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Scenes from the American Dream

1.

In Pictures from an Institution, Randall Jarrell’s 1956 novel of college life, the athletic and eternally youthful president of Benton College for women was a remarkable fund-raiser. He was especially successful with the alumnae in Hollywood:

President Robbins appealed to them sitting in somewhat Hawaiian swimming-shorts at the grassy verge of swimming-pools: as he looked thoughtfully into the thoughtless water he seemed to the alumnae some boyish star who, playing Tom Sawyer, fancies for the moment he is Narcissus. Not to have given him what he asked, they felt, would have been to mine the bridge that bears the train that carries the supplies of this year’s Norman Rockwell Boy Scout Calendars.

This suggests both the prestige of Norman Rockwell in the 1940s and 1950s and the contempt in which he was generally held by almost all critics. At that time, he was the most famous illustrator in America, immensely popular with readers of The Saturday Evening Post and The Ladies Home Companion. Yet no artist of any importance showed the slightest interest in his work except for Grandma Moses, whom he admired and with whom he was friends. Most of them, indeed, found it repellent, a taste for it beyond the pale of the absurd.

The present campaign being mounted in favor of Norman Rockwell is an attempt to overcome this lack of interest and this contempt. A huge Rockwell exhibition with all of his Saturday Evening Post covers and more than seventy oil paintings was shown first in Atlanta and Chicago, and is now at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington until September 24. After that it will travel to San Diego, Phoenix, and the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, and climax at the end of next year with a three-month installation at what was once the bastion of abstract art, the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It is accompanied by lectures entitled defensively “Norman Rockwell: What Makes Him Good?”

There is a basic myth of modernism, essential to its ideology, that all great works of art are initially repellent. It is only natural that this should give rise to the suspicion that any art which seems repellent at first is perhaps, after all, daring and provocative. In the past, however, the assimilation of a new style which was originally detested was most often the work not of critics but of the artists themselves. The critics and the public were forced to recognize that the artists had adopted the new manner, which had previously seemed incomprehensible or vulgar. But the present attempt to add Rockwell to the canon of American art is almost exclusively the work of critics. It is not the artists who have adopted Rockwell, but museum directors, curators, and writers on art.

The history of artistic taste is also, to a great extent, the history of the rehabilitation of faded and forgotten glories, once great but now despised. This, too, is not what is happening today with the work of Rockwell: those who loved and admired him have never ceased to do so. To a large extent, however, they come from a public that is not interested in any other form of modern art, but cares only for illustrations like Norman Rockwell’s. The campaign being waged now is to win over the traditional museum goer who has always been unimpressed with the immense popularity of Rockwell—has, in fact, refused even to consider him an artist.

Starting more than two centuries ago with what is called the Romantic Movement, the distinction between high art and vernacular culture came increasingly under attack. Some of the most admired developments in literature, music, and art started by staking a claim to the sublime from some genre or technique considered inferior or unworthy: William Blake’s adaptation of doggerel moral poems for children, the Songs of Innocence and Experience, is one of the first masterpieces of this kind, and the movement continued with Byron’s satirical Don Juan, Chopin’s mazurkas, the landscapes of Constable and Turner, the scenes of ordinary life of Courbet and the Impressionists, the ballets of Stravinsky, the cubist collages of Picasso and Juan Gris, the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, and the graffiti of Jean Dubuffet, to mention only a few of the works created in what were considered minor genres or debased techniques, and which not only attained the status of the major and more prestigious works, but even surpassed them. Fifty years ago, for example, university courses in nineteenth-century French literature never mentioned the boulevard farces of Eugène Labiche and Georges Feydeau: today they are considered more interesting than the pretentious contemporary poetic dramas in alexandrine verse. It is by means of such preferences for marginal forms, which place them above the more respectable, that the avant-garde crushed and finally displaced the salon and the academy.

The neglect of Rockwell was colored by a more insidious bias than the distinction between high art and illustration. A great part of his work was in the form of commercial posters. This is true not only of his Boy Scout calendars, his army recruiting posters, and his ads for Colgate toothpaste and other companies, but even of his famous Saturday Evening Post covers. Rockwell was aware (and when he forgot it for a moment, the editor made him painfully aware) that the cover had to help sell the magazine, like a book or record cover, or the packaging of soap flakes.

The prejudice against commercial art is partly egregious snobbery, like the disdain of the aristocrat for any form of making money that actually entails work; but it also proclaims not only the independent function of art, an ideal—or at least an aspiration—essential to Western culture since the Renaissance, but also the freedom of the artist to express himself without constraint—an ideal equally central even if realized for the most part by pretending that the constraints do not exist. The contempt for commercial art, in fact, was an ideal shared by the young Rockwell. In his charming memoirs dictated to his son, My Adventures as an Illustrator,1 he reminisces about his days at art school:

In those days there wasn’t the cleavage between fine arts and illustration that there is now. In art school the illustration class was just as highly respected as the portrait or landscape classes. Art Young, Charley Kuntz, and I signed our names in blood, swearing never to prostitute our art, never to do advertising jobs, never to make more than fifty dollars a week. That sounds like something only fine-arts students would do, but all three of us were dead set on being illustrators. (That oath has long since been broken….)

Rockwell retained, however, his preference for unrestrained expression when it was possible. That is why, as he remarked, he preferred to do the covers for The Saturday Evening Post than to illustrate the stories. He was free on the covers to invent his own stories. In one sense he remained an illustrator, but of his own fictions, working (as Robert Rosenblum and others have remarked) basically in the tradition of Victorian narrative genre painting. Commercial pressures remained, as they do for any artist, of course, but more severely limiting in the media that Rockwell had chosen. His account in his memoir of his calendar illustration of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow shows what he was up against:

You remember the story: while Mrs. O’Leary was milking her cow, the cow kicked over a kerosene lantern, causing the great Chicago fire of 1871. I thought it would make a good calendar, so I painted it—rear view, the cow’s behind prominently displayed, occupying, in fact, the better part of the picture—and Brown and Bigelow published it. Unpopular? We thought no one would buy it. Turned out to be my worst failure. Not that it was a bad painting. But who wants to look at the rear end of a cow for twelve months. And that’s how long a calendar hangs on the wall.

The commercial pressures crushed some of Rockwell’s aspirations. Unhappy with being thought old-fashioned, he determined once to try a more modern approach for a Post cover, “and, by wrenching some things about and closing my eyes to others, [I] worked myself into a state of enthusiasm.” The subject of the cover was anything but provocative: old man Winter driven out by a young girl Spring. He brought it to the editor of the Post, who paced up and down before it for a long time. “Suddenly he turned about on his heel and looked at me. ‘No,’ he said. And he walked over to his desk and sat down.”

Rockwell cheered himself up by getting a “manicure, shave, haircut, shampoo, facial, shoeshine,” sold the painting to the Elks magazine, had an expensive dinner, and then, the next morning, started a new Post cover. “Lovers of modern art…,” he said, “couldn’t understand why I painted as I did.” Some years later the pressure to be contemporary built up again, and “I painted what I thought was a Post cover in the modern manner.” It was again rejected, and he burned the picture. “I don’t remember anything about it except that it wasn’t very good….”

2.

The conditions of illustration have changed. In the nineteenth century, the pictures in books and periodicals were for the most part engraved on woodblocks. The artist usually prepared a drawing which would be either made directly on the block itself or transferred (in the second half of the century, this could be done photographically). With few exceptions, the cutting of the block would be done by a specialized craftsman. When the artist used areas of tone, the engraver took an active role in rendering these tones; but when the artist worked only with lines, the engraver had simply to respect them as exactly as possible. Gustave Doré, the most famous illustrator of his century, generally worked like that with great dramatic effect. With the development of photomechanical techniques and color printing, however, the character of illustration changed, and became much more the reproduction of a picture. When Rockwell was a student, illustration had become a branch of painting.

One of the claims made for Norman Rockwell is that the gap between high art and illustration had greatly increased with modernism and that he suffered from this. One must distinguish here between profession and the assessment of artistic merit. Daumier is frequently compared to Norman Rockwell as a major figure who was both an illustrator and a painter. But Daumier’s painting and his work as cartoonist and illustrator were entirely distinct. His work as a painter was episodic, mostly experimental, and with few exceptions only known to a small group of friends. Furthermore, Daumier’s graphic work was admired by the most advanced artists and critics of his time. Degas collected more than a thousand of his lithographs, and Baudelaire named him, along with Ingres and Delacroix, as one of the three supreme draftsmen of the age.

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    Abrams, 1998.

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