The Joe Paterno statue. Image by Rob Carr.

The Joe Paterno statue (image by Rob Carr)

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.

A banner reading “Take the statue down or we will” was flown over the Paterno statue in Pennsylvania (image by Michael Bryant, via Philadelphia Inquirer)

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?

The Saddam Hussein statue being removed by troops in Iraq (photo by Jerome Delay)

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 only African American on the Soldiers’ and Sailor’s Monument in Indianapolis (image via Art21)

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.

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Ben Valentine

Ben Valentine is an independent writer living in Cambodia. Ben has written and spoken on art and culture for SXSW, Salon, SFAQ, the Los Angeles Review of Books, YBCA, ACLU, de Young Museum, and the Museum...

4 replies on “The Joe Paterno Statue and Questions of Public Art”

  1. I enjoy the part about the Indianapolis art work concerning the African American figure. I agree that you can take away a memory but you cannot erase the past. The statue may be out of sight, but everyone will remember that it WAS there. The best thing we can do, regardless of whether the statue is there or not, is the learn from the mistakes of these individuals, whatever level they were involved or not involved in.

    Lastly, the perfect example of a public display (for lack of a better word) that people did not completely remove, but rather treat as a lesson learned you can find in Munich, Germany. There is a small portion of a cement wall which still bears the outline of a plaque which back in Hitler’s time forced people to hail to the plaque (or risk being punished by nearby guards). Nowadays, although Hitler is long gone and the actual plaque removed, the people of Munich would rather leave the empty, stained space as a gentle, slight reminder of the past while still being able to move forward.

  2. I was recently in Moscow and went to see the Sculpture Garden near the New Tretyakov Museum — lo and behold back behind the museum in a neglected area did I see a discarded statues of Stalin, Communist symbols and many other formerly revered politicians.

  3. Excellent example, Jessica: there’s definitely plenty of room for beautiful, challenging, and thought-provoking public art between the personality cult statues of the past and the more recent corporate type modernist sculptures. Along the lines of the piece in Munich that so beautifully embraces history, the empty footprint of the old Paterno sculpture could also be “saved” and become a very powerful new piece (see pic in the link below). At the same time as it would acknowledge the history behind the previous artwork, the shadows of the players would bring attention to the reason for it’s ultimate removal.

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