Democratic vistas

Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People
edited by Maureen Hart Hennessey and Anne Knutson
Harry N. Abrams Inc., $35, 200 pp.

I can’t get enough of this story: about the official custodians of high culture, and how they’ve blown it, yet again. Not that most people care what this gang thinks in the first place – professors, museum curators, gallery owners, "experts" of every sort – except maybe the ones on PBS’ "Antiques Roadshow," because their opinions do count, since they translate into cash. So far as genuine culture – popular culture – is concerned, though, which is the only culture worth naming, the officials get it wrong because they – we, since I’m one too – are so suspicious of what we can’t control that we never learn how to enjoy things properly. Pleasure of the popular sort is simply out of our league.

Take, for example, Norman Rockwell, whom it has been conventional, officially, to dismiss as a "mere illustrator," certainly not an artist. Surely not a painter.

"His success was his failure," as Arthur Danto neatly summed things up, meaning that popularity won’t necessarily make you "important"; in fact, just the reverse. The more widely somebody’s work is understood and loved, the less likely it is to garner academic prestige and gallery respect, a frequently reiterated point in the catalog that accompanies a new touring exhibition, Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People.

"Rockwell existed outside the commercial system of galleries and art museums," as Ned Rafkin puts it, "but was indeed an artist who made his living through selling his images." Lots of them, in fact, numbering almost 4,000, in a career that lasted more than 60 years, and included not only paintings, but 800 magazine covers – the best known being his work for the Saturday Evening Post. There were also more than 150 advertising campaigns, for companies including Ford, General Electric and Hallmark Cards. That much popular success was sufficient to stifle any hope of official "significance."

The more Rockwell succeeded – and he started early, at age 22 with his first cover for the Post – the more suspicious he became to the art-historical establishment. So much so that it was soon conventional to refer disparagingly to a "Norman Rockwell" view of life or of art, meaning something too easily enjoyed, something based on mere storytelling, something sentimental, nostalgic, obvious.

Which is interesting because that’s not how the man’s life – or his art – actually unfolds. Rockwell himself didn’t get to have a Norman Rockwell life, what with divorce, bouts of depression, a catastrophic studio fire, the loss of an alcoholic second wife, not to mention artistic setbacks and manifold self-doubts. It’s as if the conventional "Norman Rockwell" is the projection of what we – some of us – are afraid to trust in ourselves, so we blame it all on him and his pictures.

But most of the time, most of the "American People" referred to in the exhibition title didn’t harbor any such second thoughts. They loved Rockwell from the first and still do. I know I do. He’s without a doubt America’s most famous artist. And for good reason, because he did what great artists are supposed to do. He invited people to see themselves in relation to something important, that maybe they were only vaguely aware of, until a work of art made things clear. And that’s where the pleasure comes in, or at least it can. It comes from the simple act of self-recognition, which turns out not to be so simple at all in the end.

The current exhibition of Rockwell’s works includes more than 70 of his oil paintings, together with all 322 of his covers for the Saturday Evening Post. The exhibition was organized collaboratively by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., and the High Museum in Atlanta, with major funding provided by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Ford Motor Company. The show will visit seven cities (Detroit, unfortunately, not being one).

The catalog includes 14 essays, not all of them by revisionist, art-world types, who busy themselves trying to explain how it was somebody else who didn’t like Rockwell for all those years. There’s a piece by Rockwell’s son, for example, and a personal recollection by Robert Coles, a psychiatrist from Harvard. And – for my money – the best essay in the collection, by Dave Hickey, billed, almost guiltily it seems, as a "freelance writer of fiction and cultural criticism."

"To put it simply," Hickey writes, "Norman Rockwell invented Democratic History Painting – an artistic practice based on an informing vision of history as a complex, ongoing field of events that occurs at eye level. ..." Hickey – like Rockwell – is sly about such "simply" stated accomplishments. And that’s everywhere obvious in the beautifully reproduced illustrations, which are the real point of this volume.

There’s nothing remotely simple about the pleasure of looking at the eye-level history Rockwell comprehends, with a view so keen he makes everything seem easy. Even though it wasn’t – any more than the history he paints, of strife and hatred and heroism, and (maybe the most complex and difficult of all) simple happiness.

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