"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Norman Rockwell–A Great American Painter


There are probably few statements that can rile up the art world as much as “Norman Rockwell was a great American painter”. For decades he has been dismissed as a folk painter whose dreamy evocations of Middle America are nothing more than magazine cover dressing. American folk art as a whole gets no respect, for it is rural, hick, backwoods, ignorantly representative, devoid of any introspection, courage, or insight.

Yet Rockwell paintings now sell for over $25 million, and his art has never been more popular.  In fact it has never been unpopular, for it appeals to a very American character – one of honesty, simplicity, and taste.



          Freedom From Want www.denverlibrary.org 

Rockwell’s Four Freedoms, painted during WWII were patriotic evocations of what America was fighting for.  Nicolaus Mills writing in The Guardian (10.13.13) describes what these paintings meant to America:
Rockwell played a critical role in helping Americans on the home front understand what was at stake in the fighting going on in Europe and the Pacific. The British had Lawrence Olivier reminding them of their heroic past with his Henry V of 1944. Americans had Rockwell reminding them of their basic decency.
Nowhere is Rockwell's achievement clearer than in the second world war era paintings marking their 70th anniversary this year – Rosie the Riveter and the Four Freedoms, the series Rockwell did illustrating the "four freedoms" that President Franklin Roosevelt declared were the bedrock of a democratic society.
If all this is true – that Rockwell has been popular for 70 years (2013 is the 70th anniversary of Four Freedoms); that his popularity has not diminished; that the value of his paintings continue to rise; and that he inspired a generation of Americans fighting a European war – why is he still so disparaged by the art world?

Image result for images rockwell four freedoms

The easiest answer is snobbery, pure and simple.  While at Yale, I attended an English seminar on the modern American novel.  One of my classmates asked if we would be studying Hemingway.  “You will read him on your own, I suspect.  Perhaps on summer vacation”, replied the professor.  With that one snotty statement, Hemingway – a writer who has been popular since the 20s and captured another American spirit of adventure, courage, and daring – was dismissed.  We only read serious writers, the professor implied.

The academic world cannot parse, deconstruct, dis-aggregate, or discover hidden Biblical, Classical, or psychological references in Hemingway.  What you read was what you get.  Not much grist for a PhD thesis in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, the running of the bulls; and what can you say about a lone fisherman.  English professors have no truck with writers – or artists like Rockwell – who strike a cultural chord and resonate with the populace. The whole idea of mass culture makes academics wretch.  Insularity from the herd is a sign of intelligence and superior understanding.  How can one pun, arch an eyebrow with dripping irony, or belly-laugh at a turn of phrase or at an outsized, burlesque character when reading The Old Man and the Sea?

The art world has always made a distinction between folk art and ‘real’ art. - the likes of Rockwell or Dale Chiluly. A craft show is not an art exhibition, say intellectuals.  The Renwick Gallery is not the Hirshhorn.  Painting is for artists. Glassblowing is for artisans.

When asked why a creation of the glass blower, Dale Chiluly, is not art, intellectuals reply that he does nothing to explore, illuminate, or explain the human soul or human condition. Art is meant to ennoble, to visualize the spiritual, to describe the soul, or to validate individual expression.  Crafts merely decorate, a conversation piece on the coffee table.

Yet these same critics lionize Grandma Moses who was a folk artist par excellence.


These same intellectuals equally admire Haitian folk art.

Why should the art world praise ‘primitive’ painters like Moses or Haitian artists and not Norman Rockwell? What is it about these painters’ evocation of the routines of daily life that is more special than Rockwell who does the same? In fact, their depictions of growing, herding, riding, and harvesting are far less interesting than the portraits of Rockwell which capture an American spirit and essence, and are intimate records of a particular time in history.  The answer is snobbery plus the curse of multi-culturalism.  Grandma Moses is a woman, and Haitians are black Third World sufferers.  Both can do no wrong.

Pseudo-intellectualism pervades every aspect of cultural expression. For academics there are Hollywood movies and serious movies; blockbusters and auteurs, Terminator 2 and Woman in the Dunes. There is real art and magazine covers; sculpture and tchotchkes; Bach and Maria Carey; Diana Vreeland and Lane Bryant.

There is no doubt that Bach is far more complex and intriguing than the Top 40; and that Hemingway is no Shakespeare; but there is a time and a place for everything. Few people can ignore the energy, enthusiasm, and showmanship of Beyoncé or Romeo Santos.  The Luxor Casino in Las Vegas has nothing to do with the Sphinx or the pyramids in Egypt; but it is pure American ersatz glitz and fantasy and absolutely great to visit.

 

The problem lies with categories.  Intellectuals seem to always want to classify, categorize, and prioritize.  It is their nature; and, they say, a sign of intelligence.  Nothing of the sort.  Real intelligence means eliminating categories and seeing and appreciating things as they are. No apologies are required for the Beach Boys or Jay-Z; or for Dale Chihuly.

Image result for images dale chihuly glass

Norman Rockwell never stopped believing in America and core American values; and for that too he has been disparaged.  Patriotism in certain ‘progressive’ quarters is a no-no, a sign of blind faith in unattainable ideals and a symbol of xenophobic excess.  Even one of Rockwell’s most famous paintings, The Problem We All Live With, focusing on the issue dearest to the Left – race – has done little to soften harsh academic rejection of Rockwell as a true artist.



John Singer Sargent’s depiction of the horrors of WWI is just as much a social and cultural statement evocative of a particular event and time in history; and yet Sargent is considered a great American artist and Rockwell is not.  In terms of theme, composition, line, color, and atmosphere, both paintings are equal; but never considered so. 



After 70 years it is time to give Norman Rockwell his due.  Not to raise him to the pantheon of Great American Painters; but to accept him as an influential, evocative, and compelling artist no different from any other and the equal of any.






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