Norman Rockwell exhibit opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum
By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, July 4, 2010; E01
This Fourth of July, let's celebrate courage. It took courage to split from England, courage to risk democracy and still more courage to dream up a constitution to preserve it.
Courage has been the signature virtue of almost every great American: Emily Dickinson was brave to warp grammar, Louis Armstrong was brave to blow jazz and Jackson Pollock was brave to paint splats.
Norman Rockwell is often championed as the great painter of American virtues. Yet the one virtue most nearly absent from his work is courage. He doesn't challenge any of us, or himself, to think new thoughts or try new acts or look with fresh eyes. From the docile realism of his style to the received ideas of his subjects, Rockwell reliably keeps us right in the middle of our comfort zone.
Definitely not in the middle of Mr. Gopnik's comfort zone, however.
A new show of 57 Rockwells, borrowed from the collections of Hollywood celebrities Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, opened Friday at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Right, Spielberg and Lucas are "Hollywood celebrities," same as Paris Hilton and the Kardashians. (By the way, I'm not a big fan of Lucas's movies after American Graffiti and Star Wars, but I've got to admit the man's got good taste in architecture. His Skywalker Ranch in Marin County looks like what the world would look like today if the Great War hadn't come along in 1914 and ruined the West's self-confidence.)
It includes oil paintings and drawings, and every one of them is a perfect depiction of what we've been taught to think of as true Rockwellian America.
There's the small-town runaway, and the cop who takes him out for a malt before returning him home. Aw, shucks.
There are the three old biddies gossiping, imagined as so ancient and gnarled that Rockwell had to use a man in drag to model them. What a hoot!
There's the remote blonde in her convertible being joshed by a couple of truckers. Jeez, lady, wontcha give those guys a wink? ...
Of course, the "art" in Rockwell's pictures isn't that modern stuff promoted by Picasso and his crowd. Rockwell's painted realism tells us that his pictures are the real thing, old-fashioned and skilled -- the very art admired by the kinds of regular, all-American folk his craft is used to depict, and to whom it sells magazines and products.
By the 1930s, making pictures the way Rockwell did couldn't count as just a neutral preference for the old. In the hands of America's Favorite Artist, it stood as a willed repudiation of the new. Judging from the fan mail that survives, that's precisely how it was read. Rockwell panders, in the very substance of his pictures' making, to his public's fear of change.
Rockwell's greatest sin as an artist is simple: His is an art of unending cliché. The reason we so easily "recognize ourselves" in his paintings is because they reflect the standard image we already know. His stories resonate so strongly because they are the stories we've told ourselves a thousand times.
They became clichés after Rockwell recognized these stories in daily life and showed that, by taking endless pains, they could be clearly conveyed in a single memorable image. Golden Age Hollywood then amplified his influence. (Frank Capra is the most obvious analog to Rockwell in fertility of invention.) But moviemakers had it easier in a way because they could tell his kind of stories using actions, words, and music. It's amusing, though, how the frequently Rockwellian products of Golden Age Hollywood seldom comes in for quite so much fury.
... Most reactions to Rockwell, however, continue to be decidedly simpler. Steven Spielberg has said, "I look back at these paintings as America the way it could have been, the way someday it may again be." He and others have bought Rockwell's bill of goods. But what these speakers, and these pictures, fail to grasp is that the special, courageous greatness of the nation lies in its definitive refusal of any single "American way."
Norman Rockwell died 32 years ago. And Mr. Gopnik's views have been representative of elite discourse for longer than that, burying Rockwell's reputation under a barrage of anger. But, Gopnik, even though he's on the winning side, is still furious that his victory isn't total.
If you want a picture of Mr. Gopnik's ideal future, imagine a boot stamping on Norman Rockwell's face -- forever. (But not, let me hasten to add, a well-painted realist picture of a boot stamping on a face. Instead, say, a picture of a surrealist boot stamping on a cubist face with Jackson Pollock-like blood splatters on the floor.)
America isn't about Rockwell's one-note image of it -- or anyone else's. This country is about a game-changing guarantee that equal room will be made for Latino socialists, disgruntled lesbian spinsters, foul-mouthed Jewish comics and even, dare I say it, for metrosexual half-Canadian art critics with a fondness for offal, spinets and kilts.
I don't want to live by the clichés of a wan, Rockwellian America, and I don't admire pictures that suggest that all of us should. But I see why we need to look into how, in a world full of threats, so many of us have been soothed by their vision.
Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell From the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg is on through Jan. 2 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, at Eighth and G streets NW. Call 202-633-7970 or visit http://www.americanart.si.edu.