Soft and hard, an armature for nature’s artistry.

It was once something else, a fountain in a park. Nearby it stood a 19th-century engineering marvel – a pump house for a city reservoir, the Roxborough Pumping Station at Shawmont. This lost fountain, resembling now a sunken ship on dry land, could have been a public amenity for thrill-seekers who came to gaze upon this mechanical wonder: the steam-powered pump house built in 1869. So it is likely that the fountain also dates back to then. Surprisingly, the fountain survives despite the demolition of the pumping station a year ago. Maybe the water department doesn’t know it is there, since it is lost in the woods.

This manmade water-work keeps a low profile, embraced by nature, hidden by nature and perhaps, gazing longingly at the river just past the trees. It was once a decorative container for water, a tamed and accessible version of water’s flow. Horses probably drank from it, hands and kerchiefs were dipped into it, flowers may have been floated on it, surely sunlight danced upon it. It represented a beautiful, soothing place for refreshment and rest, a reflection on the remarkable achievement of human ingenuity – a bridge between the river and the industrial management of harnessing nature.

Now nature has the last laugh as it slowly weaves its web over every surface.

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Picture Perfect

The searing heat has abated a bit, but it is still summer-warm and sunburn-bright around here, and just down the hill they – the noisy kids, the sulky-surly and conspiratorial teens, the plus-size families – continue dunking and diving at the swimming hole in the millstream, and it is, in all senses of the term, “picture perfect.”

This spot has been drawing people to it since there have been people in these parts, and for the past century it has been more than merely a place to cool off in lieu of a public pool – it is the site of a rite of passage. Your formative years have not been properly spent if, at some time during them, you and your friends (or, if lucky, this year’s current forever love) did not come here as soon as school was out, sneaking away from parents or chores or summer jobs to spend some time there in daylight and, even better, starlight. It is a place where history, tradition, memories and community flow and converge into something akin to a work of art.

In terms of American iconography, this is a picture-perfect place. How much more like 1950s Mayberry, or, say, mid-19th century Hannibal, Mo., could this spot be, resisting, as it does, the passage of time and the vicissitudes of persistently decaying civilities in the United States of the early 21st century? Swimmin’ hole, playin’ hookey, the first stirrings of the power of the body and sexuality; an experience unadorned by modern conveniences or technology or even supervision, and yet all peaceful and harmonious: the stream rushing and hissing ceaselessly down from the mountain and splashing over and between rocks, forming pools of varying depths, and around them shelves of stone, flat and layered and bleached by the sun, on which bathers lounge, or gather to exchange intimacies, or show off for the person they wish to impress.

But, even more, and easily in keeping with the scope of our explorations here – arslocii, placeness as art – the millstream scene is picture perfect because it is straight out of a picture, or as if it were set up and readied to be made into one. The quality of the light, the way the figures compose themselves on the perches, the way muscled skin looks doused by the pure water, the dappling of light as it passes through the trees lining the waterway – as you stand on the bridge road overlooking the spot, it is impossible not to think that you’ve seen this all before: in a fine work by an Impressionist painter, like Cezanne, or in a painting by Thomas Eakins (which, except for the nudity and homoerotic overlay, is nearly a dead ringer for what you see in the stream on any given overheated day).

Life and art and place have rarely so picture-perfectly meshed. Which came first: the painting or life? Which engendered the other? When the painting and the reality have equal existential weight, which is the more real? Which is the more art? Does art define the place, or vice versa?

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Liberty and Justice

Go into the judicial system on any day of the week and you will find America. If you are called for jury duty you will discover that America’s finger is on the pulse of crime and punishment, not do-gooding. Not exemplary citizenship, mind you, just the aftermath of bad behavior, cause and effect, action and reaction. Damage control. And when the judicial system summons you, it states that “jury service is one of the highest duties of citizenship and it is an essential element of our democratic society.” In the jurors’ waiting room, your first taste of America is of the melting pot, a stew of multi-cultural, -national, -lingual, -ethnic people thrown together in ways in which they would not ordinarily be in contact. The bond that holds this chemical stew together is boredom and inconvenience. Names are called and the evidence of the incredible range of cultural backgrounds rings out like freedom from Asia, the British Isles, Africa, the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and places which you don’t quite know exist: Pin Po Pan – did I hear this name right? And so we all sit, stewing.

Apparently, crime is so prevalent that it is categorized, into criminal and civil cases. Which is worse, and what is the difference? The thing is, we Americans seem to commit both with gusto since there are so many trials to choose from. And this is just one day, and right before Independence Day. No independence from crime, it seems. More names are called, at least six groups of thirty to sixty members each while I am still in this holding room. It is like a factory, churning out jurors as fast as the wrong-doers can do wrong. Though it is a backlog, a stutter of time like a tape delay, with the resulting action of juror-gathering way behind the actual perpetration. We potential jurors have no say in the matter but we are randomly selected to help determine the yea or nay status of our fellow citizens. Thumbs up or down? Jury of our peers? Hmm, I don’t know anyone who does these sorts of things.

I have fallen into a group for a civil case, a potentially heart-wrenching (actually quite literally) monetary duel between a pharma-industrial giant and a small victim of scientific paternalism. It is potentially a hot case, but one of so many other similar ones that have involved oodles of money and irreparable harm. The law, it seems, is not there to protect the innocent – the law is retrograde; the law is not preventative, it is, rather, there only to fight for reparations. After the fact. Pay to play.

But back to America on its birthday. Oh, that’s right, this is America. Sadly, this is what America has become, or maybe has always been: an irascible, angry mob of malcontents and the powerful targets of our collective rage who are quite adept at duck and cover techniques. In a way, it’s just like our assembled juror group awaiting its fate in the courtroom. We are angry about the careless way we are cattle-chuted into this place, left standing in hallways, sitting unmoving for hours in a room that is either too hot or too cold, left uninformed and, in a punishing way, treated like the perpetrators of crimes rather than the arbitrators of innocence or guilt. What high duty exactly?

What has happened here? What happened to the promise of America? It is and always has been about money. The placeness of money. But there is no placeness of money, in fact it totally lacks placeness. Money is withdrawn or rewarded, depending on the jurors’ decision, or time is the payment if you have no money. Jurisprudence is a kind of banking system.

So I sit in this disgruntled place of those caught in a web, or caught with their pants down, or just caught, or caught up in some bizarre or hellish nightmare of desperation. We are all caught in this system today; many of us avoid the nets, some swim right into them. This is not the America I want to celebrate today, in this way. But here it is. There is nothing so appropriate as this for finding America. I and all my fellow Americans have washed up on this shore of the judicial stage. Law makers and law enforcers. Laws are made, laws are broken, lives are made, lives are broken. It’s the system of balances, weights and measures. Just like the weighing of gold. Nothing of value really is measurable.

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