In light of Jerry Sandusky’s recent conviction for sexually abusing 10 boys, the statue of Joe Paterno, the former football coach of Pennsylvania State University who failed to alert authorities to the abuse, outside the school’s Beaver Stadium has quickly become an extremely controversial symbol. Although Paterno died of natural causes this past January at 85 years old, his statue remained as a glaring reminder of Sandusky’s horrific actions and the inexcusable inaction of Paterno and others. With threats of the statue’s destruction and a strong public outcry against it, Rodney Erickson, president of Penn State, released a statement last week explaining his intentions to immediately remove the statue:
I now believe that, contrary to its original intention, Coach Paterno’s statue has become a source of division and an obstacle to healing in our University and beyond. For that reason, I have decided that it is in the best interest of our university and public safety to remove the statue and store it in a secure location. I believe that, were it to remain, the statue will be a recurring wound to the multitude of individuals across the nation and beyond who have been the victims of child abuse.
The statue was created by sculptor Angelo Di Maria to celebrate Paterno’s energy and successful career as a coach for Penn State. Di Maria did not take a stance either way on the controversy surrounding his work, acknowledging how complicated and delicate the situation is in a brief interview with the Inquirer:
The basic question is, do you throw everything out? That legacy [of Paterno] is ingrained in people who went there. Nothing can rival the importance of the abuse victims, or the children of the abuse victims. But there are others involved — the people who were so affected by him.
The removal of the Paterno statue reminded me of many other ill-fated statues throughout history: the Saddam Hussein statue toppled in Iraq by US troops; the Buddhas of Bamiyan, which were destroyed by Taliban leaders who considered the giant stone statues to be false idols not in accordance with their views on Muslim law; the Stalin monument that was torn down during the 1956 revolution in Budapest, Hungary. There’s a long history of removing statues that, although once popular, outlived their relevance or culture and became unwanted sights. In instances like Budapest, the decision was made mostly by the people, whereas the fates of the Hussein statue or the Buddhas of Bamiyan were decided by a small group of powerful people. Who decides what belongs in public space, and how do we know when a statue’s time has passed?
Unfortunately many public arts organizations simply avoid the possibility of controversy altogether. There is a reason for the modernist sculptures that plague corporate plazas: they are extremely safe — inless you’re Richard Serra’s “Titled Arc” (1981). Although these works are unlikely to become the center of any controversy, their disconnect with the people seems almost less desirable to me. Shouldn’t art stir emotions, create debate and incite discourse? Then again, finding really powerful and meaningful works for public space is no easy task; it’s a completely different context than a museum. Seeing an exhibition on Nazi Germany would obviously be a different experience than stumbling across a statue of Hitler. One provides historical context and cultural meaning while the other would simply enrage or terrify the viewer.
Remembering history is important, especially the mistakes of the past, but maybe sometimes citizens need time to lay the past to rest. Seeing a statue that memorializes a man who was in a position to prevent sexual abuse but chose inaction at a football game is not ideal for deeper conversation and remembrance, but then again, is there an acceptable place? Does the removal of the Paterno statue help the public ignore and forget Sandusky’s heinous acts more quickly rather than come to terms with and learn from them? I really don’t know.
The situation brings to mind Fred Wilson’s shuttered project “E Pluribus Unum,” for the city of Indianapolis. The work planned to appropriate the form of a recently freed slave from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in downtown Indianapolis. When the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument was completed, in 1901, the only African American man on the monument caused no controversy to report. But times have changed: the subject remains the only African American person depicted in public art in Indianapolis today, and the downtrodden figure, reaching up for salvation from a white Lady Liberty, is more than a little demeaning. The statue did not change, but over 100 years society has changed, as well as our conceptions of racism and equality.
Wilson did not propose to destroy the original, nor change it in any way. Rather, he wanted to reimagine it in a contemporary context, to reinvigorate the character to bring a powerful African American figure to Indianapolis in a way that both acknowledges the past while also moving on. Maybe one day Wilson’s project could become a recognized solution for dealing with old and less desirable — or increasingly controversial — public work. But surprisingly, the those who presented themselves as the spokespeople of the African American community completely rejected Wilson’s piece, causing the artist to withdraw his plans to build the new monument.
Currently the Paterno statue is reported to be in Beaver Stadium’s storage. The question now becomes: what to do with it? There’s a huge difference between removing a sculpture and destroying it. Maybe the piece should be saved for other circumstances, like a sports museum. Others think it should live on in a different way: Lawrence Nowlan, a public art sculptor, proposed that it be recycled into a new, less controversial work. “The conversation doesn’t end with a bronze in storage,” Nowlan said. “I think it’s a continuation, in a positive way, to recover that bronze and cast it as a healing fountain for victims of child abuse.”
Possibly we could skip the controversy altogether in the future by following the model of the Fourth Plinth Project in Trafalgar Square, London. Instead of building permanent public artworks, the Fourth Plinth Project commissions short-term, contemporary installations from successful artists like Rachel Whiteread, Antony Gormely and Yinka Shonibare, to name a few. These projects have not been without their small controversies, but like museum exhibitions, they change and move on before they can become symbols of the city, therefore skirting deeper anger.
The Paterno statue brings up a conversation about public art that has no easy answers. The public is so diverse — so many people with different ideologies and goals — that nobody will ever be satisfied by one piece of art. Does that mean we should switch to only ephemeral public projects, like the work of Creative Time? Or does Fred Wilson’s way offer a better solution? I don’t know.