Category Archives: Philly-centric

Not Easy Being Green

long viewIt is – or, rather, was – just an ordinary, unremarkable stretch of sidewalk, emanating from the end of a bridge for a block or two down a busy city street; its one distinction, if it can be called that, is that this straight ribbon of pavement had, for the 30 years we’ve walked on or driven past it, been lined by jungle-like and uncontrolled growths of weed trees and bushes and grasses, held as if prisoners behind a low-slung metal traffic barrier which kept pedestrians and vehicles from tumbling down the steep cliff from which this wild flora grew. The wall of green wasn’t pretty, really – only once a year, when a popular bike race whizzes by it, does it get any attention and minimal trimming – but, for those of us living in a concrete-coated city, and to the people who live in the houses lined directly across the street from it, it was a wall of green, a respite, something like an oasis, a natural amenity. Something left alone to be itself, and give its gift, meager though it might be. And, yet, it was a length of urbanness that, if you were mapping the street from memory, you might forget to put it in – it was that personality-less, that undistinguished. It was just there, negligible but subliminally felt.

tree line

Careful readers may have noticed the use of the past tense in the previous paragraph. Trucks with choppers and grinders and saws pulled in not too long ago, and by the time they left, every bit of green was sliced away to near ground level, leaving a rude and rough-hewn gash in the landscape. For the residents of the houses opposite, this must have been not only a shock but, actually, a bit of a pleasant one: for, though the greenery is gone, they now have, unobstructed, one of the best views in the neighborhood – the old town area laid out at the foot of the cliff, the canal and river beyond, and, past those, hills and an interstate highway in the distance. People pay a lot for that view and, suddenly, these folks on the street, after decades of gazing out at an impermeable green wall of leaves and vines, now have that great view, and on somebody else’s dime.

street view

viewEnjoy that view while it lasts, folks. People don’t just clear-cut a forest-y patch for no reason that doesn’t have to do with making money, and so it is here: Soon that gap will be crammed with a dozen or more new townhouses – the uninspired, same old/same old three-stories-and-a-roof-deck, stuccoed and sided ticky-tacky crap that every developer in this area seemingly tore out of a sample book and is stuffing into every lot and open space, and, in this instance, deforesting a swath for it. And, presently, that strip of road, once benefitting from a feeling of some openness, some connection with nature no matter how corralled and limited, will become somewhat more like a canyon, or, certainly, a hemmed-in byway.

And for the pedestrians, like us, who barely acknowledged the existence of this corridor that was the on-ground equivalent of a flyover, we will feel that even though this couple of hundred feet never had anything that one would define as placeness, and certainly nothing resembling art, its absence will generate a lost placeness in our memories. It will be different. It will feel unbalanced and missing an essential element, which it will. Though it was never exactly friendly, it will be decidedly less-so. The air will be different, blighted by the predatory parasitism of modern developers. The light will be different, too. What was undistinguished will now, by comparison, seem distinguished by its congesting mediocrity. We, who cared nothing for this piece of land, will now long for the past nothingness that it was and curse the something that it has been forced to become.

laid waste

You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone, someone once wrote, and this applies even if you didn’t notice it when it when you had it. Sometimes, perhaps, even more so. I never cared if that piece of the world existed or not; now I am outraged that it is going and gone, taken and lost. Is that placeness, or what?

before

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Artless City

There is an art to cities – in the way they are planned, in the way they are built, in the manner in which they develop both intentionally and organically, in the way they respond to unexpected internal and external forces, in the way they confront and respond to age, in the way in which the residents live their lives in relation to these urban plans, changes and vagaries. Some cities become fine works of art, others do not; some become both, consecutively, alternately, moving forward or backward, often repeatedly so, as the fates, citizenry and city fathers allow. The art-ness of cities is fluid, and can vary from block to block, decade to decade, administration to administration.

It is hard to tell if Philadelphia is a work of art now, on the way up or the way down. For the most part, its central core has seen much construction and advance, and especially impressive and comforting growth of those things that attract tourists, young people and empty nesters: music, theater, museums and galleries, restaurants and shopping. It benefits from the great number of single-family homes and apartments right in the heart of the Center City area and immediate in-city surrounding neighborhoods; it is a place that never has suffered that deadness of a downtown that empties after work hours. There seem to be a lot of bars and bistros feeding off the disposable income or the credit-card debt of hordes of twenty- and thirtysomethings, as well as Boomers and expense-accounters.

It is also a city of staggering poverty, of disturbing and frequent violent crime, of acres of empty lots and decrepit housing in rundown sections out of sight of the more bustling and cosmopolitan center. There is the natural tension where the two worlds of Philadelphia – the poor and the better-off – meet, along borders, in rapidly gentrifying areas, pushing the edge of the inner edge city, where abandoned factories and remarkably cheap housing entice artists and pioneers and the brave, threatening the turf and tax bills of the longtimers. There are also places in the downtown area where that poverty and decline pop up and encamp, as a sort of movable blight, creating surprising and dismaying stage sets in a kind of street-theater conceptual art that lacks aesthetics but instead is deadly serious doings. Market Street is one of those stretches.

1900

As one could safely guess, Market Street – or what has now been labeled as Market East – has been a commercial corridor at least from the time of Philadelphia’s earliest settlers, as their ships docked along the Delaware River shore and unloaded merchandise, which was then distributed on carts and in shops popping up and moving westward from the water, following the spreading population. Within living memory, the seven blocks of Market between 7th Street and City Hall were home to seven department stores, as well as dozens of shops of all sorts. Market was never the fanciest shopping street – parts of Walnut were more high-tone, sections of Locust were oddly exclusive – but it drew customers, and it was a family strolling street, going from Wanamaker’s to Snellenburg’s, Gimbel’s to Lit’s, Howard’s to Robinson’s, and to Strawbridge & Clothier. It was a street of rites of passage and city lore: here is where hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians went to see Santa, where they had their first grown-up restaurant meal, where they would go to the Grand Court at Wanamaker’s and hear the daily pipe-organ concerts and meet at the Eagle. It was more than a shopping street, or a destination – it was the stage set, a place of memories and where one became part of the great continuity that is city life.

market-street

Starting around the Sixties, Market Street began to change noticeably. The better stores disappeared, to be filled with t-shirt and sneaker shops, and low-end retail; whole rows of stores were demolished to make way for office buildings and parking garages. Lately a convention hotel has been built, and a landmark high rise has been converted into a hotel, as well. Stores vanished when the idea for an in-town mall came to fruition, and the Gallery – appropriately named, in this discussion about art and the city – like malls everywhere, became a big-box magnet and category killer. There are amenities for tourists and conventioneers, but not many.

And where once there were seven department stores, now there is one. It has gone through three name changes and, as a Macy’s, no longer has any hometown lineage, and except for the organ and eagle, no local DNA. Snellenburg’s died and departed long ago, as did Robinson’s and Howard’s; Gimbel’s has been a street-level parking lot for decades, and the site of dashed developers’ dreams for just as long. Strawbridge’s and Lit’s have been converted into office buildings, with a smattering of retail at ground level.

For one who works in one of those buildings and who exits onto Market Street five days a week when the sun is similarly making its exit, the art of the city is difficult to interpret, and certainly to appreciate. The street surface is filthy, foul odors emanate from a sewer system overtaxed by the flushings of shoulder-to-shoulder multi-story buildings, a deadening darkness pervades the streetscape as shops – those that are not vacant – close early or roll down their metal grates over the windows of their unlighted businesses. It is by no means “Blade Runner” but it is a vista that resonates with several layers of failure and many more layers of tolerance for what should be intolerable.

stores

So much for the set ­- now for the actors. A walk up Market Street more and more seems like a stroll down a byway in a third-world country, with the lame and beggars lined up, trying to snag some change from passing tourists and dayworkers headed home. These are people in dire shape and straits, and they are not to be ignored; but, not too long ago, there was a campaign by a local group with the poster tag-line, “The more you give change, the more things stay the same,” and that is the philosophy we follow. But we all play our roles: they ask, we politely decline, and that’s that. Some passersby behave as if these people do not exist, not acknowledging their presence. Very few of us actually give, and these are often visitors from other countries. But there is almost a dance of request and rejection, and both sides know their lines and, really, know how the scene will end. Indeed, some of the panhandlers ask for things – a dime for a meal, a quarter for coffee or a bus ticket – that are so patently ridiculous on the face of them that they are bound to lead to the failure that is predetermined even if their “pitch” were better. But there is, in that walk up Market, an element of danger, of some fear, of the possibility of a confrontation or an accusation, and then violence.

homeless

Market Street, once a benign place of commerce – not the city’s liveliest, or best, but certainly one of its most solid – has become emblematic of a changing urban “theater,” one we no longer wish to be in the audience of. We all, in the city, put up with too much to get what we think we need. When one no longer gets that, nor gets it in a way that is satisfactory – when one realizes that there is no reason to put up with so much unpleasantness, that one no longer wants to take it anymore, that what we believed to be the city’s placeness is mutated or gone completely – then it is time to say that this city as art is no longer to our taste, and that it’s time to direct our gaze elsewhere.

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The Ghosts of Thriftness Past

It is said that you can’t go there again. That once you change and the world around you changes, that you cannot return – even to your home away from home.

Thrift ShopAs I was growing up, my mother and I used to frequent thrift shops. I can’t remember how we got started, but once we discovered their treasure trove-ness, we were goners. First it was clothing. So what if it was pre-worn? The money we were saving! And, face it, those whose clothing we were reclaiming obviously only wore things once before discarding them. Objects came next, and, depending on which shop and who the donations came from, well, their discards were always higher quality than what we could purchase brand new. The same could be said for furniture, although that was more my own interest than mom’s, since I was the one setting up house.

It was too early to be called recycling, but whatever we were doing, we enjoyed being the beneficiaries of an economic class system. Our world opened up and was enhanced by others’ wherewithal and their convenient top-bracket tax write-offs. My various apartments and, finally, house were filled with other people’s castoffs. I think, along the way, I developed an aversion to new, always aware that I could get better value in old.

My artwork took on elements that were used, and, eventually, my art was built entirely from found objects. A big piece of what I did was to hunt for the raw materials. Every place I lived, I learned the thrift-shop lay of the land. And, on vacations, too, I was going to parts of cities unknown to most visitors – to explore what the second-hand stores had to offer. When I settled in a section of Philadelphia with my own studio, my weekly routine was to scour the thrift shops for items of interest. For about 15 years, I made the trek of approximately 50 miles round trip out to the Main Line thrift stores. Many of them were owned and operated by the big hospitals in the city proper. But what caused them to be located in the older, wealthy suburbs was Machiavellian: the monied denizens of these communities had good stuff to donate to these shops; also, many of the volunteers who ran the stores were often married to the doctors who worked at the hospitals they were working to raise money for, and these very same volunteers lived conveniently near the shops.

nl_exterior

If you are at all familiar with Main Line Philadelphia from “The Philadelphia Story,” the residents were originally blue-blooded, off the Mayflower, Junior League/country-club types. Appropriate as the name might first seem, the derivation of Main Line really has to do with the Pennsylvania Railroad line that was built to serve the communities of large estates that were like the Newport, R.I., of the Mid-Atlantic. As you might imagine, wealth was still prevalent in the latter half of the 20th century – and I picked over its bones. I would go to the towns with the names that are still stops on the commuter trains: Paoli, Berwyn, Wayne, Bryn Mawr, Villanova, Haverford, Ardmore. Kind of like the Hamptons without the beach. The amazing thing is that nearly every town had a thrift shop, some more than one. A bank, movie theater, hardware store, thrift shop – some as close as just a couple of miles apart.

I look around my house and I can remember which items came from which shops. I hauled a lot of stuff out of those amazingly well-stocked stores. But there is a point when enough is enough. Or maybe, enough is too much. My regular route ended sometime in the late 1990s. The funny thing is, that at this point I probably have owned some of the furnishings longer than the original owners had them. I still value them, despite having paid very little for them.

So, this week, for whatever reason, I took the tour again. I guess I was looking for something, but mostly, I was just looking: at my past, at what would be out there if I was starting anew, at the old haunts. It would be a kind of reunion. These days, I search on Craigslist. I am reminded by this of how technology has altered many things, but in this sense, hunting. It brings to mind the difference between browsing and searching. I think I am a browser at heart, since it is the thrill of serendipity that gives the process so much placeness. Searching and then finding what you were seeking out is satisfying, but not thrilling.

Pennywise

So I made the circuit and found it disappointing. The shops are emptier of interesting, or even nice, stuff. Yes, that could be a difference of the generation that is unloading its stuff now as opposed to the previous one. Or it could be that the idea of thrift shops is a dated one when you can search online. Probably fewer donations are made these days. And the wealth level, even on the Main Line, could be lower now – diluted by other classes wanting to live in among. Also, now there are consignment furniture outlets that are drawing the goods away from these shops – allowing the nouveau riche to get something for their discards. The true blue bloods understood charity. Plus, the volunteers working now are possibly the originals, the same women who were there 20-30 years ago. In fact, one shop had a huge banner across its storefront that read, “Looking for Volunteers.” Again, the world has changed.

It is sad to see meaningful markers of your life reduced to ghosts. These hospital thrift shops are diminished now, but they once filled both my home and heart.

Nearly New

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Slice of Life

Our one big splurge, no oftener than once a month, is buying a Bake at Home Pizza. For those who are not familiar with the concept, this is a fresh pizza that you take home and bake on your own schedule – sort of like frozen but made on-site and customized for you. We can walk to pick it up, and it is a steep climb back up the hill while carrying the wind-snagging large square box, but it has become a 27-year tradition. About a year ago, our favorite whole-wheat crust changed – that was the first sign.

dough headquarters

The owner had become a friend over the years as we chatted over the counter while she assembled our pizza. After so many pizzas, we didn’t have to order, she just automatically made what she knew we wanted. And we were only one of her longtime customers who had the same relationship and familiarity. We also knew her husband, who helped out in the shop, and her nephew, who used to work the counter on Saturdays. Even when we weren’t in the market for a pizza, we would stop in at the shop to say hi and catch up on gossip. That is the beauty and the placeness of local proprietors: getting to know them and having a long-term connection. It is just the sort of thing that is disappearing in our big-box world where, rather, it should be something to cherish.

When the crust first changed, it was explained to us that the company who started the business and made the crusts by hand directly across the street had recently sold its building and that the crusts were now coming from someplace else. Our sense was that production was being outsourced and that the dough was suffering. There was a qualitative drop and the pizza-shop owner was forced into a corner: should she sell pizza inferior to what she had built her business upon, or bail out from the original franchise and find her own dough, so to speak? She chose quality over economy and found a better substitute for the crust, severing what was a three-decades-long connection with her supplier. Besides flying solo, she had to change the trademarked business name on the storefront and stop using the name-imprinted boxes for the pies: first achieved by means of a magic marker, then a sticker, and, finally, new generic pizza boxes. Everything was changing. The old boxes had the baking instructions printed on them, but not the new makeshift ones. The store was getting overwhelmed with customer calls about how to bake the pizzas – since everyone relied on the box top.

original shop

Our frequency of pizza purchases had slowed, and it had been a couple of months since our last visit. There were cosmetic changes happening inside the store. An eat-in sit-down area was now carved out of the small space that had been entirely counter – odd for a business called Bake at Home. New tile on the floor, a glass partition on half of the counter, a different signboard on the wall and a new man busy behind the counter. He, it turns out, isn’t related. He is the new owner.

The business has sold, I am told by a young employee who has been kept on. No wonder all the changes. The smiling new owner tells me that he is expanding the business to be a pizza parlor – meaning on-site, bake-on-premises – and he is adding steaks and subs, garlic bread, sandwiches, etc. He is congenial and has a thick accent. I am sure he is eager to succeed. It seems to me that all the things he has mentioned are popular, although they are ubiquitous. In this town, pizza parlors and sub shops are found two or three to a block. It was the unique nature of the original business – of creating a niche instead of just filling a crowded one – that made it sing. And, too, the person whom we identified with the very kind of business that encouraged conversation and company alongside really good pizza was now gone with the winds of change. I got a feeling that this new approach will be standardized, more of a move-’em-in-move-’em-out kind of establishment, and therefore more anonymous and fast-food-like.

To me it is a void already. I feel the loss of a friend and a familiar establishment, a way of doing something a little bit differently, a wonderful pizza to enjoy, plus the ritual of it. An absence of arslocii is a game-changer; we need more placeness, not less.

pizza box

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The Road Not Taken

road to nowhereWe do not think of roads in pieces but as ongoing lengths – we even refer to them, in stories and songs, as ribbons of highway. It is almost as if, if you kept driving, a road would keep appearing under you, as needed, fabricated out of whole cloth over empty land to ensure your continued travel. When we think of roads in sections, it is usually the landmarks to the roads’ sides that we refer to – seldom (other than potholes or known construction barriers) do we consider the roadway itself. Like electricity when we flick a switch, it’s just there. And, in most places, where one road ends another comes off it. A road does not, it seems, in and of itself, have placeness, though its environment may.

That is why a so-called “road to nowhere” is so jarring, and intriguing. For, by the very nature of its stopping, literally dead in its tracks, it seems to go against “nature,” but also, by its causing us to stop dead in our tracks as well and to demand consideration of the absence of its “roadness,” it creates placeness.

Famous, of course, is the “road to nowhere” that was built to connect to the “bridge to nowhere” envisioned as connecting Ketchikan to Gravina Island, in Alaska, the scandalously wasteful, pork-barrel nature of which may have added fuel to the disenchantment with and ridicule of Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential candidate and voice of right-wing Republicanism (a road that, itself, seems happily to, finally, have gone nowhere, although the trip took longer than the projected 15 minutes).

Regularly, on the way to doing some tasks near Norristown, Pa., we have found ourselves quite suddenly and surprisingly on another such derailed road. You come off an exit from a bridge, rolling down the chute, and then you find yourself facing not the straight lanes you expect but instead a chain-link fence that diverts the road you are on to make a hairpin turn sending you off rather quickly in the opposite direction. But, before you leave the area, you can spy, behind the chain link, the road that might have been: multiple lanes go off a short distance, ending in a jungle of overgrowth – and it is as if one had reached the end of the earth before falling off, or disappearing into the wild. From up above, looking down from an overpass, you can see the abrupt disappearance of highway even more clearly. It … just … stops.

hairpin

Having had our curiosity piqued by this odd sight – a circumcised highway imprisoned like a white-collar criminal, without any indication why – a little research uncovered the backstory. Apparently, a link was imagined between two routes, to ease commuting, and, given the grand name of Schuylkill Parkway, the work was begun. And then funds ran out, right in midstream. And so, today, stands a monument to the “dream” of interlocking paths to make suburban sprawl even more conveniently sprawling, and an indictment of pouring tens of millions of dollars into a useless folly and not having the sense to spend a little more and give it usefulness. Better to let it be pointless is the logic, it seems. And should it ever come back to life as a project, how wasteful it will have been to let everything crack and crumble, with more millions needed to bring it back up to baseline buildable again.

But, if one rolls down that exit ramp, and instead of making that sharp turn and continuing on in the opposite direction, if one were to pull over and park in what would have been the road’s median – well, it is a whole different place to be. Indeed, it is a place. If no other cars are coming, one has the great, eerie pleasure of walking on a wide, deserted highway, as if all the world were gone but you, as in some Twilight Zone episode. But even better is to walk to and squeeze through the chain link, and you are in another world: A road almost never used that, in very short fashion, ends. Here, and in few other places, the highway can be looked at as a piece, as the way you might see light as particles and not rays if you had the tools to do so. It is wide and clear, but a snippet … and, in some way, sad, in the way something that does not achieve its potential is a sad thing. And, if you step farther into the stunted road, you can almost feel the quiet, and you can yourself feel like a thief, or a time traveler, or someone (Twilight Zone, again) whose time-metabolism is different from those on Earth, and that there might be cars zipping all around you, but you are out of sync with them, and thus unaffected. It feels like a place of unintentional but no less powerful art. Not holy, not spiritual, but insistent, and resonant with arslocii vibes and possibilities.

turnaround

It is like a movie set and, in fact, the city or county or state could make some money off this white elephant by making it available to filmmakers to use for car-chase and -crash scenes. Sometimes, a motor-vehicle agency puts out parking cones in this space and performs some sort of test or driving contest; it could be the perfect place to teach driver-ed classes. Or to turn into a recreational area – there is plenty of room for basketball and tennis courts. Or make it a performance venue, or show movies outdoors during the summer. Make this thing that goes nowhere be its own destination. Sometimes, nothingness is the perfect place for anythingness, because there are no restrictions, rules or preconceived notions. Sometimes, the place to start is the place where it all stops.

road end

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The Journey Within

All Japanese gardens, if done well, done imaginatively and artfully but also done within tradition’s fairly rigid and proscribed parameters (or with an abiding respect for or creative spin on them) have placeness. In their sensitive tough-love partnership of nature and the shaping human hand, they are almost the definitive working model of arslocii. Though the inclusion of certain elements – pathways and materials and physical relationships – can be, need be found in all such gardens, the designers of them have found ways to be faithful and yet to be singular, to take the time-honored and familiar pieces and mold something that feels old and new, even renewed, formal yet comfortable, all at once. Without knowing much about such places, one merely has to go to one, a good one, and to sit in it, and to be in it, and one will know that it is right.

We have been to a few such places, most recently Shofuso, which began life slightly more than a half-century ago as an exhibit in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and which somehow found its way to a small carved-out niche in the westernmost portion of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Shofuso is, like its not-too-distant neighbor Martin Puryear’s Pavilion in the Trees, an amenity – a throwback to a time when cities believed it was in the public good to provide such things, and when citizens felt that their tax dollars were well-spent in the providing. They are relics of a bygone era – in fact, two eras, from two nations – and in that way alone Shofuso would have placeness.

But, in any discussion of Shofuso and placeness – in fact, of most such amenities and their placeness – inherent nature can be less interesting than situation.

Where Shofuso resides, it is within a park but up against a busy road, and the park is within a hard-scrabble and rundown neighborhood, which is in a city, which is in a large metropolitan area, which is in a cohesive region. Like Charles and Ray Eames’ film Powers of Ten, one can start at the particular and zoom out to the general – from the lake in Shofuso up and out to view the expanse of the encompassing geography. Each element is within another; one exists because the other does.

 

Often, the placeness of a place is not so much the place itself but the place it’s in, and the place that that place is in, and so on. Much of what gives a place its placeness is the coming upon it. In this way of thinking, placeness is like nested Russian eggs, where, by removing the larger outer shell one finds a smaller one of equal or surpassing beauty within, and by opening this newly found egg, one encounters another. One egg gives over to another, smaller, until, finally, one arrives at the core egg, the gem most nested inside, like a cut stone in a jewel box. Often, what gives this final egg its specialness is not that it is so much more lovely than those that preceded it, but that they did precede it – that there was a process of discovery, a journey, and that coming upon this final egg was the culmination, a bestowed specialness. The prize in a CrackerJack box has little value; it is that it hides from view, and one must send fingers on a burrowing adventure to find it. It is the path of discovery, however messy, that makes the found item something of (even momentary) merit.

But what makes this placeness reductionism even more rewarding is that, unlike the nested eggs, there really is no endpoint to the focusing journey. Within Shofuso, say, there is a teahouse, and within the teahouse is the ceremonial room, and within the room are tatami mats, and one of these mats is a small rectangle, and it is upon this tiny spot that the teapot is placed, and where so much is done in the tea ritual. A place within a place within a place. You could stop anywhere along the placeness continuum and feel the placeness. But if you continue, you can find more.

 

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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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