Friday, August 27, 2010

Celebrating virtues

Ryan L. Cole, reviewing an exhibit of Norman Rockwell's paintings, explains to the obtuse why they are worthwhile, and why they remain popular.
.... Though its subjects often coincide with and chronicle events of the twentieth century, Rockwell’s work touches on timeless, universal emotions and aspirations. In the foreground of “Boy Reading Adventure Story” (1923), a child, draped in shadows, studies a novel (perhaps Sidney Lanier’s The Boy’s King Arthur). In the background, a distant, dreamy pastel image of the boy heroically mounted on a steed, suited in knightly armor, a beautiful maiden nearby, projects his mind’s eye. ....

Rockwell’s work also celebrated civic engagement and its accompanying liberties, as in his famous depiction of the Four Freedoms (of Worship and Speech, and from Want and Fear) that Franklin D. Roosevelt set out in his 1941 State of the Union address. The series, published in 1943 and subsequently used to sell war bonds, is represented in the exhibit by a sketchy, early draft of “Freedom of Speech,” which shows a man, surrounded by fellow citizens, rising to speak at a town-hall meeting.

To Gopnik and other critics, this rendering is emblematic of all that is wrong with Rockwell. Why celebrate interchangeable Americans participating in harmless, small-scale civic duty? Because in America, as Rockwell knew, democracy is most often found in school-board, city-council, and town-hall meetings. It takes courage to stand up in a crowd of friends, family, and neighbors and make an argument for or against something. Rockwell was right to celebrate those willing to take public stands on issues; without them, the American idea falls apart. And though not featured in the exhibit, paintings like “The Problem We All Live With” and “Murder in Mississippi,” which championed the civil rights movement, proved that Rockwell’s vision of America was hardly reactionary or blind to changing times.

But it took integrity for Rockwell to continue to paint in his traditional style amid the postmodernist convulsions that elevated abstraction over realism and artistic angst over subject matter. He continued to celebrate virtues that came increasingly under attack amid the self-doubt of the second half of the twentieth century. Perhaps the most fitting coda for Rockwell, then, is “The Connoisseur.” In this work from 1962, an older man, dressed in the formal attire of an older generation, examines a Jackson Pollockesque painting. This forms a kind of self-portrait: Rockwell the connoisseur gazes at a new generation of trendsetters, but holds fast to his own style, now hopelessly out of date. .... [more]
The Storyteller by Ryan L. Cole, City Journal 27 August 2010