Changing concept of heroes reflected in new statues

Posted: December 23, 2013

The drive from Waco to Houston is so long and unremarkable that last week, when I passed a redwood-size statue of Sam Houston, I feared I'd fallen into a hallucinatory haze.

But, no, the white, 67-foot-high likeness of the 19th-century Texas hero, which hovers like a mutant ghost above Interstate 45 in Huntsville, was as real as Billy Penn atop City Hall.

Supersize Sam has been standing there like a Skull Island totem, frightening unsuspecting motorists, since 1994, which has to make him one of the more recent non-sports entries in the field of heroic statuary.

Heroic statuary just ain't what it used to be.

Throughout the late 20th century and into the early 21st, the venerable art form appears to have been given over entirely to the re-creation of sports figures.

In fact, other than the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, I can't recall a recent example that depicted anyone but an athlete or announcer.

When's the last time - no, Caesars Atlantic City doesn't count - you saw a modern depiction of a Greek or Roman god?

What about war heroes, once the most popular of subjects for sculptors everywhere?

Is there a more moving tribute than that Kelly Drive statue of a caped Gen. Ulysses Grant astride his horse? Nearby, Fairmount Park is teeming with monuments to Grant's Civil War colleagues.

But the next Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf statue I see will be the first.

Aren't poets, politicians, civic leaders, and inventors as worthy a subject as pitchers, punters, and power forwards?

On the list of candidates for monuments, we've descended pretty low. We've gone from David, Moses, Venus de Milo, Grant, and Lincoln to Frank White and Chick Hearn, memorialized, respectively, in Kansas City and Los Angeles.

If the likenesses of White and Hearn don't bother you, then I'll bet the one of Danny Wuerffel in Gainesville, Fla., will. It's alongside bronze depictions of two other decidedly non-heroic Florida figures, Tim Tebow and Steve Spurrier.

We have either too few heroes or too much bronze.

Curiously, Philadelphia very likely leads the league in sculpted sports figures, perhaps because this city has seen more than its share of athletic stiffs.

Lined up end to end, our sports statues might be as numerous as China's Terracotta Warriors.

Like most modern ballparks, Citizens Bank Park is surrounded by them. There you'll find Mike Schmidt swinging, Robin Roberts and Steve Carlton throwing, Richie Ashburn running, Harry Kalas smiling, and Connie Mack contemplating ways to cut his leftfielder's salary.

Some are more abstract than others. Outside the Wells Fargo Center, for example, an arena in which he never played or visited, Wilt Chamberlain appears to be dunking a '39 DeSoto.

Once, heroic statues were designed to occupy reverent spaces - cemeteries, museums, imposing memorials. Not one, until Comcast-Spectacor had the inspiration, ever adorned the exterior of a sports bar.

Dr. J, Bobby Clarke, Bernie Parent, Gary Dornhoefer, and even "God Bless America" belter Kate Smith are clustered incongruously outside XFinity Live, as if all had been flagged by its bouncer. And Joe Frazier is expected to join those ranks sometime in the next year.

Still, for all the shallowness of their subjects, some of these sculptors produced real works of art. The image of Babe Ruth - thin, youthful, and relaxed - outside Camden Yards surely is museum-worthy.

Then there's Rocky Balboa.

Rocky Balboa is not a real athlete, which is just as well since his movie-prop likeness is not real art. The fact that this statue of a fictional pug occupies a prominent spot in front of the otherwise august Philadelphia Museum of Art is a civic embarrassment to rival the 76ers.

Philadelphia certainly isn't alone.

Pittsburgh's sports statues honor, among others, Honus Wagner, Mario Lemieux, Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargell. There are at least four of Ted Willliams in and around Boston.

Likenesses of Harry Caray, Michael Jordan, and Scottie Pippen can be found in Chicago. And Anaheim's got one of Earl and Tiger Woods.

Alabama already has a statue of Nick Saban, a head-scratching development that, along with one of Lou Holtz in South Bend, makes my point nicely.

So what's different?

Is America truly that devoid of heroes? Maybe traditional sculptures are another victim of our polarized society? Perhaps sports idols are the only public figures we can still all rally around?

Until the late 20th century, the evolution of heroic statuary proceeded rather logically.

The oldest known sculpture, by the way, is at least 30,000 years old and, it's believed, was recently scouted by Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr.

Early sculptors created religious totems. Their Classical Age counterparts produced marble likenesses of madonnas, gods, emperors, and biblical figures.

Then came a trend to commemorate great battles and their heroes, followed by a more abstract period that gave rise to Rocky Balboa's more esteemed Parkway mate, Rodin's Thinker.

The next artistic iteration saw artists, inventors, businessmen, and heads of state memorialized.

And then, around 1980, by my estimate, we ran out of genuine heroes and turned to the sports pages.

I have nothing against sports figures, in either a literal or figurative sense. But being memorialized in bronze, marble, or clay ought to imply a certain moral gravitas that, frankly, you don't find often in locker rooms.

The Roman statesman Cato the Elder once said, "I would much rather have men ask why I have no statue, than why I have one."

Joe Paterno, something of an expert on ancient Rome if not statues, would have agreed.

The Penn State coach found himself cast in bronze while still alive. Then, shortly after his death and the controversy that likely precipitated it, that sculpture, much like Paterno's reputation, was removed from its pedestal and stored away, perhaps to be reassessed at some future date.

Maybe by then, our concept of heroes and heroism will have changed.

And we'll once again plant trees instead of statues outside our ballparks.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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