Punch a Hole in the Rocky Steps?

If you are from Philly, they are not the Rocky Steps, but the Art Museum Steps. The steps were there long before Sly Stallone had Garrett Brown use a prototype of the Steadicam to run up the steps for breathless montages of panoramic views. In the mid-’70s the film Rocky really made you feel like you are “gonna fly now.” (Bet I can make you smile if I start singing the theme and start jumping around with my arms in the air.)

The Art Museum Steps themselves are part of a larger piece of public art that evokes a Greek Temple devoted to culture and knowledge. Looking from the perch of at the top of the steps you get sight lines that include George Washington’s statue in Eakins Oval, across Logan Circle to City Hall (at one time among of the tallest structures in the world). The design was an intentional homage to Paris. Nobody has questioned the quality of the Art displayed in this design.

A Philadelphia Art establishment, never comfortable with someone as plebeian as Rocky Balboa, has advanced a plan to punch a hole in the Art Museum Steps so that a subterranean gallery can look outside with natural light. Too bad the steps face southeast and by the afternoon the sun will be casting shadows on the gallery. By mid-afternoon artificial lights will need to be turned on in the gallery anyway.

The orifice is a hideous idea. An art museum is a place to preserve art — unless you are making a meta statement about art by destroying the tools of the artist (a la Pete Townsend). Maybe the hole is supposed to invoke a grouchy old man yelling from the top of the Art Museum, “Hey — everybody get off my lawn.”

The steps are a public palette. A few years ago the Dali Exhibition brilliantly used the steps as a giant billboard for the show. Cutting the ad into horizontal strips and placing them inside the risers of the steps, anybody could see Dali’s mustache a mile away. Won’t be able to do that if somebody’s giant hand grabs a fistful from stone from the middle of the steps…

If you consider film to be an artistic endeavor, Rocky (the first movie) is certainly in a class by itself (well okay — Raging Bull is right next to it). The story of nobody becoming somebody — even when falling just short — that is Art. (Lose the fight — win the Oscar.)

The film’s storytelling construction wasn’t used before, but has been copied a million times since. You can see a mile off when a film is going to use the Rocky formula. Go watch some Disney films from the last 30 years. You can go into the technical aspects of the film that were state of the art of the day (the Steadicam) enhancing the artistic experience. How many times does the Rocky theme play at sporting events to get the crowd juiced?

Those steps are a focal point and a character in the film — where fiction actually hands a baton to real life.

Is art supposed to inspire? The film inspires, otherwise what about all those folks grabbing the baton and charging the steps.

Used to chaperone fourth graders to the Art Museum when my kids were on the bus. A big part of the trip after taking the kids through the galleries of medieval weapons and abstract art was getting them to run up the steps and imitate art in real life. Also a great way to tire them out for the bus ride home.

The Art Museum Steps (still not comfortable calling them the Rocky Steps) embodies what Art is supposed to be. I could argue that The Odessa Steps from The Potemkin (film school reference) are similar, but I doubt anybody in Russia goes there to push baby carriages from the top step.

The ultimate irony of Rocky’s loss in the first movie is that it was decided by the powers that be — not in the ring. Watch it over again – Rocky could have gotten the decision. As we sit here debating the steps — again it may be decided that Rocky loses by the powers that be. An interesting underlining of fiction and real life.

In a weird sort of way destroying an outside structure most everyone enjoys for the enjoyment of those on the inside is an artistic statement too. Those on the inside bunker surrounded by luxury trump the wants and desires of the general population on the outside. I guess anybody who is a nobody who likes those steps will be denied by the somebodies who are really nobodies.

It is ironic that unless the Commission is talking about moving the General Washington Statue from Eakins Oval, the vision as you stare out towards City Hall will be looking right at the hind quarters of General Washington’s Horse.

If the Art establishment wanted to integrate the steps into the experience, why not give water to those who scale the steps? Invite us into a free gallery or two on the first floor where those of us a little sweaty and unwashed can see what is so special. Whet our artistic appetites.

But what do I know about art? I’m just a nobody from Philly.

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