“Rocky” Road for Philadelphia Art

Who could have imagined that a Hollywood movie prop would find a permanent home in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of America’s finest art museums? The theatrical property in question is an 8-foot tall bronze statue – arms raised in victory – depicting Rocky Balboa, the fictional boxer played by Sylvester Stallone.

On September 7th, 2006, to their great discredit, the Philadelphia Art Commission buckled, voting 6-2 to place the statue of Rocky on the ground level of the museum steps. Commission member Moe Brooker voted against the decision, and flatly stated: “It’s not a work of art and it doesn’t belong there.” Miguel Angel Corzo, University of the Arts president and the other commission member to vote against the plan, said the decision went against the commission’s purpose of raising “the standards of the city.” Naturally I stand with these dissenters, and I condemn the notion that the Rocky statue can in any way be compared to the holdings of the Philadelphia Museum of Art – which has in its collection sculptures by Honoré Daumier, Georges Braque, Amedeo Modigliani, and Auguste Rodin.

On September 8th, 2006, three thousand screaming Rocky fans gathered at the steps of the museum to watch Sylvester Stallone unveil the bronze at its new permanent home, a museum that will henceforth be known, not for its world class collection of paintings by Thomas Eakins or sculptures by Rodin – but for its statue of a macho Hollywood movie character. The press has in the main been filled with glowing accolades regarding the Rocky statue, and some of Philadelphia’s local press has voiced outright contempt and hostility towards the arts community for viewing the statue as nothing more than a movie prop. One AM talk radio broadcaster referred to arts professionals as those “hoity-toity, artsy-fartsy, holier-than-thou, Barnes-move-backing, quiche-eating, latte-loving, al Qaeda-inspired, vegan, no-nuke, save-the-whales, Green Party, white-Christmas-light-hanging, Birkenstock-wearing, Swiss-cheesesteak-eating dilettantes.” Right-wing populists have politicized an argument over aesthetics, turning it into one of identity by proclaiming the Rocky statue a patriotic monument to the American spirit.

Interestingly enough, the great majority of press accounts don’t even mention the name of the artist who created the statue – providing evidence that the story has more to do with a people’s desperate need to believe in a myth than anything to do with art. The director of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Art Association, which commissions and preserves public art in the City of Brotherly Love, said, “It’s not an artistic high point of sculptural practice, it’s a movie prop. That’s what it was made for, it’s not an insult and it’s not an opinion – it’s a fact.”

Sylvester Stallone’s first Rocky film was made in 1976, and the 72 step-entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art was used as the setting for a melodramatic scene where the Rocky character triumphantly runs up the stairs, punching the air while completing a training regime in preparation for a heavyweight match. Since that time, legions of hormonal male fans have run up the museum steps, mimicking the histrionic scene in a ritual that continues to this day. When Stallone returned to Philadelphia in 1982 to film Rocky III, he commissioned artist A. Thomas Schomberg to create the 2000 pound bronze statue, and it stood atop the museum staircase until filming was completed.

Stallone left the statue in place as a gift to the museum – but the arts community was appalled, and lodged complaints with the city Art Commission and the press to have the prop moved to a more appropriate location. Eventually the commission relented, and the statue was relocated to the Spectrum sports arena. In 2005 the sports arena was demolished and the statue was put in storage. The 60 year-old Stallone returned to Philadelphia in 2006 to film Rocky Balboa, and the statue makes an appearance in the film, which gave supporters of the bronze further opportunity to arm twist officials into permanently installing it in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There is an especially large collection of Rodin’s sculptures at the museum, among which can be found The Thinker, the French artist’s world famous masterpiece. It is a travesty that a sculpture of a monosyllabic Hollywood action film star will now find a home in the same collection as Rodin’s Thinker – it’s an even bigger tragedy that people can’t tell the difference between great art and the garish junk generated to promote the latest blockbuster from tinsel town.

There’s no doubt Sylvester Stallone has teeming numbers of fans who adore the statue of him as fictional boxer, Rocky Balboa, but is that a valid reason to force an art museum to display such a statue? Perhaps now that the precedent has been set, we can look forward to a statue of Stallone as Rambo being erected in front of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. There is no shortage of popular Hollywood stars and starlets who could commission sculptures and portraits of themselves to grace our nation’s museums. Perhaps the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York would like to advance the race to the bottom by purchasing and displaying the latest sculpture by artist, Daniel Edwards, who recently cast in bronze the “first poop” of Suri Cruise, the baby of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Who needs great art when you can have celebrity worship?

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