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"Whatever It Takes" - A Look at Steeler Nation

Exhibit Poster
Exhibit Poster

As I was pondering what might be important and interesting enough to be worthy material for my first front-page story, I idly checked my email. And there it was, glowing like Isaac Redman's face after another 85 yard touchdown run - a link from a friend to the website for the Regina Miller gallery at Carnegie Mellon University.

Tonight was a special event for their current exhibition, titled, appropriately enough, "The Immaculate Reception." The exhibit, which runs through the end of January, is called "Whatever It Takes - Steelers Fan Collections, Rituals, and Obsessions." (Whoever chose the dates for the exhibit has a sense of humor and a lot of optimism. I'm sure that we are all hoping that the Steelers are running through the end of January. Into February would be even better!)

Somehow or other, I had not heard about the exhibit, which actually opened 2 weeks ago, but I nobly ignored the fact that I hadn't had dinner yet, changed into my best Randle El jersey, and headed over to CMU to check it out. Here's what I saw, after the jump:

The picture above is the poster for the exhibit. You can get your own copy by clicking here and then clicking on the "Download the Poster" link in the upper left hand margin. It's quite striking, and you can print a copy on your own color printer to hang in your Steelers Mancave. The Regina Miller Gallery is in the relatively new Purnell Center for the Arts at CMU. The Purnell Center is somewhat of an anomaly on the campus, which is heavily populated by engineering types. But although CMU is best-known for its engineering and technology colleges, it has an excellent College of Fine Arts as well. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that my MFA is from CMU, and so I may be biased.)

Cognitive dissonance was in full swing tonight as I entered the gallery. At one end of the room is an area where you can have yourself filmed throwing a football, which is somehow inserted into footage of The Immaculate Reception. At the other end of the room is a live feed to a Steelers bar in Rome, where you can, in theory, chat with the patrons. (As it was 1 in the morning in Rome by the time I got there, the place was pretty quiet.) The latest episode of Yinz Luv Da Stillers is playing on a continuous loop. There is a large wall that lists Steelers bars around the world - useful to know, in case you find yourself in Qatar or Peru - and a list of all of the fan blogs. (I'm happy to say that Behind the Steel Curtain is first on the list!) There was another wall of beautiful photographs of Steelers tatoos - I gather they collected these at training camp and at the Lions game. And in the middle of everything, given pride of place, is Denny DeLuca's amazing Steelers Room, and the man himself, there to explain it. Denny has kindly agreed to answer any questions I may have about his room, and I'll publish his thoughts and some photos during the Bye Week, when we need some Steelers stuff to get us through the long, long week.

Perhaps the most entertaining part of the evening was looking at the people. It was an almost unthinkable mix of contemporary-art types and Stillers fans, and it's hard to imagine anything other than this event that would actually get them in the same room. But as I continued to watch the people, and watch them react to the exhibit and to each other, I realized that as well-intentioned as this is, it is to a certain degree doomed to failure. The avowed purpose of the curators is to "present the participatory popular culture of Steelers fandom. The exhibition, a first of its kind, focuses not on fans as consumers, but on fans as producers - a creative force that modifies dominant culture into something much more personal..." (You can read much more about it at the website.) It is a very clever and innovative idea, and the curators did a nice job assembling a collection that is interesting to look at and thoughtfully arranged. It is definitely worth seeing - any of you out-of-towners that are coming in for a game should add it to your agenda if you will be here on the Saturday. It's even free, although the free Iron City was only for tonight.

But in the end, I came away with the uncomfortable feeling that what the "contemporary-art types" see is a bunch of kitsch. It was something to pass an idle hour, and the fact that there was free beer (although the usual gallery-hoppers presumably would have preferred the standard box wine) made it worth their while. I'm not sure that they saw the passion beneath the exterior crust of things. In short, I didn't get the impression that most of them saw what the show was really about. Because this show isn't about art, although most everything there was, in my opinion, more interesting and certainly more comprehensible than most of what you see at the Carnegie International. And it's not really about the Steelers either, or the intersection between football and art. It's about love, and that's something that plays a lot better in Peoria than it does in an art gallery.


Alba made a very interesting comment, and I want to address this point:

I agree with momma rollett that the mix of Steelers fans and art-goers was heady. But I didn’t get a sense of the work coming across as kitschy. Maybe that’s because I spoke with several friends on the CFA (College of Fine Arts) faculty and saw how they approached the exhibit playfully but reverentially. Maybe momma rollett and I just happened to meet different crowds.

As soon as I hit 'publish' on this post I starting editing it, because I had the sense that I was coming off as trying to start a culture war, and that wasn't at all what I was attempting to do. It is entirely possible that the last two paragraphs reflect only my own growing unease, as the world I have always lived in becomes less and less comfortable to me. After all, I inhabit the rarefied atmosphere of an art that isn't supported by the general population. My insulation against any feelings of irrelevance used to be that this indifference on the part of the general public occurred because I was somehow more discerning than the average person. The fact that they didn't enjoy the music that I worked so hard to produce was a reflection of their ignorance and/or insensitivity. (Not that I would have expressed it that way : 0 ) I'm happy to say that I've finally seen the light. It isn't that I don't still love, and work hard to produce, something that an awful lot of people find uninteresting at best. But I've come to realize that my tastes don't need to be the barometer for the entire population. Uncommonly generous of me, isn't it? I'm laughing at myself here, in that it took me so long to realize what my subconscious attitudes were. And we all know that there are no purists like the recently converted. So perhaps my reaction was more a projection of what I would have been thinking in past years onto a bunch of people that I rather dismissively deemed "contemporary-art types."

I still stand by my statement that the exhibition is about love, and that to attempt to view it as art, divorced from the deep emotions that inspired it, is going to miss the point. But thank you, alba, for helping me to figure out the problem I couldn't quite put my finger on when I hit 'publish.'