Paterno statue survives, like cult adoration

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Joe Paterno's 7-foot-tall, 900-pound bronze statue near Beaver Stadium was a monstrosity long before the world caught on to the evil deeds of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Erected nearly two months after Sept. 11, 2001, the statue depicts Paterno in mid-gallop and gesturing skyward with his right index finger. It isn't clear whether the bronze giant is hailing a cab or proclaiming JoePa's status as the winningest coach in college football history. Probably the latter.

Never mind that it is a terminally ugly and tacky piece of work. Thousands of Penn State students, their family members and groupies have been photographed with it in the decade it has adorned the holiest of holies in State College.

Despite the statue's freakishly long right arm, it has become an institution that inspires almost as much loyalty as the man it vaguely resembles. The inscription on the wall tries to make the case for immortality -- Joseph Vincent Paterno: Educator, Coach, Humanitarian.

Faced with a chorus of demands to remove the statue, the Penn State board of trustees decided to leave it in place. "You can't let people stampede you into making a rash decision," an anonymous trustee told ESPN.com. "The statue represents the good that Joe did. It doesn't represent the bad that he did."

Instead of seizing the opportunity to remove an aesthetic eyesore that also represents the failure of the school's leadership to stop a suspected pedophile because it would have embarrassed the football program, the trustees delayed the inevitable. Why work expeditiously when you can drag things out in an agonizingly public way for months?

It has always been customary for totalitarian states to honor a "Dear Leader" with bad art. Visit any hermetically sealed kingdom from North Korea to Happy Valley, and the first thing you notice is the aesthetic poverty of the art honoring fatally flawed leaders.

Whether Kim Jong Il or Joe Paterno, the Dear Leader dutifully blesses bad art created while he was alive to flatter him. Evidently, these leaders lack the spiritual integrity it takes to be embarrassed by it.

Although there is no moral equivalence when it comes to the scale of their crimes, both leaders allowed themselves to be cast in bronze and depicted in self-aggrandizing murals because their subjects engage in the same willing suspension of good taste that they do.

A benign dictator is still a dictator, even if he does wonderful things for his followers.

Kitsch rules because sycophants and hero-worshippers don't care whether art is good or bad when it comes to honoring the Dear Leader. Its only value is to celebrate the demigod in charge and perpetuate his cult for a new generation.

The controversy surrounding the fate of Paterno's statue is a ridiculous exercise in secular idolatry, given the extent to which its subject has been thoroughly exposed by the Freeh report as a false god with clay feet.

Last weekend, news events caused muralist and Penn State alumnus Michael Pilato to alter his famous painting of Paterno and the pantheon of Penn State godlings yet again.

Surveying the mural on the exterior wall of an off-campus bookstore, Mr. Pilato erased the halo he'd painted above Paterno's head after he died. It was yet another painful concession to reality by the artist. The celebrated, social-realist painter had already removed Sandusky from the mural even before he was convicted, but now has to worry whether other Penn State luminaries will have to be removed before the dust settles.

That's the nature of totalitarian hagiography. It is ruthlessly sentimental and, thus, at the mercy of factors that transcend the formal elements of the work itself. When Khruschev denounced Stalin in 1956, he purged his image and words from Soviet history without blinking. Khruschev ordered all of Stalin's statues scrapped except the one in his home village, where the affection for the dictator was sincere.

Eventually, even the Penn State board of trustees will be compelled to exhibit half the moral conviction of Khruschev and banish Paterno's statue from campus. Eventually, Mr. Pilato will realize that adjusting his mural to reflect each day's lurid headline is a losing proposition.

If Penn State wants to move forward, it must jettison the symbols of its imperial cult of personality. Keeping tokens of the ancien regime around will only remind folks of a time when something that was many degrees beyond tawdry was allowed to fester under the omnipresent gaze of the Dear Leader.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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