“Excuse me, can I borrow a rubber?”
I lifted my eyes from my notebook to stare at the inquisitor, who was speaking to a girl at the desk next to him.
I was a study abroad student sitting in a London classroom, and I had never before witnessed such a random and unexpected interaction. I thought the English were supposed to be polite to a fault. Can this boy really be asking a girl he doesn’t even seem to know for a condom? In a classroom in the middle of the day? Was this some sort of lewd come-on? I watched the girl ruffle unfazed through her backpack and pull out… an eraser.
Over the next few months I also learned that a “fit” guy is one who’s generally attractive, not necessarily in great shape; that my morning oatmeal is actually “porridge;” and that students don’t study, but rather “revise” for an exam. In fact, my inability to work these terms (among many others) into my daily vocabulary clearly set me apart as a “Yank.”
A visitor to the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia may hear students agree to meet up under “the Tampons,” and he or she may perform a disbelieving double take at such a distasteful announcement. But for the Penn student body, the name, referring to an abstract sculpture composed of massive red cylinders, has entered campus vernacular and, after thirty years, has as much staying power at the statue itself.
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We usually think of “culture” in one of two ways: first, as the overarching way of life that governs a society, encompassing language, cuisine, dress, religion and traditions. Though we usually identify different cultures by nation, there are subsets within each country. Take for example how differently Americans characterize the Northern and Southern states — one a bustling, impersonal concrete jungle, the other a slow, drawling stretch of small towns and churches. Narrow the focus further and you’ll often find separate cultures even within individual cities, sometimes demarcated along neighborhood lines and loyalties. Think of the contrast between New York City’s lavish Upper East Side and the much poorer and rougher South Bronx.
The second way we think of “culture” is as some mark of society’s upper crust. Stylish, intellectual, and wealthy, the cultured man is one who dresses well, reads many books, attends the theatre, compares fine wine in Napa Valley to that in Tuscany, and strokes his chin in art museums from the MoMA to The Louvre.
Raymond Williams, author of The Sociology of Culture published in 1981, encourages a third understanding of the term that overlaps with these two accepted definitions. “Culture,” rather than existing as a set of standards, is more an “active cultivation of the mind,” referring to the process by which a person becomes cultured or a society adopts its “cultural activities.” According to Williams, this cultivation also implicates the vehicles of this process, including “the arts and humane intellectual works.”
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Alexander Liberman, a Russian-born, Paris-educated artist arrived in New York City in 1941. In 1943, he became art director of Vogue magazine. Though he “brought fine art to Vogue’s pages” and remained in the position until 1962, he viewed his job as nothing more than salary-paying, obligatory work. “There’s no art in magazines unless you are reproducing works of art,” he told Eye magazine’s Susan Morris in an interview published in 2001. His real passion lay in the three-dimensional world of sculpture.
More architecture than sculpting, the bulk of Liberman’s work features oversized, abstract structures, built of steel and welded into tubular configurations. One of his more well-known pieces, Daedalus, stands at twenty feet tall: a whirlwind of circles, ellipses and arches. Two flat squares form a diagonal platform through the structure, and the surrounding shapes seem to scramble and climb around it, battling for a space on the stage. Painted in the artist’s signature color, red, it makes an unclear yet bold statement. Daedalus enjoys a spot in a back corner of Grounds For Sculpture, a 42-acre public sculpture park in Hamilton, New Jersey. Other Liberman works appear in such reputable venues as The Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Tokyo’s Hakone Open-Air Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art.
In March of 1959, Philadelphia’s Redevelopment Authority instituted the Percent for Art Program, wherein any developer building on land “acquired and assembled by the Authority” must devote at least one percent of the project’s budget to commissioning original, site-specific artwork. In compliance with this requirement, and with the help of a $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the University of Pennsylvania brought on Liberman in 1975 to construct an archway over Locust Walk – the campus’ main artery – at 39th Street, where the university property begins to fade into neighboring West Philadelphia.
“I don’t recall anyone liking it. I may even have felt a little embarrassed by it, that my University put up this unavoidable sculpture that was somewhat hideous and made no sense,” said Bob Lapides, a Penn undergraduate at the time the statue was erected.
“I thought the statue was hideous, and staggering home drunk many nights, it’s weird imposing angles made me dizzy,” reported Michael Nitabach, a 1988 graduate.
Christopher Wnuk, who pursued degrees at Penn from 1973 to 1984, feels “that the price of scrap iron is near an all-time high right now so maybe the University can recover some of its investment.”
Liberman’s creation, composed of five huge, red cylinders 17.5 feet in diameter, probably occupies around 24,000 cubic feet and weighs over 25 tons. Two of the tubes form a ‘T’ shape on one side of the Walk. Another juts over it from the other side at a 45-degree angle. The final two components form an upside-down ‘V’ and rest atop the grounded pillars, creating the look of an arch.
Different accounts of the sculpture, perhaps drawing on its official name, Covenant, claim its purpose is to convey a sense of unity and “a feeling of bonding together for a higher purpose.” Apparently, that purpose is lost on students and faculty who instead simply see a monstrously “gross” and “confusing” assemblage of red pipes. *where is this quote from It was only a matter of time before Philadelphia’s effort to establish thought-provoking art, however well-intentioned, began provoking precisely the wrong kind of thoughts.
The unsavory nickname “Dueling Tampons” emerged in The Daily Pennsylvanian, the school’s widely acclaimed newspaper, at least as early as 1996, but students were using it long before then. Michael Christ began his Penn career in 1984, “and it was already called the Dueling Tampons by that time.” Alumni from the class of 1978, who were freshmen at the time of Covenant’s construction, don’t recall using any colorful appellations for the archway by the time they graduated, but many of Christ’s classmates did. So it appears that the less-than-Ivy-League moniker began to creep into Quaker vocabulary around 1980.
Conspicuous and unavoidable, the Tampons became an essential landmark. Situated in the center of a collection of high-rise dorm buildings, a couple frat houses, and nearby restaurants, it makes a logical place for students from all corners of the campus to congregate before heading to their destinations. Jeff Schneider would meet up with fellow Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity brothers under its cumbersome arms on the way to Smokey Joe’s, a favorite student watering-hole. Susan Miller, a 1978 alum whose daughter is currently a Penn sophomore, can attest that students still identify it as a meeting place for outdoor study sessions or pickup Frisbee games on the adjacent lawn.
Somewhere along the line, perhaps bored with the name or seeking to deliver a heftier punch, someone decided to drop “Dueling” from the title and substitute “Bloody” instead, paying homage both to Liberman’s penchant for bright red and the community’s apparent revulsion for the design. Newcomers to the Penn community certainly raise a brow when they hear the term and can’t imagine uttering it themselves. They shake their heads at this unfortunate characteristic of campus life, wishing it weren’t so. But inevitably their initial “that’s disgusting” reaction fades as they mesh with the fabric of Quaker culture; by senior year every student has referred to “The Bloody Tampons” at least once without a wince. University of Pennsylvania 2012: Off The Record, a complete guide compiled by researchers at College Prowler, even lists “Bloody Tampons” as an official piece of school slang.
Surely the Redevelopment Authority did not mean to inspire such uncouth language by establishing more artwork at the university. The lofty end of creating a unified spirit of aspiration went unrealized, instead devolving into a unified cynicism. Still, while failing to introduce “culture” in the form of Williams’ “humane and intellectual arts,” Penn unwittingly made a huge contribution to the school’s overall “culture” of the first form – the way of life that identifies a community.
Crude though it may be, the “Dueling” or “Bloody” Tampons have altered the community’s language by entering into regular conversation. Slang acts as a form of social currency; like knowing the real meaning of “rubber” in the UK, understanding this terminology signifies fitting in with campus life. The Tampons unify students as an object of universal distaste and are now a historical relic. In this way, the sculpture also fits Williams’ third definition of “culture” as a process: while a failure in the aesthetic sense, The Tampons nonetheless serve as a vehicle by which Penn acquired a new colloquialism and social milieu.
However, it’s also possible that Liberman had a latent motive in his design for this tubular mammoth. According to a Grounds for Sculpture biography, the artist’s previous work often “relied upon the repetition of the circle, a shape that the artist considers to be an abstraction of the desire to penetrate…”
So did he really want Covenant to arouse high-flying sentiments of togetherness and perseverance – or just to arouse? If he truly had a propensity for sexual suggestiveness, then were the authors of the Tampons’ nicknames tapping into childish humor… or picking up on the true essence of Liberman’s art? Maybe all they were doing was interpreting the sculpture’s complex imagery and capturing its message in layman’s terms. And really, what shows more “culture” than that?