Age of Innocence

Age of Innocence

Norman Rockwell's ouevre is deceptively simple—the self-proclaimed 'illustrator' had more depth than he's credited for.


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.

Learning how to represent feelings was one of the subdisciplines of narrative painting. One of the contributing factors in Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile is the fact that there are no surrounding incidents that explain or are explained by it, and one has to speculate that its causes are interior to the woman shown. The enigma would disappear had Leonardo put her in the same space with a child or a kitten, or placed a letter in her hands. The art historian Edgar Wind once showed how the same facial expression conveys ecstasy if displayed by a Bacchante, or extreme grief if displayed by a woman at the foot of a cross. But there is a great difference between representing emotions and eliciting emotions in the viewer. I'm not sure, for example, that the issue comes up in Vasari, as if the purpose of painting for him were entirely cognitive, a matter of visual knowledge, successful if the artist provokes an illusion. I am sure, to take a case I discussed recently, Jacques-Louis David's depiction of the slain Marat, that it was not intended merely to show how Marat looked after he was stabbed–it was intended to arouse anger and compassion in its viewers. And I feel as well that Picasso's Blue Period images are to be explained through obvious rhetorical intentions. It would, on the other hand, be incredible to learn that Cézanne expected to arouse feelings in those who viewed his card players or his portrait of his wife. And in the main, feelings rarely come into play in Modernist art. The complexities are formal, and art appreciation in recent decades has largely been a matter of formal discernment.

It is entirely possible to analyze Rockwell's art in such formalistic terms, but his effort was nearly always to organize the elements of his compositions to engage the feelings of his readers in pleasurable ways, and if one is numb to the intended feelings, the formalities hold little interest. I use the term reader rather than viewer, since Rockwell's means were narrative, and because a certain form of literacy was presupposed. Usually, one was qualified to read the pictures through having lived the same form of life the personages depicted are shown to be living, so that part of the pleasure came from understanding the meaning of what they are doing, without having to have it explained. The title of the exhibition of Rockwell's work on view at the Guggenheim Museum through March 3, 2002, is Pictures for the American People; and it might be an interesting exercise to imagine having to explain what was going on in the picture to a foreigner. What is a prom? What is a diner? Who is Santa Claus? What are Sunday clothes? To be an American is to recognize instances of these with the same immediacy as that which Warhol counted on in showing us Marilyn, Elvis, Liz, Jackie, Brillo or Campbell's. Rockwell not only showed us people in situations with which everyone was familiar, he showed them as having the feelings that go with being in those situations. But more takes place in the typical reader than recognition. The reader is moved or touched by the feelings they display. And probably one is moved by the fact that one is moved, momentarily flooded with a feeling of warmth. One's heart, as the Voice critic puts it, say, has been wrung. We can criticize Rockwell for causing feelings–or for the feelings he causes–but it is there that what makes him distinctive as an artist must be found.

Consider After the Prom (1957). A young couple sit at a counter, which they share with a man in a work leather jacket and a sort of aviator's cap. He is probably a veteran, in any case middle-aged, and someone who knows life. The couple are in prom clothes–a white gown, a blue hair ribbon for her, a rented white dinner jacket and bow tie for him. She is showing her corsage to the counterman, while the boy, holding her pink sweater and white gloves, looks on with pride. The body of the counterman is composed in such a way as to express a visible and exaggerated Wow. The vet smiles over his coffee cup. The couple embody an innocence that contrasts with the counterman's feigned but well-intentioned wonder. It contrasts as well with the somewhat down at the heels décor of the diner–there are cigarette butts on the scuffed floor–and in some way redeems it. The couple have brought the freshness of this moment of their lives into the stale air of ordinary life. And everyone except the couple feels philosophical–the vet, the counterman and the reader. Everyone is touched. The world is a greasy spoon, beauty falls from the air, but there are moments of grace. The couple are bathed in the halo of their own innocence.

The figure of innocence is a central device in Rockwell's best paintings. There is, for example, the little boy and the elderly woman in Saying Grace, who enact a moment of prayer in another greasy spoon, oblivious of the pair of workmen with whom they must share a table. The workmen are outside the circle of innocence, but they are moved by those it encloses. They have not been so hardened by life that they cannot be touched by the act of simple faith, and that is true of us, who probably are more like them than like the boy and grandmother, who have the attributes of travelers: There is a valise and an umbrella. The woman has come to fetch the boy in the gray manufacturing town we see through the window of the restaurant. Some tale of sadness hangs in the atmosphere. But they have a faith the rest of the eaters do not have, which gives them a strength the rest of us have to get along without. The world that Rockwell shows is always pretty shabby. Like the diner in After the Prom, there are butts on the floor of the restaurant. In Walking to Church, a family, dressed in their Sunday best, walk past the Silver Slipper Grill in a run-down section of the city. There is rubbish in the street, a picture hangs crooked in the restaurant window. The building needs paint. The innocence of the family, carrying prayer books, shields them from the squalor with which they are surrounded. We, who are touched by them, are not shielded. Still, the fact that we are touched by the contrast shows that there is some goodness in us after all. And this is what Rockwell wants to tell us. The world is decaying around us. Life's not a picnic. We do what we can. But we have been reassured. The tug on the heart proves that we still have one. Rockwell was not much of a churchgoer. Sunday was a workday, like every other. He is not addressing us as if we were persons who pray. He is addressing us as persons for whom prayer is not really part of our lives at all. And he is assuring us that we have good hearts even so. I say "us" because we–the art critic of the Voice no less than you and I–are still moved when we look at his paintings.

Rockwell often said that he was really an illustrator rather than an artist. By this he meant in part that art had taken a direction in the twentieth century away from representational art, so that he was, in effect, beached by history. History was Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism. And what was he painting? Babysitters, newlyweds, middle-aged papas and mamas, skinny adolescents, picturesque geezers, mutts, cleaning women, friendly cops, family doctors, Santa Claus. Real artists were out there making art history. He sat home all day making pictures. Picasso and Braque compared themselves to aviators and mountaineers. He would have liked to have compared himself to Rembrandt, Dürer, Van Gogh. Reproductions of their self-portraits are tacked to his canvas in his wry Triple Self-Portrait of 1960. But he knew ambitious artists were not going to inspire themselves with copies of Triple Self-Portrait fixed to their canvases. "Like Norman Rockwell" had become a term of derision. What he overlooked in this sour self-appraisal was that he was not just a painter of recognizable things. Norman Rockwells were themselves recognizable things. They were part of the world. They were not just illustrations of reality. They were part of the reality of his times. Anybody in America could pick them out like stop signs or American flags. The only other artist of whom something like this is true is Andy Warhol.

Rockwell's failures are his paintings that are just illustrations of reality, such as his painting of men walking on the moon, or that are merely ancillary to an implied text, such as his pictures of Daniel Boone or Ichabod Crane. Often these have odd proportions by comparison to the proportions of a standard magazine page. They are vertical or horizontal panels. The failures lack what I would call internality. They exclude the viewer from the reality they depict, by contrast with the Saturday Evening Post covers, where one feels oneself addressed as part of the reality. We belong to the form of life the picture shows. The picture is about us. Their familiarity entails that we are, even today, the same people as the ones he shows. The fact that we are still moved by so many of them means that the American personality has changed very little since the magazines that bore those images were fresh from the press. This is still the way Americans see themselves, and since how we see ourselves is part of who we are, there is a measure of truth in these pictures. This is what President Bush was referring to when he claimed to be amazed by the fact that Americans are hated in so many parts of the world. Even Rockwell knew it was not the whole truth when he painted those stirring images of the struggle for civil rights in the South for Look magazine. Could those who expressed hatred for Ruby Bridges, the little black girl in the affecting vulnerability of her white frock, on her way to school, be the same Americans as those who saw themselves in the Saturday Evening Post covers? Could those who scribbled obscenities, who threw tomatoes, who jeered at innocence be the same people who smiled at innocence when those who displayed it were "like us"? That's the question the exhibition leaves us with. Do the tender feelings Rockwell's images instill define the default state of the American persona?Or does their existence define a moral myth? Who exactly are we?



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