Scenes from the American Dream

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 …

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