Monday, January 16, 2012

Ideal, not sentimental

Anthony Esolen likes Norman Rockwell:
.... I know I’m not supposed to do this. As a college professor, I have a duty to pretend to others that I derive real satisfaction from poems whose sentences cannot be parsed, from sculptures that look like green blobs from a bad space-alien movie, from spattered canvases, from photographs of sullen people doing things with their bodies that even machines shouldn’t have to suffer, and from philosophies that propose the justice of letting a baby die to save a certain number of dogs, the number determined by precise calculation. I’m supposed to nod appreciatively as all these emperors pass by.
The truth is, I can’t stand the lot of them. But as I said, I delight in the paintings of Norman Rockwell. I don’t pretend to be able to judge their technical mastery. They sure seem to me to be subtle and complex as compositions, but I’ll have to defer to others who know the business better. ....
Esolen discusses the dismissive accusation that Rockwell's work is just sentimental illustration. He disagrees and illustrates his appreciation of Rockwell with, for example:
.... his illustrations of the four seasons. All four feature a boy, his whiskered grandfather, and a spaniel mutt. Now this already is peculiar. Why should we care about an old man who probably doesn’t do anything important anymore, if he ever did, and a small boy, and a tag-along dog? The Greeks didn’t care for them; the piety-mouthing Romans never cared for them. The modern intellectual ignores them, as does the modern poet.

But Rockwell lavishes them with attention. In spring, we see them going fishing. The old man is carrying the tackle over his shoulder and is looking into the distance, while the boy is almost bent double as he races, barefoot, with eagerness, and the dog scampers along. In summer, the three of them are on the grass. The old man is on his back, dozing peacefully, while the boy is sitting and plucking the petals off a wild daisy, maybe thinking about a pretty girl he likes. In autumn, there’s a pile of leaves, and the boy leans over it intently, about to light the leaves on fire, while the grandfather, leaning on the rake, pretends not to be watching too closely, and the dog crouches, fascinated by what’s about to happen. Then at last in winter, of all times, when one might expect that age would finally wither for good, our three heroes are on a frozen pond, and the boy in the background, his hands on his knees and his skates askew so he can stand still, gapes with glad surprise while the old man, like a real athlete, executes a perfect figure eight, and cocks his head with pride. He’s a boy again, he is! And the dog barks, his silly legs slipping sideways out from under him. ....

...[T]heir whole attitude toward the world is open. The old man looking off into the distance in spring, or falling asleep in the summer, is a man capable of contemplation, as is the boy, lost in thoughts of love; and even the humble dog accepts things cheerfully as they come. This is a world capable of great sorrow — we know that the old man will die, and the boy will grow up and know his share of disappointments — but also, and more important, a world of great beauty and joy. It is a world in which the adult may aspire to the condition of the child, not in sentimentality, but in fundamental openness to the gifts of God. .... [more]
What Makes Norman Rockwell Possible? | Crisis Magazine

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