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Stallone can paint? Try to suppress your sneers

Well. It has certainly been a distracting week in pop.

But those of you able to pry your minds away from the thrilling notion of Tiger Woods's wife Elin Nordegren acting out the song Fist City with a sand wedge may have noticed a small, tasteful vernissage, at the Art Basel Miami Beach fair. This is where Sylvester Stallone, writer, actor and director, exhibited his paintings (at the Gmurzynska Gallery to be precise): a series of abstractions priced from $40,000 to $50,000 each (two sold immediately).

The 63-year-old, well-chiselled Renaissance man, who began painting 30 years ago, admitted he was somewhat "nervous" and awed at having his works exhibited in the same room as Colombian artist Fernando Botero, whose works Stallone has been collecting for decades.

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Really, who? Those of you so eager to laugh at the thought of Rambo or Rocky painting, do not know Botero's work. You do not know anything about art, except that stars should not paint.

I should know, because I used to take great delight mocking Stallone for these very reasons, and because he posed, as I recall, for an art portrait, at his desk. On its surface was a single, chubby dictionary and above him on the wall, a large poster of a babe on a white sand beach.

The picture, as the clever art-director knew, would reveal everything soft and weak about the actor - about his pretensions and cheap, vain dreams.

And then there was the whole 1993 Vanity Fair cover story, entitled Body of Art, which allowed Stallone to effuse, uncensored and unedited, about his paintings, work he called "psychological pap smears"; about his poems, composed in "blank verse."

Didn't he mean vers libre ? Good Lord, how much of a Neanderthal is this man? This was the sort of comment I, and so many other soi-disant intellectuals made, while delighting in the idea that a man with a speech impediment we assumed meant he was mentally challenged thought he - in Homer Simpson's words - was "people." Smart people! In the cover photo, Stallone is nude and posed, risibly, one assumes, in the stance of Rodin's sculpture The Thinker .

Yet, as writer John Jeremiah Sullivan says of Michael Jackson's body, Stallone's body was (also) one of the greatest pieces of postmodern American sculpture.

And his paintings are not too shabby either.

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Featuring bold assaults of colour, hectic lineation and fragmented body parts, such works as Trapped ideals and Toxic Superman reveal, in Stallone's words, the ways in which "society makes it hard for a man to be a man."

By society, he means Hollywood, and he happens to be right. If you think the action hero is speaking of some louche kind of machismo, think again. He is talking about being a man in Hollywood - and if gender, as Chaz Bono said this week, resides between our ears and not our legs, we have emasculated Stallone a million times over.

When he attempted to procure the rights to play Stanley Kowalski in a remake of A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, the tremulous and vicious playwright was reported to have hissed "I am afraid that the part requires talent. " (Williams later denied saying this.) I found this hilarious at the time (the early 1980s) and found it funnier still when Stallone gave the Philadelphia Museum of Art the bronze Rocky victory statue, created by A. Tom Schomberg, a gift that was at first declined.

I'm not sure what Philadelphia has against this superlative artifact, but its elitism is shameful. If city officials have this kind of muscle, they should have forbidden Tom Hanks from getting cinematic AIDS and crying over hackneyed opera on their turf.

Stallone has taken all of our derision very well (except the one time he punched artist Mark Kostabi, who claimed the actor had purchased one of his erotic drawings because "He likes T&A"). Yes, I repent. But in repenting, I wonder what caused the loathing in the first place?

Last week, actor James Franco ( Milk ), now enrolled in master of fine arts programs in filmmaking and fiction writing at New York University and Columbia, wrote in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal that his recent strange and soap-perfect (that is, twisted, sexy and insane) guest role on General Hospital was actually performance art designed to explore context, space and the relative meaning of art.

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Franco's piece is well-written, and provocative, yet the website Gawker virtually convulsed with loathing while tearing it apart with extreme sarcasm. The Gawker piece read like a failed, boozy professor's marginalia, and the reader comments on it are erect with disdain and sad, shameful superiority as well (sample: "I've graded undergraduate art-history papers and this ... would not get anywhere near the mighty peaks of an 'A'").

As I learn humility, that harsh mistress, I feel more and more like Mick Jagger at Altamont, feebly imploring the incensed mob to "cool it, man."

"Who's fighting and what for?" Jagger asks. If our lives are sad, and unfulfilling, do we honestly feel better trying to rip wings off gigantic, glorious insects that don't even feel pain? Our pain, that is.

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