When the archforger Hans van Meegeren undertook to hoodwink the experts by painting what they accepted as a theretofore unknown Vermeer, his motives were more devious than those of the ordinary counterfeiter. For he believed himself to be an underappreciated painter and Vermeer's equal. The moment his Christ at Emmaus was purchased by the state on the authority of the leading Vermeer specialists, van Meegeren meant to reveal that it was he who had painted this masterpiece. And since the experts believed the painting was by Vermeer, they were obliged in consistency to acknowledge van Meegeren as Vermeer's peer. Much the same form of proof was used by Alan Turing to argue that computers possess intelligence. If a computer printed out a set of answers to a literary quiz that were just like those a human being would have given, then one would have in consistency to attribute intelligence to the machine, since human beings possess it by default. And, with qualifications, something like this form of argument has been invoked by enthusiasts for the art of Norman Rockwell to validate their admiration. Suppose it can be shown that Rockwell employed the pictorial strategies also found in the Dutch genre painters of the seventeenth century? Or that the smiling veteran, seated at the counter in Rockwell's After the Prom, plays the role of an internal observer, in much the way that a lordling does when he looks up the skirt of a woman on a swing in Fragonard's The Swing? Or that the wall before which the little black schoolgirl is being escorted by burly federal marshals in Rockwell's 1964 The Problem We All Live With looks like a Twombly? Since there are these affinities, and since Twombly is in MoMA, Fragonard in the Wallace Collection and Jan Steen in the National Gallery, what save prejudice explains the absence of Rockwell from those validating walls?
No such arguments are needed to prove that Vermeer was a great artist–we learn the meaning of "great artist" through his work. Similarly, we have no need of indirect proof that human beings possess intelligence, for what would intelligence mean if human beings lacked it? No one had to prove the artistic merit of Dutch genre painting–or Fragonard–by appealing to the work of other artists, and in the case of Twombly there are no other artists whose work shows that his must be accepted if theirs is. So why does a case have to be made for Rockwell? Why is there a special problem with him? What makes his work so controversial? In a way, if he weren't as good as he was, the question would hardly arise. No one has undertaken to establish the artistic merit of the large number of Rockwell's contemporaries whose primary venues were the covers of magazines in the golden age of magazine illustration. Almost from the beginning, Rockwell stood out as someone with exceptional gifts. There is no lobby for James Montgomery Flagg or J.C. Leyendecker or N.C. Wyeth or Peter Arno or the legions of other cover artists whose work caught the public's eye on the nation's newsstands. So why not accept him for the wonder he was? None of the artists whose affinity to him has been enlisted in his support had what he had.
"Loving Rockwell is shunning complexity," the critic of the Village Voice declares, who goes on to concede that "many of Rockwell's illustrations can turn you into a quivering ball of mush." Of how many painters in the history of art is something like that true? It seems to me the pictorial psychology of paintings that can have that effect transcends present knowledge. It implies skills of a kind the painters of the Counter-Reformation would have given their eyeteeth to command. Painting is not simply what takes place on the canvas. It is what goes on between the canvas and the viewer. Rockwell was one of the supreme masters of that space, an eroticist of human feeling, a rhetorician of visual persuasion. Small wonder every advertising director in the country was eager to sign him up!
"The emotions," Aristotle writes in Book II of Rhetoric, "are all those feelings that so change men as to affect their judgments and that are also attended by pain or pleasure." The ancient rhetoricians made it the object of their study to manipulate the emotions of their auditors, and rhetoric was widely regarded as practical knowledge of a very valuable order. It was something politicians had to possess, since they needed to inspire confidence in themselves and distrust of their opponents and hatred of the common enemy. And it was what lawyers needed to know in order to sway jurors, not merely by argument but by coloration and emphasis. The Sophists, who advertised themselves as able to teach how to make the better appear worse and the worse appear better, were regarded as exceedingly dangerous by Socrates, and we have a number of dialogues in which Plato depicts him wrestling with the leading rhetoricians of the day–Protagoras, Gorgias, Thrasymachus, Callicles and others–in an effort to immunize his fellow Athenians against their wiles. For somewhat parallel reasons, Socrates regarded artists as dangerous, and he famously undertook to exclude them from the ideal Republic. To be sure, he had poets primarily in mind. The visual arts aroused his suspicions as well, but chiefly in the respect that sculpture was capable of causing illusions, or false beliefs, of a somewhat restricted sort. It is a conjecture on my part that classical artists did not represent figures as themselves expressing feelings, like suffering or ecstatic transport. So artists did not evoke in their viewers feelings like anger or pity–the cases Aristotle particularly addresses in connection with tragedy–which became central in late Christian art, where the aim was to cause viewers to bond, through the feelings art aroused, with the individuals depicted–Jesus, the Madonna or the martyrs. And perhaps it was in order to achieve this that realism made such remarkable progress in the West, especially in the use of facial expression and body language. To be able to control feeling through images was one of the Church's most powerful weapons, which was in part one of the reasons iconoclasm–the destruction of images–was in turn a weapon for the Church's opponents.