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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Norman Rockwell


If Richard Rodgers has an equivalent in another field, it would be Norman Rockwell. They were contemporaries (Rockwell lived from 1894 to 1978 and Rodgers from 1902 to 1979). Both men celebrated Americana with unabashed enthusiasm. (Rockwell celebrated it directly; Rodgers more indirectly, through his lyricists.) Both men were extremely prolific. Both Rodgers and Rockwell trafficked heavily in sentimentality, that emotion so beloved by the masses and despised by the critics. And both were master craftsmen.

Rodgers, however, never suffered the same level of critical disdain that Rockwell did. For a long time the critics absolutely loathed Rockwell. All of the self-styled sophisticates in the art world made a big show of looking down on him. He was dismissed as an illustrator rather than a painter. The more Saturday Evening Post covers he drew (he ended up doing 322), the more his fans loved him. And the more they loved him, the more his critics hated him. (There was something of a causal relationship there.)

Some of what the critics said was true: Rockwell's art was sentimental; it bordered on kitschy; much of it wasn't "serious"; and he pushed peoples' buttons too directly. But in a sense, that was also what was great about him: it takes far more skill than most people realize to get someone to feel something.

While looking at Rockwell paintings, I have succumbed to that warm gooey feeling that sophisticated people never admit to. But there have been far many more occasions in my life where I was supposed to feel emotion, and didn't. Most art -- and, frankly, much of life -- simply doesn't stir me.

Looking at Jasper Johns "art" has never moved me in the slightest, unless you call wonder at others' credulity an emotion.

Ditto for music: most has no effect. So bravo for Rodgers.

I am not in awe of Rockwell's talent quite the same way I am of Rodgers'. I can at least imagine laboring over a canvas all my life and learning how to finally capture facial expressions with some subtlety. (It's way harder than you think -- try it.) I can't even imagine creating beautiful music.

But Rockwell did have one thing Rodgers lacked, or at least never exhibited publicly: a sense of humor. Much of Rockwell's work has a sly humor which is almost as enjoyable as the sentiment.

Rockwell has been "rehabilitated" over the past fifteen years or so, in much the same manner that the old communist regimes would occasionally "rehabilitate" some party functionary who had fallen into disfavor.

The difference is that even in the heyday of Stalin, those regimes were never nearly as oppressive -- or wrongheaded -- as the art critics.


Anonymous said...

I always enjoyed Norman Rockwell's artwork. Obviously, he enjoyed painting typical Americans doing everyday things. In my opinion, he was an American treasure.


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Appreciate you reading this far back. Yes, gratifyingly, the art critics are finally coming around to the same viewpoint as you now. For decades they scoffed at him as a mere "illustrator" rather than a true artist, like Jasper Johns.